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Attending to the movements of my heart: An Asian American conversion from ‘uniatism’ in the ‘model minority’

Justin KH Tse

你的眼神 充滿美麗 帶走我的心跳

The spirit of your eyes flooded with beauty leads my heartbeat away[1]

王力宏 Wang Leehom


Until two years ago, I considered myself an Asian American evangelical. Now I am a Greek Catholic in the Church of Kyiv. I was received into the church by chrismation in Richmond, British Columbia on the Feast of Ss Peter and Paul in 2016. The parish there was famously described on the satire personality Michael Schurr’s show Toronto Television as the ‘Chinese mission’ of the Greek-Catholic Church. I do not know if that is a good description of our actual demographic makeup, although it is a humorous characterization. Certainly, we have more than a few Chinese people in attendance because the situation in Richmond is such that the city’s population is about 55% ethnic Chinese, and so is about a quarter of the larger metropolitan area known as Vancouver. But for those who regularly come to liturgies, there are also people with backgrounds from the Philippines, Jamaica, Latin America, Japan, and the United States. We are a Canadian parish, which means that we have people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds who attend, and our common language is English, although we do the Apostol readings in both English and Chinese.

I am one of the Chinese people at the temple. However, my background is a little bit more complicated than others who are actually from Hong Kong, the People’s Republic of China, and Taiwan. My ethnicity may be Chinese, but of all the languages that I speak, English is my most proficient. I confess, though, that both Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese have the ability to touch my heart in more profound ways than my preferred language, like the sound of a mother speaking to my inner child. Part of the reason for this complication is that I was born in Canada and lived in the United States for the first eighteen years of my life before returning to Vancouver for higher education. Currently, I teach at Northwestern University in suburban Chicago. While I live there, I have been invested in the mission of our church on the south side of the city. However, I return to Richmond often, especially during my winter and summer breaks.

It took becoming Greek Catholic for me to describe myself as truly Chinese. Before my conversion, I described myself as suspended between two worlds in my own sense of self, between an English-speaking world and my inner Chinese heart. Now it is all one. But approaching that kind of integration required a process of conversion that was both spiritual and intellectual. Indeed, in the terms of the hesychastic spirituality of our church, these two spheres are also fused, as I attempt to bring my conscious intellect into the stillness of my heart to meet the Lord. For us as Byzantine Christians, head and heart are one, but realizing that I must bring them together has been the first step in a long journey on which I still struggle. It has been a process of developing a true sense of integrity in who I am in a full sense. I am Chinese, but as I will describe in what follows, I have rediscovered my Chineseness not just as an ethnic background. To truly be Chinese is to find rest in a way of being that is deeply attuned to the movements of the heart. It is a spiritual orientation. It is universal in its particularity.

In popular American terminology, the term of identity that is usually misused to describe a person like me is Asian American, someone whom the Catholic theologian Peter Phan describes as ‘between and betwixt’ the cultural identities of Asia and America. In the context of evangelical Protestantism in North America, an Asian American is conventionally understood to be someone who is of the second generation or further along, a person whose cultural sensibilities have been assimilated into what the American sociologist Will Herberg famously called the American Way of Life in his 1955 book Protestant-Catholic-Jew. The ideology behind this assimilative understanding of ethnicity is a liberal one that posits that coming into the public sphere requires the shedding of private ethnic identity. The irony is that in my case, the portal for that assimilation has been evangelicalism, Protestant networks often described as theologically, socially, and politically conservative. In an evangelical mindset, the emphasis is on intentional inner conversion to ideas about Christ’s salvation of the soul from eternal hell through a theology that emphasizes his crucifixion as a substitutionary death for personal human sin. When I joined the Greek-Catholic Church, the irony was that I converted away from this conversionary network and even from this assimilationist understanding of being Asian American. In this way, I became more fully myself because I found myself increasingly less subjected, as we say about the Church of Ukraine, to these vectors of ideological colonization.

This conversion was, I would say, an intellectual shift because it shifted my intellect, my nous, as the hesychasts of our tradition might say, in its consciousness of who I truly am. In so doing, I became more truly Asian American, more truly Chinese, more truly Cantonese, and more truly Christian in the process. In this second sense, I am also making the case that it is usually invalid to use Asian American to describe ethnic demographics; indeed, I do not use it that way in my scholarship. The problem with ‘Asian American’ as a term of demography is not just that ‘Asian’ is far too expansive of a category to cover all the ethnic groups that could be represented —Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Malaysian, Thai, Vietnamese, Filipinx, Indian, Pakistani, Afghani, Iranian, Iraqi, Palestinian, Turkish, and so on. Asian American in its original sense has political origins in the 1960s that are seldom now acknowledged. Originally, to be Asian American was, in the words of the journalist Jeff Chang, to ‘pick a fight’ with the systems that told you who you were as an Asian without hearing your true story and how you really felt as a person. The ugly word that is used to impose on Asians a false identity is Orientalism. The task of Asian American studies is to contest all forms of orientalization. Orientalism is an ideological colonization. We are not interested in being colonized.

