A few weeks ago I sat down with Dave Lomas, head pastor at Reality SF. Why he would meet with a scrub like me is a continuing mystery, but the man was gracious enough to give me an hour of his time to discuss one of my blog posts. To be honest, the conversation was quick and pretty uneventful, but there were a couple interesting points that Pastor Dave shared with me that I wanted to expand here.
1. “Asian Americans didn’t really start coming to Reality SF until Francis Chan guest preached.”
Francis Chan will forever be somewhat of the patron saint of Asian American Christianity. For us, Francis is Jeremy Lin-level untouchable; the dude could write a book about how he keeps his head shiny and we’d buy it.
I plan to write a post one day on what Francis means to Asian American Christians, but for now, I just thought it was really interesting that Francis Chan catalyzed this transformation. Interesting that one man has that much power, but also that it wasn’t intentional for Asian Americans to start coming to Reality. It also shows you how hungry Asian Americans are to see any face or name on stage that affirms who we are.
2. “Reality SF was planted to minister to transient San Franciscans.”
I can say a lot of stuff about transient San Franciscans, but again I only want to point out that Chinese Americans from the City weren’t expected to show up at Reality. This place was created with a certain kind of person in mind, and it wasn’t us.
3. “When I counsel Chinese Americans who left their home churches, I usually tell them to return to their churches.”
I trust that Pastor Dave’s words here aren’t just the church version of “Go back to where you came from!” because he was very thoughtful about the way he wanted to engage with Asian Americans who left their churches to come to Reality. I appreciate Reality’s specificity in mission both as a church “for transient San Franciscans” and with a particular direction that may not include folks who have been here their whole lives, Asian or not.
But if these people keep showing up, is the decision to simply to stay on the original path or is the church capable of adjusting to people who weren’t expected to show up? Asian Americans are here, and where Asians congregate, more are probably on their way. Will Reality adjust or will they simply continue to plow ahead?
The unfortunate truth is that when pastors come to San Francisco with hopes of planting a church and mobilizing the Christian community in the City, they don’t think about or notice Chinese churches, even though we make up a huge subset of Christians here. San Francisco is a shell of a city without its Asian American population, yet those are the districts these churches ignore the most. There are churches all over Sunset, Richmond, and Chinatown, yet pastors who come here to “renew the city” ignore us. We are a huge group of eager, hopeful, passionate Christians who, if mobilized, could transform this city, but our Christian experience is consistently marginalized.
4. “This doesn’t sound like an Asian American problem.”
Perhaps the place of greatest dissonance that Pastor Dave and I wrestled with was whether this was a distinctly Asian American issue or not. And I find this to be consistent across many of the conversations I’ve had, this need for me to justify why this matters and whether it’s actually worth anyone’s time.
Pastor Dave suggested that perhaps this was not an Asian American issue, but a young people issue. He said that there were white folks who moved to Reality SF who were also experiencing resentment towards their home churches and that it wasn’t a matter of culture, but of age; any young person who leaves their parents’ church will understandably feel some sort of bitterness toward the usually more rigid traditions they came from.
And I had to think about that one for a bit, but I think there are qualitative differences between what we as Asian Americans go through compared to what our white brothers and sisters experience when we leave our home churches. Yes, there’s a lot of overlap, but I think the fundamental difference is that when a white person leaves their home church, they may experience denominational resentment. That is, they become frustrated with the kind or brand of Christianity that their parents’ practiced because whiteness is taken for granted and therefore rendered invisible in such instances. When Asian Americans, on the other hand, leave their home churches, they experience cultural resentment because, after all, we are leaving our Chinese churches to attend “un-Chinese” churches; ethnicity is not taken for granted and becomes the center of our resentment. And cultural resentment has a ton to do with identity brokenness and self-hatred. Our feelings of hurt and resentment are not only about our home churches themselves, but how Asian they are, how frustrating our parents’ values are, and how backwards, shallow, and syncretistic things feel. So for white folks, there is a departure from the type of Christianity they grew up with; for Asian Americans, there is a departure from our own culture and the churches that embody it.
And Pastor Dave seemed to really agree with me and he actually encouraged me to keep pushing that idea in particular. And maybe he said that just to wrap up the conversation, because a handshake and a free book (4.5 stars on 57 reviews! What!) later, I was out the door. Either way, very grateful for Pastor Dave and the conversation.
In the end, I don’t want Reality to change much of what it’s doing because, like Pastor Dave said, the church’s mission is not to preach a contextualized Gospel for Asian Americans. If it were called First Chinese Reality Church of SF, then I’d be a little more butthurt about things. But it is what it is. Just like our home churches are what they are. Asian Americans have very few places where our experience of God is called good. Reality SF was not planted with people like us in mind, and I’m not mad at anyone, but if that’s the case, we are marginalized by default. The same way we are marginalized at our home churches because those churches didn’t have Asian Americans in mind either.
I only hope that Asian American Christians in San Francisco can be called what we are: valued members of God’s Kingdom, capable of renewing this city just as much as anyone else because it’s not us doing any of the renewing anyway. We are only witnesses. But I can’t help but feel that we’ve got a crappy seat in the house because we’re stuck in valleys while cooler Christians on their mountains are blocking our view.
And the blame is on ourselves as well, as we have been complacent, divided, selfish, and uncooperative. Chinese churches in the City don’t communicate, collaborate, or understand each other. As one pastor said in one of our interviews, “Each Chinese church has a grocery store mindset: we only care about our own storefront and everyone else is competition.” We’re players in a zero-sum, religious consumer game. And for that I lament. If Chinese churches in San Francisco could unite and collaborate, we could move mountains. Maybe that’s the mountain itself. I’m praying for this today with a faith mustard-seed-small. Join me.