Racial tensions flared between some Asian-American Christians and the evangelical community recently in the wake of a pair of incidents involving the influential Southern California pastor Rick Warren and his Saddleback Church in Lake Forest.
The controversy began on Sept. 23, when Warren posted a photo on Facebook of a smiling woman — apparently wearing the uniform of Mao Zedong’s Red Guard during China's Cultural Revolution — with the caption: “The typical attitude of Saddleback Staff as they start work each day.”
The Facebook post seemed crass to some Asian-American Christians, given the cruelty and violence endured by many Chinese during the Cultural Revolution.
The ensuing controversy led to more than 80 prominent Asian-American Christians — many from California — to sign an open letter to the "Evangelical Church" calling for an end to Asian stereotyping they've seen over a period of many years, showing up in everything from Bible study materials to Christian trade books.
“Sorry, but that period in Chinese history was a lot of terrible suffering," said Ken Fong, senior pastor of Evergreen Baptist Church of Los Angeles in Rosemead. “And that’s just really insensitive of you.”
An estimated 13 percent of Asian-Americans call themselves evangelical, and they make up a fast-growing segment of the evangelical church nationwide.
Fong, who signed the open letter, acknowledged that Warren apologized and removed the Facebook post, but not before putting up an additional post reading, “It’s a joke people! If you take this seriously, you really shouldn’t be following me!"
"It seems like those in power — they choose not to engage us and learn from this," Fong said. "They simply choose to say, 'I’m moving on, I’m done.'"
A representative for Saddleback said Tuesday that no one from the church is commenting on the issue at this time.
New campus in Hong Kong
But Todd Wilson, a friend of Warren and a fellow evangelical leader, pointed out that Saddleback just opened a new campus in Hong Kong and that one of Warren’s highest-ranking associates, Kevin Nguyen, is Asian-American.
"I’m not trying to get in the middle of who said what, where, but I can just attest to Rick’s heart is in the right place,” said Wilson, director of Exponential, a group that works to establish new churches and faith leaders.
Exponential became embroiled in its own controversy with Asian-American evangelicals when it held a conference at Saddleback last week. Exponential showed a video parody of "The Karate Kid" in which a white actor fakes an Asian accent and martial arts moves. The group has since issued an apology and a statement supportive of the open letter by Asian-American church leaders.
“It’s going to be a journey of conversations to continue listening and becoming sensitive and more sensitive and being able to see things through the eyes of others that are offended," Wilson told KPCC.
In the meantime, the Asian-American leaders who signed the open letter are calling for the following changes:
- Convene a forum of Asian-Americans to discuss incidents of racial stereotyping for publication in Christianity Today.
- Review hiring practices in Christian organizations "to see if there are systemic issues preventing Asian-Americans from having a presence and a voice in the evangelical world."
- Get the evangelical community to ensure any media or public content "respectfully reflect Asian American culture."
You can read the full letter here: