Honoring AAPI Christian Heritage
In the beginning… the “Hā” - the breath of Life - hovered over the surface of the waters.
“He lepo ke kanaka.” (Man is dust.) “Na ke Akua i hana.” (By God he was made.) (An excerpt from He Mele No Ka Ke Akua Hana Ana (A Mele on the Creation) by Chiefess Miriam Kekupuohi, Hawaiian queen and court poet.)
Sojourners honors nearly 200 years of Asian American and Pacific Islander Christian heritage including Hawaiian, Samoan, Guamanian, Filipino, Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Bangladeshi, Hmong, Pakistani and more than 50 other ethnic groups. We acknowledge Christianity’s legacy among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders is complex, often complicit in crimes against AAPI people. With Christian missionaries came militarism, colonialism, exploitative capitalism, erasure of identity and stolen land.
In the early 20th century – although Asian Americans and immigrants had been in the American South since the 1860’s – white people began asking where children of Asian descent belonged: “in Colored schools” or among white children? Churches across the U.S. responded by creating “Chinese Mission Schools,” which offered American and Chinese education — while also preserving segregation.
For many AAPIs throughout U.S. history, becoming Christian meant denying their native culture as a way to be baptized into American identity. But, thankfully, that’s not the entire story. Even as Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders embraced Christianity, many found ways to make the church their own, contributing beautiful language and theology to the faith.
In the introduction of Asian and Oceanic Christianities in Conversation, Indian theologian M. Thomas Thangaraj introduces readers to the concept of “Kiristubhakti” – a word comprised of “Kiristu,” the Tamil transliteration of “Christ,” and “ bhakti,” a Sanskrit word borrowed from the Hindu tradition, which means devotion, service, adoration, and piety. With this term, Thangaraj suggests that all devotion to Christ is rooted in culture and holds within it a desire to “indigenize” the faith, and at the same time, points Christians towards the coming reign of God.
Asian Women’s Jesus
Asian feminist theologian Muriel Orevillo -Montenegro speaks to a history and experience relatable to many Filipino Americans, as well as other Asians who immigrated after American wars. In her dissertation, she writes:
“Asian feminist theologians need to wrestle with the meaning of the cross because the violence that brought Jesus to his death on the cross continues to be a reality in women's lives not only in Asia, but all over the world.
“Asian feminist christology also needs to continue to draw wisdom from the deep wells of Asia's culture and traditions...”
In 1983, Sione ‘Amanaki Havea, a Tongan minister and theologian, inaugurated a movement to produce a distinctively “Pacific” theology and coined the term “Coconut Theology.” He said:
“Because we always need to explain our faith through those foreign languages and terminologies … foreign customs and cultures, Christian faith tends to be to us — even though we have claimed it as ours — after all these years, a foreign faith.
“Everyone in the Pacific knows and literally lives on coconut. It is ...a tree of life for Pacific Islanders. If Jesus had grown up and lived in the Pacific, he could have added another identification of himself — I am the Coconut of Life.”
These frameworks are just a sample of the ways Asian American and Pacific Islander Christians offer unique contextual lenses to form personal Christian identities and contribute an honest, decolonized perspective to Christian history.