Formed in 1975, The National Federation of Asian American United Methodists (NFAAUM) Models Ethnic Inclusion, Interfaith Cooperation
By M. Garlinda Burton
In 1970, the number of U.S. residents born in other nations was about 1 in 21; by the year 2020, according to the Pew Foundation, 1 in seven people living in the United States will have been born elsewhere. And many of these people come from nations where Christians are in the minority, or, at least, they live and work with people who are Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, or from another faith other than Christianity. Therefore, says the head of The United Methodist Church’s Asian-American caucus The Rev. Jacob Dharmaraj, our denomination must “develop a clear language and theology for ecumenical and interfaith relations. Dharmaraj adds that the church must have “an authentic, multicultural plan of evangelism and outreach for people who want to embrace the Christian faith.”
Representing United Methodists from 12 ethnic groups and 28 language groups, the Church’s Asian-American caucus, currently lead by Dharmaraj, a pastor in the New York Annual Conference, may have something to teach the denomination about living out the Christian faith in a global context.
Unlike other racial-ethnic caucuses that claim a common language with similar histories and experiences, the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists (NFAAUM) struggles to unite a broad and diverse group on the common ground.
Dharmaraj, who is the co-author of Many Faces, One Church: A Manual for Cross-Racial and Cross-Cultural Ministry (Abingdon Press, 2006), wrote the book with both his wife, Glory, a retired program executive with United Methodist Women and retired United Methodist Bishop Ernest Lyght.
“Most of our people come from backgrounds that are intercultural and global—we have family ties across the continents and even in our congregations. We have families that have diverse religions, interracial marriage, and younger people living in an intercultural reality,” says Dharmaraj.
Caucus Grew out of Asian Activism in Western U.S.
Dharmaraj, a native of India and current pastor of Shrub Oak (NY) United Methodist Church, has presided over the caucus for nearly three years. In charting the history of the caucus, one of five racial-ethnic advocacy groups of The United Methodist Church in the United States, Dharmaraj recalls that Japanese Americans in the western jurisdictions of the Church were among the first to organize in the 1970s and 1980s, and quickly embraced church members of Chinese and Korean descent.
As other Asians and Asian-American United Methodists organized and raised awareness across the United States, they formed indigenous caucuses, such as the former South Asian National Caucus for United Methodists, for which Dharmaraj was once president. Eventually, these groups came together to form NFAAUM.
The coming together was not without strife. With a plethora of skin colors, hair textures, languages, inter-ethnic struggles among those deemed “Asian,” defining who was “in” and “out” in a single caucus was not easy. As with other of the regions around the world, the long history of these groups includes conflict with one another and colluding with colonial powers to subjugate each other. “For such a disparate group to unite, work together, and define ‘what is Asian’ is like trying to nail Jell-O to a tree trunk,” Dharmaraj explained.
“It wasn’t and isn’t enough to say, ‘We’re all the same. We’re all alike,’ because we are not.”
Authentic Interfaith Cooperation, Conversation Needed
In the same way, he says, The United Methodist Church must face that a growing number of Christians who are first-generation U.S. residents expect the Church to be knowledgeable about other religious traditions and able to work together with people of other faiths. At the same time, he says, United Methodists must also be able to talk about and live out the uniqueness of our Christian faith.
“We have a lot of United Methodists who will say about other faiths, ‘Well, we all serve the same God.’ But it is not that simple. Christians from Africa and Asia know that there are fundamental, irreconcilable differences between Christianity and other faiths,” Dharmaraj adds.
“People who have immigrated as Christians from Asia know this and can help teach the Church how to address the complexities of interfaith work and life,” he adds.
Addressing complexities and giving voice to diverse groups—even within the Asian American United Methodist community—are top priorities of the Federation. Under the caucus’ organization, each ethnic group has representation on the board of directors. The groups meet to discuss concerns specific to their communities and come together as the Federation to address common issues.
Among the top concerns the Federation is addressing, includes: recruitment and retention of Asian pastors, planting congregations and ministries among Asian American communities, and training leaders who can take their faith from the Church to the streets.
The Federation has an Asian-American Endowment that funds continuing education for pastors, supports ministries beyond the local church, and supports human rights ministry. The caucus was also instrumental in the creation of a denomination-wide Asian American Language Ministry and the Korean National Plan to extend and strengthen United Methodist ministries with Asian Americans.
M. Garlinda Burton, a deaconess and freelance writer in Nashville, Tenn., is a frequent contributor for www.gcorr.org.
For more information:
Dharmaraj, Glory and Dharmaraj, Jacob. Christianity, Judaism and Islam. A Missiological Encounter. ISPCK, 2006.
“What Ethnic Caucuses Can Teach the Church,” 2014 article by Heather Hahn of United Methodist News Service.
“We, Too, Are United Methodist,” a video in which United Methodists of color talk about their Christian faith and church involvement.
May is Asian-Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Here are some resources for worship and reflection.