To be an Asian American evangelical or to write about them as a scholar means to battle for legibility. Similar to Black Americans, Asian Americans do not fit in the normative categories scholars often use to describe white Protestants due to differences of race and racialization. Arguably the most prominent of these categories are mainline and evangelical Christian. As white evangelicals have become an increasingly influential Republican constituency since the 1970s (and more recently have become accepting of white Christian nationalist ideas), the mainline-evangelical dichotomy has become even more prominent as a shorthand to make sense of different views on religion and social justice. Yet the dichotomy does not always neatly reflect the experiences of Asian Americans of faith, whose distinct history of racial othering and marginalization as both nonwhite and non-Black people of color has shaped a unique relationship between religious and racial identity—a “religio-racial identity,” to use the term historian Judith Weisenfeld offers to describe Black religious communities.
In sum, the argument goes that during the 1960s civil rights movement, white evangelicals distinguished themselves from their counterparts in mainline Protestant denominations with their individualistic focus on evangelism and downplaying of any church-based commitment to social justice or structural reform. Whereas many mainline church leaders supported social engagement and action, evangelical leaders insisted that Christians’ first responsibility was to evangelize and save individual souls, not to change society. Perhaps most famously, these logics led televangelist Billy Graham (whose willingness to risk his popularity to support racial equality has been grossly exaggerated) to oppose civil rights legislation as ill-suited to address the sin of racism of the “heart.” In the years following, more and more white Americans left mainline congregations for evangelical ones that preached a comfortable faith that did not challenge social and racial norms of white supremacy. Mainline churches shrank while evangelical congregations grew in spades. (Other factors also played a part.) White evangelicals increasingly embraced colorblindness, joining a broader post-civil rights consensus that racism is no longer a significant barrier for people of color in American life.
The case of Agape Fellowship illustrates how these normative white Protestant paradigms can sometimes fail to accurately depict Asian Americans, including those who identify as evangelical. In 1973, a group of US-born Japanese and Chinese Americans in Los Angeles formed Agape Fellowship as an explicitly Asian American Christian commune. From their home base in East Hollywood, Agape members shared assets, worshipped and ate together, and otherwise sought to live in intentional community like the early Christian Church described in Acts 2 of the Bible. They identified as evangelical in that they were committed to personal evangelism and the saving of souls. But they were also committed to their ethnic and racial communities and worked with secular activists and whomever else was willing to address the needs of Asian Americans historically underserved by the US state. They were neither colorblind nor opposed to social justice.
As Asian American Christians, Agape members cultivated faith practices that met their needs and differed from those of white and Black Christians. Like Black Christians, they sought contexts wherein, in the words of one former member, they would not be “subject to the white power structure that existed at the time” and could “set [their] own rules and . . . leadership.” At the same time, they sought ways to “maximize” their “potential as Asian Americans.” Agape’s explicit Asian American focus was intended to address the sense of alienation and erasure many younger Asian American Christians felt in white evangelical spaces. At the same time, its emotionally open and forthright approach was designed as a counterweight to the culturally stoic and emotionally repressed Japanese and Chinese ethnic churches where many had been raised. Just as racial and religious identities are complex, so too was Agape’s approach to the Christian faith.
Agape unsettles any notion that Asian Americans mindlessly aped white evangelical cultures or singularly aspired to assimilation through their embrace of Christianity. Members cared deeply about their ethnic and racial communities, saw themselves as distinct from white co-religionists because of their Asian American identity, and were deeply shaped by a longer history of US state racism. As a result, they rejected the rampant individualism preached by mainstream white evangelicals. According to one former member, Agape sought to be “relevant, activist, and involved in the [Asian American] community,” even as the goal of evangelism framed and directed everything they did. Several schoolteachers in the group started an alternative school and a daycare program to serve high-need families. Others ran English-language classes for Japanese restaurant workers in Little Tokyo. Still, others trained in social work helped Asian American community members historically underserved by the US state gain access to the social services they needed. What it meant to be Japanese American or Asian American could not be separated from what it meant to be Christian. It was never a choice of one or the other. Indeed, members like Bill Watanabe had been born in the Manzanar concentration camp during World War II, and the colorblind belief that racism had become insignificant was to them unthinkable.
