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Vineyard USA Celebrates Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

Each week throughout the month of May, VUSA will feature stories of Vineyard AAPI leaders.

Susan Cho Van Riesen has been the lead pastor at Palo Alto Vineyard Church in California since 2017, and before staying home to raise her kids, was involved with InterVarsity for 16 years.

Susan is the mother of three amazing kids, two adopted and one biological, and says that being an adoptive family is a very important part of their lives. “My son is Cambodian, Lao, and Vietnamese, and my older daughter is Chinese and Korean. My husband is Irish and Dutch, so our younger daughter is Korean, Irish, and Dutch. In my journey, I’ve had to submit my Korean identity to be in a multicultural family.” With a laugh, Susan remembers, “One of my daughters once remarked that it was sad that I was ‘only Korean’.”

Susan says that she came to the United States at the age of five, but has a lot of memories of Korea. Her family went back regularly for business and still has a relationship with extended family, who often said things like, “Don’t become too American, and don’t lose your language!” There were some cultural issues to navigate as Susan got older, such as her decision to marry a white man, and to adopt children when fertility treatments didn’t initially yield the results they’d hoped for.

Susan says that her family attended the Palo Alto Vineyard while she worked at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and that it was a culturally dissonant experience for her early on. “At one point I realized ‘Wow, all the potlucks are Italian themed.’ There were no intentionally multi-ethnic meals. There was also a very strong current of individualized sermons, where the application is aimed at your life and your family, and even our prayer times are focused on your heart and your struggles. The discernment of the Holy Spirit in the Vineyard is primarily central to what the Lord is saying to you personally, and our worship time is emotionally expressive, which is pretty uncomfortable for me as an Asian American person, although I know the intention is intimacy with God. Now our church tries to do a lot of communal prayer and intercession, and I find that’s a helpful way to include people who feel uncomfortable culturally. And when the church gathers together to eat, we ask everyone to bring food that reflects their heritage. Sharing meals is really important to me and the culture I come from, and we have to be thoughtful about how to include everyone.”

Susan says she feels farther along now than ever in her journey as an AAPI woman, and co-authored a book during her time at InterVarsity called Following Jesus Without Dishonoring Your Parents, which is about Asian American discipleship, but has proven to be helpful to a wider range of people with immigrant backgrounds.

To hear more from Susan about adoption, living in a multiethnic family, and raising a child with special needs, check out her blog showerheadsandhairdryers.blogspot.com.

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Rian Emano is the creative director at Vineyard of Hope Church in Walnut, California.

Raised in a Filipino family, Rian grew up as a ministry kid and military brat, moving around the United States from Washington D.C to the Hawaiian Island of Oahu, and many other states in between. At 12, Rian’s family moved to Maine, which was his first experience as an ethnic minority in a city. Between regular relocation and being a first-generation Asian American, he learned to adapt well to any environment. In Maine, Rian was also introduced to the Vineyard and leaders who led with prophetic eyes, who saw Rian’s potential and individuality and encouraged him as a leader. “They invited me into the room where it was happening, and trusted me to try new things. I was formed in Vineyard theology, but also creativity.” Especially in the AAPI narrative, Rian sees a lot of people losing themselves for the sake of the community, but these youth leaders called out something different. “When I felt like I had to be quiet and just fit in, it was really the courage of the leaders around me to constantly invite me, and call out who I was becoming. Without those leaders, I would’ve stayed in the background.”

Rian feels a similar passion in his position as Creative Director to champion others in using their creative voice. “Inviting more creativity into the church is inviting people into a deeper love relationship with Christ because they’re getting to see how their life speaks through their creativity and connection with God. We have a lot of people who love to serve and support the cause, but as we bring in this flavor of creativity, it allows people to share how they see the gospel and what God has done for them. My hope for creatives in the church is that we get to reflect God’s beauty in a way that only creatives can do. There are ways to express the gospel through every medium and form, and my hope is that we give more opportunity, make room, and celebrate those who have creative gifts.

“The exciting part about my role at Vineyard of Hope is that there are a growing number of creatives in our community, and I get to encourage their creativity to come alive, and not just my own. In my journey, I carry with me the truth that no matter where I am or who I’m around, there is opportunity to constantly practice being prophetic and speak life into people.”

