Asian American Christians face tough choice between mom and God

Students at Asian American InterVarsity bow their heads in prayer. Asian American involvement in the UW Christian fellowship has spiked recently. (Photo by Monica Chon)
Students at Asian American InterVarsity bow their heads in prayer. Asian American involvement in the UW Christian fellowship has spiked recently. (Photo by Monica Chon)

Sarah Chen, 26, grew up in St. Louis, and was planning to follow what’s become a common path for ambitious Asian Americans: study intensely during high school, get accepted into a competitive university, major in pre-med, graduate, attend medical school and eventually become a doctor.

Chen was admitted to and graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in biology and physiology. But somewhere between steps four and five, the plan changed. Much to her mother’s dismay, Chen chose to enter Christian ministry instead of medicine.

“I told my mom at a restaurant and she yelled at me for 20 minutes,” Chen recalled. “She said, ‘Why did I waste all of this money on you for your education if you’re not going to use it? What am I going to tell your relatives? I am so ashamed of you.’”

Thus begun a tough journey deciding between following her passions and pleasing her mother.

Although 42 percent of Asian Americans identify themselves as Christian, parents and children tend to have different opinions on how big of a role religion should play in their lives. Many parents become more fixated on their children’s career paths, thinking their jobs will be separate from their faith.

According to a 2012 by the Pew Research Center, 17 percent of Asian Americans believed that parents should have a lot of influence over their children’s career choices, 49 percent said they should have at least some influence. It’s clear that parental opinions carry significance in Asian culture.

As a daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, Chen understood the importance of obeying parents. Yet, she could not deny her passion, which found its roots at a young age.

“Since high school, I loved ministry,” said Chen, who grew up in an Asian American Christian household. “I loved watching my peers identify their faith and being a part of that process.”

Sarah Chen speaks to students in Asian American InterVarsity. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Chen)
Sarah Chen speaks to students in Asian American InterVarsity. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Chen)

During Chen’s college years at the University of Washington her faith flourished even more.

She knew that she wanted to become a part of a Christian group on campus. Luckily, two members of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship lived on the same floor in her dormitory. Although Chen admits that they pestered her in the beginning with nonstop invitations to their meetings, she joined their fellowship and fell in love with it.

Upon receiving encouragement from her peers in InterVarsity, Chen took on a leadership position there her sophomore year. During the same year, the number of Asian students in the UW chapter increased dramatically, and one of the staff members of InterVarsity approached Chen and asked her to help him plant an Asian American chapter.

Initially, she refused.

“At the time, I was still trying to identify my own ethnic culture,” said Chen, who was accustomed to a predominantly White and miniscule 2.9 percent Asian American population in St. Louis. “I really wrestled with it and it scared me.”

After countless hours of contemplation and prayer, Chen finally agreed to help start what is now the Asian American InterVarsity (AAIV) chapter at UW.

“I felt God calling me and making it clear to me that he wanted me to do this,” said Chen. “I felt he was saying, ‘It’s going to be hard for you, but you’ll learn a lot about yourself, your identity as an Asian American and woman in leadership.’”

Chen continued to grow more in love with ministry and soon decided that it, not medicine, was the career she wanted to pursue. After she graduated, she took an internship with InterVarsity.

“The internship was only one year long, but it solidified that I wanted to stay in ministry,” said Chen

Students lift their hands as they sing worship songs. (Photo by Monica Chon)
Students lift their hands as they sing worship songs. (Photo by Monica Chon)

That’s when she began experiencing the difficulties that pursuing ministry would bring into her life:

Her mother all but disowned her. She and her mother kept their distance, and barely talked. During the rare occasions when they did converse, it was mostly yelling.

“Our relationship was at its last threads,” said Chen.

The thought of their child struggling to make ends meets discouraged Chen’s mother.

“My wife was worried about her career,” said John Lin, Chen’s father, who was more supportive of his daughter’s decision than his wife was. “She wanted her to go to graduate school and after have some other career than the mission field. She told her that she couldn’t make a living doing this kind of thing.”

Dr. Bo Lim, a former pastor and the current University Chaplain for Seattle Pacific University, understands that parents, especially Asian immigrant parents, not only expect more from their children – they expect more for their children.

“This desire for children to be financially secure is a noble human desire,” said Lim, whose in-laws discouraged their daughter from marrying him when he was a pastor. “Now compound that with the immigrant story. A generation of immigrants, who were often once white-collars in their country, came here to be blue-collars and made that sacrifice. Who would want their child to financially struggle when that is so much on their minds and consciousness?”

Sarah Chen, 26, is a staff member for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and leads the Asian American chapter at the University of Washington. (Photo by Monica Chon)
Sarah Chen, 26, is a staff member for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and leads the Asian American chapter at the University of Washington. (Photo by Monica Chon)

In addition, certain social aspects of Asian culture make the decision to enter ministry even more problematic for people and their parents. One example is that missionaries and campus ministers oftentimes must raise their own funds by asking for donations.

“You don’t ask people for money in Asian culture. You just don’t,” Lim said.

With all of these pressures weighing heavily on Chen’s mind, she wrestled with how to follow her calling while receiving disapproval from her mother. In the beginning, she thought she could avoid her entirely.

“I told myself that I would be fine and I didn’t have to deal with this,” said Chen.

However, Chen’s father implored her to submit to her mother. Not to give up her dreams, but to listen to what her mother had to say and not to fight back. Then Chen says she heard a bigger call from God.

“I heard God telling me to love my mom with all of my heart and respect and honor her,” said Chen. “He said, ‘Let me take care of her. I am working in her in ways you don’t know. Forgive her over and over again. Trust me.’”

Chen continues to work in ministry. She loves her mother, but they still don’t agree on her path. After four years on the InterVarsity staff at UW, Chen says she never regrets her decision, despite the conflict.

“There is a fine line between discernment from God and discernment from our parents,” said Chen. “God should have the final say. The question is, will we have the courage to do what God wants for us?”

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