As a professional academic invested in Asian American studies in my secular work, I am invested in reclaiming that original sense of ‘Asian American’ as a politics. The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate that my conversion from evangelical Protestantism into the Greek-Catholic Church of Kyiv has given me unexpected intellectual tools to accomplish this task. The two words that I want to explore more deeply as markers of my conversion are uniatism and model minority. Both are deeply ideologically loaded words that have become seen as terms of offense in the respective worlds of Greek Catholicism and Asian America. I understand that the Orthodox use the word unia to describe not only our church’s full communion with the See of Rome, but also to accuse us of taking on the Latin Church’s theological formulations, devotional practices, and liturgical sensibilities at the expense of our own Byzantine heritage. Uniate, as I understand it, is a term of insult for a people whose inferiority complex in relation to Rome leads them to discard their own tradition for another.

But as I have reflected on the term uniatism over the course of my mystagogical education in this church, I found that it resonated with some of my own struggles with the concept of Asian America. I asked myself: is not the inferiority complex of uniatism the same impulse as model minority, the term that liberal Americans use to frame Asian Americans as ‘outwhiting’ white Americans at assimilation into an American Way of Life through the systems of education and economic success? Did I not understand from my previous life the deep pain of being called a uniate because I was told that all that I was doing in my life was playing a game that was not made for me? Did I not convert into an understanding of Greek Catholicism as rejecting the charge of uniatism and revealing itself to be in its truest sense Orthodoxy in communion with Rome, the formulation of some of the members of the Kyivan Church Study Group in the 1990s? Was not this conversion therefore also a way for me to personally reject the inferior position of being cast as the model minority?

What I want to suggest, then, is that my conversion to Greek Catholicism was probably more radical than I could understand when I was received into the church two years ago. It turns out, I reflect, that I had been behaving like an ‘uniate’ without knowing it for as long as I saw myself within the assimilative structure of the model minority. By the Lord’s mercy, I discovered that I had converted to a church whose historic wrestling with the term uniatism is constantly leading to deeper discoveries of who she actually is. As I join in that wrestling by participating in her life, I also come to a fuller appreciation of who I am. I am truly Asian American because I reject the orientalizing tendencies of an assimilationist ideology. It should be no surprise, in turn, that becoming Greek Catholic has made me more fully me. After all, the Greek-Catholic Church of Kyiv is also invested in the work of fully being herself. I can attest to the truth, then, of the statement often repeated in our church that the Greek-Catholic Church is not just for ethnic Ukrainians, but a church from Ukraine for the world. I am one of those people from the world that has received this blessing from Ukraine, and instead of making me a Ukrainian, it has simply made me me.

I will move in two parts in the remainder of this essay, then. My first step will be to describe more fully my experience of model minority ideology in Asian American evangelicalism as my own personal struggle with uniatism before I even encountered the Greek Catholic Church. In a second section, I will explain how the process of becoming Greek Catholic while teaching Asian American studies at Northwestern University led me to become more fully myself, to undergo the conversion by which I have been slowly undoing the work of ideological colonization in my heart. My hope is that this article will be a first step in showing that the intellectual life of the Greek Catholic Church and her struggle against ideological colonization can serve as a pathway for converts like me to work out our own salvation in fear and trembling by journeying toward the integration of our intellects with our hearts.


The model minority as Asian American evangelical uniatism: a confession

Let me first explain why I use the controversial term uniatism to describe my past in Asian American evangelicalism. In a classic essay entitled L’uniatisme, the Eastern Catholic theologian Cyril Korolevsky argues that, even though the word uniate is supposed to refer to the Union of Brest by which the Orthodox bishops of the Kyivan Metropolitanate came into communion with the See of Rome, uniatism in practice is the outworking of an inferiority complex by Greek Catholics toward the Latin Church. Seeing Byzantine theological formulations and liturgical sensibilities as inferior to Latin ones, practical uniatism (according to Korolevsky) merges Greek and Latin practices in ways that show a preference for Roman traditions, such as the rosary, the Sacred Heart, the Stations of the Cross, and the juridical modus operandi of Roman Catholicism in general. In this way, Korolevsky productively develops the pejorative sense by which our Orthodox sisters and brothers use the term, in the sense that uniatism is about being perversely in bed with Rome as mater ecclesia instead of simply participating in shared communion as equals. As the ecumenist John Madey argues, the Greek Catholic mandate is thus to achieve a ‘conscientization’ among the Catholic churches that the Latin Church is not a ‘mother church,’ but a sister church. ‘Uniatism’ in this sense only refers to the incidents when some Eastern Catholics mistakenly see the Church of Rome as a superior mother, whereas the truth of the matter is that the vocation of Greek Catholics is precisely not to be uniates because full communion implies that, at least in theory, the Latin Church is supposed to be our equal.

