As youth leaders, we have the responsibility to be intentional in the ways we serve all of our students, including those who have diverse family dynamics, backgrounds, and even cultures. In this episode, join us as we hear Jean Sohn and Esther Gray share their experiences growing up as immigrant students, and unpack what it can look like for all of us to better serve immigrant students—and their families—in our ministries going forward.
Voices In This Episode
- Esther’s story of moving to the U.S. from Venezuela (2:24)
- Jean’s story of being a second generation Korean-American (8:24)
- Crystal’s story of being married to a man from Taiwan (15:28)
- As ministry leaders, what are some things we don’t understand about the unique challenges that come with being an immigrant student? (18:14)
- 19:44: “As an immigrant student, the concept of the future was a hard thing to think about.” –Esther Gray
- Looking back, what are some things your church did well in serving immigrant students? (24:55)
- 27:54: “As an immigrant student, what I wanted was to belong with everybody.” –Esther Gray
- How do you navigate the tension between recognizing your students’ different circumstances but not allowing their circumstances to cause you treat them differently than their peers? (30:28)
- 31:35: “Relational equity is so important with any student who is different in your group.” –Jean Sohn
- Do I need to do a better job communicating with parents who have different backgrounds? (35:07)
- 38:00: “When in doubt, maybe the best thing to do is have a conversation with the students themselves and ask, ‘What’s the best way for me to communicate this with your parents?’” –Brett Talley
- 39:20: “Knowing their name and pronouncing their name correctly is a really big deal.” –Crystal Chiang
- Are there things we can be doing as youth pastors to better serve the entire family of an immigrant student? (40:22)
- 42:18: “Just be the church. Even if you don’t understand or know what they’re going through, love them like Jesus does. It’s that simple.” –Esther Gray
- 43:52: “The more you show that you care about their child, the more trust you build with their parents.” –Jean Sohn
- 49:11: “If a student doesn’t see someone who looks like them, they may not think it’s for them. And at the same time, if they don’t see someone who looks different than them, they won’t understand the full scope of the Kingdom.” –Brett Talley
- What advice would you give to leaders who are afraid of offending? (50:31)
– What’s up, everybody? Thanks for hangin’ out with us today. My name is Brett, and I am really excited to be hangin’ out with three friends of mine. Jean.
– What up?
– Hey there.
– And Esther.
– Hey, hey.
– And, Esther, this is your very first time on the podcast with us, correct?
– That’s right.
– Very cool, so tell us a little about yourself.
– I’ve been a, in ministry for 10 years. And I’ve been a NextGen pastor, family pastor, and children’s pastor. I am married, and I have two kids. Two boys, and one of ’em is a very aggressive cuddler.
– Yeah, my son is an aggression, aggressionately affectionate, if that’s a phrase.
– Aggressionately? Is that what you said?
– Okay, cool.
– Aggressionately affectionate. Coining that phrase right now.
– Do it.
– Alright, so, today we are going to be talking about something that it’s very easy for conversations like this to go in certain directions and for it to get really political, different things like that. But our goal today is not to get political with this conversation, obviously. Our goal is to talk about it in the framework of ministry and how we can be the most helpful that we can to the families in the situations that we’re going to be talking about today. So, today, we’re going to be talking about the idea of caring for immigrant students within our ministries. So, if you’re listening, or if you’re watching, then you hear that, and you probably think of one to two things. Oh, great, this’ll be really helpful because I have students of immigrants families in my ministry, and I’m trying to figure out how to best help them connect with our ministry and serve them. Or you might be on the other side of that, which is where I would’ve been most of my life, where you’re thinking to yourself, everyone who goes to my church looks like me. And I don’t have students that are from immigrant families or are from other countries. So, how do I even prepare for something like that if it were to happen at some point? So, since I don’t really have a ton of experience with this, I’m really excited that we have some people at the table with some experience, who will be able to speak into this and probably even push and challenge me a little bit in my conceptions or misconceptions about what this should look like or what this could look like. So, Esther, would you tell us a little bit about your story first.
– Sure. So, I am originally from Venezuela. I was born there. I came to the U.S. when I was 14 years old, and it was a hard thing to do. For example, the school was kind of hard.
– [Brett] Sure.
– I was telling Jean earlier that, that when I first started I started as an ESL student, which means English as a Second Language student. And after a little while, six months, I learned English, and I was able to move on to the, to regular classes. And I was just tellin’ her, like, I, after that I didn’t see any of the other kids, and they didn’t want to talk to me . So, it was kind of weird, and.
– Sorry, you went from non-English speaking to non-ESL, like, fully English-integrated in six months?
– Wow, that’s awesome. That’s it. I just wanted to stop and go. I taught foreign language for years, and nobody moved that fast. So, that’s awesome.
– I’ve always been interested in languages. So, I think I, that’s kind of what got me into that a little more. And I grew up in a family, which not everybody has the same story so, but I grew up in a family that my grandma, so actually I am half Venezuelan, half Nicaraguan. So, not a lot of people know that . But my parents met in Venezuela and married there. So, and then, my grandma was from Nicaragua. My grandpa was from France. So, there were multiple languages in my house already growin’ up so it was, it was, I think that helped a bit, you know, on going to a different country and learning a different language and not being super, you know.
