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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.

Lauri Varieur Graphic

Lauri Varieur co-founded and co-pastors the Vineyard Fullerton in CA with her husband  Wade. She also works in the fashion and design industry and will be one of our featured speakers at this summer’s VUSA National Conference in Denver.

Lauri grew up in New Jersey in an Italian American neighborhood. She says, “We were the only Asian family in that neighborhood. Growing up in that environment was very formative for me. I didn’t feel isolated, because we were very much part of the community and we were assimilated into that culture. However, at the same time, we were very aware that we were different and some  people around us made sure that we knew it.”

Lauri is a second-generation Chinese American, as both of her parents were born in the US. “My mom grew up in Chinatown on the Lower East Side of New York and my dad grew up in Weehawken, right across the river from Lower Manhattan. I think about my parents and what they went through, and I think it was really tough for them. I think they experienced more anti-Asian racism than I did.”

Her family’s primary connection to their Chinese culture came through visiting family every Saturday, visiting Chinatown to buy food in observance of a Chinese tradition not to show up empty-handed. Lauri says, “For the rest of the week I was surrounded by Italian, German, and Irish families so, to be honest, for a long time I identified more with being American than Asian American.”

About her childhood, Lauri says, “I have a younger sister and two older brothers, and I always felt like I needed to protect my little sister. I had a reputation in the neighborhood because when people made anti-Asian jokes and bullied her, I often found myself standing up for her, and my brothers did that for me. All we had was each other. That is a bold bookmark of my childhood: feeling fearful, not fitting in, and the weighted feeling of having to fight against racist bullies who were much bigger than me. Now, as an adult and a pastor, I still find myself standing up and speaking out for the underdogs and the marginalized. But I am no longer fearful.”

As a young adult, Lauri attended an art and design school in NYC, moved to Paris for work, and then returned to NYC where she started working with a well-known fashion designer named Donna Karan. “She celebrated my ethnicity and creativity. She was an amazing creative mentor. I traveled the world with her and believe that working with Donna was a blessing, and that being so closely associated with her opened relational doors for me in the creative sector where my race was celebrated. I would say that the travel was not just a mission field for me; it also allowed me to learn and discover who I wanted to be as a Christian and a woman in this workforce that doesn’t welcome Christians or women in the higher levels of business.” 

Lauri says that much of her experience in the fashion industry prepared her to be a pastor. “I feel those limitations in the church even more. Not in our church, but in a lot of the churches that I’ve participated in and visited. It’s almost patronizing. People have said to me, ‘For an Asian, you’re really outspoken. You’re not shy like a typical Asian.’ I’m grateful for Wade because he has always been an advocate for women in ministry, and is always making spaces for women to step into their gifting in our church. We have two daughters and we want them to be raised in a church where they know they can serve the Lord in any capacity they’re called to.”

While living in NYC Lauri began attending a church on the Upper West Side called the Manhattan Vineyard and met Mike and Char Turrigiano. “They took me under their wing, and that has been formative in the way we disciple others, by raising up and releasing. We are very open-handed with the people we see the Lord brings us to steward, just as the Turrigianos were with me.” 

Relationship and discipleship are core values of Vineyard Fullerton. Lauri shares, “We planted 10 years ago with a group of young adults and young families that we had been mentoring and caring for and many of them are still with us, along with many new faces. We operate as a multigenerational, multiethnic church. We’re interested in growing the church upwards, meaning Wade and I think we’ll be the size God wants us to be if we focus on discipleship, faith & character. If people leave more in love with Jesus each week, the size doesn’t matter. We know and say everyone’s name while serving the weekly eucharist and we know what’s going on in people’s lives. We know what they are celebrating and what they are struggling with.” 

Lauri says, “Whether I’m pastoring at church or pastoring at work, or at home pastoring my daughters and their friends, it is never separate. I think once you compartmentalize the spheres you are occupying, you’re hiding different parts of who you are and how Jesus is working through your life as a whole. Whether it’s in your church building once a week or with the people that you work and do life with, it should always be in the ways of Jesus: Kingdom-focused, fully transparent, and for His glory.  Full of love, full of mercy, and full of grace without any separation.” 

