As she took the podium, Jill Rode, a pastor of St. Anthony Park Lutheran Church in St. Paul, Minn., looked out at a roomful of Asian Lutheran leaders of a variety of cultures and vocations. “Congratulations, everyone—you are a part of making history,” she said.

Rode was introducing the inaugural ELCA Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month celebration, held May 23 at St. Anthony Park. “This is the first-ever AAPI Lutheran event of its kind in the whole country,” Rode said to applause.

“Psalm 133:1 says, ‘How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!’ And what a display of God’s creativity and unity here in this room.”

The gathering, organized by ELCA Asian and Pacific Islander Ministries, the Minneapolis Area Synod, the St. Paul Area Synod and local AAPI leaders, was conceptualized by Teresita “Tita” Valeriano as a pilot program for bringing together Lutherans of Asian descent to celebrate AAPI Heritage Month.

“This is the first-ever AAPI Lutheran event of its kind in the whole country.”

Valeriano, program director for Asian and Pacific Islander Ministries, said she envisioned the event as a way to honor diverse heritage, create a community of belonging, and uplift the contributions of AAPI people to the ministries of the ELCA and the greater church. The celebration included food, music, cultural learning and awareness, and the opportunity for attendees to learn from one another and build relationships.

Ann Svennungsen, bishop of the Minneapolis Area Synod, and Patricia Lull, bishop of the St. Paul Area Synod, each offered greetings at the event, as did Tammy Jackson, ELCA senior director for ministries of diverse cultures and communities.

“This [gathering] is a little bit of an experience of Pentecost,” said Moses Penumaka, president of the ELCA Association of Asians and Pacific Islanders, noting that more than 30 languages are spoken among the association’s members. “We celebrate and share our heritage of rich culture, of diversity, of value for the well-being of all, and of deep spirituality, centered in the divine.”

Penumaka called on the ELCA to learn the history of AAPI people and to acknowledge and build into the gifts they bring to the church. “We have so many gifted leaders here,” he said. “The church needs to recognize the many gifts we share and respect the leadership and contribution of Asian American and Pacific Islanders, both lay and ordained ministers.”

“A second, third, fourth”

The gathering featured food prepared by congregations from a variety of cultures, informational tables from AAPI ministries and leaders across the ELCA, and musical performances from several individuals and groups, including ensembles from Eternal Flame Hmong Lutheran Church in St. Paul and Minnesota Faith Chinese Lutheran Church in Roseville.

In addition to the performances, Deanna Kim Bassett, pastor of Christ the River of Life Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, moderated a panel of young Minnesotan AAPI leaders who shared about their backgrounds and roles in the church. Panel members included Ruth Baccam, an activist, artist and designer whose work focuses on the Asian diaspora, and who serves in youth ministry at Lao Evangelical Lutheran Church in Robbinsdale; Jerod Freeberg, a pastor of St. James Lutheran Church in Crystal; Jenn Luong, church partnerships ministry specialist for Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota and a pastor of St. Mark Evangelical Lutheran Church in North St. Paul; and Meisorn Himmtann, a University of Minnesota student and a member of Christ Lutheran Church on Capitol Hill in St. Paul.

“Most people in Minnesota who are Asian don’t go to an ethnic-specific church, an Asian church where their homeland [is represented], where there are refugees,” Kim Bassett said. “So this is one of the few times that we all get to gather here. And it’s a wonderful feeling, the culture that we create in the room.”

“This is one of the few times that we all get to gather.”

Valeriano closed the evening by sharing a common Filipino greeting, “Kumáin ká ná bá?” which means “Have you been fed?” The greeting is a caring way of inquiring how someone is doing without directly asking that question, Valeriano said. She posed the question to those in attendance as a way of sending them out following the gathering.

“Kumáin ká ná bá?” she asked. “Have you been fed by honoring our diversity? Have you been fed by seeing the start of creating a true belonging? Have you been fed by beginning to be inspired to embody a faith of grace and justice?”

From there, Valeriano looked to the group’s future, emphasizing the hope she felt. “This is the first gathering like this—which means we’re calling it the first, right?” she said. “That means there will be a second, third, fourth.”

John Potter
John G. Potter is content editor of Living Lutheran. He lives in St. Paul, Minn.

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