Setting Korolevsky’s piece within a tradition unique to Eastern Catholics, Archimandrite Robert Taft SJ suggests that the entire task of Eastern Catholic theology is about recognizing the dignity of the Eastern Catholic churches’ original practices as Catholic in and of themselves. In this way, communion with Rome is distinguished from the theological inferiority complex. Perhaps Patriarch Sviatoslav’s comments to Pope Francis at their most recent meeting to renew the union might shed much-needed clarity on this term. He observed in the presence of the Bishop of Rome that the greatest act of uniatism in the twentieth century was the forcible reunion of Greek Catholics to the Moscow Patriarchate by the Pseudo-Sobor of Lviv in 1946. Here, uniatism has again its twin characteristics of inferiority and forced merging that Korolevsky described. But our Patriarch’s radical development of this concept involves naming an Orthodox uniatism, a posture of Greek Catholic subordination to the Orthodox in this case that leads to an illegitimate union that was as perverse as climbing into bed with Rome as the mother church. In this way, our Patriarch demonstrates that Korolevsky’s use of the term uniatism as the ideological colonization that is especially pronounced in the historic experience of Greek Catholics can be used more broadly in our church’s discourse about Christianity more generally. Rejecting the description of Greek Catholics being uniates ourselves, a critique of uniatism is perhaps the clear ecclesiological offering that our church currently provides to the world.

My sentiment that ‘uniatism’ is an illegitimate description of the Greek-Catholic Church is probably suggestive of my particular theological alignment within our beloved Church of Kyiv. We were instructed very well during the catechumenate at our Richmond temple about the explorations of the Kyivan Church Study Group in the 1990s, the group of theologians from our Greek-Catholic Church who engaged in conversation with representatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople about them recognizing our church as a legitimate Orthodox Church that is in communion with Rome. As I have learned from my participation in the life of the Church of Kyiv, we Greek Catholics understand ourselves to be Catholic because the tradition handed down to all the spiritual children of Ss Volodymyr and Olha Equals-to-the-Apostles, including me as one born late, is as universal as the patrimony of the Church of Rome, so much so that Greek Catholics enjoy full communion with her. Indeed, the attempts by some of our theologians to slowly roll back the practices in our church that are more Latin than Byzantine is, in fact, an attempt to be more fully Catholic in our Orthodoxy, to follow the instructions of the Bishops of Rome in Orientalium Dignitas, Orientalium Ecclesiarum, and Orientale Lumen to be fully ourselves in our own tradition and liturgy — nec plus, nec minus, nec aliter, in Leo XIII’s immortal formulation. By our existence, we show that catholicity does not depend on assimilation into the Latin Church, but in fact by being different from her and yet still in union. In fact, as Patriarch Sviatoslav suggests in his pastoral letter on the Vibrant Parish, the truest Catholic act will be to recognize ourselves most fully in the common tradition we share with our sisters and brothers in the Kyiv Patriarchate, the Autocephalous Orthodox Church, and even the Moscow Patriarchate and to work for the fulfillment of our shared life together.

Sharing in the life of the Greek Catholic Church and her critique of uniatism has enabled me to see that I was unknowingly behaving in uniate ways when I was an Asian American evangelical. I grew up in a church that is very similar in two respects to the church of Ukraine. The church of China, though mine was Protestant, is a church of martyrs and as such has a diaspora around the world, including in North America. My childhood church in the San Francisco Bay Area was founded by one of these confessors of the faith, Pastor Stephen Chiu, a man who was tortured by the Chinese communists but escaped from prison to Hong Kong where he was part of a group of exiled Chinese evangelists that started evangelical churches around the world. Like the Ukrainian churches of the diaspora, ours had a Chinese school, and I attended it weekly. Mostly populated by Taiwanese immigrants, it was where I learned the Mandarin language with the gentle inflections of spoken conventions in Taiwan, even though my family is Cantonese-speaking with origins from Hong Kong. In fact, when my father, who became a pastor in the Chinese church, had his internship at a nearby Cantonese-speaking church, I was sent to both the Cantonese and Mandarin language schools.

