A few months ago someone I respect posted this question in one of my social media accounts, “People are flourishing all around you, but your own Hmong people are going to hell. What are you going to do about that? Do you still have a heart for them?” I understood the sentiment of what he was asking. And to be real honest, his question hurt my feelings. Because he essentially asked me, “Do you still care for your own people?”
If you’re a Hispanic, Black, Asian, or any other minority leader – can you relate to this question?
I stopped attending and leading local ethnic congregations eight years ago to join and plant multi-ethnic congregations. On occasion I would hear through the grapevine theories from other people on why I left. It ranged from me becoming theologically liberal to me being frustrated with cultural tradition. All untrue. And when I heard these things, I never felt hurt.
But this time when I read this posting, as I said, my initial reaction was hurt. He obviously misunderstood why I do what I do. But after giving it some thought and prayer, I had to be honest with myself and face up to the question.
Do I care for the salvation and well-being of my own people?
WHY IS THIS QUESTION IMPORTANT TO ETHNIC MINORITY LEADERS?
Internalized racism is the idea that someone is racist against their own racial/ethnic group and that they place a higher value on members (including themselves) who appear to act more like the dominant group.
Had I become an internalized racist for the sake of Christian missions? To borrow terms from the African-American community, had I become a Hmong Sambo or an Asian house slave? Am I a sell out?
The answer of course is NO. I am not a Hmong Sambo or an Asian house slave. I am not a sell out.
But while I never felt or thought this way, it didn’t mean that for whatever reason others from my tribe didn’t perceive my actions this way. And the reality is that sometimes you can’t convince your own tribe. You do your best to understand their passions and do your best to explain yours. But at the end of the day, each one of us will have a unique call that fits the bigger mosaic of the Kingdom. And each one of us will give an account for what God has called us to do.
But think about this for a second. Your willingness to venture out from your own tribe can one day lead to one of the greatest Kingdom innovations that comes from your tribe.
Some of you must go because the the greatest contribution by your people to the Kingdom depends on it. You are a delegate of your people into Kingdom mission. The biblical idea might even be that you are an apostle-like figure.
And it’s in these moments that you gain clarity in your call and renewed passion for the future.
I’ve made the decision that the remainder of my life will be about preparing the next generation to serve Jesus in a fast changing society where traditional religion is no longer effective and the global conversation is changing everything. Issues like religious pluralism, race, economics, and public policy is becoming a more seamless conversation once again. And I want to help bring the next generation into this conversation and not hold them back from its reality.
I also want to help those of you who are making this transition. I want to help you navigate your personal tensions so that you can get beyond the guilt of feeling like a sell out and on to the real mission God has called you to.
So it’s with a clear sense of mission for my own life and a heart to serve you as you venture out that I answer this question: Why did you leave the ethnic church and your ethnic community?
THREE REASONS WHY I LEFT THE HMONG CHURCH AND THE HMONG COMMUNITY
REASON #1: It was the natural outworking of a mature and missional church.
This reason seems to be the most obvious one. When a church matures and it maintains its missional identity, it should naturally be sending out its people to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19-20). It’s a good thing, not to mention a Biblical thing, when you’re sending out your brightest and best to disciple those who are different from you. Those who do the sending should not feel hurt by those who leave.
I genuinely love diversity and making disciples from other nations. I’m glad to be the missionary extension of the Hmong Church. It shows that we are maturing and taking ownership of the Great Commission.
Could your venturing out be the indicator of your church’s maturity and missional commitment?
REASON #2: My harbour was getting too safe, I needed to undock.
My gift set necessitates that I explore for the Kingdom. When I sense completed work, I feel resolve. When I saw that our work in the ethnic church was done and that we had done well in Jerusalem and Judea, I knew that it was time for us to get on with Samaria and the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).
It’s part of the reason why Paul, who was a committed Jew, felt the need to be an apostle to Gentiles. He loved his people, he desired their salvation, but he knew Peter and James and others could hold it down without him. That’s why although in Romans 9:3 he wrote that he would rather be accursed and cut off from Christ if it meant the salvation of his own people, he also felt resolve in Romans 11:13 to be an apostle to the Gentiles hoping to create some sort of righteous jealousy in Israel to turn to Jesus.
