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When We Went to Church


A mother and daughter reflect on coming to the US.


When We Went To Church Wen Zhuang

Narration: On the first Sunday of this past October, I decided to return to church. I sat at the pew and looked up at the lectern and as the adult Chinese ministry began worship, I started to cry.

—cut to choir—

I think for first generation, they went to church yes because of faith, part of it was for survival. It was where they could go and rest.

That was pastor Eugene Cho giving a talk at a symposium held at the church he founded, Quest Chuch in Seattle, Washington. He’s a formidable presence within the growing Asian American church community. He’s met with President Obama, and was invited by Dr. Bernese King at her church, the Ebenezer Christian Church.

EC: My parents worked at a grocery store-8am to 11pm, forcing themselves to speak a language they could not speak. So when they went to church on Sundays, I saw them effervescent.

I, too, moved to the U.S. at age 6 and almost immediately entered church. And like Pastor Cho, this was an experience I would go on to share with my mom for a little under a decade, from when I was 6 to about 13 or so. During those years, I felt that going to church was as common and as necessary as going to the grocery store or going to school, or work. It was something that happened on Sundays, and Wednesday nights and sometimes Friday nights. And it happened at a cross street next to a McDonalds or it happened at this home of a really old lady with a nice smile. The beginnings of those 7, 8 years are muddy–the what, how’s, and really whys of my mom and I’s devotion have never been talked about. All that I do remember is that my mom and I each had a different need for this place and a reason to hope for something greater. And maybe it was a similar need, or some sort of longing that prompted my return to church that October Sunday.

Mom: The church was attached to a kindergarten we sent you to because it was the closest school to our house and had a bilingual Chinese speaking teacher. We weren’t sure at that time what we were going to be doing and if we will have to work late at least there was someone to look after you.

I called my mom after church that day and we dug up a lot of these muddled memories, and evidently, mine being much, much different from hers. This has been one of the only times we’ve talked about those few years.

Mom: Every Friday and Saturday night we would go to Long nainai’s house. Her church was kind of an independent ministry run out of her house, it was sort of just a small gathering every weekend. There were a lot of Chinese people at the church, a lot of families like us. With parents who immigrated here at an older age with young children who were growing up in the us

And of course, the people, when you know each other’s cultures and language, you tend to want to stick together.

When my Mom and I talk about it, if we do, and it’s only happened once or twice, she likes to say she did it all for me. For me to make friends and get better at English. She says I used to be so insecure and fearful about my lack of English that I’d been mute for my whole first year in the U.S.

Mom: It took you awhile to pick up English so you were firm in your refusal to go to school in general. You hated it. A big reason why I continued to attend all those years was so that you could continue to socialize with the church. I believed it was a good influence on you, ono young children not to do drugs, respect your parents, always give back.

I think a time when the English language was so foreign to me that I literally refused to speak is a time I, unintentionally or not, blocked out. And when I remember myself 3, 5, 8 years ago, I remember when I learned how to ride a bike or how my 6th grade English teacher helped me fall in love with reading, things I think most people would remember.

I’ve never remembered myself as not quite American or not knowing what to call something or how to describe it to someone. And my struggles with the English language have never been how to speak it, it was always just how to get better at it.

I never thought about church as anything more than somewhere we’d go and I thought that only happened here in the US. I remember thinking how quickly we were becoming just like everyone else. And to be honest, I kept going because I felt it meant a lot to my mom. It felt she had a different, more dire need for it somehow.

Around 3 years into attending routinely, I remember seeing her standing up on stage, soaking in water, eyes shut, fists clenched up towards the sky and praying. And I sort of thought to myself then that it was a duty to accompany her every weekend. It was never clear where she stood with the religion itself, and it still isn’t to this day.

Mom: I just thought that the people were so generous and nice and they really help you out a lot. Provide you with endless information like how to apply to schools, and low income health insurance, where to take English classes and possible job opportunities. I believe so many people pick up or make relationships with the church because of the people there. It’s always nice to be around people, to find a group to belong to. So, a lot of the time the people, like me, who get baptized is not so much that you wholly believe in the religion or this God but you just stop refusing it. You don’t think about it too much, it’s just that you are comfortable here and with the people. If it’s making you happy, you don’t mind.

