Where faith grows: Christianity strong in Vancouver’s Asian community

Douglas Todd: The story of the secularization of Canada focusses on the decline of ‘European’ Christianity. It misses that many Asian Canadians are enthusiastic about the faith.

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The cuteness quotient among the 101 children taking part in the Christmas pageant at the massive St. Andrew Kim Korean Catholic Church in Surrey could not be beat.

The young ones who dressed up as Mary, Joseph, shepherds, wise men, angels and trees for the performance inside the sprawling church near Highway 1 and 160th Street were a delight as they recreated the 2,000-year-old story of the birth of Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem.

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The difference for Canada, where Christianity has long been associated with European culture, is the children performed their Biblical roles in the Korean language, for an enthusiastic family audience of 200 that was entirely ethnic Korean.

This Christmas season St. Andrew Kim Catholic church, which has 4,700 members in three linked parishes, is just one prominent example of the Korean church in Metro Vancouver.

A few kilometres to the east in North Surrey is Grace Korean, a Protestant mega-church with about the same number of adherents, which also conducts almost all services in the Korean language.

About 55 per cent of the 63,000 ethnic Koreans in Metro Vancouver count themselves as Christians. That’s a higher rate than the 39 per cent of Metro residents of European extraction who told the 2021 census they’re Christian.

Of any major urban area in North America, Metro Vancouver has the most people who say they have no religion, almost half. But high rates of immigration from Asia are in some ways countering the trend to irreligiousity, especially for Christianity.

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As well as more than 100 vibrant congregations filled with Korean followers in the region, there is a larger number of Christians who are ethnic Chinese: 101,000. And another 130,000 Filipino-Canadians are Christian, as are tens of thousands more residents of various Asian extractions, particularly South-East Asian.

The strength of Christianity among these groups inspired the authors of a new book to promote the surprising idea that, in contrast to the dominant secular narrative of the declining “European” church, Christianity is becoming an “Asian religion” in Metro Vancouver.

The future of the church “will be heavily Asian in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia. Asian diaspora churches in these lands are celebrating and spreading the gospel. And they seriously call secularization theories into question,” say the authors of Christianity: An Asian Religion in Vancouver (Cascade Books).

“While observers of religion in Vancouver have been looking at the numeric decline of mainline Euro-tribal denominations … this project attempts to turn our gaze toward a different narrative of the growth and impact of Asian Christian believers,” write Jason Byassee, Albert Chu and Ross Lockhart, all of whom are clergy.

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Their book focusses on prominent Christians with Asian backgrounds in Metro Vancouver. Featuring an afterword by CTV news anchor Mi-Jung Lee, the book is built around dozens of interviews with professionals such as cancer specialist Stephen Chung, former Port Moody MP Nelly Shin, SFU housing analyst Andy Yan and former Terry Fox Foundation head Victor Ling.

By Nathan Griffiths, Postmedia

While the book is limited in regard to demographic data, it touches on how, in addition to many predominantly Korean churches, there are about 160 churches in Metro Vancouver, mostly evangelical, that include “Chinese” in their name, operating in Cantonese, Mandarin and sometimes English.

Explicitly ethnic names are not as common among Filipino congregations in Metro Vancouver, where nine out of 10 people of Filipino background are Christian. But there are a host of bustling Catholic and Protestant churches in the region in which Filipinos make up a strong majority.

By contrast, Metro’s South Asian population, including people with a background in India, is only four per cent Christian.

There are also many large multi-congregational churches that boast members rooted in different nations of Asia and significant numbers of people of European descent. They include Tenth Church, Fraserlands Church and The Tapestry, which have many satellite “campuses” throughout Metro.

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Strengthening identity

St. Andrew Kim’s head priest, Rev. Francis Jun Hyuk Park, who arrived in Canada just this summer from Korea, said through a translator that his church’s Christmas concert was designed to deliver the “precious” and “joyous” story of the visitation of Jesus, the Christ.

Park, one of three priests, two nuns and seven staff at the parish, acknowledged that despite the ecclesiastical importance of Christmas, some parents, as is often the case around this festive time of year, mostly enjoyed the concert because they “just wanted a fancy performance to make good memories for the kids.”

In South Korea, almost three in 10 people are Christian. They have been drawn to the faith of Western missionaries because they appreciate how they helped resist the Japanese, who colonized South Korea from 1910 to 1945. Korean Christianity is often imbued with nationalism.

