Where’s the Rice? – An Asian American Response to Kevin Allen’s “Ready for the Coming Evangelical Collapse?”
By Lopaka Iliahi
Kevin Allen recently wrote: “Are We Ready for the Coming Evangelical Collapse?” In it he notes that while the Orthodox community might benefit from Evangelicals migrating to Orthodoxy there are a number of troubling trends that need to be addressed. What caught my attention was the section: “Not Reaching Minorities.” Kevin Allen wrote:
We Orthodox are also “isolationists” by a wide margin when it comes to ecumenical, social interaction and evangelism, when compared to Protestants and Catholics. One glaring example: we are not reaching minorities. Despite the fact that now over 50 percent of newborn babies are no longer Caucasian, the Orthodox Church has only one African-American priest (so far as I know). There is an inner-city mission in Kansas City in an African-American neighborhood (led by a non- African-American priest). I am not personally aware of any Hispanic priests, though we do have one or two local Hispanic ministries (Los Angeles and Dallas) led by non-Hispanic Spanish-fluent priests. These are excellent, but small ministries. (emphasis added)
I agree with his observation that the future of American Orthodoxy lies with the non-Whites. But I was struck by the fact that Kevin Allen said nothing about reaching out to Asian Americans. They are among the fastest demographic group in the US having grown from less than 1 percent of the US population in 1965 to 5.8 percent in 2011.
Asians also comprise a significant part of American Evangelicalism. Once, while I was taking one of my larger classes at seminary, I noticed that Asians comprised about a third of those in the room. African Americans and Latinos combined made up about ten percent leaving Whites at a slim majority. I have heard there is a strong Asian presence at other Evangelical seminaries as well. This means Asian Americans cannot be overlooked as we consider the future of Evangelicals migrating to Orthodoxy.
Asian American Mosaic
What may look like a monochromatic monocultural entity presents a far more complex reality. The 2012 Pew Forum released a survey of Asian Americans and their religious life. One striking finding was the religious diversity among Asian Americans. They are the biggest driving force behind the growth of non-Abrahamic faiths in the United States. The Pew survey also found that Asian Americans run the gamut from highly religious to highly secular. This may seem contradictory on the surface but makes sense when one looks at the various subgroups.
Filipino Americans – 69% Roman Catholic
Korean Americans – 61% Protestant
Chinese Americans – 52% Unaffiliated
Indian Americans – 51% Hindu
Vietnamese Americans – 43% Buddhist
Japanese Americans – almost evenly divided: Protestants 33%, Unaffiliated 32%, and Buddhist 25%
This means that stereotyping and generalizing about Asian Americans and their religious identity are dangerous and counterproductive. Some come from families that have been Christians for over a century. Some grew up with minimal exposure to Christianity or any religion. The best approach is to start with the individual and to view people as being on a spiritual journey. They may not be Christians now, but some may eventually in time become interested in Christianity.
Being Asian in an Ethnic Orthodox Parish
After years of being an Evangelical and being part of a predominantly Local church, I found joining an ethnic Greek parish something of a culture shock. Whenever I step into the narthex or the social hall, I feel as if I’ve entered a foreign culture. This is especially true when all of a sudden, the priest switches over into Greek which throws me off and confuses me. After the Sunday service I go to the social hall for coffee. Most Sundays there is the usual fare of cookies, cake, chips, with some fruit. On special occasions Greek delicacies are served but after several years I began to ask myself: Where’s the rice? Rice is served from time to time, but it is a different kind not like what I grew up on. While still delicious, it makes me feel like I’m in some exotic culture far removed from Hawaii. I often wonder about the disconnect between the Greek parish and the local community.
I started asking this question when I visited a nearby ROCOR (Russian) parish. While standing in line for lunch I was pleasantly surprised to see a pot of rice just like my grandmother’s. It’s not that surprising considering that the priest’s wife is from Japan. I noticed that one significant difference was that the Russian parish often had potluck which allowed for all kinds of food to be served while the Greek parish stuck to food prepared in the kitchen. Where potlucks are diverse and inclusive, kitchen prepared dishes tend to be monocultural.
