A letter from Jonathan Seitz, serving in Taiwan
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One of our sources for learning about Taiwanese churches is through Taiwanese-American churches. Some of these congregations are larger, some tiny; some consist mostly of the elderly and speak Taiwanese, others have a robust younger generation and include worship in Mandarin or English. Leadership is always a challenge: how can we find and raise up good leaders? How can we serve Taiwanese immigrants and a rising, younger generation? I thought about this a lot this summer, as I traveled to four different Taiwanese-American churches. Three had leaders trained at the seminary where I teach in Taipei, and one did not have a pastor but relied on one of the other three. I am using this letter to write about four Taiwanese-American churches, because they give a snapshot of Taiwanese Presbyterian churches and the connections between Taiwan and the US.
The first church I visited was Grace Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, outside Trenton, in New Jersey. I was youth director at this church in 2003-2005, Emily was a children’s Sunday school teacher, and we know the current youth ministers. The pastor of the church, Rev. Chuang Song-Chun, retired after decades of ministry in Taiwan and has spent the last years pastoring immigrant churches in the US. This is a church I love, and one that also struggles. It doesn’t have the resources to employ a full-time pastor and often changes ministers. Elder Liu, one of the main leaders of the church, told me “this church had 31 regular members when it was started more than 20 years ago and it has about 31 regular members today—how can we find people to pastor our small numbers?” Grace Church has had faithful leaders, but because of its size and location and the small immigrant community, it has struggled. Still, I have been moved by the strength of the leaders and the family-based ministry it has accomplished. I was happy to see a member who’d left years back but has now returned. There are young adults in the church who were kids when I was there. After church, the members gathered at another elder’s house and cooked a feast.
We next visited the Atlanta Taiwanese Presbyterian Church in Stone Mountain, GA. The pastor, Annie Kakun Tsai, is an alumna of my seminary and we are the same age. Her daughter welcomed our kids to Sunday School. An elder in the congregation is also a graduate of my seminary. This church is larger, has its own building, sustains two worship services, in Taiwanese and English, and is truly multigenerational. Rev. Tsai is one of only two female pastors I’ve met in the Taiwanese-American church. The other is Mei-Hui Lai who works in our General Assembly. I was impressed by their witness and ability to serve multilingually.
The third and fourth churches I visited were in Michigan. In the morning I visited the Detroit church with Rev. Chen Haode (Tan Ho-tek), who helps lead them in worship twice a month. It had about a dozen members, mostly elderly, and is nested in another PCUSA congregation. After worship we ate a lunch of beef noodles and talked about mission. In the afternoon, I visited the main Taiwanese-American church in the area, the Ann Arbor Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, which is nested in First Pres, Ann Arbor. It is pastored by Rev. Chen Haode. Rev. Chen was formerly the Secretary for Campus Ministry in Taiwan, but is tragically known in Presbyterian circles because his teenage children died a year apart of natural causes two and three years ago in Michigan. I had visited him in 2011 and met his children very briefly then; I was struck at the time by the huge adjustment he had made in coming to the US. His congregation is interesting because many of the members are first generation Christians. Often they have come to Ann Arbor or the Detroit area to study.
I was really grateful for the hospitality of Pastor Chen. Pastor Chen grows his own “bitter melon” (a popular Taiwanese vegetable) and shared some of it with us (the kids don’t love it, but we cooked it one evening and everyone ate some). Pastor Chen also had a gathering Sunday night that included four alumni of my seminary: Pastor Chen, his wife Amy, another pastor (Fred Lin, who has pastored in Ann Arbor and Austin) and Fred’s wife. For me (Jonathan), it is moving to have friends and mentors like this who know both Taiwan and the US, and who know both the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan and the PCUSA.
In visiting these churches I was grateful for the warm welcome I received, for the opportunities to talk deeply and honestly, and for the chance to think about what our shared ministry means. I was inspired by the Taiwan Seminary graduates who serve churches abroad. Some have moved abroad permanently, while others come to meet the need of a congregation for a few years. Often I meet graduates of our school in education and music. I ate bitter melon, beef noodles, and fried eggplant, and talked in a mix of English, Mandarin, and Taiwanese. For these churches it means a lot to have trained colleagues who know their home culture and love it. We have a lot of work to do together, both in Taiwan and in the US. Some churches are thriving, but many are struggling to find their calling and their voice. To be the church is to be part of this deep friendship, this discipleship, that joins us together in a shared calling.
Thank you for supporting us with your prayers and offerings. My father sometimes shares the line that “God’s work is accomplished by the offerings of God’s people.” We are in Taiwan because of your commitment to this type of ministry.
Holy God, we thank you for your leaders in the church: for those newly started on the way, for those who have been at this for a while, and for those whose calling is nearing its completion. We thank you for schools that prepare pastors to be good shepherds, following you where they go. Amen.
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