What Youth Workers Need to Know About Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month

A well-known African American comedian commented that “every month is Black History Month for me.” The idea of ignoring his people for 11 months and then celebrating Black history for one month does sound a little ridiculous. 

While I don’t share his skepticism, I think it is important during Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month to at least bring some awareness and light to the AAPI community as we seek to love and minister to teenagers. As churches and youth ministries, we want to be able to serve our teenagers and families of the AAPI community all 12 months of the year. This can mean anything from serving in AAPI ethnic churches and youth ministries, to church contexts where you might serve just a few AAPI teenagers, to ministering to a teenager who is an adoptee from an AAPI country. Perhaps your church is serving refugee families from an AAPI community. We seek to minister in light of the reality that the demographic landscape in America is changing, and ethnic minorities are now the majority of the population in America.  

So, what do we need to know about AAPI communities and how can this help us as we serve AAPI teenagers and families? 

What does AAPI mean and What Are Some Implications From That?

The AAPI community is not just one large clump of people. Even people of APPI heritage often do not like being grouped into this one large people group. In fact, the communities celebrated during AAPI Heritage Month have origins in the many countries that the Asia-Pacific region encompasses. These includes the Asian continent, the Pacific Islands of Melanesia (ie- New Guinea, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji, and the Solomon Islands), Micronesia (Marianas, Guam, Wake Island, Palau, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, and the Federated States of Micronesia), and Polynesia (New Zealand, Hawaiian Islands, Rotuma, Midway Islands, Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Cook Islands, French Polynesia, and Easter Island). As AAPI communities are spread over such a large geographical area, the Asian American and Pacific Islander community has rich and varied people groups, each with their distinct histories and cultures. Likewise, the acronym comes with slight variations such as APA (Asian Pacific Islander) or AANHPI (Asian American, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders). 

 Even as an American citizen with a Korean ethnic heritage, I admit that I still have a lot to learn about many of the distinct people groups who fall under the AAPI people groups.  

Ultimately, it is important for youth workers and churches to know is there is a great variety of distinct and diverse communities within AAPI communities. If a person of Asian descent walks into your church or youth group with a friend, you cannot assume what people group within all the AAPI communities they belong to. In fact, you can’t even assume just because of the way they look, if they speak English or not, have a personal cultural and ethnic connection with their own AAPI community, or perhaps whether they are more assimilated into Western culture or not. It would be silly for a you as a youth worker to ever assume you know anything about a student’s interests, hobbies, or music preferences, without ever talking with them, getting to know them, and hearing their story. The same is true with any AAPI person.  

Youth Ministry IS Cross- Cultural

As a youth pastor for 29 years at my last church, I always told my younger youth pastor interns that youth ministry, by definition, is across culture. In fact, I taught a seminary class for years called “Youth Ministry Across Culture.” 

One of the main points of the course was that as youth workers, we are in many ways like cross-cultural missionaries. We enter in the social-cultural worlds of our students to love them and to contextualize with them for the sake of the gospel. With any teenager, AAPI or of another cultural heritage, we should seek to know them for who they are, and to learn about their lives, as we ultimately seek to share and disciple them in the gospel. 

For students or families of AAPI ethnic heritage, or any diverse cultural heritage, such as African American, Hispanic, or white, cross-cultural youth ministry might mean to taking interest, recognizing, being sensitive to, or understanding and appreciating another’s ethnic heritage, cultural context, and historical background. Some teenagers I have ministered to are more attuned to their ethnic and cultural heritage, and some are not. It is important with any teenager to grow in our skills for effectively loving and serving them as individuals, which may or may not include effectively serving and helping their cultural or ethnic needs if ministering to them calls for it. Overall, I would just hope as youth workers, we would just increase our sensitivity to diversity, cultures, and ethnicities, for the sake of gospel ministry. 

Ultimately, whether it be seeking to understand the diversity within each unique AAPI person or seeking to minister to AAPI teenagers “cross-culturally,” in the Great Commission the gospel calls for us to make disciples of all nations. As we share the gospel with AAPI teenagers (and all teenagers), the good news of Jesus assures us that we are all adopted children of God through his grace and mercy on the cross. AAPI teenagers (and every teenager), through the power of the gospel in death and resurrection of Jesus, can join the family of God.  Thus, let us love and care for one another, and seek to love our AAPI teenagers (and every teenager), for the sake of the gospel. 

The Burden of Recent Violence Against AAPI Communities

Finally, while there is so much more to say about AAPI teenagers and families, I think it is worth closing this short article by making others aware of an important issue to the APPI community. 

Especially in response to Covid, there has been an increase in harassment and violence against the AAPI community over the last few years. AAPI Heritage month gives us an important opportunity to acknowledge the harassment, violence, and discrimination that AAPI individuals and communities have faced throughout this most recent time period, but also in U.S. history. Learning about this more recent history during Covid, as well as other historical events of discrimination that AAPI people have faced, is an important part of stopping racial discrimination and creating a more accepting future. 

This awareness might help us to understand and serve families and teenagers from the AAPI communities in greater love and compassion. The fear, devastation, and trauma of gun violence in our country is real for many. Likewise, the recent harassment and violence against the AAPI community that arose during Covid has impacted many teenagers and families in the AAPI community in a difficult way, often resulting in fear and trauma. As Christians, we can be more aware of the struggles of the AAPI communities during these recent times and can respond to their fears and traumas with the grace and love of Jesus Christ. 

Danny Kwon, Ph.D., has been serving as the Youth and Family Pastor at Yuong Sang Church for 29 years. He is married to Monica, a Christian counselor and Psychologist, and has three children.  He completed his Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership and teaches as an adjunct professor of Youth Ministry at Eastern University. He has authored three books, A Youth Worker's Field Guide to Parents: Understanding Parents of Teenagers, and Mission Tripping: A Comprehensive Guide to Short Term Missions (Book and Team Journal).  He loves sports, eating, and making people laugh.

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