This ethnocentrism is especially evident at Easter. Following the Resurrection service there is a Vespers service where the Gospel is read in a variety of language to show that the Gospel is for all peoples. Following that, a Greek lunch is served! The juxtaposition of Orthodoxy’s catholicity and ethnocentrism is jarring to say the least.
The question: “Where’s the rice?” is not rhetorical, but rather a serious question. Food is like a language that unites people into a shared culture on the heart level. Those of us who grew up in Hawaii are familiar with the food dishes of our ethnicity as well as the food dishes of other ethnicities. We happily eat foods from other ethnicities. This shows our acceptance of other cultures. If someone is not familiar with certain foods, we will think: “Wassa matta you?!” or “What? You not from Hawaii?” Eating a meal together is one of the quickest ways to form friendships in Hawaii. A visiting professor from Australia once remarked, “People in Hawaii eat a lot” to which I replied, “People in Hawaii take food seriously.” Therefore, how a local parish serves food says a lot about their attitudes about culture and ethnicity, and about their attitude towards those outside the church. A multi-ethnic potluck sends a powerful message of welcome and aloha to visitors and those interested in Orthodoxy.
I’m not the only Asian in my parish. There are other Asian and Polynesian families there, but open acknowledgment of Hawaii’s ethnic diversity is rare. We have the annual Greek Festival, Greek dance group, and Greek language class. The San Francisco diocese sponsors a summer camp where children can learn about their Greek heritage. The silence with respect to other cultures, especially Hawaii’s local culture, sends a very powerful message as to what is valued and what is not. Much is made of the fact that one does not have to be Greek to be part of the parish. As a matter of fact, they welcome non-Greeks, however, there is the unspoken assumption that one will accommodate oneself to the Greek ethos of the parish.
“Local” depends on where you are. “Local culture” in the South is quite different from the Yankee “local culture” of the Northeast. An important first step for many local parishes is to be intentionally inclusive. My suggestion is that instead of having the women’s group taking sole responsibility for the food that the parish organize potlucks. The advantage of potlucks is that they are easy to organize and can easily reflect the tastes of the local community.
I recently visited an OCA parish in northern California that held a Glendi international food fair. As I listened to the report, I was impressed by the fact that they had different booths representing the various ethnic groups: Russian, Serbian, Greek, Eritrean, even American! This showed me that an Orthodox parish can include the American mosaic and not be confined to one ethnic community.
If Orthodoxy wants to reach out to minorities like Asian Americans, an important first step is for the Sunday Liturgy to be all in English. English is the de facto national language of the US. It provides a common ground where people from diverse backgrounds can meet and get to know each other. Many Asian Americans speak English well in order to participate in mainstream American culture. All English Liturgy will make Orthodoxy accessible to Asian American visitors.
It can help to have printed copies of the Liturgy and other services for visitors to follow. Some traditionalists discourage inquirers from using prayer books but if the inquirers find it hard to follow what is being said by the priest, then surely the commonsense response is let them use printed prayers.
Another barrier is the use of King James English. Many Asian Americans and other non-Whites who did not grow up on King James’ English often find it mystifying. King James’ English may be part of the WASP culture, but it is not intrinsic to the Christian Tradition. We need English translations that use contemporary English clearly and reverently. An overreliance on archaic translations can result in sonorous cadences that please one’s aesthetics but do little to stir up a living faith in Christ.
There are Asians in Hawaii who grew up Christian and who were exposed to the King James Bible. But for the unchurched Asians, the King James Bible is like a semi-comprehensible foreign language. Mastering the English language makes sense in light of the fact that English is the de facto mainstream language of American society. However, it is not fair to impose upon unchurched Asians and other minorities the burden of learning archaic English. The New Testament was written in the koine (common) Greek, something akin to the style of English used in the daily newspapers.