In these church-based language schools, I learned the words, poetry, the songs, the music, the history, and the literature of both Chinese languages. I had a people, and I was part of a tradition. In fact, if I were to characterize the culture of the church life in which I grew up, it would be with the Mandarin words gandong, the sense that one’s emotions at the level of the heart were being moved and stirred, probably by the Holy Spirit. The Cantonese is gumdong, and while it means the same thing, that language is like a different method of stirring my heart, still Chinese, but perhaps an earthier flavor. To me, this ability to feel the spiritual world with my heart in both Mandarin and Cantonese lay at the centre of my understanding of Chinese Christian practice as a child. Indeed, heart is used to describe all sorts of feelings in Chinese. To say that I have an open heart means that I am happy. A closed heart means that I am worried, and if I want to let go of my worries, I must release my heart too. When I tell someone to be careful, I instruct them to have a small heart so that they can really pay attention to details. A good person is described as having a clean heart. A malicious person’s heart is rotten. To invest fully in my work, I must use heart. When I am overwhelmed with the feeling of love, my heart is full. My heart and the hearts of those around me are what I grew up feeling, and it is the language that I used to describe the world of spirits and the society of persons.

Over time, though, I was taught that this beautiful way of the heart was insufficient as a Christian practice. As I look back, there might have been many factors that contributed to this inferiority complex. It could have been, for example, that the charismatic movement swept through this church when I was a child, or that some of the people in my upbringing had no capacity for doing church politics in a meaningful and constructive way, or that there was a sex scandal that rocked my childhood congregation to the core. Upon reflection, most of these problems, serious as they were, were irrelevant as far as understanding our own sense of theological inferiority. Instead, I would say that many of our real issues came from being in love with the idea of America as a land to which we had immigrated for personal economic opportunities — as well as fleeing communism, but that was seldom discussed. Pastor Chiu’s famous line, for example, was where there is Christianity, there is prosperity. He often continued: Look at China! There is no Christianity, so it is not prosperous! Look at America! There is Christianity, so it is prosperous! At the level of the children’s ministry, I recall that many of my Sunday school teachers would tell us that their wish for us was to grow up to become successful. In practical terms, success meant that we were to go to a top American university and then find a well-paying job in a respectable profession that often had to do with the law, medicine, engineering, or the world of financial institutions. The idea was that that trajectory would launch us into a lucrative career, through which we might be able to take care of our families in a material way.

I do not really know if these first-generation Chinese Protestant immigrants really understood that we English-speaking young people were taking them quite seriously when we proceeded to their great disappointment to reject what we thought was ‘Chinese culture’ and to embrace a version of the American Way of Life expressed through the popular ideological currents of white Protestant evangelicalism. One word that came up again and again in both English- and Chinese-language accounts of what was wrong with Chinese Christianity in America was the word Confucianism. The false presumption behind this term is that Chinese culture is actually based on a series of hierarchies — ruler to ruled, father to son, husband to wife, elder to younger, friend to friend. Actually, the Analects of Master Kong are much more about restoring order in the chaos of ancient Zhou society by reinstating the traditional liturgies of bowing, courtesy, and familial bonds. However, modern writers discussing contemporary Chinese American Christianity do not seem to be bothered by their poor reading of the classics. While destroying our trust in the spiritual sense of our own heart, they posited that the common sense in Chinese American churches was to organize English-language church services that might identify as Asian American in the demographic sense.

The idea, then, was that a culturally Chinese Christianity represented an incomplete understanding of how to be Christian because it was supposedly dependent on hierarchy and authority. Indeed, we attributed the workings of the model minority to that first generation because it was they who seemed to be pushing us to educational and economic success based on what felt like their authoritarian values. The second generation, the ideology then went, was the hope of the Chinese church because it would be they who would then achieve a society of equals that facilitated individual dedication to God and his missionary purpose to the world. We thought that by creating this way of being, we were resisting the model minority and its success-driven ethos. Of course, these ideologues did not know that there was an anti-orientalist political sense of the word Asian American, or else they would not have made such generalizations in the first place.