One clear memory I still have from those years was probably during that last month–I was 13 in the bathroom stall, between worship and bible study, trying a cigarette for the first time. I don’t remember feeling too bad about it but now I realize it must have been a pretty great sin.

And after that month, I don’t remember going back. I don’t remember ever feeling sad about leaving and I don’t even remember leaving. It wasn’t one of those Band-Aid rip goodbyes, it was

more of just something that happened for a decade and then something that no longer was. There was never a Sunday where I woke up wondering hey why aren’t we going to church.

I don’t ever think anyone back home in China new of our time there either–they were just happy and proud that we were getting on so well. It was almost avoided as if it was something shameful, something we shouldn’t have done. And maybe for my family in China, it would be something shameful.

Mom: By the time we moved to the US, at the start of the 2000s, there was beginning to be a knowledge of religions in China but it was not allowed for so long that the government still did not recognize and the groups that did exist were largely underground, or in homes, kind of like the ones we attended on Friday nights.

Religion in china was and remains to this day, nothing like the gatherings we attended on Friday nights. Similar in that they were independent, more of community hangouts, the bible was never the star of the show at these things. As far as the weight and often danger that religion carries in mainland China is incomparable to elsewhere.

****Today is communist china’s global manifesto*** Andrew Nathan: (Professor at Columbia University) Leadership is viewing all these Christian congregations as a kind of dry tinder that could spark up. They think that foreign forces, the U.S., missionaries, so forth, would like to spark up this tinder.

Pastor Bob Fu (founder of CHINAAID) quote Pastors were being arrested and prayer meetings were being raided, even sentenced. Thirteen years, ten years.

That was Andrew Nathan, a professor of Political Science at Columbia University and Pastor Bob Fu, founder of CHINAAID, a nonprofit Christian human rights organization committed to promoting rule of law in China.

Rarely are churches government backed and if they are, done so with heavy surveillance. For many of the immigrants who fervently attend church, it is an act solely reserved and lived out of their life in the U.S. These communities really see the idea of being “born again” not just as Christians or disciples of God, but maybe even disciples of this land.

But for my mom and I, Church was like our little secret, it never really carried much weight. And for the many Asian Americans that attend, it isn’t so much the religion, the God, that keeps them coming back. It is a desire that has roots in displacement, a need to belong, in holding onto hope when you can’t look back but have no idea what lies ahead.

When it was over for us, it was over. It was sort of just this past life we had–just as this country was foreign to us then, who we were at that time seems completely foreign to who we are now. So we don’t talk about it, or really view that as part of our identity or the life we’ve made in the U.S.

Mom: And with more time in the US you start to find the same kind of comfort you feel within church elsewhere. And if we stay in China there wouldn’t really be a need to want

community because we would have our families and they would all be close. But it’s so lonely to being a new place.

EC: Everyone needs to be loved. Everyone needs to be heard and everyone needs to be part of something greater than themselves.

Whatever it is that brought me back I might never figure out. What absence I might have felt that woke me up and drove me back to church that first Sunday in October is still as ambiguous as our reason for attending all those years. But 10 years later, 3000 miles away from the only church I ever knew, I was sitting in this Chinese ministry somewhere in Pawtucket, RI, holding onto any word I could understand. And I left that day, not having been converted nor did I feel as if I’d gone back to a home I had but the church hall was heavy, it was heavy with the fear my mom must have had 18 years ago and maybe as well as the reassurance being under a roof like this must have given her. As worship was wrapping up, the people in attendance would usually go around, shake hands, introduce themselves, and give thanks to the people around you. And this was something I haven’t done in years. But somehow it came naturally; I turned around, shook all the hands around me. And as I left church that day, a woman came up to me, hugged me, held my hand, and said “welcome home” And I don’t think I can ever understand how my mom must have felt being told those words in 2001. But somehow, I’m certain it’s a huge part of who she is today and I guess for that reason, I wanted to give my thanks.