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Building “Christian Fellowship”: Asian American Student Activism on the West Coast

Five students of different races converse on a grassy field.

Student group discussing interracial relations, August 15, 1944, Photographer: Toge Fujihira, Courtesy of University of California at Berkeley, Bancroft Library.

In his latest book, The End of White Christian America, Robert Jones notes that white Christians currently comprise only 45% of the religious community in the United States. Similarly, Janelle Wong suggests that Asian American—along with Latinx—Christians constitute a vital voting bloc which both the Democratic and Republican parties would be wise to court. Among these non-white Christians, millennials in particular are concerned about gay rights, women’s rights, and racial discrimination. Their regard for social justice is one hallmark of a new form of evangelicalism. Asian American Christianity deserves recognition for its potential to reshape the religious and political landscape of America, but also for its roots in turn-of-the-century Christian movements for justice.

For over a century, young, Christian Asian Americans have used their religion and its evangelical principles to exact social change and combat racial prejudice. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, Chinese, Filipino, and Japanese Christian college students came to the U.S. to study at West Coast universities with the assistance of Christian organizations, such as the Young Men’s Christian Association. In the case of Filipinos, the Pensionado Act of 1903 provided U.S. government-funded scholarships for the sons and daughters of the Filipino elites who often held positions in the American colonial government. Eager to promote a spirit of “cosmopolitanism” and to capitalize on cultural exchange, colleges and universities were eager to admit “respectable” Asian students.

The students themselves believed that they could “build cultural bridges” through fairs, festivals, teas, and Christian fellowship. In 1911, Charles Hurrey of the YMCA formed the Committee on Friendly Relations among Foreign Students. That committee provided administrative and financial funding for Chinese, Filipino, and Japanese students to form their own nation-wide student groups for such activities. In response, students established the Chinese Students Christian Association (CSCA) in 1909 and both the Filipino Student Christian Movement and the Japanese Student Christian Association (JSCA) in 1923. Of vital importance for network building was the publication of student newspapers and periodicals, especially the Chinese Christian Student, the Filipino Student Bulletin, and the Japanese Student Bulletin. Panethnic conferences hosted by the three Asian student organizations provided opportunities for exchange and fellowship. In 1924, Lillian Kwai—a Chinese student exhilarated from the exchange of ideas with other Christian students at a conference in Asilomar, California—declared, “[A] conference of this kind can accomplish much more than the League of Nations in establishing world peace.”

These idealistic students soon discovered, though, how difficult building cultural bridges and Christian fellowship could be. They were surprised to discover that in the United States they were not always treated as the sons and daughters of Chinese and Japanese elites. Nor were they considered Americans, as U.S. officials led them to expect. Often they were simply lumped with other Asian students and derided as “yellow,” “Oriental,” “Jap,” or “Mongolian.” These students arrived in the United States during an intense wave of anti-Asian sentiment on the West Coast, evident in a variety of discriminatory measures, including anti-alien land laws which prevented Japanese immigrants from owning property. The student who attended the conference at Asilomar described how useful it was to share experiences with the “good many of students who are dissatisfied with the way Americans treat them.”

Students experienced this racism on and off campus. A JSCA member was shocked when he couldn’t join the debate team because they didn’t allow Asians to participate. Public accommodations commonly denied service to Asians. Housing was especially problematic for those who needed to live off campus. One Chinese student was “informed by many landladies that they do not take in yellow people.” Another Japanese student confirmed saying, “Most boarding houses and homes for rent are refused to the Japanese students.” Even the YMCAs were segregated. A student in San Francisco explained in an interview, “A Japanese cannot belong to the YMCA. I tried to get a room there and was told they did not rent rooms to Japanese.” Farther up the West Coast in Pullman, Washington, townspeople threatened to pull funding from an International House run by the YMCA if it did not evict its Filipino residents.

The YMCA’s response, or lack thereof, to the problems of housing and segregated facilities disappointed students. One disillusioned CSCA student lamented, “I have always been a Christian and a very zealous one too, but my Christian faith is now very much unsteady on account of the experiences [being denied a room to stay] . . . I now feel quite uncertain as to whether there is true strength in this thing called Christianity.” The YMCA’s response?, “Students should be better ambassadors and not get bogged down in perceived instances of prejudice,” Charles Hurrey advised. Angered, those in attendance at the Oriental Student Conference in 1924, decried the weaknesses of American Christianity, noting there was a “lack of courage on part of preachers and church members in opposing public opinion of racial issues.” The conference-goers agreed “that Oriental students can make Christ more real in American student life by dealing promptly and thoroughly with all cases of racial discrimination…[and] by enlisting the help of true Christian people…in overcoming such practices.”

The CSCA, FSCM, and JSCA addressed racism, on campus and beyond, at student conferences and in their student publications. Building large, panethnic networks, they worked to identify housing options as well as to promote more inclusive college curriculums. During Thanksgiving break in 1927, members of the CSCA attended an interethnic and interracial conference, sponsored by the Northern Institute of Pacific Relations and the YMCA, at the Montezuma Mountain School near Los Gatos, California. CSCA members from the University of California-Berkeley were inspired by the meeting and returned to their campus eager to make an impact on their school’s curriculum, which they believed to be far too narrow and exclusionary. They “suggested that university departments preparing students for the teaching profession incorporate within the regular curriculum a course designed for the specific purpose of considering how to remove racial prejudice.”

Believing deeply in the message of Christian love and equality, many such students continued to embrace social justice activism through the 1950s. Although their methods came to be seen as conservative once the Civil Rights Movement became more urgent by the late 1960s, their contributions to Christian political activism were forerunners of current trends in religion, race, and social justice.

Stephanie Hinnershitz is an assistant professor in the Department of History at Cleveland State University where she specializes in immigration, civil rights, and political history of the United States during the twentieth century. Her first book, Race, Religion, and Civil Rights: Asian Students on the West Coast, 1900-1968, was published in 2015 by Rutgers University Press and her most recent book, A Different Shade of Justice: Asian Americans and Civil Rights in the South was published by UNC Press in 2017.

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