Another even more subtle language barrier is religious jargon. Christians cannot take for granted that visitors will share in the same understanding of God, Christ, salvation, resurrection, sin, eternal life as they do. As American society becomes increasingly post-Christian it becomes necessary for its members and clergy be able to relate Christian doctrine to contemporary social and cultural references. A closely related barrier is the elitist, exclusivist mentality that is indifferent to making Christian-talk understandable and accessible to the unchurched.
For Orthodox clergy, it means they should develop friendships among Asian Americans and other minorities and be open to learning about their life world and their frame of reference. I recommend clergy become an active member of non-church ethnic clubs, e.g., karate, taichi chuan, language class, cooking class, or a class at the local university on non-Western culture, e.g., Filipino history or Native American history, or Hawaii history. Encouraging their children to join local clubs and supporting their children’s club activities is another way of participating in local culture. The mentality should be that of: “Us going to them,” not “Them coming to us.” Usually there is a subtle power dynamic between the clergy and the visitor at church. The clergy needs to ask: Are they coming to me on my terms, in my space? Or am I meeting them on their terms, in their cultural space? Are they coming to me or am I going to them? What are my cultural assumptions? That is why clergy involvement in the general community is an important part of outreach.
American Orthodox, Local Hawaii Orthodox
Whenever I visit a local ROCOR parish, I hear in the closing litany prayers for the Russian motherland and for the Russian diaspora abroad. At the local Greek Orthodox parish, there is always Greek in the Sunday Service. Orthodoxy in America is going through a period of transition. The majority of its jurisdictions are identified with an “old country” through formal ties and language used in the liturgy. As the number of home-grown Americans grow in Orthodox parishes the time will come when parishes, dioceses, and jurisdictions will need to say: “America is our home” and “We are American Orthodox.” For Hawaii, we need to say: “Hawaii is our home! Our aina, our lahui, our ohana!” We need to critically examine Hawaii’s complex and problematic relationship with the United States.
This is not to deny the value of ethnic parishes but to point to the need for Orthodox parishes that identify with the mainstream of American culture. Many ethnic parishes live in a sort of twilight zone – neither here, nor there. Given the fact that many ethnic parishes find it hard to change, probably the better approach is to support the planting of Orthodox missions. Priority needs to be given to planting all English Orthodox missions and other responsive minority groups.
Trailblazing Bishops and Priests
There are two kinds of priests: those for whom the parish is their world and others who look at the world as their parish. The former devotes much of their energies to taking care of the needs of the members of their parish. The latter spend considerable time out in the community meeting with people who are not members of their parish. They see the church as more than a building with four walls; they see the lost sheep in need of Christ the Good Shepherd. These priests need to be encouraged and support in their efforts to become part of the local community.
Likewise, there are two kinds of bishops: those for whom the local parishes and diocese priority is to preserve ethnicity and those who take seriously Christ’s Great Commission to evangelize the nations. Because Orthodoxy is a hierarchical church, the priest will follow the lead of his bishop. For American Orthodoxy to be an evangelistic church, we will need Orthodox bishops who are passionate about evangelism and church planting.
If Orthodoxy is to grow and thrive in the U.S., then the hierarchs will need to affirm its American identity and the American mosaic. One notable example is Metropolitan Philip of the Antiochian Archdiocese who said: “Come home America!” on the occasion of receiving the 2000 former Evangelicals into canonical Orthodoxy. With this bold step Metropolitan Philip demonstrated that mainstream Americans can become Orthodox without being assimilated into ethnic Orthodoxy.
Another critical element is leadership familiar with American culture. One notable example is the late Archbishop Dmitri Royster who was born in Texas and raised in the Southern Baptist tradition before converting to Orthodoxy. Closer to home for me is OCA’s Bishop Benjamin of Berkeley who on a recent trip to the Big Island enjoyed shave ice. For the Locals in Hawaii shave ice is one of our favorite snacks and represents our unique Hawaii culture. When I saw the picture of his Grace with a cone of shave ice in his hand I thought: This is a picture of Orthodoxy accepting Local Hawaii culture!