Perhaps the greatest irony of English-language services in Chinese churches, as I reflect over my many experiences in a number of churches (including those at which I have been employed in English ministry), is that in resisting the model minority mythology, they became even more model minority. The problem is that the theological resources that animated the communities I was in were entirely drawn from the world of American Protestant evangelicalism. The main ideological thrust of these materials, however, tends to substitute logical reasoning at the expense of the language of the heart. A keyword that they emphasize is intentionality. You have to make a resolution in your mind, one text by the apologist Josh McDowell puts it, to make moral choices in situations of temptation before they happen. The True Love Waits Movement of the 1990s, a part of a network shorthanded as the ‘purity culture,’ featured teenagers promising at the level of intention to remain celibate until marriage. Romantic courtship, in the books of Elisabeth Eliot and Joshua Harris (about which he has since expressed second thoughts), should be about the intention of getting married, not just going on a date for fun. Operating in the gender role in which God created you is a matter of mental resolve: men must intend to be warriors and leaders, it was taught, and women should be intentional in their submission and their embrace of the role of being wooed. The same went for the organization of the community in intentional small groups, praise and worship teams that declared their intentions about putting God first before all human relationships, and missionary outreach that intended to use the local scale to bring the Gospel to a globalized world.

I would argue that this focus on intentionality led to the accidental construction of a theological model minority. Out went the heart; in came the head. There was some basis in Protestant theology for this obsession with intentionality; it can be summed up in Martin Luther’s dictum justification by faith alone. There have been many debates among Protestants about the meaning of this phrase, and this is not the place to re-litigate them. But in broad strokes, the way that our communities received this teaching was to reduce all Christian action to the point of intention. How one became a Christian in the first place, at least according to this tradition, was by believing in Jesus Christ, or at least intending to do so. It would be one thing if faith in this sense really was about what Benedict XVI called a ‘personal friendship with Christ,’ but the real questions in the world of Protestant evangelicalism revolved around the ideas that you believed about Jesus and whether you actually meant that belief with intellectual purity and sincerity.

These propositions were what we called theology. There was a continuum among evangelicals, especially of our Asian American sort, about how serious they were about them. The ones who emphasized the theological formulations were known for their seriousness about ‘truth.’ Those who tended to embrace a more therapeutic approach to life could be described as emphasizing ‘mercy’ and ‘grace.’ Indeed, the funniest part about the latter group is that they also tended to seek out practices that were foreign to their tradition, such as ‘centering prayer,’ icon veneration, monastic routines, and lectio divina. The uniatism of the theologically ‘serious’ lay in their denigration of way of the heart in their pursuit of the head, while in the second case, the uniate practices manifested in the de-contexutalized incorporation of spiritual practices into their tradition as if their original way of doing things was not good enough. It was difficult to see this problem clearly when I was in this world, though. At the time, I agreed with many of my evangelical colleagues that evangelicalism was a hopelessly fragmented movement with many ideologies. Now that I am not in it, I am able to see with new clarity that everything was done to locate individuals along the spectrum of a theological seriousness that was not supposed to be part of our way of doing things in the first place. In this way, the way of the heart that I learned from Chinese Christianity as a child was seen as unserious. I wanted to be serious. The trouble is that replacing success with seriousness, I was still caught in the logic of the model minority, aspiring to ascend in institutional apparatuses that were not truly my home.

In this way, my experience of the model minority in both its secular and theological forms from within the world of Asian American evangelicalism can be described as my own personal struggle with uniatism before I even encountered the Greek Catholic Church. The Chinese Christian practices that I learned as a child emphasized the way of the heart and its movements in discerning the spiritual world. However, both practitioners of that very tradition and a second generation that sought to differentiate themselves from it were beholden to an inferiority complex. In my Asian American evangelical case, the relationship of uniatism was not with the Latin Church or to the Moscow Patriarchate, but to America, to its educational and economic institutions, and to its rationalist religiosity that was institutionalized in our encounter with evangelical Protestantism. The words that Asian American scholars might use for this phenomenon are model minority, but from the perspective of Eastern Catholic theology, this is an instantiation of uniatism too because it features the self-denigration of a theological praxis that leads to a forced merger with the foreign church cultures of American evangelicalism, with its diversity of practices around intentionality, theological propositionalism, and a surprisingly ’uniate’ propensity to play with Orthodox and Catholic contemplative practices in their spirituality. The name for this model minority uniate phenomenon, I propose, is Asian American evangelicalism. It was only by becoming a Greek Catholic that I was able to see this reality clearly.


