asian/asian american christians…in the 1920s-1930s?

As a race/religion person, most of my work looks at the hereandnow of college students. Scholarship on Asian American campus fellowships didn’t emerge till the 1990s, so it’s a pretty new field of study. Common sense goes that the spike in APA enrollment didn’t happen until the 1970s/80s and these groups didn’t really exist prior–and if they did, they didn’t really do anything that interesting. Or did they?

Yesterday as part of APA Heritage Month @UMD I got to see newly minted Ph.D. Dr. Stephanie Hinnershitz present her research on Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino students who studied in the U.S. in the 1920s and 1930s. Some stayed, some went back, but Hinnershitz’s research looks at the ethnically-based Christian student groups that these students organized and used as a platform to mobilize against racism, housing discrimination, etc. These groups were the basis for pan-ethnic and interracial organizing, and Hinnershitz links them to later efforts in labor movements, civil rights, etc. She documents how the students specifically referred to their religious identities to explain their anger at the discrimination they encountered (e.g., being asked to leave YMCAs).

Hinnershitz’s presentation was a lot of fun–to think about my parents’ experiences as immigrants at UIUC in the late 1960s, parallels with “current” Asian American Christian campus communities, the transnational interplay between the U.S. and Asia, how it’s all (as Ed Blum would say) racialized religion or religion-ized race, the complexities of ethno-religious identity, etc. While there has been a recent-ish “blossoming” of civic activism among evangelicals, it might be fun for Asian American Christians to learn more about their historical predecessors who challenged racism and injustice.

Of particular interest to AsianAm scholars should be Hinnershitz’s argument that what was going on in these groups was meaningful work in establishing some sense of Asian American pan-ethnicity (or pan-Oriental as they probably called it, per the time) identity, community, and collaboration…which puts a whole new spin on the generally accepted narrative that Asian American pan-ethnicity didn’t really take off until the late 1960s. I’m guessing that there are some unique distinctions between the two eras, but hearing about what went on in the 1920s-1930s (and in a religious context, of all places) was fascinating…and Hinnershitz draws some links between the two eras–overall, a super interesting contribution to the field. It was fun to hear AAST Director Extraordinaire Janelle Wong remind students in attendance that scholarship is active and ever-changing when we make new discoveries. So much fun, and free pizza to boot.

Dr. H has accepted a tenure-track position at Valdosta State University, so look out for her book in the coming years. Can’t wait to read it!

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