Finding abundance through reclaiming our immigrant stories
Photo by Giovanny Panginda
“Your voice matters.”
“How God uniquely created you matters.”
“You have so much to contribute in conversations about church and ministry.”
As a project coordinator at the Fuller Youth Institute, I know these are not just phrases FYI tells young people; it’s also what FYI stands for and lives by. It’s what FYI tells the staff, and it’s what FYI tells me. As a youth and young adult pastor of an Indonesian American church, I cognitively know these phrases echo biblical truths because we are the imago dei (Genesis 1:26-27) and are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).
But as an Indonesian American, born in Indonesia but raised in Los Angeles, I have trouble believing the phrases for myself. And as a pastor, my second-generation Indonesian American students have trouble believing their worth too.
One predominant reason it’s difficult for us to believe these words is lack of presence in America. Representation matters. Familiarity matters. The fact that there are a mere .035% Indonesian and Indonesian Americans within the United States population means it is rare to find another person similar to me—similar to my immigration journey, culture, language, family systems, and sometimes most importantly, food.
A minority among minorities
Indonesian Americans are basically a minority among minorities. This means that there are few choices for how to survive culturally in the US. There are some who become isolationists and choose only to socialize with other Indonesians as a means of survival—there is safety in numbers. However, this is not always helpful to the second-generation young people who are born and raised in this country. Other Indonesian Americans see their ethnic identity as fluid, meaning in order to survive and hold on to a sense of belonging, some absorb the dominant ethnic identity of the neighborhoods in which they reside. The second generation starts dressing, speaking, and acting like the local dominant ethnic identity. For example, one of my students grew up in a predominantly Korean neighborhood. To fit in with her friends, she grew up watching Korean dramas, listening to Korean music, and eating Korean food. She took on Korean mannerisms, such as bowing when acknowledging the presence of an elder. She even knows more Korean than she does Bahasa Indonesia, the national language of Indonesia.
There are also Indonesian Americans who find safety in identifying with the broader identity of “Asian American,” adapting common Asian characteristics like filial piety (the expectation that one shows complete obedience, respect, and support to one’s parents), prioritizing the family’s needs over the individual, and bringing honor to one’s family. However, much of this “Asian American” culture is from East Asian countries, of which Indonesia is not one. (There are actually stark differences between East Asian culture and Southeast Asian culture.)
And finally, there are some Indonesians who look to whiteness as the frame of reference for normalcy, choosing to become “white” in order to attain a higher social position. There is a belief that anything Asian or Indonesian is automatically inferior, that speaking English without an accent is best, and that considers European features as the standard for beauty.
Therein lies the struggle. Not only do Indonesian Americans feel caught between two cultures trying to be both Indonesian and white American, but we’ve also lost a strong sense of our own culture and heritage because we do not have a large Indonesian community among Asian Americans. On one hand, the second generation will never be considered truly American, despite actually being American. We’ve seen examples from viewing our Chinese, Japanese, and Korean American counterparts who immigrated to the US decades earlier—those who were born and raised in America, and yet are still treated as foreigners. And on the other hand, we will never be considered Indonesian because many of us can barely speak Bahasa. If other ethnic Americans struggle between two cultures, trying to navigate inhabiting both, but never accepted by either, Indonesian Americans, the minority of minorities, struggle with all of this and more.
Our struggle means we have had to give away our sense of identity on all fronts to fit in and survive. We are left in quite the conundrum.
On top of all of this, most of Christianity in the US is deeply formed by Western white evangelical culture. The pertinent question becomes: What does it mean to be an Indonesian American and a Christian in the United States? How can we understand the blessing of our multi-layered cultural identity and use it to serve God’s kingdom? How can we finally believe our voice matters; that God uniquely created us, and that we have something beautiful to contribute to the church, even if we don’t have much representation within it?
The answer is that God has already done the work ahead of us through the stories of our people.
Reframing empathy through the abundance of stories
Stories create momentum and can be a powerful vehicle for empathy. The hope is that listeners of stories can take on another’s point of view long enough to empathize. This might lead listeners to reveal larger truths about themselves.
But empathy can be a tricky ability to develop. It requires humility and compassion by putting aside what you know (or think you know) and asking, “Tell me more.” It requires vulnerability to acknowledge that you don’t quite understand but are desiring to learn. It requires a strong sense of self-awareness.
When there isn’t Indonesian American representation or examples in media or research, the second generation can turn back to their Indonesian communities and ethnic churches. It’s there that we find an abundance of stories—stories of hope amidst struggle, of fear and strength, of pain and failure, of success and victory, of the immigrant journey, of adaptation, of survival, and so much more. There are many stories among our own elders, parents, aunties and uncles that we can turn to and glean about what faith looks like for an Indonesian American living in the US.
The stories are there, if only we are willing to hear, learn, and then share them with others. We must stop trying to become others, to assimilate and fit into the mold of those we are not. Then we can reclaim our voice and find value in speaking.
Preparing for a diverse future
Over the past few years, the Fuller Youth Institute has led a comprehensive and collaborative study that examined many of today’s churches engaging well with young people. Through logging over 10,000 hours and 1,300 interviews across churches from 21 major traditions and ranging in size, the Growing Young research revealed six core commitments these churches hold in common.
One core commitment of churches growing young is empathy. In congregations we studied, the older generation was able to empathize with the young people and the pressures that stem from three main questions young people often wrestle with: Who am I? (identity); Where do I fit? (belonging); and What difference can I make? (purpose). As empathy was modeled to young people, young people in turn learned to be more empathetic to the older generation.