Becoming Asian American via the Greek Catholic Church: a conversion story

Like the reframing of Greek Catholicism as a critique of uniatism, to be truly Asian American is also to reject the model minority and its Orientalism, not to reinforce it. What this means is that instead of running away from my childhood Chineseness by insisting that my fluency in English is better than my Chinese language skills, I have had to embrace it. But it took becoming Greek Catholic for this process to manifest fully, which means that the interesting thing is that being received into the Church of Kyiv has not so much made me into an adopted ethnic Ukrainian, but more fully attentive to how my Chinese upbringing and my learning of both Cantonese and Mandarin has shaped my heart and its ability to sense to the supernatural. Asian American in this sense is perhaps best captured by the historian Gary Okihiro, who claims that Asians did not go to America, but America went to Asia. Like Greek Catholics sometimes falling to the temptation of uniatism in seeing the Latin Church (or the Moscow Patriarchate, in some cases) as a colonizing mother, Asian Americans have sometimes fallen into the trap of wanting to be American because they have been subjected to the constant expansion of the United States as a global empire over the last two hundred years. But being truly Asian American means to resist that kind of ideological colonization by being more fully ourselves. My spiritual pathway to that resistance has been my participation in the Greek Catholic Church.

Maybe the conditions by which I had my first serious encounter with the Greek Catholic Church might explain how I came to embrace my own Chineseness when I joined her, instead of adopting a contrived Ukrainianness that would be as foreign to my way of being as if I were still stuck in my American evangelical ways. I first encountered the Greek Catholic Church in Vancouver during the days of the pro-democracy Hong Kong Umbrella Movement in 2014. A little more than half a year after the events on the Maidan in Ukraine, students and their supporters in Hong Kong demanded that the Hong Kong government and their political masters in Beijing grant the Hong Kong people the right to genuine universal suffrage, a radical form of democracy where the people themselves could nominate candidates instead of having them pre-selected by the Chinese Communist Party. What then happened from September 26 to 28 almost exactly mirrored the clash with the Berkut in Kyiv in December 2013. During the occupation of a central plaza in Hong Kong known as Civic Square, the police fired eighty-seven volleys of tear gas into the crowd in an attempt to disperse them. In response, tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents rushed to the streets, shouting, ‘Protect the students.’ The result was a seventy-nine-day occupation of three key politically, economically, and socially significant districts in the city, including by Christians who put up street sanctuaries close to shrines dedicated to Cantonese hero-deities. The real contrast with the Maidan is that there is no Heavenly Hundred in Hong Kong, as the government did not kill any protesters, although the danger was certainly there for the duration of the occupations. Indeed, the political crackdowns on participants in the movement is only starting to happen now, four years later.

I was living in Vancouver in 2014, and I heard about a very interesting prayer meeting outside the Chinese Consulate organized by an ecumenical network of Christian groups to support the Umbrella Movement. When I arrived at the gathering, I learned that the ethnic Chinese Jesuit priest leading the prayers was Greek Catholic. The most memorable moment for many in the crowd, most of whom were not familiar with the Byzantine churches, was when they chanted, ‘Arise, O God, judge the earth, for to thee belong all the nations,’ which is from the Great and Holy Saturday service. We heard the priest announce that his parish was in Richmond and went by the name, Eastern Catholic Church. Most of us had not heard of this church. However, those of us who had Chinese Protestant backgrounds felt that we had established a connection with her because very few of our own churches wanted to support the Umbrella Movement openly. Some of those who came to the meeting were employed by those congregations and subsequently disciplined. From their disciplinary proceedings, we learned that the Protestant communities thought of the Umbrella Movement as too political and did not want to be seen as taking a side. Hindsight tells me now that they were playing precisely into the ‘uniate’ and ‘model minority’ logic with which I had been frustrated: they wanted to give the impression that they were politically neutral so as to maintain good relations with everyone, even the Beijing government.

But for those of us evangelicals who attended the prayer meeting and the solidarity protests, it was like our hearts had led us there, rather than our heads. At a retreat subsequently held at the Richmond temple where we discussed the spiritual dimensions of the Umbrella Movement, the ethnic Chinese Greek-Catholic Jesuit priest explained the practice of discernment of spirits to us. He said that there are two movements of the heart to which to pay attention, consolations, and desolations. Consolation usually entails a sense of the presence of God and his grace and is accompanied by the feeling that one is free. Desolation, on the other hand, tends to feel like God is absent and is usually accompanied by an attack of the evil spirit. In a political situation, the subjective feeling is usually oppressive, with the sense that one’s agency is being stripped by a power seeking to deprive the human person of their rightful freedom. The pro-democratic protests in Hong Kong manifested a complex mixture of consolation and desolation because the situation where Beijing is denying democracy to the people of Hong Kong through their local puppet government is an act of oppression, but the protests are also a sign of God working among the people to claim their freedom. The priest then made a comparison to how the occupiers on the Maidan faced down the oppression of the Putinist regime and its ‘Russian World’ ideology from Moscow with the consolation of a Revolution of Dignity.