Rian says that he has been longing to embrace more of his Filipino heritage and, having recently moved to Southern California, he is digging into the rich history of Filipinos who migrated there years ago, learning the stories of his family and absorbing the richness of the Filipino community that he’s now surrounded by but never had the opportunity to experience before due to living in predominantly white cities. “I feel like I’m becoming more Rian and who God has created me to be as I embrace this culture I’m a part of.”

Book Recommendation:
Art and Faith: A Theology of Making by Makoto Fujimura

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Kathy Maskell is the Lead Pastor at East Denver Church in CO, and leads Vineyard Justice Network.

She was born and raised in San Diego, CA to parents who are refugees from Vietnam. It was in an AP English class in her senior year where Kathy first read the Bible. “I remember reading the line in Genesis about the Spirit hovering over the waters, and I was so struck by the beauty of the passage. It was the first little spark of God revealing himself to me.”

That summer, Kathy’s friend invited her to a Harvest Crusade event, and she had a profound encounter with the Holy Spirit. “I heard a voice in my head say ‘You’ve been looking for peace your whole life, but if you follow me, I will be your peace.’ I knew this had to be Jesus, the God that this whole event was about. I knew it didn’t come from me; I had never been that kind to myself, ever. It was a paradigm shift, a power encounter. I grabbed my friend’s hand, went down to the field, and prayed the prayer to give my life to Jesus!”

Kathy planted Elm City Vineyard in New Haven, CT with her husband Caleb, along with Matt and Hannah Croasmun, and served as a pastor at two other Vineyard churches before moving to Colorado to become Lead Pastor of East Denver Vineyard. Kathy says she felt a call to local pastoring and has been uniquely aware of how she uses her voice as an Asian American woman while intentionally cultivating a multicultural church. “In this post-COVID, post-George Floyd moment, I am even more aware that the kinds of stories I tell and the ways I share about my life are going to set the culture and who’s going to feel like they are welcome at our church. I am so grateful to have a church community where I can share my experiences, past and current, relating to being an ethnic minority. There is a pan-Asian cultural intuition to be mindful about caring for people like family, and I hope to bring that value to our church in a redemptive way.”

Kathy says she has really been recently inspired by Andy Crouch’s book, The Life We’re Looking For. “He maps out the story of the early church and some of the unique ways that Christians took care of one another. He talks a lot about the household as an idea that Christians revolutionized. At EDV, we’re discussing how to become a community of households, and in a Christian household, you do not have to be useful to count. In a church, people might feel more used for their skills and gifts than nurtured in a household. It bumps up against my Asian cultural identity and my American culture— I live to be useful! I am so driven by being a useful person myself, and who doesn’t want to be a useful person to God? But we need more nuance in how we live this out, so that the church calls people to belong to one another and serve one another in more counter-cultural ways. I feel honored and challenged to try leading this way at EDV, but it’s a different kind of litmus test for me. Are you around and do I care about you just because you’re useful, and that’s what I’m inviting you into? Or are we trying to do something that looks more like Jesus than that? I’ve talked to a number of our people, especially ethnic minorities, who realized during Covid that they’re burnt out in church work and “being useful”. This is hard because I believe in what my church is doing. There are children to disciple, we need set-up teams, AV and worship teams to gather corporately. But part of my work as a pastor is “how is this a both/and question and not an either/or?” We’re always moving forward in time, towards Jesus, by the Holy Spirit, so I experience it as a wonderfully huge and creative call. How do I not “thingify” people, reach those who are spiritually homeless, AND grow my church?”

Book Recommendations:
Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times by Soong Chan-Rah
Transforming Society by Melba Padilla Maggay
Beyond Colorblind: Redeeming Our Ethnic Journey by Sarah Shin
Who Is the Holy Spirit?: A Walk with the Apostles (A Paraclete Guide) by Amos Yong
The Life We’re Looking For: Reclaiming Relationship in a Technological World by Andy Crouch

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Kirk 1

Kirk Yamaguchi is Pastor Emeritus of Canyon View Vineyard Church in Grand Junction, CO, and works with Convoy of Hope as a liaison for church networking.

