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Empowering Asian-American Leaders (Emily’s Story)

Growing up as an Asian-American in the US is not easy. Growing up as a woman is not easy either. Put those two words together: Asian-American woman. Then, add the word, “leader.” What do you feel? What comes to your mind? 

I don’t know how or why, but I always found myself leading even as a kid. Whether at a small Sunday school class or an elementary school I went, I was always the one leading group(s). Maybe I was born with innate leadership. Or my voice was just loud. Yes, at times I thought, “If I were a boy, I would never hear comments like I am too bossy,” but I couldn’t care less. Moving fast forward, I immigrated to US when I was thirteen years old. Immigration was a change – a change that was significant enough to distort how I viewed myself. Growing up in US as an immigrant, I experienced many racial and gender discriminations. Few of them were easy to brush off. Others were painful, even traumatic. After having enough of them, I considered my culture and gender as the two biggest disadvantages in my life. Those were the extra hurdles placed before me. Not before “Americans.”  The more I compared with Americans, the more anger and sadness I felt. 

As I entered seminary, my plate was very full: I was a full-time student, part-time youth pastor at a Korean immigrant church, and an intern worship leader at TEDS undergrad and graduate chapel. And the more I served as a leader, the more I discovered how I lead out of my brokenness. And the brokenness was directly related to my understanding of who I am in multiple levels: I needed to discover more about who I am as an Asian-American and what it means to be a woman. I needed to understand how unique it is to be an Asian-American woman in leadership in the US. That is when I invited God into my journey of discovering, embracing, and enjoying myself as an Asian-American Woman pastor. Over time, God is continually teaching me that being an Asian-American and being a woman are never disadvantages for me in my pursuit of becoming a good shepherdess and a pastor.

Asian American Leaders Online Seminar, hosted by Proskuneo, helped me discover more about my cultural identity. Paul Tokunaga’s life story was one of many powerful examples that taught me how Asian Americans need to rediscover and process their life experiences. While it is very easy to set aside or even to ignore the past, it powerfully influences our future and the way we carry ourselves. Paul Tokunaga did not ignore or reject his painful life experiences. He did not let his racial discrimination experiences set a limit on who he can be or cannot be. He brought all his life experiences before God and allowed Him to heal him. Consequently, he became an Asian-American leader whom he could not have become otherwise. As a founder of Multi-Ethnic Leadership Development, he offers unique mentorship to people that non-Asian leaders cannot bring. Him being Asian-American didn’t work against him. As I listened to Paul, the song came to my mind: 

Things in the past, Things yet unseen
Wishes and dreams that are yet to come true
All of my hopes, and all of my plans
My heart and my hands are lifted to You

Often, Christians believe God uses only our “best” for His glory. So, we filter out things that we think are not useful for God’s glory. Then, we store them somewhere deep in our hearts. Often, ironically, the place where God is most glorified is the place where we are most broken. 

 “Code-switching” means switching between two cultures back and forth. Paul used this term to share how he tried to fit into American culture. The moment I heard the term, I felt understood and comforted. Looking back, I switched my code almost every day. To live meant to code-switch. Wherever I went, I carefully observed, quickly identified the spectrum of cultural acceptance, and behaved within. Later in life, I became good at code-switching to the point I questioned my cultural authenticity. The more I juggled with two cultures, the more I became culturally insecure. In that cultural insecurity, I was so lonely. Whenever people said they wish they could become bilingual and bi-cultural like me, I just smiled. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how to identify what I was going through. When I heard the term, “code-switching,” I instantly felt I was understood and that I was not the only one who had been doing this. Still, a million-dollar question is waiting to be answered: How do I assimilate while not losing my identity? Or, should I not assimilate at all? 

I immigrated to US when I was thirteen years old and spent my formative years in northwest suburbs of Chicago. After graduating from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, I moved out to New Jersey to serve a multicultural church as a full-time pastor. After serving as a youth ministry pastor for ten years and worship pastor in multiple cultural context, I am in a season of sabbath reflecting my life and ministry experiences for my next ministry. Being an Asian American woman in leadership is very challenging: Some say I am too feminine. Some say I am not feminine enough. Some say I am too bossy. Some say I am not bossy enough. Some say I am too Asian. Some say I am not Asian enough. It’s hard. It’s like dancing with a music that is constantly changing its rhythm.

In the midst of the challenges, one thing I know for sure is that I am not the only one in this boat. We as Asian American female leaders need more forums and opportunities to share our stories, to encourage one another, and to gain strength to move forward together. In this covid-19 crisis, the world needs our presence more than ever in history. My dream as an Asian American female leader in ministry is to be a part of a movement God started in this generation. A movement to raise up His daughters and help them take their position in God’s kingdom. I want to become a mentor who can walk alongside of female leaders, especially Asian-American, and help them find their voice and speak their heart.

[written by Emily Kim]

One thought on “Empowering Asian-American Leaders (Emily’s Story)

  1. Thank you, Emily. I love the line “Often, ironically, the place where God is most glorified is the place where we are most broken.” Thank you for embracing your own brokeness….I glorify God today as I read of your journey!!

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