– I can’t imagine at 14 moving schools. Like that would have been a challenging enough transition, but to throw in the mix also moving countries and moving, you know, not just maybe a state or two away from what I have known, but hundreds of miles away from what I’ve known. And then, to have six months of starting to build a community, and then that completely change. And you moving to like, there are so many different variables there that like as a 14-year-old I don’t think I would’ve handled very well.
– It was definitely hard. I mean, I think that what really kept me grounded, or really kept me not like going crazy or like taking that dark side on that was that my church life was great. So, in school, yes, I was lonely, and I felt different all the time. And it was just not fun to go to school, even though I loved school. But going to church and having those friends always there and that helped, sort of like that transition. That’s why I thought this, having this conversation here today will be so good because it can make such a huge difference in the life of like an immigrant child so.
– So, in the church that you went to, were there a lot of other students from immigrant families? Were there other people that were dealing with what you were dealing with?
– Right, so, when we first got here, we got here, and we went to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. So, yes, the melting pot of anything. You know, so, that was kind of easy to go there. But even though it was a melting pot, it still had that issue in school. But going to our church, our church was very good about loving and caring for families who were going through what we were going through. And they were, I mean, the church had, was translated into like 60 languages. I mean, it was crazy.
– Oh, wow.
– The amount of effort that they made to make sure that everybody felt like they had a place, they had a home. So, that’s how, that’s what go us into going to that church specifically. So, for me, when I first came into the youth ministry ’cause I was 14 going to 15, I was going. I actually had to switch small groups ’cause I went in before school, the school year. And once the school year started, because I was from a different country, and our school systems are different, like, I was a junior in high school at 14.
– [Brett] What?
– Yes, in Venezuela, and I got here, and I was like, oh, no, you have to be in ninth grade.
– Waa waa.
– And I was like, no, no, no, no, no. Listen, let’s not do that. So, they actually put me back into 10th grade so kind of like the middle ground, and I was so upset. But that meant like my groups of friends will change and all that so. It was just a lot of change in a lot of things very fast. But there were some immigrant kids in there. There were some. I know there was a guy from Honduras. His name was Carlos. He was one of my really good friends, and I think what they, somethin’ that they did really well when I first came in. So, my first day at church, they, somebody talked to me, said, “Welcome,” and then they saw that I had, I was struggling like a little bit with sayin’ what I needed to say. And they’re like, they found me a friend, which side note, that friend works here. And she introduced me to Caraleena, who was from Brazil and spoke Spanish and Portuguese. So, I had two friends who were already speaking the language, but they also speak English too. So, it was a good entryway to that, and then every other friend was from, you know, from there or.
– Okay, so, I want to come back to your kind of student ministry experience in a little bit.
– But I want us to jump into Jean’s story a little bit.
– So, Jean, talk us through what has your story been when it comes to this?
– Yeah, so, I am a second generation Korean American, which basically means my parents are first generation ’cause they came from Korea to the United States.
– So, they were born in Korea.
– They were born in Korea.
– They’re first generation.
– But first gen.
– Because they were the part of the family that moved to the States, okay.
– That moved here, right. And then, I was born here, but because my parents are Korean it makes me Korean American.
– So, would Esther be first generation, and would her parents be first generation?
– So, I think Esther is more 1.5 because she came, you know, kind of in the middle of her teenage years.
– Okay, so her parents were first generation.
– And then her parents are like first gen, yes.
– And she was kind of a part of that, but you can’t be the same generation as your parents.
– Right, but not fully, right.
– Because that’s weird.
– Yeah .
– So, 1.5.
– 1.5, yeah.
– 1.5, sounds good to me.
– So, second generation Korean American, okay.
– I’m Korean American, just kind of grew up here, was, you know, part of the American culture, and my parents were really big on living out the American Dream. So, their hopes and dreams were all really poured into me and sisters. I have two other sisters. I’m a middle child.
– Where’d you guys move to?
– So, we moved, we moved to DeKalb County here in Georgia. I’ve grown up there my whole life. Went to Tucker High School. Went to the University of Georgia.
– Like did, very, I guess, American things . If that’s appropriate, I don’t know. So, yeah, I mean.
– So, you’re second generation Korean Southern American.
– Yeah, yeah, but it’s interesting. I don’t think I have an accent, but I’ve been to New York before and have talked with other Asian American people in like New York. And they say, oh, you kind of do sound a little Southern, and I’m like, do I really?
– I don’t know.
– Yeah, it is interesting.
– I don’t really hear it.
– Yeah, I don’t think so. I don’t think I have an accent, but maybe I do. I don’t know, I don’t know. Yeah, so, I kind of grew up just, yeah, just living as, you know, with a lot of pressure to do really well, perform really well as coming from in immigrant background because I’m competing with all these other people who are used to the culture. And they, we, my parents kind of viewed it more of they’ve got a lot more opportunities and things that are available to them, whereas we may not so you’ve got to work 10 times harder. So, hard work and getting things done and accomplishing goals were a really big value growing up for me.