Paul was neither a Greek Sambo nor a Gentile house slave. He was an apostle to the Gentiles with the hope that Israel would come full circle in coming to Jesus.
Can you see yourself as an “apostle to the Gentiles” being complementary to your friends who maybe called as “apostles to the Jews?”
REASON #3: I am committed to developing missional theology for a new North America and a new world.
Not all theologians and scholars believe in cultural/contextual theology. I do. And in order for ethnic people to contribute more meaningfully, we need to go deeper and wider in the application of Scripture to our culture and to the world. No one person can do this. Some will feel called to take theology deeper into their culture and than others will feel called to utilize their cultural experience to bridge theology into the world.
Isn’t this the point of Abraham and Genesis 12:1-3? Abraham had to first leave his country and his people in order to #1) correct the false worship of his father’s tradition and to #2) become the global blessing that God intended him to be.
In order to develop a more accurate missional theology for a new North America, those of us who are making North America “new” again have to venture out and consider the larger implications for why God sent us here.
Do you see the need to develop theology that better incorporates ethnic identity and the realities of North America?
THREE REASONS WHY I REALLY DIDN’T LEAVE
But the reality is that in my mind, I never left the Hmong Church. And here are three reasons why I think that is.
REASON #1: I am thoroughly Hmong and I can never stop being Hmong.
The reality is that I have not and will never leave the Hmong Church because the Hmong Church is bigger than a local congregation. The Hmong Church mentioned in Revelation 5:9-10 isn’t a worship gathering on Sunday. It’s a segment of the Elect that is helping to bring the Kingdom of Jesus in its fullness to Earth. We have a unique perspective on history and we will have unique stories for why we worship Jesus. Where I choose to worship and fellowship this Sunday or next Sunday bears very little on the fact that God has saved my people from idol worship, poverty and evil, and social injustice.
When I think of redemption, it has a unique Hmong twist to it and I will take that into eternity with me.
REASON #2: I still serve and equip ethnic congregations.
I love equipping and serving ethnic congregations still. In fact, at least a few times a year I am preaching at an ethnic church. This past Easter I preached at a mentor’s church near Charlotte, NC. His church was about 600 people. I spoke predominantly in Hmong and after the message I gave an invitation to respond to Jesus and the Gospel and saw a huge response!
This Summer I’m also leading a workshop at a Hmong Young Adults conference called S.A.L.T at Wheaton College and will be talking about missional living. Before that, I’ll be one of the keynote speakers at the Southeast Asian Catalyst Conference to talk about the next 30 years of ministry among Southeast Asians.
So it’s safe to say that just because you don’t attend a congregation made up of your own people, it doesn’t mean that you can’t meaningfully serve and equip them.
Sometimes after leaving the tribe you’ll have better stories to tell when you return.
REASON #3: I still dream for ethnic churches.
I still have huge dreams for the Hmong church and other ethnic churches, specifically here in North America. We have been afforded a time by God right now to be subversive and underdogs in the Kingdom of God. And in a Kingdom that has upside down values, that’s an advantage. I am a big believer that God didn’t just send the nations to North America so that they could be reached. I believe that God sent the nations to North America to preserve and innovate the North American church. And it’s absolutely necessary for us to keep our ethnic identities in order for God’s Kingdom picture to emerge here in North America.
Don’t stop dreaming for your people. Dream bigger, but dream in context of who you are.
The underlying question of racial and cultural identity and contextualized theology is so much more complex than my own personal journey. I don’t pretend to give an exhaustive theological response as to why it’s important for some, if not many, ethnic leaders to lead beyond their own community. Maybe in another post I’ll develop a foundational theology as to why this should be the case, in particularly here in North America.
But for now, I hope that some of what I shared will help you ethnic leaders venture beyond your own tribe to innovate for the Kingdom. And also I hope that some of what I shared will give perspective to others that are positioned to encourage and invest in ethnic leaders that are helping to make North America new again.