Before leading Canyon View Vineyard, Kirk and Jane planted a Vineyard in Canyon City, CO, which was the state headquarters for the KKK in the early 1900s and still had deep roots. Kirk says, “When we moved there, it was 96% white. We’d walk into restaurants and every head would turn to look at me like ‘Where the heck did he come from?’ But God used that to make me attractive to people. I never felt endangered while we were there, but I definitely got “the look” in a number of situations. After a couple years of being a faithful part of the community, I felt very accepted and that I was valued as one of the pastors in the city. It was a great season!

Growing up, it was obvious that I wasn’t white, and I’m short in stature, so I knew those things made me stand out. I would talk and act like I was white with my friends, and then go home and look in the mirror and remember I was Asian! In ‘99, I went on a ministry trip to Kani Vineyard Church in Japan, and suddenly I was in a room with people who all looked like me, and I saw them raise their hands while singing Vineyard songs, and just started weeping. I asked the Lord ‘What is this?’ and he said ‘These are your people; you’re home.’ This started a process of embracing who I am as a Japanese American and fully appreciating my uniqueness, and seeing that God has used that to place me in situations where he used it for my benefit, like in planting Canyon City Vineyard.”

“One of the things I appreciate that I see the Lord doing in the Vineyard is that when we walked into the Anaheim Vineyard in ‘97, I looked around the room of a few thousand people, and there were one or two Black people, a dozen Latinos, and maybe a few Asians. Now, the room has many more people of color, and it’s wonderful to see. I think it’s the Lord’s hand, and I think he’s smiling on the Vineyard because so many pastors have been intentional about becoming multicultural.”

Transitioning Canyon View Vineyard to Cory Sondrol’s leadership took two years, and Kirk says that while he knew without a doubt that it was the Lord, he also experienced multiple periods of grieving. “I think it’s important that you identify and allow yourself to process what you’re going through, because if you don’t, you’ll get pretty funky. You’re not only giving up your role, but your identity. It’s so easy to give up the board meetings, but there were things I knew were going to be difficult for me. But it’s fun to celebrate watching the Lord use Cory in such a powerful way.”

With so many Vineyard pastors reaching retirement age, Kirk says he really wants to encourage people that there’s life after being a senior pastor, and it’s a wonderful life! The Lord will provide. Kirk also wants to note that “What has really helped make this work is that all along, Cory has been totally honoring of Jane and me, probably above and beyond. That has made the transition a lot easier. And it takes a guy like Cory who is secure in himself to be comfortable with me still being there, and seeing it as a blessing.”

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Why celebrate AAPI Heritage Month?

Mary Anne De La Torre
Senior Associate Pastor, North Jersey Vineyard

Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Month. So what? Why “celebrate” yet another distinct group of people and why does it matter to our Vineyard Family?

A little googling revealed that AAPI month has been going on since the Carter administration. And yet, it’s only very recently that I even learned that AAPI month actually exists. Growing up, a month for us was never really emphasized, and I recognize that my recent experience of a rediscovery of AAPI month is typical of what AAPIs experience about a myriad of things.

There is a tendency to disappear, to assimilate, and not bring attention to ourselves. However, as a follower of Jesus and one who tries to recognize every person’s God-given worth and value, I have come to understand that, actually, living in this way does not honor the creativity and intention with which the Lord has made me, purposefully, in my Asian-ness.

The Lord is actively healing the ways in which I have denied or suppressed thoughts about my culture and re-making my identity in Him and, gloriously, that my being AAPI is welcomed in that process.

I believe this month is a means by which we are able to bring others along – to raise awareness and understanding, that stories across ALL of our experiences matter and that the fruit of doing the work of raising awareness, greater understanding across cross-cultural lines, and calling forth more and others to the table is a holy work. I am hopeful that it will encourage more leaders in authentically and fully contributing to our faith communities, and that it will lead to the Vineyard looking more like Heaven.. how fun would that be??

