An interview with Gary Lee pastor of Rooted: A new Multi-Asian Evangelical Church. On being Christ Centered and Asian-American
You’ve probably come across various Triangle Asian churches like the Korean Presbyterian Church in Durham, The Connect Church in Cary (Korean), The Raleigh Chinese Christian Church, the Raleigh Baptist Church (Chinese), Holy Infant Catholic Church in Raleigh (Filipino), or St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Raleigh (Vietnamese). While the idea of a Christian church serving a specific ethnic community may seem a little backwards to many, there’s a very practical reason for them: they often have services in the language of that group while simultaneously serving as cultural centers for recent immigrants.Typical Asian ethnic churches will have two or more sets of services, one in the native language and one in English. In the case of Chinese churches, it’s three services: one in Mandarin, one in Cantonese, and one in English. While these churches meet the needs of recent immigrants, it’s less clear what happens as the families Americanize. Do they join “mainstream” congregations? Do they stay with the ethnic church? Since many members come for immigrant community reasons more than spiritual ones, do they completely move away from any church? At the same time, the different sets of services sometimes raise the issue of whether the ethnic church is one community or two.
After a “soft opening”, Rooted Church in Raleigh will be officially opening on October 13 as a different kind of “Startup” venture, an alternative ethnic Asian church with a primary emphasis on Christ’s word. Instead of serving a specific Asian group, Rooted hopes to serve a Multi-Asian community and others. Gary Lee, forty-six, came to the Triangle from California a little more than two years ago with his wife and three children. In our interview, he discusses the challenges of building a baptismal or evangelical church community for the younger more Americanized individuals looking for a different spiritual community than the more traditional ethnic Asian churches provide.
(Rooted embraces Evangelical Christian values as exrpessed in their 7 Core Values. As a non-profit dedicated to supporting the Asian community of North Carolina as a whole, Asian Focus neither endorses nor rejects these views as expressed by Rooted Church’s Pastor. These interviews attempt to let others see the full cross-section of the Asian community in North Carolina in the interviewee’s own words. They are not intended as a place to debate or promote any particular political or religious views.)
AF: It turns out that we’re both third generation Chinese-Americans from Sacramento. So, what brought your family and you to North Carolina?
GL: My wife –Tracy– and I were looking for a place that had three qualities: somewhere more affordable, somewhere that still embraced diversity, and somewhere where God was growing. The Triangle offered all three.
We were also looking for an area that was supportive of home schooling for our three children.
AF: Why home schooling? I thought a lot of Asian families settled in Cary and Apex because of the public schools.
GL: That’s true, but we wanted them to learn in an atmosphere that emphasized Biblical values. We were uncomfortable with the direction of public schools promoting evolution, non-traditional family values, and some other curricular issues. To be clear, Rooted welcomes and loves anyone who comes to our church, but our emphasis is on what we see as the promotion of the traditional Christian family built around one man and one woman who have committed to one another for life. We also believe in the primacy of the Bible as God’s word and we believe that evolution runs contrary to the Bible.
My wife plays the lead role in our children’s education. We’ve been very blessed with the way it’s worked out here.
AF: How did Rooted start and where did the name come from?
GL: God grew together a group of roughly fifteen families interested in starting a Christ-centered church for a multi-Asian community. In my twenty-three years since attending the Master’s Seminary in Southern California, I’ve been involved in a number of different churches from the standard three-congregational Chinese churches (for the 3 separate language services offered there) to a multi-ethnic church in the Oakland flatlands where many of the members faced extreme poverty. As someone who has dedicated himself to living by and spreading Christ’s word, I’ve learned that I’m most effective trying to meet the spiritual needs of second generation Asian families, people who often primarily speak English, go to Marvel movies, play basketball and soccer, etc. We love eating together, going to different Asian restaurants and bubble tea places.
The name, Rooted, come from Psalm 1,
He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
AF: One thing that I found when we moved here was that, unlike California, most of the adult Asians here are first generation. There aren’t nearly as many second, third, or fourth generation Asian-Americans.
