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Sharing Your Faith with Asian Americans

Parts I - III

by J. Isamu Yamamoto

Part One

After the Japanese air force treacherously decimated the American fleet in Pearl Harbor, considerable social and physical hostility erupted against Japanese Americans. In one case a mob of Anglo-Americans broke into a small store in Fresno, California, dragged the proprietor out into the street, and bludgeoned him to death with pipes and bottles. When one of the attackers was told that the victim was not a Japanese American but a Chinese American, he responded by declaring: "So what! They're all the same to me."

Although no true Christian of any race would demonstrate such violent racism, unfortunately there still persists a tendency among many Anglo-Americans to stereotype Asian Americans as being a single group of people with the same cultural background, behavioral characteristics, and religious beliefs. Having lived on the West Coast, the East Coast, and in the Midwest, and having visited 49 states, I can say from firsthand experience that this mentality does exist. What is grievous about this type of subtle prejudice is that it not only angers Asian Americans, it also closes their hearts and minds to the gospel, which they perceive as merely the dogma of the West.

In this three-part series we will consider several important steps in sharing the gospel effectively with Asian Americans. To begin with it is important that we establish some awareness of the many distinctions that exist among these people.

Cultural Diversity. For decades after the first Asian immigrants crossed the Pacific, Chinese and Japanese Americans would have nothing to do with each other. If one member of each culture married the other, they were treated as outcasts. Today, that barrier has for the most part vanished. Yet, we can still read about the gang wars in Southern California between the Cambodians and the Thais.

My point is that Asian Americans derive their heritage not from being Asian, but from being a descendent of a particular culture. It is much the same with Anglo-Americans who would not say their heritage is European, but rather Swiss or Italian or Russian. Can you imagine an Irish or English person wanting to be thought of as having the same culture, or a French person grouped with a German? That same feeling extends to Asian Americans as well.

Generational Diversity. My grandparents came to this country nearly a century ago. Not only were their experiences, attitudes, goals, and interests distinctly different from those of my parents, but they were even further removed from my own. For many of us who are third and fourth-generation Americans, we have been absorbed into the American melting pot.

Since most of the first generation and many of the second generation Chinese and Japanese Americans have passed away, this factor of generational diversity may not seem significant. We must realize, however, that a new wave of Asian immigrants are settling throughout the United States. Moreover, this population is large, and their struggles and needs are very different from those of my generation.

Doctrinal Diversity. Buddhism is the central belief system of most Asian countries, and most Asian Americans will say they are Buddhists no matter what their cultural heritage may be. It must be understood, however, that Buddhism was, and still is, quite successful in merging with the established religions of various Asian societies -- such as Boen in Tibet, Taoism in China, and Shinto in Japan. Thus, what we discover is that a Buddhist of one school is very different from a Buddhist of another school. The religious beliefs and practices of Tibetan Buddhists, for instance, can appear just as strange to my relatives (who are Jodo Buddhists) as to Christians.

Regarding religious diversity, one additional observation warrants mention. Buddhism is well known as a tolerant religion. Indeed, both Hinduism and Buddhism enjoy this reputation in the West, but Buddhism even more so. Quite frankly, however, this is a myth. I can still recall my experiences in Japan when I was able to observe the hostility between various sects of Japanese Buddhism, typified in a film that described the wars that have occurred between Buddhist monasteries throughout the centuries. There are not only differences, but also in some cases dislike between different Buddhists.

Religious Diversity. My paternal grandparents were devoutly religious, and trained their children to be strict Buddhists. My grandfather even helped establish a Buddhist church in California and received special recognition from the head monastery in Japan when he died. Consequently my relatives on my father's side are strong in their Buddhist convictions. My maternal grandparents, however, were nominal Buddhists who attended Buddhist services for only weddings and funerals. Their sons developed no interest in any religions while their daughters accepted the Christian faith.

Hence, if you want to witness to my cousins on my father's side, you better be armed with some basic knowledge of the Buddhist faith, particularly Amida Buddhism. If you are to witness to my nonbelieving cousins on my mother's side, however, no knowledge of Buddhism is really necessary. If you don't know my relatives, how would you be able to distinguish between the two groups? You wouldn't, unless you first developed a friendship with them.

When all is said and done, friendship must be the second step in effective evangelism. First realize that Asian Americans are quite diverse. And then, be good friends with them -- just as were my Anglo Christian brothers and sisters who led me to the Lord.

Part Two

In the first article of this series I suggested two steps in sharing the gospel with Asian Americans: becoming sensitive to their diverse backgrounds, characteristics, and beliefs, and developing friendships with them. The third step that I recommend is to become aware of cultural influences that distinguish many Asian Americans from other ethnic groups. Understanding these powerful influences will help you avoid misunderstandings and resentment that can emerge as you try to be friends. (It should be noted that my remarks and insights are based on one Japanese American's experiences and observations and do not necessarily hold true for all Asian Americans.)

Indebtedness. Any favors that are done for my parents, and any presents that are given to them, always compel them to reciprocate. If you invite them for dinner, they will want you to come to their home for a meal; if you give them a gift for whatever occasion, you can certainly expect to receive one for some occasion; if you help them paint their house, my dad will be over to your place within a week to mow your lawn. It is not that they are just being polite; indeed, they feel indebted to you -- and they do not want to feel indebted to anyone. There are many Asian Americans who are just like them in this regard.

If you want to develop a friendship with people like my parents, go out of your way and do something for them, and keep doing things for them. They will be your friends for life.

Now, this may sound like manipulation. And if your motivation is to manipulate, then the results will be ultimately disastrous. Once they realize that you are doing these things only to proselytize them, they will not only despise you, but Christ as well.

If you sincerely want to become friends, however, it is important that you invite first, give first, take the first step. The reason for this is that many people like my parents are naturally shy. They prefer to stand back and see what you do first. If you treat them right they will warm up to you with open arms.

Shame Instead of Guilt. Shame and guilt are human qualities natural to all people. For whatever reason, however, shame seems to play a much more prominent role