According to the Census Bureau, by 2045, Hispanics, Asians, and African Americans are expected to grow from more than a third of the US population to a little more than half of the people residing in the United States. As young people in our nation grow increasingly diverse, the basic questions of identity, belonging, and purpose must go even deeper. Young people must become aware of their ethnic identity, unpack how they have adapted in order to belong, and discover how their sociocultural and ethnic contexts help shape their purpose.
So this past year, the Fuller Youth Institute researched multicultural youth ministry contexts by listening to Latina/o, Asian/Asian American, African American, and multiethnic churches and examining how cultural dynamics influenced the way ministries engaged young people. As our team listened more deeply in these churches, we determined we wanted to hold a commitment to four values as we developed resources for multicultural youth ministry.
One of these values is abundance: We believe there is an abundance of stories, practices, theology, innovation, and growth to be found in a variety of local contexts.
In the ethnic churches we studied, there was a large presence of immigrant narratives, although churches varied in how these narratives were openly discussed. Ethnic churches are often a safe place for immigrant families to maintain cultures and traditions, while also providing space for an American culture to emerge. It’s in this intersection that ethnic churches hold the tension of two realities—the first generation and the more Americanized second generation. And it’s the narratives that are the glue connecting the people.
Three ways to see our past as our biggest asset for the future
How might a church help young people find their voice? How might a church help young people with their struggles of ethnic identity and sense of belonging? How might a church help young people use their unique identity for God’s kingdom? One way is to reclaim the stories of their community.
1. Know your immigration story.
We tend to dismiss stories of our past. Why? We think they’re irrelevant, uninteresting, embarrassing, hurtful, or shameful. However, our past can be our biggest asset. Those experiences tie us to history, to a specific moment in time. They tie us to our family and our ancestors. They make up who we are.
Knowing our immigrant stories unlocks another layer of our identity. The United States is predominantly a nation of immigrants, whether they historically came enslaved or voluntarily. And so, unless one is a native First Person, most of our families have an origin story from elsewhere. We all have a story, a history of people migrating. Learning this story can help us empathize with other people groups, finding compassion through the shared struggles immigrants often face in coming to a new country.
There are a variety of ways to trace our immigrant story. We can ask our eldest relative. We can look at church denominational family records. We can examine city records and census data or naturalization records. There are even online databases that contain records, such as immigrants who arrived via Ellis Island or Angel Island. Or we can join ancestry websites or submit our DNA for testing. Our past connects to our present, and those past stories and experiences help us recover a sense of who we are.
With the help of my parents and uncles, I was able to reconstruct a family tree that went back to my great-grandparents. Sadly, this is where I got stuck. Although I was living out my immigrant story, I looked at DNA testing to examine more about how my ancestors might have moved around the world. I discovered that part of my ancestry also came from the Philippines, which means that at one point one or more ancestors migrated to Indonesia.
After knowing our own story, we can encourage our young people to discover theirs.
2. Share the diverse stories in your church.
Ask members of your church to share their immigrant stories. Showcase a variety of voices. Although some may be extremely painful, there is healing in carrying the pain with one another. If they are first-generation immigrants, ask them about their migration experiences, their struggles, and their fears. Ask them why they made the move to the US. If their family has lived several generations in the US, ask them what they know about their ancestors’ stories. Ask them how they identify themselves.
At my church, we started with our elder board. I wanted my students to get to know the leaders of their church, and for the leaders to get to know my students. I presented my idea to share stories with our elder board and senior pastor. At first, many were hesitant. Some felt their language barriers would disqualify them or make them uninteresting in the eyes of the young people. I reminded them this could easily be managed with a translator. Others felt they did not have a compelling story to share. I convinced them to take a risk and reminded them that not only do their stories matter, but they matter as people. Some were intimidated by sharing to a generation born, raised, and educated in the United States. I reminded them that growth often comes from doing uncomfortable things, and that young people need to see this modeled by the first generation. And I reminded them that the second generation needs to hear their stories to learn. We need their stories so that we can remember who we are as a people.
3. Identify the intersections in the stories.
Although there is no one-size-fits-all immigration story, we are all an intersection of divergent approaches, opinions, and perspectives. Help young people see the value of intersections in the stories.
I asked one of my elders how a first-generation Indonesian American accountant struggled to be the first in his family to attend an American university, and how he navigated faith in his workplace. I also asked how a first-generation Indonesian American grandmother of three learned English, and how she saw herself as a bridge between the first, second, and even third generations. These are powerful stories. They help create a community of resilience and deep faith.
Ultimately, these intersections give hope to young people in the church that they are not alone, and that they have a community of sisters, brothers, aunties, and uncles walking alongside them and discovering their identity together.
As for me, I’m reminding myself who I am and whose I am: One part Indonesian, another part American, and wholly a child of God. That’s my story.
What about yours?
 Based on Pew Research. In 2015, Indonesians and Indonesian Americans combined made up 113,000 of the estimated 325,700,000 total US population. (http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/fact-sheet/asian-americans-indonesians-in-the-u-s/)
 Sociologists call this the “Perpetual Foreigner Syndrome,” when an ethnic minority is denied the “American identity” and is always seen as “other.” See for example, Que-lam Huynh, Thierry Devos, and Laura Smalarz’s article, “Perpetual Foreigner In One’s Own Land: Potential Implications for Identity and Psychological Adjustment,” in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3092701/)
 Census Bureau: https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2018/demo/P25_1144.pdf