A Three-Stage Missions Strategy
I see Orthodoxy, not as a static institutional presence, but as a dynamic missionary movement. This missionary impulse can be seen in the book of Acts. Acts begins with the Christians in Jerusalem then describes how the Holy Spirit pushed them to cross cultural and geographic boundaries throughout the Roman Empire. Orthodoxy in America is rooted in the missionary work by missionary monks like St. Innocent and St. Herman who crossed Siberia to reach Alaska. It also has roots in immigrants who fled hardships in Eastern Europe and the Middle East to find a better life in America for their children. These two movements are intertwined in American Orthodoxy making the present situation a complex one.
American society can be viewed as a big river with many tributaries feeding into it. Asian Americans and other minorities enter into the mainstream of American culture whenever they leave home for work, school, or the mall. But they reenter their ethnic tributary when they go to family get togethers or other special events. Similarly, there are many ethnic Orthodox who spend the work week in mainstream America and on Sunday find comfort in their Orthodox parish with the language and customs from the old country. The challenge is when Asian Americans and other ethnic minorities who are interested in Orthodoxy visit ethnic Orthodox parishes. In many instances the prospective Asian-American convert to Orthodoxy must wrestle with assimilating into yet another culture on top of mainstream White American culture.
We need to ask: How can American Orthodoxy extend beyond its ethnic tributaries into the mainstream of American society into the other tributaries: Latino, Asian, African American and others? Orthodox evangelism in America can be facilitated by identifying the kind of parish we belong to. American Orthodoxy has three kinds of parishes: ethnic parishes, mainstream parishes, and mission parishes.
Ethnic Orthodox parishes. We owe a tremendous debt to the immigrants who brought Orthodoxy to America. Thanks to them there are Orthodox churches all across the US. But the fact is ethnic parishes cannot effectively evangelize mainstream America. When inquirers visit ethnic parishes, they find the language and old-world culture an obstacle to their becoming Orthodox. This is not to argue against ethnic parishes but to point out that ethnic parishes are not well suited to evangelizing the American mainstream.
Mainstream Orthodox parishes. When Metropolitan Philip welcomed two thousand Evangelicals in 1987, he opened the doors for the White Anglo Americans to become Orthodox without having to assimilate piecemeal into ethnic Orthodoxy. Up till then it was largely assumed that converts to Orthodoxy needed to assimilate into ethnic parishes and learn the cultural practices of the Old Country. The Antiochian Archdiocese and the Orthodox Church in America have been on the forefront of planting Orthodox parishes that have all English Liturgy and reflect mainstream American culture.
It should be noted that Orthodoxy has only just begun to reach out to the American mainstream. We have mainstream Orthodox parishes in the major cities but not in the outlying areas. This becomes a problem when people interested in becoming Orthodox find that the nearest all English Orthodox parish is hours away and the only Orthodox parish nearby is a heavily ethnic parish that does the Liturgy in non-English and has a priest imported from abroad.
Orthodox Missions to Minority Groups. St. Barnabas in Costa Mesa, California is a model of a bridge parish. While rooted in mainstream American culture, St. Barnabas embraces people from a wide variety of backgrounds. This parish’s ability to make people feel welcome and “at home” is something that other parishes can learn from. At present St. Barnabas may seem to be an exception but in the long run St. Barnabas can serve as an outlier for Orthodox engagement with America’s cultural mosaic. The Philip Ludwell III Orthodox Fellowship seeks to promote “the enculturation of the Orthodox faith into the South’s unique ethos and ‘older religiousness.’” The Fellowship of St. Moses the Black gives as their mission: “linking ancient African Christianity with the African American Experience.” Father Turbo Qualls, in an interview, discussed how he grew up as the only Black guy hungry for “identity.”
Then, there is missions outreach to the ethnic minorities. At present this is not on the radar screen of American Orthodoxy. Kevin Allen wrote:
To the best of my knowledge there is no “strategic vision” for reaching Latinos and African Americans in the Orthodox Church. Through the new social service agency FOCUS North America (Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve) members of the Orthodox Church are making the Church more visible, and interacting with non- Orthodox. While they are serving the poor and needy in a few major “inner cities,” overall our interaction with minority society and culture in general is negligible.
