Understanding the Trans-Pacific Dimensions of Asian American Faith - Princeton Theological Seminary

Asian Americans seem to be undergoing a cultural renaissance, with books such as “Crying in H Mart” and movies such as “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once” giving Asian Americans unprecedented limelight. All three works revolve around the intergenerational gap between immigrants and their children and are told from the perspective of second-generation children. Often overlooked are the voices of the first-generation Asian immigrants to America, who constitute 57% of the Asian American population according to a recent Pew survey.

To gather their voices, two second-generation Asian American scholars at Princeton Seminary serve as co-research directors of an oral history project involving around 50 first-generation East Asian American Christians. In late 2022, Dr. David Chao, Director of the Center for Asian American Christianity (CAAC), and Dr. Easten Law, Assistant Director for Academic Programs at the Overseas Ministries Studies Center (OMSC), were notified that they received a grant from the Louisville Institute for their research project.

This past April, Chao and Law co-hosted this year’s Asian American Theology conference, titled “Multiple Belongings in Transpacific Christianities,” to explore the many ways Christian faith shapes Asian American belonging across geography and generations. This collaborative research project and conference mark the deepening of relations between the two centers with both academic and ministerial missions, especially since Chao has expanded Princeton Seminary’s historic Asian American Program (established by Professor Emeritus Sang Hyun Lee) as a research center.

“To adequately frame Asian American Christianity and theology, you have to frame it within a World Christianity conversation,” says Chao. “The Asian diaspora within the United States is just one subset within World Christianity.”

Dr. Chao and Dr. Law host a hybrid discussion with Asian American Christian scholars on the influence of migration on faith

Dr. Chao and Dr. Law host a hybrid discussion with Asian American Christian scholars on the influence of migration on faith

Founded a century ago and recently relocated to Princeton from New Haven, OMSC’s staff and global partners (scholars and church leaders) from around the world have become integral parts of the World Christianity classes and conferences at Princeton Seminary.

“As much as we’re concerned about the churches in the global south, the global south is here as a vibrant part of the American church,” says Law. “There is an increasing recognition that the world church is the American church, as the number one destination for Christian migrants is the US.”

Law arrived at OMSC as a scholar of World Christianity after completing his doctorate in theological and religious studies from Georgetown University. His dissertation on Chinese Christian lived theologies is currently under review with Penn State University Press. Law’s academic formation has been in practical theology and qualitative research, while Chao received his doctorate in systematic theology from Princeton Seminary. Chao wrote on Barth through the lens of analytic philosophy and ethics.

“Easten is the perfect conversation partner, and we make a nice complementary team,” says Chao. “He engages in ethnography and grounded empirical approaches that are standard operating procedure in World Christianity but not in systematic theology.”

“The way he [Chao] wields terms with certain accuracy and the way he’s able to conceptually construct things, that’s not the way I think,” says Law. “I can feel the complementariness— he’s able to work systematically with theological constructions in a way that I haven’t been trained.”

OMSC’s Global Partners from China, Myanmar, India, Indonesia, and South Korea share how their experiences of migration shape their ministries

OMSC’s Global Partners from China, Myanmar, India, Indonesia, and South Korea share how their experiences of migration shape their ministries

The duo began interviewing this summer using random snowball sampling by reaching out to East Asian congregations on the eastern seaboard between Washington D.C. and Boston. They have also hired research assistants to support interviews in Korean, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Taiwanese. The driving questions have been how faith and spiritual practices are woven through the interviewee’s migration from Asia to the United States.

Given that the research grant is relatively small at $30,000, Chao and Law believe that the current project will reveal gaps in knowledge for further investigations. “We’re not looking for generalizability. We’re looking for common themes that cut across interviews to generate hypotheses,” says Law. “And from these themes, we hope to build better lines of inquiry to the concerns that matter most for Asian and Asian American Christian communities.”

The results of their research will be published on the CAAC’s website, and also in Chao’s book on Asian American theology which will be published with Wiley-Blackwell.

“Because migration often involves fleeing from war or poverty or oppression, we hope to understand some of the wounds and traumas that immigrants bear in addition to the joys that they bring,” says Chao. “I firmly believe that putting a face and voice to a story not often told is a powerful anti-racist strategy.”