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The pandemic released a wave of anti-Asian hate. Now they're fighting bias in their own pews.

In the past year and a half, Asian American Christians across denominations have been calling out the anti-Asian bias they see in their own church congregations.
Illustration of an Asian American woman walking past stained glass church windows. One window is in the shape of a Ku Klux Klan-style white hood.
Jin Xia / for NBC News

Last month, the Presbyterian Church in America convened its annual general assembly with more than 1,200 male elders — only men can hold the office — in St. Louis.

Asian American clergy had proposed a number of overtures, or official requests for the denomination to take action, including one that referenced March’s Atlanta-area spa shootings and called on the PCA to “strongly repudiate the sin of anti-Asian racism” and “actively denounce anti-Asian rhetoric.”

But these multipage proposals were ultimately scrapped by the PCA Overtures Committee and replaced with a three-paragraph amended response, which used softer, less urgent language. “We express our grief together with our AAPI brothers and sisters,” the revised overture said, and “assure [them] of our love and support.”

Bryan Chapell, clerk of the PCA, said in an email that the amendment was created in response to differing opinions among Asian pastors and elders about whether or not to call out Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, or AAPIs, “as a separate class of persons within the church.”

A few Asian American elders, including John Chung, a St. Louis-based pastor, voiced their opposition to the committee’s amendment during the assembly.

“Grief is not repudiation,” he said. “We need to know that any form of discrimination, racism and bigotry cannot stand in the body of Christ. … I urge the assembly to actually reject this [amendment] and demand more.”

The assembly then voted to approve the amended response.

Amid the surge of pandemic-related anti-Asian hate, Asian American Christians from a range of denominations have been calling on churches to fight racism in their own pews. While some efforts have been embraced, others have faced opposition or apathy.

Last year, Lucas Kwong was sitting in the kitchen of his Brooklyn, New York, apartment and scrolling through Twitter when he came across a tweet by Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee.

“China has a 5,000 year history of cheating and stealing. Some things will never change…” tweeted Blackburn, who has sponsored bills blocking Chinese nationals from entering STEM — or science, technology, engineering and math — graduate programs and permitting U.S. citizens to sue China for spreading the coronavirus. In other tweets, she used the phrase “China virus.”

Kwong — an assistant professor of English at New York City College of Technology, of The City University of New York, who also studies religion — started researching and soon discovered that Blackburn is a member of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee.

Kwong tweeted at the head of her church, the prominent pastor Scott Sauls. (“Care to comment on your congregant’s obscenely explicit Sinophobia?” he wrote.) Kwong received no response from Sauls — who used to work as a pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, a large church with predominantly Asian and white congregants — but that brief engagement got him thinking.

“Scott happened to write a blog post last year about the importance of learning from Asian members of his church, meanwhile the most influential member of his church is going on this anti-Chinese tear,” Kwong said. “I realized it wasn’t just Blackburn [and Sauls], and I began wondering what church affiliations all these pastors have.”

So earlier this year Kwong wrote “An Open Letter on Anti-Asian Racism and Christian Nationalism,” which called on Asian American Christians and their allies to “decry the escalation of anti-Asian racism amongst American Christian politicians during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“While anti-Asian racism runs rampant throughout America today, it particularly flows from Christian nationalists in positions of power,” he wrote in the letter that now has more than 700 signatures. “Instead of upholding Christ’s kingdom without borders, Christian nationalists increasingly frame ‘the Chinese’ as emissaries of physical and spiritual disease, besieging God’s chosen nation. It is no exaggeration to say that, in the wake of COVID-19’s world-historic spread and Donald Trump’s 2020 defeat, anti-Chinese malevolence lurks where the flag meets the cross.” 

For Kwong, understanding the historical intertwining of Christian supremacy and white supremacy is critical. In the late 1800s, for instance, many clergy and politicians argued for the exclusion of Chinese immigrants because they considered the Chinese to be “immoral, vicious, pagan,” saying they would “destroy our civilization” unless they were converted to Christianity, a 2016 analysis noted.

“Part of Sinophobia has always been fear of the heathen,” Kwong said.

Another group whose work is focused largely on combating anti-Asian racism in the evangelical church is the Asian American Christian Collaborative. Its mission is to “encourage, equip, and empower Asian American Christians and friends of our community to follow Christ holistically.”

“Almost weekly I have a conversation with an Asian American pastor on questions like ‘How do we address the shootings in Atlanta?’” Raymond Chang, president of AACC, said. “The other half of the conversation is with a lot of Black and white pastors asking, ‘What can we do?’”

Many pastors have utilized the statements and resources from AACC, according to Chang, to inform their preaching. AACC has organized prayer rallies for Black lives and AAPI lives, with an estimated total of 5,000 people showing up in major cities across the United States. The group is also working with local, state and federal governmental agencies to promote efforts to combat anti-Asian racism.

In addition, the group has published several videos featuring conversations between Asian American and Black pastors to address the history of violence between the communities and how to pursue healing and solidarity.

“We all know white supremacy exists to divide us, but what are we going to do about it?” Michelle Reyes, vice president of AACC, said, citing a conversation she and her husband, a Mexican American pastor, had about violence between Latino and Asian American communities from the pulpit of the church they founded in Austin, Texas.

Asian Americans aren’t the only people who have historically been targeted by white, Christian supremacy.

K. Christine Pae, chair of the department of religion at Denison University, pointed out that Native Americans were taken to boarding schools to be “cleansed” by Christianity, enslaved Black people were forced to convert to Christianity and many Muslims are today surveilled and cast as the enemy — all part of the ideology of Christian triumphalism, she said. 

“Christian triumphalism is the ideology built upon Christ’s victory over evil. This ideology has influenced America’s self-understanding of exceptionalism as God’s chosen nation to fulfill special missions for God’s justice,” Pae said. “It presents those who are perceived to be ‘other’ due to their race, gender and, especially, religion as the subject to be conquered.” 

Given this deeply embedded history, resisting anti-Asian racism, or any form of oppression, in the church might feel daunting, but Pae said it’s important for people to start where they are now.

“Anti-racist work requires everyday practice,” she said. “We have to start from where we stand.”