Agape was the product of a particular demographic moment and convergence of movements in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the very idea of an “Asian American evangelical” was being systematically constructed and contested. During the decades between World War II and 1980, US-born Asian Americans outnumbered foreign-born for the first (and only) time in US history. Reflecting this trend, the majority of Agape’s members were US born. Agape members thus remind us that Asian American Christian history cannot be reduced to migrant histories. The three largest Asian American groups—Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino Americans—spearheaded the 1968 Asian American Movement (AAM), rallying around the term “Asian American,” which they defined as a project of pan-Asian and interracial solidarity. For AAM activists, to describe oneself as Asian American was to identify with other racialized communities in the United States and with nonwhite peoples being harmed by US militarism abroad, including in Vietnam and across Southeast Asia. The term “Asian American” further signaled a rejection of model minority logic and how it pitted Asian Americans against Black communities, using the purported success of Japanese and Chinese Americans to obscure the realities of structural racism. Agape thus calls attention to Asian American Christians as domestic people of color, racialized communities with a history of battling state-sponsored racism.
Agape’s relationship to the fluctuations in what it meant to be an evangelical Christian also illustrates Asian Americans’ relationship to those changes. The late-1960s and early-1970s Jesus (Freak) Movement centered in Southern California featured young white evangelicals forming communes and other alternatives to traditional churches for hippies and so-called “Jesus Freaks” attracted to the iconoclastic, radical Jesus of the Bible. Agape drew from elements of this movement but never wholesale. For example, white communes generally did not serve local communities, unlike AAM activists, for whom “serve the community” was a central tenet. At the same time, Agape suffered from patriarchal and misogynistic gender dynamics much like those that plagued the Jesus Movement and AAM to varying degrees, and these destructive dynamics led to its demise. Despite its grand vision, Agape declined quickly, losing most of its membership within the first five years.
Agape had a brief tenure, but its legacies live on in multiple arenas. Not least, Agape alumni have done remarkable community-based work. After leaving Agape in 1978, Bill Watanabe co-founded and then served as longtime executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center, a social service organization based in Los Angeles that originally focused on Japanese American elders but now serves diverse low-income residents. Arlene Inouye returned to the public schools of Los Angeles after her departure from the commune in 1997 and eventually was elected to the leadership of United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), the organized labor association for the Los Angeles Unified School District. In 2019, Inouye was part of the team that won UTLA’s historic teachers’ strike. Both have spoken publicly about their time in Agape, how it cemented their commitment to serving the community, as well as about the personal costs of their involvement.
Today, Asian American evangelicals have again become a topic of debate. On the one hand, their growing prominence as leaders of even the most storied white evangelical organizations including InterVarsity and the National Association of Evangelicals has spurred talk of Asian Americans as white-adjacent or Christian versions of the model minority. Some have speculated (usually in private) that racialized perceptions of Asian Americans as more pliable and palatable alternatives to Black candidates may have played a role in their selection. At the same time, Asian American Christians, including many self-described evangelicals, have become increasingly outspoken against anti-Black racism and in support of movements like Black Lives Matter. Scholarly efforts to reclaim instances like Agape illustrating Asian Americans’ distinctiveness from white Christians have also been part of this trend.
In a time of anti-Asian violence and white Christian nationalism, to be an Asian American and a Christian means to belong nowhere. It means to swing wildly between invisibility and hypervisibility every time the mainstream media reports cases of anti-Asian hate or on tragedies like the one that took eleven lives at a Lunar New Year celebration in 2023. Within faith communities, it means to struggle to find a church that sees the distinctiveness of your racialized experiences and cares to learn more. And yet, Asian Americans of faith have long sought ways to grow and thrive, at times with mixed results, but always of their own making.