Further Learning

Developing cultural intelligence and making room for minorities:

Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church by Soong Chan Rah

Invitation to Lead by Paul Tokugawa

Leading Across Cultures by James E. Pluddemann

Insight into AAPI identity and struggles:

Learning Our Names: by Sabrina S. Chan, La Thao, E. David de Leon, Linson Daniel

Intersecting Realities by Hak Joon Lee and Ken Fong

Doing Asian American Theology by Daniel D. Lee

Invisible: Theology and the Experience of Asian American Women by Grace Ji-Sun Kim

Learn more about the Vineyard USA’s Asian American Pacific Islander Association

Here are a few reasons why we are taking this month to celebrate AAPIs as a Vineyard family:

1. AAPI Stories Matter.

A lot of Asian Americans wrestle with invisibility. As an immigrant growing up in the late 80s and 90s, the message was clear: assimilate. Don’t rock the boat. Being quiet and working hard leads to success and to the “American Dream.” However, the end result of those thoughts was a denial of myself and how the Lord made me with my particular cultural background and all that came with it. It acted as a muzzle in the ways in which the Lord actually wanted to speak up and share my experiences and thoughts.

A re-claiming of the Lord’s intentionality in creating us as AAPIs has been happening amongst Asian Americans of late, and it is beautiful to witness how specific stories and experiences do bring so much healing and life to others once they are shared.

In the short time that the AAPI Association has existed within the Vineyard, the camaraderie and healing that has taken place have been extraordinary. There is a greater feeling of relatedness and family as we have shared our stories and experiences with one another and have found fellowship within our larger Vineyard family. We are understanding that bringing our whole selves, including our culture, our experiences, and our stories actually matters to the Lord, and the very things about ourselves or our experiences that we have maybe tried to ignore or suppress are actually a part of how He wants us to do ministry and serve others. He created us AAPI intentionally, for a purpose. He delights in His creation over us as AAPI people. We matter to Him. 

2. AAPI Contributions Should Be Acknowledged and Encouraged.

Embarrassingly, I only learned in the last few years how long AAPIs have been in America. I was never taught AAPI history growing up so I imagined that Asians had only very recently arrived in this country. However, learning that AAPIs have been here for hundreds of years and that there are families here who are 3rd or 4th generation has helped me to understand that, yes, we do indeed belong here and have been here for quite some time.

It is daunting to realize how just learning about AAPI history could have shaped my self-identity in positive ways. It is important to look back and acknowledge the truth about AAPIs who wrestle with constantly feeling like they are perpetual foreigners based on their outward appearance.

Failing to acknowledge the rich history of AAPIs in America is a failure to fully understand American history. Likewise, in our Vineyard family, it is important to remember and acknowledge all of our AAPI pioneers in Asian-American ministry, those who have paved the way for all of us who come behind them. They have been co-laborers with Christ in the Vineyard for decades and have modeled for us how to bring their AAPI selves into a church movement which historically, for AAPIs, can be a lonely place. They have paved the way to belonging, and we are so grateful.

AAPIs belong in the Vineyard and have much to contribute. This is only the beginning and we are hopeful to enter a season where more of us are able to experience a greater, deeper sense of belonging and family in this movement that we love so much and are called by the Lord to serve.

3. It is a Way Forward for Our Movement.

AAPIs are under-represented in our movement. The acknowledgment of our presence and contributions this month gives us hope and helps us understand and actually experience that a thriving future for all minorities is possible in the Vineyard.

The creation of the Associations has given us hope. This is a way of bringing heaven downward as pictured in Revelation 7. Personally, even the short period of time that I have been a part of the Associations has not only expanded and deepened my idea of belonging and family in the Vineyard, but has also allowed me to connect with people in a way that has brought me to a greater level of knowing and feeling that I belong in the Vineyard. It has been instrumental in honestly continuing in the work God has called me to, and beyond that, propelling me towards more.

I am convinced more than ever that these associations matter, as my participation in them has been life-changing. They are of great importance in leading to greater health and longevity in ministry and that particular care, attention, and resources are directed towards us as AAPIs is an answer to prayer. It communicates being seen and being valued in a way that I had not yet experienced in the Vineyard. It meets a felt need for many who are leading and serving in spaces where we acutely experience loneliness in this area of cultural identity and ethnicity.

This is a way forward in that through the work of the associations, we experience El-Roi — the God who sees. He sees us and welcomes us to the table and says, “There’s room for you!” I believe He is expanding the Vineyard table and, AAPIs, God is calling you forward toward whatever it is you are called to be and do. There is still room, and, in this season, let’s show up as our full selves to fill the House of the Lord.

Melanie Forsythe-Lee

We see women as catalysts for renewal and revival, empowered with gifts of healing and miracles, evangelism, and social justice."

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