Slowly, I began to attend the liturgies at this Greek Catholic temple, and I discovered through my own mystagogical reflection as well as through spiritual direction that identifying the consolations and desolations as movements of the heart requires a liturgical context to feel the mercy of God. Subjective experience is a valid approach to theology, this priest said to me, because the spiritual world’s objective reality can be felt by the person. The important thing is to acknowledge the feelings and sit with them. Entering the catechumenate at the end of 2015, I sit with the movements in my heart in both in my personal prayer and during my attendance at the liturgies. One very special moment for me was the prostrations that we practiced at the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete prior to the fifth Sunday of the Great Fast. Not only did the reading of the life of St Mary of Egypt move me very deeply, but also my body began to prostrate and to perform the reverences automatically as if they were part of my muscle memory. These actions transcended the intentionality of my evangelicalism, overriding my mind so that the body was able to connect directly with the spiritual movements operating in my heart.

It was around the time of my reception by chrismation that I realized that I had gotten myself into a church where I could finally experience in full the feelings that I had not felt since I was a child in the Chinese church. I still remember trying to explain to some of my Asian American evangelical friends why I was becoming Greek Catholic. Some of them said that perhaps I liked the authority structure, while others mused that maybe it was helpful to my secular academic work to be disassociated from Protestantism. I found myself agreeing with all of these possibilities at an intellectual level, especially because the primary reason my catechumenate was shorter than most was due to the fact that I had been hired at Northwestern University to teach Asian American studies and needed to be able to attend liturgies in Chicago. However, the speculations of my evangelical friends revolved primarily around what my personal strategy could possibly be in joining this church. Struggling to convey to them what had been happening to my heart, I wrote many failed drafts of a paper trying to explain to them what was truly going on. Those who attended the chrismation service told me that they understood at a much deeper level what had happened, though. Instead of me explaining myself in vain, they reflected me that as I had come in on the epitrakhil of my spiritual father and made my prostration before the tetrapod, my face reflected the peacefulness of someone who had finally come home. One Chinese Protestant burst into tears when he saw that. He told me that he could tell that I was finally free. It was admittedly a very Chinese moment, as my biological father, an Anglican priest, read Psalm 66 in Cantonese when I processed in.

As I began teaching Asian American studies while undergoing my own mystagogy, I had a number of reflections on these feelings, many of which I tried to write out on my blog. Those writings, however, do not capture the struggle that I was undergoing in my career. I discovered in the process of teaching that I had been trained in a particular strand of Asian American studies, just as I had been brought into the Greek Catholic church by people with, particularly anti-colonial convictions. Like the Greek Catholic Church where some of our own people mistakenly think of themselves as uniates, more than a few Asian American scholars and students conceptualize the field as describing the assimilation of a population of Asian immigrants into American society. It was as if in my secular work I had not left the model minority confines of my Chinese Protestant upbringing, and it was in pondering the awkward position that I was in that I began to realize that uniatism and the model minority operate on the same logic. Both are about trying to fit into the institutional grids offered to them by colonizing apparatuses that discount their feelings, spiritual sensibilities, and approaches to everyday life as somehow insufficient. Both are about intentions and strategies of making themselves legible to those powers, instead of living their life with their own words and heart-based sense of integrity. What I faced in the academy was oddly similar to my experience of the church. It was as if we lived constantly with the oppressive sense that some other power had to give us permission to exist.

My teaching of Asian American studies focuses on the homes and societies that Asians whose worlds are colonized by American colonialism build with their own spiritual understandings of how the world really works, including how they organize social movements to fight for their own freedom. One of the insights that I began to focus on, drawn in part from my work on the Umbrella Movement, was the contrast between modern Western Christian presuppositions about the supernatural as a separate sphere from the natural order and how Asian literary traditions simply presume that spirits are part of the everyday world. I began to understand that attempts to discount the feelings wrought by that complex spiritual reality, be it through missionary activity or atheistic regimes of both capitalist and communist sorts, were forms of ideological colonization and that the attempt to articulate those supernatural sensibilities in ways that were intelligible to those dominant powers was precisely the kind of model minority uniatism that our discipline decries.