As an encouragement to other female pastors and leaders in the AAPI community, Lauri says, “Keep going. Keep doing what God has called you to do and be regardless of whether you see people who look like you or not. People are going to want to put you in the boxes that they are comfortable with. Focus on what God has put before you. Embrace the pathway forward with Jesus and if you keep going, they have to choose if they’re going to dare step out of their box and join you or not.  I know glass ceilings and the systems that uphold them are real, but I don’t pay much attention to those things. I keep going upward and through the doors that the Lord has opened for me, where He has given me favor and where I’m wanted, and I’m fine walking away from where I’m not. And because I’ve chosen to live that way, it is no longer restricting or restraining. I’m always asking, ‘Is God being glorified and am I loving people well?’ I don’t feel like I have to prove anything or change anyone’s mind about me, and I’m not bulldozing my way into opportunities. I’m just seeing where the table is set, finding my place, and then using that to create a bigger table.  Because when we’re invited, you best believe we’re going to invite others into what God is doing. We’re not coming alone.”

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Spencer Lee is the VP of, and serves on the Board of Trustees for, the North Jersey Vineyard Church and is part of the core team of Vineyard USA’s AAPI Association. He spent most of his career in finance and now runs his own technology company. 

Spencer’s parents married in the US after they immigrated from South Korea in the sixties. His mother was a Christian and his father was not, but Spencer grew up in the Korean ethnic church which became a cultural nexus during his formative years. “I grew up the only Asian kid in my elementary school. I remember when the second Asian kid showed up because all these other kids came to tell me. So the Korean American church was where I learned Korean culture and language.” 

Spencer grew up a classic “model minority” kid in a white majority context in Orange County, CA. He went through many of the common experiences of a racial minority growing up, but one thing he did feel very fortunate for was a school environment that was largely positive. “We weren’t a huge school, so everybody knew everybody. There’s nothing like personal relationships to humanize people. I was also just around a lot of good people.” 

It was when Spencer got to college that he first found words and structures that deeply resonated with his experiences growing up, in particular as it related to racism and racial identity. This served as a launching point in his interest in Asian American issues. “Beginning in college I engaged in a lot of advocacy work for Asian Americans and I was very heavily involved in the Asian American Association that was responsible for bringing the first Asian American studies class to our school.” After college, Spencer continued his advocacy work as a staff writer for one of the then two major Asian American periodicals, writing on Asian American culture and highlighting prominent figures in the Asian American community.

Spencer remembers faith always playing an important part in his life, in particular a formative relationship early in high school that made Jesus real to him. “We had a family friend who mentored me and provided a framework for understanding the reality of God. We read The Cost of Discipleship, the impact of which was second only to the Bible, and I spent my high school years taking my faith very seriously. Beginning with college, I was no longer at a Korean ethnic church. So as I was moving through adulthood, I was trying to sort out what my ethnic and racial identity have to do with my spiritual identity, and trying to reconcile these things and the questions that I just don’t hear people answering. Growing up, some of the most formative figures in my life from a spiritual perspective were Bonhoeffer, Piper, Keller, Packard; they were giants to me then. They’re amazing and important but in retrospect, arguably a view that was just through one lens racially, ethnically, and gender-wise.” He’s grateful for the many people in the AAPI community whose work has provided him a path to form a more holistic perspective on his life and faith.

Spencer and his wife, Elisa, ended up at the North Jersey Vineyard about 19 years ago when some friends invited them. Eventually, they became members (even though at first they found the bagels and coffee during service strange!) because they felt like they had a place in the community. “I give Phil (Chorlian, Lead Pastor) a lot of credit because he understands that people’s dignity and stories matter, even if it’s in ways that he can’t fully appreciate. We love to talk about ethnic and racial diversity, but the really fascinating thing about the North Jersey Vineyard is that the diversity is along so many different dimensions. I think part of that success is the willingness to give people a home at the North Jersey Vineyard and give them dignity, just like Jesus gave people dignity.” For Spencer, it is important, as participants in God’s Kingdom building here on earth, to treasure and steward that truth well. “There are people without dignity coming to churches around this country every single Sunday; people who are undocumented, people who are on the fringes, people who are culturally considered parasites. They’re coming to church with the risk of being ridiculed, ostracized, or ignored, for one reason only: Jesus is beautiful to them, and He’s irresistible.” 