GL: That’s true, but we’ve found that many of those first generation families have had children and those children are now growing up and starting their own families here. I’d say, at least for now, the bulk of the Rooted families are in their twenties and thirties. A number of them have married outside their ethnic group or are themselves products of mixed marriages. They don’t necessarily identify as strongly as Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Indian, or Filipino as they do with being Asian-American. We also seem to attract families who moved here from outside North Carolina: the west coast, northeast, and southeast. We also draw from individuals who came here as international students who have decided to stay here.
AF: So, that’s what you mean by Multi-Asian?
GL: Yes, unlike the traditional three congregation Chinese church or Korean church, Rooted sees its core community in broader terms. In addition to the spouses, we have several individuals who aren’t Asian at all.
AF: So what’s the language of your services?
GL: They’re in English, though we have members who speak multiple languages to support any individuals whose English is still developing and who want to share in Christ’s message.
AF: Do you speak Chinese?
GL: I don’t.
AF: I don’t either, something that’s often embarrassing at Asian Focus events and trying to buy things at Grand Asia. In my time, if you learned Chinese, we saw it as making you less American somehow.
GL: That was still the case in my time. As part of bringing people to Rooted and spreading Christ’s word, I approach people at Costco, Grand Asia, H-mart, sporting events, social events, etc., I find that I have a very good idea of who’s American born and who’s first generation before I even talk to that person. It’s maybe in the way one dresses, moves, what they talk about, etc. It’s not really the accent.
AF: Interesting! I’ve personally always been fascinated by the concept of “Asian” as in what makes someone “Asian.” My parents’ generation was kind of a bridge from the idea of being Chinese, Vietnamese, etc. to this more diffuse concept of “Asian-American.” It’s something that Asian Focus is grappling with as well, how to hold together and serve a group that speaks different languages, comes from very different cultures, etc. Dubois, I think, called it “Double Consciousness”: it’s not so much about who you are, but about the way mainstream American tends to see you as a single group. Eric Liu also expresses it really well in his book, The Accidental Asian.
GL: I agree. This multi-Asian identity appears to be very real. I find that if you open the contact pages of a Rooted’s member’s cell phone, you still find that roughly two thirds of their everyday contacts are other Asians.
AF: Many of my South Indian students have Chinese and Korean best friends. It’s a stereotype, but they’re often in the same math classes and face similar issues around assimilation.
GL: The one difference with Rooted is that we are commited to Christ before culture. If Christ takes us in a different direction, that’s fine too. In the meantime, we’re open to anyone who’s interested in joining our community and we actively reaching out to Asians in the Triangle.
AF: So, how did you become a Christian?
GL: There were three events. First, my mother passed away from cancer when I was ten. It caused me to question whether there was a God. Second, at the end of high school a very close friend who happened to be Korean but adopted by a Japanese family killed himself after telling me and others how much he hated his life. He was fascinated with girls, cars and alcohol; I started thinking that there must be more to life than that.Third, a group from the Chinese Grace Bible Church (a Chinese church in Sacramento’s Greenhaven area) saw that I was hurting and befriended me. That changed my life.
AF: I think I mentioned that my late mother attended Chinese Grace Bible Church in her eighties. They were very good to her too.
GL: They helped me explore my relationship with Jesus. Until then, a lot of my life had been focused on soccer, basketball, and other typical teen activities. They talked me into coming to the Chinese Bible Mission Camp that summer. Actually, my father was against my going at first.
AF: Were your parents Christian?
GL: Well, my mother went to Catholic services and my father adopted that faith early in their marriage with a mixture of Confucianism, at least that’s the best way to describe it. My dad and his family were mostly focused on my securing my financial future. They were maybe more concerned that I either work for the State of California and get into their retirement system. I would say the spiritual life was not a priority in my childhood. Anyway, my friends from the Church prayed for my father to give me permission to go to the Bible camp and encouraged me to ask him a second time. When I did, he okayed it. It felt like a minor miracle.
The camp, a man named Andy in particular, helped me recognize myself as a sinner and I gave myself fully to trusting Jesus for the first time. After I got back, I became an intern at Grace Chinese Bible Church and they helped send me to the Master’s Seminary.
AF: Had your father changed his mind by then?
GL: Actually, no. I had gotten into USC’s Physical Therapy program. He was concerned that seminary would make me too zealous. He refused to financially support my training to be a pastor.
