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Ebb and flow

Taiwanese American congregations connecting between the US and Taiwan

by Jonathan Seitz | Mission Crossroads

On Easter 2019, the Seitz family visited Grace Taiwanese-American Presbyterian Church for the church’s 20th anniversary of becoming a full PC(USA) congregation. Elder Chao-nan Liu was a main influence in the organization of the church and has continued to help guide the congregation. (Photo contributed by Jonathan Seitz)

One of the churches I visit every few years is Grace Taiwanese American Presbyterian Church outside of Trenton, New Jersey. I was briefly its youth director during seminary, and it was part of my call to ministry in Taiwan.

The last time I was there, one of the guiding elders of the congregation talked to me about how the church was doing. “We were around 30 members when we chartered 20 years ago, and we’re around 30 members now,” he said. The church has often relied on part-time and interim pastors, and its feel can change if a few people join or leave. It is a small church, especially compared to the larger Chinese American churches in central New Jersey.

There was some wistfulness to the elder’s voice, and I could tell that he often wished that the church had continued to grow. At the same time, visiting every few years as we do, I’ve always been impressed by the vitality of this church. I’ve seen several members during their sojourns back to Taipei, youth I knew from 20 years ago have married and started their own families, and several former youth leaders went on to ministries involving cross-cultural work. It’s a church for which I’m deeply grateful, connecting people back and forth between the U.S. and Taiwan.

The PC(USA) has about 50 Taiwanese American congregations. Because I grew up in the Midwest and South, I tend to see churches in these regions most often. I was surprised to find a tiny Taiwanese American church in Cincinnati. Recently, the Rev. Ho-tek Tan, the pastor of Ann Arbor, Michigan’s Taiwanese American church, also introduced me to a small, satellite congregation in Detroit. Visiting Louisville, I’ve watched the congregation that meets at Calvin Presbyterian Church shift several times over the past 10 years. My wife Emily’s aunt is from Washington, D.C., and we’ve also gotten to know two of the churches there. We were surprised recently to see that one of the main supporting congregations we have now is the Taiwanese Presbyterian Church of D.C. in Derwood, Maryland. We’ve also often visited Taiwanese American Fellowship Presbyterian Church in Hillsborough, New Jersey. The pastor now is the Rev. Annie Tsai, a graduate of the seminary where I teach, who had earlier pastored at a Taiwanese American church in Atlanta.

Although these are some of the main congregations I’ve met, I also was surprised on a church visit to the Albany, New York, area to First Presbyterian Church of Pittsford to discover that there is a monthly Taiwanese Presbyterian fellowship led by long-term members of that church. Getting to know these churches is often a surprise to me. Like other PC(USA) congregations, they vary widely. Some attract students, others individuals and visitors, and others have a strong network of families or attract people from local businesses or companies. In some cases, the Taiwanese American churches have revitalized their sister churches, or helped congregations be able to stay in ministry. Almost every congregation I’ve mentioned shares its space with another Presbyterian congregation.

These congregations are also multigenerational. Taiwanese American congregations face many of the “worship war” questions other U.S. churches face around music style and liturgy, but this is also compounded by language, as the older generation tends to speak Taiwanese, English and Japanese, and the younger generation grew up more in Mandarin but also began studying English earlier. Taiwanese Americans have also faced a long range of experiences in the U.S. Many Taiwanese began coming to the U.S. more than 50 years ago on student visas. Taiwanese Presbyterians of that era faced a hostile, authoritarian government in Taiwan, and relocating to the U.S. often meant escape from a hostile situation.

Taiwan is an island country floating between empires to its east and west, and its modern history is one of dislocation and lament, but also of hope and vibrancy. Like many people, I came to know the Taiwanese church via its larger neighbor. I had lived in China as an undergrad and then in Singapore and had never been to Taiwan. However, my seminary neighbors were a Taiwanese American couple with a young daughter. Through them, I began working at Grace Taiwanese American Presbyterian Church. First, I worked with the next-door neighbor, Shang-Jen Chen, and then with the Rev. Ralph Su, who is now the PC(USA)’s Associate for Asian Intercultural Congregational Support.

It’s been fascinating to watch how Taiwanese American churches also influence Taiwanese congregations. A classmate of mine from seminary, Peter Chen, took an English ministry at Shuanglian Presbyterian Church in Taipei, but now has returned to the U.S. Friends like Chi Yi Chen, who was an organist at Princeton Seminary, helped bring Taiwanese hymns into the recent PC(USA) hymnal, Glory to God; around the same time, the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan updated its hymnal, also pulling in many newer hymns from the U.S. and other churches.

In Taiwan, Taiwanese Americans have been part of a cycle of ministry to and from. Many innovative ministries in Taipei have been founded by Taiwanese American churches and there’s a cycle of exchange also between Presbyterians and other traditions (in Taiwan, Presbyterians are the oldest and largest Protestant denomination). These are not short-term trends; instead, they have developed over more than half a century. A couple of years ago, I met Shirley Lung, a Ph.D. student and Fulbright Scholar from Johns Hopkins, who is studying these trends. It has been fascinating to learn about her work, which tries to track the relationship between Taiwanese Presbyterians, Taiwanese Americans in the PC(USA), and the back and forth with other Taiwanese and Taiwanese American congregations. As a mission co-worker, I have also written before about how knowing Taiwanese Americans has helped me to understand our life in Taipei as immigrants: working and raising children in a different language, loving this culture but missing our own, and often relying on a mix of Taiwanese and foreign friends and co-workers for help in daily life.

There’s often a tendency to reduce congregational vitality to a set of a points on a graph: attendance, giving, programming, worship, outreach and so on. These things are important. At the same time, chasing “bigger and better” can become a kind of idolatry in U.S. congregational ministry, and for me one of the main correctives has been getting to know first- and second-generation Taiwanese immigrant fellowships and congregations. They often have different experiences of what it means to be Presbyterian, different experiences with the dominant culture and different ideas of what it means to be a faithful church. Immigrant experiences carry a variety of laments, but they also offer a clear hope for what can be.

This article first appeared in Mission Crossroads. Find it and other articles here.

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