Spencer is hopeful that Vineyard USA’s Associations will be another avenue of seeing the Kingdom come. He says, “A few years ago, we all gathered at Vineyard of Hope for an association kickoff event and one of the questions that went around the room was how will we know if we’re pursuing this correctly? We all agreed that we always needed to have the posture of putting the Kingdom first, and I believe that’s what has allowed something like the Associations to actually come about and succeed so far. It’s imperfect and there’s a lot of work to do, but it is so encouraging to be on this path and have the movement committed to it.” 

“My hope for the AAPI Association and all the Associations is that as we more fully grow into our God-given identities, the fullness of our Imago Dei, that eventually we reflect back into the Vineyard such that the Vineyard is a more fully formed movement of God’s people and a fuller expression of God’s Kingdom on earth.”

Book Recommendations: 

Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism by Jonathan Tran

Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation by David Eng & Shinehee Han

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Helen Shim serves as the Assistant Worship Pastor at North Jersey Vineyard Church.

She was born in California but moved to Seattle at the age of nine during the LA Riots. “In California, I was always in a first-generation Korean cultural environment so I wasn’t aware of my heritage per se; it just felt normal. When I moved to Seattle, the area where I lived was predominantly Chinese, Filipino, and Korean. So I was always in an Asian community. My parents went to a Korean Presbyterian church, and I’m an only child so they lugged me around everywhere: to their early morning prayer meetings, small group multiple times a week, and Friday night worship services. I loved it because I got to play with the other kids.” 

Helen moved to New York to attend college and says that it was the first time she experienced the “melting pot.” “It was a feeling of culture shock. That’s when I got to know people of different colors. But even then, the Christian Fellowship that I joined in college was Asian American, and I never really departed from that.” This was the first time Helen began to see women serving in leadership roles “but still at a certain capacity, so only as small group leaders or hospitality or welcome. There still wasn’t space for women to lead on a higher level.” 

Helen says, “It wasn’t until I came into the Vineyard in New Jersey that I realized things could be different. Our church talks about how Jesus elevated women in the Bible, which felt very foreign. That’s when I realized, I’m allowed to actually voice my thoughts and it was well received. Growing up, I didn’t think my opinions had value because we were always told to do support work. But then I saw women being pastors and in positions of high leadership. That was so incredible, but I still wondered if it was possible for me. 

Stepping into that journey was scary, but it was also healing and encouraging. I’ve always felt that God was calling me to leadership, but I squelched all those feelings. I buried it deep down because when I shared anything related to leadership with my parents, they didn’t know how to respond. They’d say, ‘I don’t know if that’s possible for you.’ Not that they didn’t believe in me, but they didn’t have an imagination for it. I just always knew inside of me that I was meant for more and my voice was meant to be heard. It wasn’t until I came into the Vineyard later in life that I was able to express it and have it embraced. I have fellow Asian American women in leadership positions who have advocated for me, created space for me, and encouraged me. 

It took me a while to realize how I lead as well. Maybe because I was always led by men. I thought leadership had to look a certain way and had a certain authoritative and commanding quality. As I explored my identity, I accepted that God has made me to be very empathetic and to lead in vulnerability. Anytime I’ve led in vulnerability it’s opened so many doors, and it has invited others to be vulnerable, find freedom, and share. And so I’ve been walking in that space.”

