On the Path to Well-Being for Asian American Christian Communities

4 mins read
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The month of May is bursting with important cultural and social observances, including celebrations of the vast and varied cultures and histories of Asia and observances having to do with many aspects of mental health.

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Dr. Jessica Chen Feng writes and teaches that for Asians and Asian-Americans, the prevailing notion of mental health is “…a white, western idea.” Photo: Jessica ChenFeng

This week, we caught up with the brilliant Jessica ChenFeng, PhD and LMFT (Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist), who grew up in our San Gabriel Valley and currently serves as an Associate Professor and Director for the Well-Being Collaboratory at the School of Psychology & Marriage and Family Therapy at the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.

She will moderate the inaugural conference of the Well-Being Collaboratory, “Communities of Hope: God’s Work of Healing In Our Asian American Churches and Contexts,” on Thursday, May 16, from 9:30 AM – 3:00 PM PST. Asian American pastors, ministry leaders and mental health practitioners based in Southern California will join together to bring hope, healing and wholeness to Asian communities.

The Communities of Hope Conference, consisting of three panels, will be presented in partnership with the Spirituality Mind Body Institute and Chinatown Service Center. Panel 1 addresses “Well-Being and Health in the Life of the Church,” Panel 2 addresses “Gender and Generation,” and Panel 3 will explore “Therapists and Pastors in Collaboration,” exploring the collaboration needed to bring fractured communities to wholeness.

She says, “The overarching purpose of the Collaboratory is to strengthen the bonds within Asian families and our communities, and between pastors and congregations. We’re hoping that this first conference will serve as a means to bring forward questions that need to be explored if we want to live in a state of personal wellness, including spiritual health.” 

Dr. ChenFeng was raised in a Taiwanese-Presbyterian context, and in her teaching and writing, confronts an array of barriers that may stand between Asians, especially English-speaking East Asians and the mainstream standard of mental health.

The barriers may include unprocessed racial trauma, fierce perfectionism, insistence upon high achievement, deeply held patriarchal attitudes, adherence to hierarchy, and a culturally defining sense of social and personal honor, especially in the traditional context of preserving and protecting familial reputation and standing.

A person sitting in a living room
Asian parents often cite “losing our children to America,” where traditional values are usurped by the western lifestyle, as a common source of grief and friction. Photo: Pexels

“We use the term ‘well-being’ as opposed to ‘mental health’ quite deliberately,” she says, “The current definition of mental health is a white, western thing. Part of the downside of Asians’ model minority status is that I may have a hard time recognizing that I even have challenges, e.g., depression or anxiety,” said ChenFeng.

“The stigma of seeing a therapist is very real for many Asians, but the white-dominant society remains largely oblivious to this. The mainstream lacks racialized awareness,” she says.

Likewise, concepts of “self-love” which clutter social media posts, notions like “putting the oxygen mask on yourself first, before helping others,” and declining invitations or canceling family plans so that you may rest instead, may seem alien or even offensive to some Asians.

The charismatic and Pentecostal religious expressions now common in many Asian communities — so skillfully captured in the Netflix series BEEF — may further complicate the conversation. Many theological positions pose ideological barriers to seeking needed support and help.

“Part of what we want to share in the conference and in our broader work is that struggling with difficult feelings is not a sign of lack of faith. And faith is not the opposite of therapy,” says Dr. ChenFeng.

A woman preparing food in a kitchen
Photo: Pexels

Gender dynamics also play a role since most pastors in Asian Christian communities are men. Generation, age, and class also may form divisions within people of the same ethnic and cultural heritage. She speaks of an experience commonly discussed among immigrant Asian parents, “losing your child to America,” and the grief caused by the departure of Millennial and Gen Z Asians from traditional cultural values.

The classic line, she says, especially from hard-sacrificing, first-generation immigrant parents, goes like this: “We didn’t come to this country so that you could…fill in the blank.”  In fairness, some non-Asians, too, may hear the echo of their own parents’ voices in that statement: “We didn’t come to this country so that you could (pierce your nose)…(waste your money on that expensive gym membership)…(dress like a criminal)…(lose your manners and neglect your grandparents)…(take vacations instead of saving for a house)…(run all over town instead of visiting us)…(date people who don’t share your heritage)…(get into debt)…(sleep until noon every day)…(surf instead of study)…(listen to that awful noise you call music)…”,  and so on.

“Isolation is dangerous to well-being,” says Dr. ChenFeng. “When we experience these sharp generational divisions and changes, suddenly there’s this gap.  It’s lonely and silent, and can lead to a lot of pain.” The role of the modern church can offer pathways through this experience of identity loss and resultant grief to greater communication and a sense of unity, support, and acceptance.

“The intention of the conference is to re-ground the narrative from the community upwards, versus from the top down, meaning not taking direction from an expert, almost always a man, who doesn’t share the cultural perspective,” she says.

When selecting panels for next Thursday’s event, pastors and other thought leaders were chosen for their consistent modeling of gender equity in their ministry and teachings, as well as their authentic knowledge of the specific fears, dreams, and behavioral standards of the communities they represent.

The new book, “Asian American Identities, Relationships and Post-Immigrant Legacies: Reflections From a Marriage and Family Therapist,” which Dr. ChenFeng co-edited and co-authored with Dr. Lana Kim, will be published by Routledge Press in October 2024.

The conference will take place at Payton Hall 101 at Fuller Theological Seminary. Ford Place, Pasadena, CA 91101.


The short URL of this article is: https://localnewspasadena.com/l0h7

Victoria Thomas

Victoria has been a journalist since her college years when she wrote for Rolling Stone and CREEM. Victoria describes the view of Mt. Wilson from her front step as “staggering,” and she is a defender of peacocks everywhere.
Email: [email protected]

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