A Church for the Seamstresses

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By Sarah Lam Akutagawa
Illustration by Nathalie Llemos
Aug 01, 2017 | min read
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With a sunshine yellow tracksuit, she was not hard to miss. As her arms rotated in controlled, windmill motions, my grandmother took her place among a dozen other Cantonese seniors at Washington Square Park in San Francisco. Together, they lunged, kicked, pivoted, and waddled. I could always recognize my grandmother because her posture was strong, and her fierce motions were like a metronome among the flurry of maroon sweatpants and floral vests.

In the evenings, my popo (maternal grandmother) was the watchful eye over the shoulder of every busy kitchen helper. She held our rapt attention when she murmured her prayers of thanks before dinner. Around the table, our conversations were mostly in English, so she often sat peacefully in our midst. In her quietness, she held the warmth of the evening. 

My popo passed away earlier this year and my grieving process has brought me in and out of memories like these. In the images I recall, she is intensely active — running laps and setting tables — and she is also intently still, fixed among loved ones, sipping soup from a mug. I long to truly know her heart amid the world that surrounded her. I want to know how a teenage immigrant from Guangdong province became so brave and unyielding in a country she didn’t know. And particularly, I want to uncover a way to hold her spirit in my life now that she’s gone. 

I grew up in the same San Franciscan, Chinese immigrant church that brought my grandmother to faith. 

Modeled after the churches that sent their missionaries to Chinatown, many Chinese immigrant churches in the early to mid-1900s were led by white male pastors who recruited translators for Sunday sermons. Eventually, Chinese and Chinese American male pastors went to seminary and took their place. 

I am grateful for the men who pastored my church; they proclaimed the gospel to my grandmother, pastored my parents through their marriage, and taught my Sunday School classes. They contributed to Easter luncheons and baptized families. They taught me to love Jesus, sing hymns, and serve others. They also demonstrated to me that Christian leadership required a person to be seminary educated, fluent in English, and male. 

The history of male-dominated Chinese immigrant churches coincides with the history of a male-dominated Chinatown. In their shared historical and geographical context, wives, mothers, and daughters were marginalized in the wake of the Chinese Exclusion Act. In response to rising anti-Chinese sentiment, immigrants flooding into San Francisco purchased forged birth certificates from merchant families. Their paper sonship qualified them as citizens. And, when daughters in Guangdong had their birth certificates erased and sold for the migration of Chinatown’s “paper sons”, they were rendered invisible and nonexistent. 

In the bachelor society of Chinatown, women were bought and sold by brothels. These were systems that silenced and commodified women. The history of Chinatown and its churches are bound together because both perpetuated male-dominated structures that diminished women. 

And yet, my church surprisingly became a church of seamstresses. Recently immigrated brides in the panic of social isolation flocked to a Christian community that shared traditional recipes and neighborhood gossip. Overwhelmed mothers caught in cultural tension sent their children to the Chinese language programs and youth clubs. While their husbands worked six to seven days each week, women like my grandmother turned to sewing factories to supplement family income. By day, they raised families. By night, they hunched over whirring sewing machines. And on Sundays, they worshipped. 

My grandmother lived this way, and her industrial sewing table is still fastened to the walls of the kitchen pantry. Despite the overbearing systems at play, Chinatown women found a place in the congregation.

I cannot think of a group as vibrant as the church grandmothers with their monthly Ladies Fellowship. Together, they perfected sticky rice, sponsored new hymnal collections and building retrofits, and dominated the annual church picnic bingo games. They were the “living stones” of the church because they cared for every person as if they were their own. They were selfless, prayerful, generous, and often quirky. As many of them outlived their husbands by decades, I wonder if their resilience manifested itself in prolonged lifetimes, transforming them from vulnerable brides and mothers to timeworn sages.

Well into their 70s and 80s, the Ladies Fellowship sat at the bedside of sick friends around Chinatown, preaching the Gospel to them in the dialect few local pastors remembered. When my grandmother passed away, I could not keep track of the people who told me that she had visited their parents for years to keep them company and pray for them. Grandmothers embody the true church in that way, carrying the burdens of each generation in hidden but meaningful ways.

A Church for the Seamstresses

Despite feeling at odds with the male-dominated leadership of my church, I am inspired by the strong generations of women who lead with little more than a middle school education. Their strength did not come from their status or English proficiency, but their steadfast faith and persistence. Chinatown grandmothers held an alternate power within Chinatown immigrant churches. In a one-dimensional power structure reserved for men, they invested in a multigenerational family, hustled for hard-earned dollars, and relentlessly fought for joy. 

In my own calling as a woman in full-time ministry, I desire a faith cultivated in this secret persistence my grandmother had. As national political tension and racial injustice intensifies, I wonder which voice will speak calm to the storm. Particularly in the Asian American Church, I am desperately looking for solid ground as a faith community. Though, I actually don’t think our nation needs more brilliant preachers or extreme activists. There are more than enough frameworks and theories. Facebook feeds reinforce despair, unforgivingness, and defensiveness. There is a growing disconnect around churches as we discern what discipleship requires in troubled times. 

In the wild chaos of this moment, I look to my popo. I think of her murmured prayers, her unyielding jumping jacks, her dust-covered sewing table, and I long for the Church to possess this kind of faith. 

It is a faith born of an exiled life, rooted in displacement, sustained in prayer, and held together by the determination of a future hope. Immigrant grandmothers know what it is like to follow God in a world that does not recognize them, to worship in a world where no one hears them.  And in the political turmoil that consistently casts Asian American Christians to the margins, we need our church grandmothers to show us how to resist rooted systems of oppression. Whether in our churches or throughout our country, Chinatown grandmothers pursued a resistance that reclaimed dignity through long suffering. They were simultaneously resolute in present engagement and caught up in the dreams of what was to come.

I started seminary this year, and my temptation is to settle for one-dimensional answers on either side of the Church’s ongoing polarities. Instead, I hope to hold together love of church, love of people, and love of family. 

Personally, that means thoughtfully and patiently mobilizing the Church to speak out on behalf of marginalized communities. I want to help parents and their adult children talk about politics and faith with gentleness and honesty. I want to push the Asian American faith community to know itself truly in these precarious days, so we can welcome the fearful and vulnerable among us and watch them become living stones of the Church. 

At times, I weigh whether it is right to be a pastor or an activist, to fight or to practice self-care. But my popo might say that the Kingdom is worth it all, it is worth holding it all together. So while I enjoy seminary classes on the theologies of post-Reformation Church Fathers, I’d like to think I’ll stand behind the pulpit one day and lead like my grandmother.

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Sarah Lam Akutagawa

Sarah Lam Akutagawa is a third generation Cantonese American woman from San Francisco. She loves working with international students in InterVarsity. Her favorite things are Japanese washi tape, developing embodied and compassionate leaders, and her husband. She is wholly grateful to Carol Lee and Sarah Lee for their joint leadership of the 2016 Chinatown Program.

Nathalie Llemos

Nathalie Llemos graduated from ArtCenter College of Design studying illustration with a focus on design. She takes great joy in analog processes and working with her hands. She also enjoys home cooked stews, stop motion films, and loves dogs (pugs).

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