Growing up in San Francisco in the 1970s, Russell Jeung attended a Chinese American Christian fundamentalist church every Sunday that "really took Scripture seriously."
Raised as an evangelical Christian, Jeung said faith has always been central to his worldview. It's in part what inspired him to co-found Stop AAPI Hate, a national nonprofit dedicated to combating the anti-Asian racism that has swelled since the coronavirus pandemic erupted in 2020.
"Followers of Jesus are to seek God's kingdom of peace and justice, and so in my work and in my activism I seek to do so," Jeung said. "God calls us to live in right relations with each other, and racism is a sin where people's dignity is stripped, where people's sense of belonging is torn from them."
Jeung is part of a small but robust community of Asian American evangelical Christians in the United States. About 2% of evangelical Protestants identify as Asian.
Helen Jin Kim, an assistant professor of American religious history at Emory University, noted that in recent decades, the term "evangelical" has taken on a political connotation.
"Since the election of Reagan, it's been tied to the politics of the GOP," she said.
But as Asian Americans rise to leadership roles within the evangelical community and take on a more visible presence, they are challenging the association of evangelicalism with white American political conservatism.
The American definition of Christian evangelicalism is ambiguous. Some scholars, like Kim, define it as "a multidenominational, umbrella category for a group of Protestants who believe in a ... theology that's really focused on Bible conversion ... and activism." Others, like Sam George, who directs Wheaton College's Global Diaspora Institute, believe the term is broader and can also include Catholics and Pentecostals who adhere to its core tenets.
LEGACY OF MISSIONARIES
Evangelicalism's origins among Asian Americans date to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when white missionaries, including Europeans and Americans, went to China, Korea and the Indian subcontinent to proselytize. Kim noted said that the missions occurred in tandem with Asia-Pacific wars and colonialism, but that Asians and Asian Americans have taken "Indigenous ownership over the traditions" since then and have reckoned with racism.
Today, Asian American evangelicals have established communities in every part of the country. "In any major city in America, you will find Asian churches," said George, who is of Indian descent. "They're no more [just] in Chinatown and Indiatown and Koreatown, but have spread across the suburbs and the cities."
Asian Americans now occupy leadership positions at major evangelical institutions. Since 2020, Walter Kim has led the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and since 2016, Tom Lin has led InterVarsity, a nationwide campus Christian ministry. Both men are the first people of color to lead those organizations, a testament to the ways in which Asian Americans are making their voices heard after decades of membership in the community.
Walter Kim, who is Korean American, and Lin, who is Taiwanese American, have taken on concerns of diversity and inclusion in the evangelical community that they say have long been ignored or dismissed.
"Racial injustice is deeply a part of the church's mistakes and sins that need to be repented of and addressed," Kim told The Washington Post, adding that the NAE's response to the civil rights movement of the 1960s "was uneven at best and did not live up to its ideals."
Kim has made racial reconciliation and immigration reform priorities for the NAE, while InterVarsity, led by Lin, has embraced racial justice movements like Black Lives Matter while still committing itself to theological conservatism, as evidenced by controversy around its decision to fire employees who disagreed with its views on sexuality and sex.
"Gen Z has a wonderful high value for inclusion," said Lin, adding that he believes there is a generational change among evangelicals' beliefs. "They always ask the question, 'Who's not in the room? Whose voice are we not hearing?'"
Janelle Wong, a professor of American studies and politics at the University of Maryland, said Asian American evangelicals' political views largely differ from those of their white counterparts -- and are more progressive among young adherents -- with the exception of views on abortion, which evangelicals tend to oppose across the board.
Lin also emphasized the diversity of evangelicals within the Asian American community, pointing to a diversity of beliefs and ethnicities. "Our fastest-growing segments in the last decade have been especially in the South Asian and the Southeast Asian communities," he said.
Wong said that although the number of multicultural churches in America has increased and the share of multiracial evangelical congregations has nearly tripled in the past two decades, primarily white evangelical churches haven't made adequate efforts to welcome people of color. "In the last 10 years, white evangelicals have doubled down on anti-immigrant attitudes on average," she said.
Part of the problem, she said, is that some white adherents "feel like their way of life is under attack."
Helen Jin Kim, of Emory, said she is skeptical of Asian Americans' overall ability to move the evangelical community leftward on social issues including race and immigration.
Others, like Lin and Walter Kim, are more optimistic that their work will lead to meaningful change within the community when it comes to inclusion of people of color, while still allowing for diversity among political views.
"The strength of the immigrant church is infusing a new vitality within evangelicalism," Kim said.
Frank Lockwood of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette contributed to this report.