Illustrating the thesis that people from Asia tend to focus on the collective, the priest at St. Andrew Kim said members of his congregation “live in passion and unity for each other.” He said adherents “use the expression ‘our’ much more than ‘my.’”

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Asked whether he believed Christianity was becoming an “Asian religion” in Metro Vancouver, the priest said, “That might be hard to answer. … I believe in our faith. There’s no Europe, no Asian, no nation, no race. We are just children of God.”

Still, joining an ethnic church is often an important way for immigrants to strengthen a shaky sense of identity upon arrival in Canada, particularly in Metro Vancouver where 43 per cent of the population was born offshore.

“We discovered that for Asian Christians who are looking for a church, the ethnic name of the church sign on the building is far more important than the denominational one, whether due to familiarity, ease or kinship,” say the authors of Christianity: An Asian Religion in Vancouver.

But the popularity of churches that are closely tied with one ethnic group doesn’t necessarily last beyond the first generation of immigrants. It has not done so for most Scottish Presbyterian, Russian Orthodox or Dutch Christian Reformed churches.

Korean church
The angels sitting beside the nativity scene at St. Andrew Kim Korean Catholic church in Surrey are Silvia Choi (left) and Chloe King (right). sun

Enoch Wong, a specialist in diaspora churches in North America, has studied what is going on in Metro Vancouver and discovered this distinct trend, known as the “silent exodus.”

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“Second-generation immigrant children in general are less likely to find concrete, meaningful connection with the ‘back-home’ tradition of their parents,” says Wong, an adjunct professor with the new Canadian Chinese School of Theology Vancouver in Richmond, which teaches about 70 students in Mandarin.

“Canadian-born Chinese often find themselves struggling with their own identity. Are they Chinese or are they Canadian? What about their faith identity as Christians?” says Wong. As they grow older many move away from ethnic churches.

Canadian-born Asians drawn to mixed-race churches

It’s taken many years for Albert Chu, whose father was senior pastor in a Chinese ethnic church in Metro Vancouver, to find his spiritual identity.

Like most teenagers, he began questioning his Christian upbringing. The difference, however, was he continued to attend his father’s church because he didn’t want to “lose face,” to bring shame to his family.

“I would have left if not for my family bond,” Chu said. He roughly fit the category of a “jook-sing,” which is a Cantonese term for an overseas-born Chinese person. The word relates to the bamboo rod, which is hollow and compartmentalized.

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But a curious thing happened to Chu. During his questioning years his faith slowly deepened, including through study at Vancouver’s Regent College.

“I eventually went from saving face for my family to discovering the saving face of Jesus. That’s my story.”

Albert Chu

Growing up in Metro Vancouver, where more than four out of 10 people have Asian origins, Chu no longer wanted to attend a narrowly defined “Chinese” church. So, 19 years ago, he founded Tapestry Church, initially with 10 people meeting in his home in Richmond.

Now Tapestry has grown to about 1,200 members meeting in three congregations. The main Tapestry Church, on No. 2 Road in Richmond, held about 300 people on a recent Sunday marking the pre-Christmas season of Advent, three-quarters of them of various Asian origins and one-quarter of European extraction.

The sanctuary looked more like a concert hall. There were guitars, a drum set, an electric organ and evangelical “praise” music, plus two big video screens. Casually dressed church pastors, mostly Asian men and women, read prayers off their mobile phones. One pastor offered a First Nations land acknowledgment. Others collected Christmas hampers for the elderly or marginalized. Everything was in English.

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The personal experience of Chu, who is one of the authors of Christianity: An Asian Religion in Vancouver and who married a woman of European origin, illustrates how Canadian-born people attending ethnic-language churches often end up wanting to leave them and find another, in part because they feel they can’t invite their friends and they want to stress that they belong to the larger culture.

His book contains a wry section which reveals that, privately, leaders of large multi-racial evangelical churches like Tenth “will admit they don’t have to do very much to grow. All they have to do is wait for children of Vancouver’s ethnic churches to grow tired of their parents’ immigrant congregations.”

The name of Chu’s church network, Tapestry, grew out of his desire to “weave everyone together” in a sacred community, “with Christ at the centre.” He is pleased members of his congregations reflect the multi-ethnic demographics of their Richmond and Vancouver neighbourhoods.

For its part, Christianity: An Asian Religion in Vancouver enthusiastically celebrates the expansion of Asian Christianity. The authors hope it will be an antidote to what others argue is the inevitability of North American secularism.

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“Christianity may not be gone from the Lower Mainland,” says the book. “It may just be an Asian faith for all people. Stranger things have happened.”

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