As an encouragement to other AAPI leaders, Helen says, “The Lord has been teaching me that we all have something beautiful to offer in the spaces we walk into, whether it’s in our small groups or communities or the marketplace or school. Don’t hesitate to share your stories, your gifts, your passions, and your highs and lows in these spaces, because you are a gift to others and it just makes all those spaces richer and more vibrant. I talk myself out of things, and we have these inner monologues “Should I? Shouldn’t I?” But no; you just come as you are, and that is a gift in itself.”

Book Recommendations: 

Our Unforming: De-Westernizing Spiritual Formation by Cindy S. Lee

Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong

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Gabe Quintana co-pastors the Arlington Vineyard in Texas with his wife Ceceilia, and serves on the advisory board for the Vineyard USA AAPI Association. 

Gabe says that his mom was Japanese, his dad was Hispanic, and they are both first-generation Christians. “I grew up in a predominantly Hispanic Assemblies of God church, which was bilingual, so we had worship and preaching in English and Spanish. For the majority of my life, I had to assimilate. I always felt kind of out of place because when I was at school what made me stand out was being Mexican but when I was at church what made me stand out was being Japanese, so I never really felt like I could bring my full self to the table of any of the environments that I was in, except for my home.” Gabe’s parents grew up on the East side of Denver, which was heavily Hispanic. His Japanese mom spoke Spanish and learned how to cook Mexican food, but then with academics, his Japanese heritage came to the forefront.

Gabe says he played sports and a number of instruments, and he really loved his youth group. “If I got in trouble, they would ground me from youth group.” When Gabe was 16, he finished high school early and entered a youth ministry program with the AG church. Eventually, he became a youth pastor at 19. Gabe married Ceceilia at 22 and they had 3 children by the time he was 24. Gabe says, “My wife was the worship pastor, I was the youth pastor, and we both had full-time jobs. Plus we had 3 kids. We were overwhelmed and burned out. I found the Vineyard when I played bass at a young adult service at Canyon View Vineyard, but I didn’t know it was anything more than a local church. It was a large church and their nursery was always staffed so we could drop our kids off and sit in the service and receive, and that was important. It was really painful exiting our previous church and I was pretty sure I would never do ministry again after that. But we heard Kirk preach and felt like he was so down to earth and that we belonged there. I was super refreshed by it. We decided to wait awhile to join the worship team, but when we started playing we felt some healing take place. About 7 months later I ended up joining the staff of Canyon View. In my time there, I had various roles. I led the middle school ministry, youth ministry, and young adults. I also had the opportunity to preach every 4-6 weeks for Kirk. We were there for about 5 years.”

Gabe says that he and Ceceilia began feeling a call to senior leadership, but they had some specific criteria. “Ceceilia and I felt called to co-pastor. We also wanted to be in a more racially diverse area, and in a college town. We ended up moving to Arlington, TX to be the successors to the pastors there. Even amidst our transition into senior leadership, I was the youth pastor here until about a year ago. I feel called to support youth pastors and help train them, and I get to do that in my current position as a co-lead pastor. I am grateful that we are in a multiethnic city with a multiethnic church. It’s been a really enriching experience for me, and my kids will grow up knowing that they are who they are and that their ethnic identity is a part of who God designed them to be. The AAPI Association is helping me to uncover that area of my ethnic identity and my Japanese heritage that was previously unseen.”

Gabe says that he and Ceceilia became lead pastors in 2021, and since then the church has shifted from predominantly white baby boomers to at least a third of the church being young families of color. “Diversity is one of our values, which means are multi-ethnic, multi-generational, and have men and women leading at every level in our church. I just want everyone to feel like they have space and to feel that we’ve done the work of crafting an environment that was created with them in mind.”

Gabe offers the following encouragement to other multiethnic pastors: “Take the time to ask yourself where you are withholding your ethnic upbringing for the sake of assimilation where God might be inviting you to bring that to the table for the benefit of the communities that you’re in, and to the benefit of the Vineyard. There might be a sense in which God is inviting pastors and leaders to bring more of themselves to the table, not to be self-aggrandizing by any means, but to better serve their communities, and I would just encourage them to do that with humility, but also with courage.”

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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."