The inner-city mission in Kansas City to African Americans mentioned earlier represents the frontier of Orthodox evangelism in America. Right now, much of the discussion has been about retaining ethnic Orthodoxy versus reaching out to the American mainstream. But as Kevin Allen noted the minorities are the future of America. Rather than wait for something to happen, we need to take the initiative. We need to support those who feel called by God to reach out to minority groups. Perhaps another approach is to support the planting of monastic communities in urban centers where the need is great.
Kevin Allen noted the need for more Latino and African American Orthodox priests but even that is not enough. What is needed are minority clergy pastoring minority Orthodox parishes. I know of several Asian American Orthodox priests who have adapted and assimilated into non-Asian Orthodox parishes. This is good but will not lead to a breakthrough in Orthodox missions in America that we need.
If Orthodoxy in America wishes to engage the American cultural mosaic they will need to: (1) identify areas with significant minority populations, (2) support the planting of Orthodox missions for that particular minority group, (3) support the training of minority clergy for these missions, and (4) consciously affirm the catholicity of American Orthodoxy.
Translations are part of the third stage of the proposed missions strategy for America. Many Orthodox saints have been involved in translation: Saints Kyril and Methodios, Saint Nicholas of Japan, Saint Innocent of Alaska. This means that Orthodox priests and local parish bookstores need to have available Bibles in Spanish, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese and even Laotian. The Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) recently published a parallel Russian-Laotian prayer book. This must be a priority in areas where there is a sizable non-English speaking population. The translation of Orthodox texts for minority groups in the US can be done injunction with overseas missions work.
Thus, we will need a national or global clearinghouse that can make available translations of Orthodox prayers and services. The main priority here is clear, understandable and accurate translations rather than translations that are aimed at the upper classes and difficult to understand by the majority. Translations of popular books on Orthodoxy are also needed. Translation of the lives of the saints or major feast days in the form of bulletin inserts can be helpful.
Prayer services in Asian languages or Spanish can play a critical role in the third stage of Orthodox evangelism. A sizable portion of Asian Americans use their mother tongue in their homes or with their close circle of friends and family. Because prayer comes from the heart it is important that Orthodoxy makes prayer books and Scripture translations available in their heart language. Orthodox priests leading Vespers in their mother tongue can result in a breakthrough among minority groups. Orthodox priests teaching people to do the Morning and Evening prayers in their native tongue can play a key role in church planting among unreached ethnic groups.
Language plays a powerful part in Orthodox missions. Saying the Lord’s Prayer in olelo Hawaii during the Sunday Liturgy will send a powerful message about Orthodoxy’s desire to be accessible to the peoples of Hawaii. Acceptance of Hawaii Pidgin, the de facto lingua franca of Hawaii, would send a powerful message to Hawaii Locals.
In response to the question: Where’s the rice? I hope the answer in the future for Orthodox parishes will be: Right next to the grits, potatoes, tortillas, naan, pancit, poi, and chow fun! The future of American Orthodoxy lies not just with all English Liturgy but also with a diverse multicultural potluck meal afterwards. In response to Kevin Allen’s question: “Are We Ready for the Coming Evangelical Collapse?”, I would like to pose a different question: “Is Orthodoxy Ready for the American Cultural Mosaic?” Or, “Is Orthodoxy Willing to Embrace Hawaii’s Cultural Mosaic?” How we respond to this challenge will determine Orthodoxy’s future in the twenty first century.
Kevin Allen. “Will We Be Ready for the ‘Coming Evangelical Collapse’?” Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.
Donald A. McGavran. “The Bridges of God.”
Pew Research Center. “Asian Americans: A Mosaic of Faiths.” 19 July 2012.
Turbo Qualls. “Full Impact Faith: An Interview with Fr. Turbo Qualls.” Journey to Orthodoxy 13 July 2017.
YouTube video: “Reception of the Evangelical Orthodox Church into Holy Orthodoxy.” [22:46]