AF: Wow! Is it still a problem?
GL: Interestingly, his attitude changed after I met Tracy. He paid for our wedding banquet and once we had children, it changed even more rapidly.
AF: Something very Asian about that story, I have to say. Did you meet your wife in Sacramento?
GL: I met her while I was in seminary in Southern California. She was working in children’s programming for Fox kids network at the time. Her father was one of the first Chinese FBI agents, so her family moved around a lot. He specialized in bringing down Chinese criminals. In college, she wanted to be the next Connie Chung, but realized that wasn’t the life for her. After interning with Fox kids network, she went to work there full time in Los Angeles. We met at what is now the Community Christian Alliance Church in Northridge.
AF: Is she working outside the home now?
GL: She’s active in homeschooling the kids and tutors English and grammar to others. She doesn’t have a formal position with Roots, but is very active in welcoming others to our Church and training and discipling the ladies.
(Rooted believes in equal respect and dignity for the genders before Christ, but also supports the notion of gender complementarity. While males may serve as pastors, females serve in every other area of the life of the body of the church.)
AF: So you mentioned that you’ve spent the last twenty three years as a pastor, have you ever wanted to do anything else?
GL: I’ve managed a pizza parlor when I was a student at Sacramento State, taught Special Education for a year, and did some teaching, but my real commitment as an adult has been to serve Christ.
AF: I understand that it’s not easy to stay a pastor.
GL: True, something like 75% of pastors don’t stay at it beyond five years. It’s certainly not as financially stable as working as a physical therapist or in accounting for the State. The inner politics of churches can also be stressful at times when the emphasis falls away from sharing Christ’s message.
AF: But, you’ve kept at it.
GL: I suppose it’s been God’s grace. I’ve also been blessed to have several member families generously financially supporting the Roots ministry during this startup phase.
AF: So what are your goals with Roots?
GL: At a practical level, we’d like to get the congregation to 100, that’s sort of magic number for a church to be self-sufficient. Right now, we depend on the generosity of that small group of families and the sponsorship of the Colonial Baptist Church, our mother church. Eventually, I’d like to see five to six Rooted Churches spring up in the greater Triangle area.
At a more fundamental level, our goal is to encourage and support families in building around a healthy Christ-centered life. We believe strongly in helping husbands and wives and kids and parents to communicate in a healthy way with one another, something that traditional Asian culture sometimes struggles with. We also want to give younger Asian families a place to worship and support one another in following Christ’s message that meets their needs. Some have attended more traditional Asian ethnic churches. Some have spent time in mainstream congregations. I’d say that those who have come to Rooted are seeking something that resonates with them more. They tend to be primary English speakers, younger, and seeking something that doesn’t neglect their Asian identities, but still makes authentic Christian faith and community their primary priority.
AF: That does raise a kind of awkward question: once members of the ethnic church speak English and primarily see themselves as American, why should they still want an ethnic church?
Isn’t being a Christian beyond those sorts of distinctions?
GL: What I’ve learned is that there’s still an Asian identity and sense of community that’s still out there and meaningful in a way that goes beyond language or physical appearance. There’s a kind of a bond there that a mainstream, which in many cases means more predominantly white church, doesn’t resonate with. It might be little things like we do always serve Asian food at our gatherings and we do celebrate the various Asian festivals in our own way. We do, however, draw a line at things like zodiac calendars and fortune cookies.
AF: Here I thought we had Asian basketball leagues, so we didn’t have to be stuck playing point guard all the time against guys who are a foot taller than us.
GL: Jeremy Lin rules, because Christ rules in him. It also helps that he’s Chinese.
AF: I have to say that I tend to root against Carmelo Anthony. Okay, here’s a different kind of spiritual question. Do you have the same problem finding good Cantonese food around here?
GL: It’s not easy, but we do like Hong Kong in Durham for Dim Sum.
AF: I have this theory that Asian identity lives in the stomach and tongue, even among those of us who now only speak English. One of the things about the Dragon Boat Festival, there’s always a lot of good Asian food there.
GL: It’s not a food booth, but Rooted’s going to have a booth at the festival to help promote our own official opening on October 13.
AF: We look forward to your presence at the Festival and best of luck with Rooted’s opening and growth.