In fact, as I revisited the work of the Catholic theologian and patristics scholar Henri de Lubac SJ, I discovered that what Christian tradition means by le surnaturel is in fact closer to this Asian sensibility. Le surnaturel is about how grace always already infuses the created order, and while what the Holy Apostle Paul calls the elemental spirits also inhabit the world, they are brought into harmony by the God who fashioned the world as an icon reflecting his glory. If what it means to build a home is to tap into this spiritual mode of existence, then studying Asian American everyday lives is about describing the struggle to retain a sense of the integrity of this world as it is. They do not receive the authority for their lives to exist from an institution. This sensibility is similar to what Patriarch Sviatoslav said after the Bishop of Rome and the Patriarch of Moscow signed their 2016 Joint Declaration in Havana. It is nice that both Rome and Moscow acknowledge that we Greek Catholics have the right to exist, our Patriarch said, but the truth is that we need no one’s permission except for the Holy Spirit to be a church. Our task is to feel the spiritual world with our heart and sit with those feelings in prayer so that they can be given a chance to blossom through our work together as people in building a society of solidarity, like what we saw in the Umbrella Movement and on the Maidan.

Throwing myself into this mystagogical reflection, I discovered that these anti-colonial meditations emanating from my practice of Asian American studies had broad appeal beyond what is conventionally construed as Asian America. I am not the only Asian American member of the loose collective in Chicago that we facetiously call the Kyivan Psychoanalysis Study Group, a group of people mostly from our church that gets together regularly to muse about ways to continue the work of freedom to which the protests on the Maidan gave such focus, including by rolling back ideological colonization in our own lives. In Richmond, we not only regularly welcome a steady stream of Protestant inquirers, a number of whom are Asians, but just this year in 2018, we have also received six people into the Greek Catholic Church: one Japanese Canadian, two people from Japan, two people from Hong Kong, and one from mainland China. While they each entered the church for different reasons, they all spoke of encountering our liturgy as an experience of a deep feeling in their hearts that they felt compelled to explore more fully. As they did so, they discovered that those feelings of consolation were drawing them closer to God, leading them ultimately to reception into our church.

But like me, none of them has become an honorary ethnic Ukrainian. Instead, they too became more themselves. One of the persons from Japan observed that his reception into our church extended his theological reflections on how the Japanese nation-state has given up war as the means for imperial expansion and that his participation in the Greek Catholic Church gave him insight into how peace is the truest truth of the world as God made it. Becoming Greek Catholic, in other words, made him even more Japanese. In the same way, the woman from China that we received spoke at length about the exploration of the feelings of consolation that were at work in her heart. As I listened to her, my heart opened as I recognized in her the same senses that I had known since I was a child. I was very gandong, moved at the level of deep feeling. These movements of the heart are all that is needed in the building of our home together, which does not have to be explained in some other powerful institution’s words. Instead, my words and her words were enough because it was by sitting with the truth of our hearts that we came to meet the Lord and experience his mercy in this church.


By attending to the heart and being at home in the Greek Catholic church, I came to realize how conversion away from model minority uniatism works. Ideological colonization is not defeated by intentions or by being legible. It is slowly undermined by attending to the objective spiritual reality of the supernatural, with its crowded arena of spirits brought into subjection by the God who made them and who shows himself to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This Christian task is also an Asian American one because it commits us to hear the words that Asians around the world are living at the level of the heart beneath the ideological apparatuses of national empires and reductionist systems of theology signified by the word America. When such people like myself and my sisters and brothers are received into the Greek Catholic church, it amplifies and intensifies that sense of the heart against any power that tries to colonize it.

Formed by the spiritual sensibilities that I use in my teaching and scholarship in Asian American studies, it is my heart that tells me that the Greek Catholic Church is not uniate. Greek Catholicism is composed of a people who have endured centuries of oppressive colonization and yet still manage to offer praises to the merciful Lord in their own words that describe the spiritual realities with which they have been sitting. Indeed, the way that Greek Catholics and Asian Americans alike resist the colonialism of ideology is not by advancing arguments about the validity of our existence. It is by living in ways that are attentive to movements in the heart and its sense of home. I have called this sensing of the movement of the spirits the Chineseness of my childhood. I have experienced it in the Greek Catholic Church. Its anti-colonial propensities are Asian American. But the truth is that in whatever particular way it is encountered, it is universal, giving the lie to the ideologies of uniatism and the model minority that we need to somehow become more universally legible in an institutional way. No. All we must do, as the hesychasts say, is to take our intellects into the stillness of our heart, for it is there that the Lord finds us and makes us more fully ourselves in the way that he made us. Only in this way can we say that it is no one but the Holy Spirit who gives us permission to exist.

[1] This is my decidedly wooden and awkward translation of a sentence that can simply be rendered, The beauty of your gaze takes my heartbeat away. I insist in this case on keeping the rendering awkwardly literal to demonstrate that Chinese is a language that, through just a few words, can paint better word pictures than any European language of which I know.