– Interesting. So, what, was your school experience very different from Esther’s? Would you say that your school experience really was affected by being a second generation Korean American?
– I think for sure, and it’s funny because within kind of the second generation immigrant kids it’s also different ’cause my husband is also second generation Korean American, but he grew up with parents that met here in the United States. They went to the University of Ohio, or, yep, University of Ohio, and got a college education, started working corporate jobs. So, he actually didn’t have as many pressures growing up because his parents kind of understood the American way of doing schooling. Whereas my parents didn’t really quite understand schooling, and so their view was just like, you can get anything done just based off hard work and dedication. Like, anything is possible. Just work hard at it, study for, you know, three o’clock in the morning, like, do all this stuff. You’re going to be successful, and it’s going to be awesome. And you’re going to grow up to be a doctor, a lawyer, architect, that’s what you’re going to be. And you can achieve anything just by working hard. And so.
– Not my experience growing up by the way.
– Mine either.
– So, for me, I, it was like, you’ve got to study, you’ve got to work, you got to do all this stuff. Whereas my husband really got to, you know, participate in a lot more of like high school team sports and doing a lot of this other stuff. Playing with neighborhood kids. I didn’t get to do that because my parents were entrepreneurs. They opened up their own alterations business, and they did that for years. But I would always, they would drop me off at school early, pick me up. I would have tutoring and also orchestra lessons and violin lessons and all this stuff, kind of typical, I guess, Asian activities. Because this was actually very common for us to go to SAT tutoring or go to other classes outside of just regular school because the parents, they were working so hard as immigrants because they didn’t have the education, as much money, or status, I guess, that they were really investing all of that into their kids.
– So, I can’t imagine moving to a different country at 14. I also can’t imagine the kind of pressure that you probably felt for your family, of performing a certain way, getting certain grades, getting to a certain place in life. Was that a challenging thing to have to figure out in the midst of everything else that you’re doin’ when you’re in middle school and high school?
– Yeah, for sure, and there was a lot of comparison. There’s a lot of comparison within our culture. When we would go to church, parents would brag about all the awards their kids were winning, what scholarships they got, what colleges they were going to. And it was just, it was, it’s really hard. And school and hard, school in general is just really hard. And eventually my mom actually went back and got her high school diploma, and she was telling me when she was getting, doing some of her courses, she was learning about sine, cosine, tangent all this stuff, she’s like, what? This is just crazy.
– How old were you when that was happening?
– So, I had actually already graduated from college so. My sisters and I, we had all graduated. She went back to school and got, you know, got to accomplish some of her dreams that she wanted to accomplish. And she came back and was like, “I am so sorry because I put “so much pressure on you in school. “I didn’t understand how hard this actually is. “No amount of hard work, “yes, hard work is really important, “but I really should have been “understanding as to how hard this really is.”
– [Crystal] Oh, wow.
– So, it was really interesting for me to see that because we’re actually still kind of working through that because there’s other things that come with immigrant parents with language barriers, cultural differences, all of that stuff that they just. Sometimes you’re just like I just, I can’t tell you all this stuff ’cause you’re just not going to understand. No amount of the language, amount of language knowledge that I know is going to fully explain the things that I am going through that it’s going to make sense to you.
– Alright, so, I do want to jump into that in just a minute, but I want to address the other person at the table real quick.
– [Crystal] Hey.
– If you’ve listened to the podcast before, friends, then you’ve heard the name Crystal Chiang, and you’re heard the voice. But if you’re watching on video for the first time, you might be thinking to yourself, this is not what I thought Crystal Chiang was going to look like.
– [Crystal] You don’t think I look like I have the last name Chiang?
– So, Crystal Chiang is not from another country.
– [Crystal] I am not.
– You’re from the mountains of Georgia.
– [Crystal] That’s true.
– [Brett] But tell us a little bit about how you can relate in some ways to what we’re talking about here.
– So, I grew up in the definition of a monoculture. Everybody looked the same and was from the same family almost in a way that was creepy and weird, right? And when I started college, my very first college roommate was from Brazil. She had been in the U.S. for nine months. And we ended up living together for three years, and she changed my life because she challenged perspectives for me over and over. I thought the way that I was doing things was the right way. It turns out it was just the American way . And the things that I thought about, politics, and religion, and faith, and family, it turns out a lot of that was influenced by my own culture, and I didn’t even know I had a culture.
– And so, I will forever be grateful to Natalia. And then after that, I became a high school teacher, and for five years I taught in a school that was between 30 and 40% Hispanic. And often what, I was a Spanish teacher, but I often ended up teaching Spanish-speaking students, who were in our English as a Second Language program because it was like, hey, you’re other classes are really difficult. This is one that might be helpful for you to understand the connection between English and Spanish. So, I ended up teaching a ton of ESL students, which was really fun. And then, I moved from that school to a 40% Asian school, where students were also second culture but from a different second culture. And so, learning to work with students in that way was really helpful. Learning to partner with families in that way was really helpful. I didn’t know how helpful until I married my husband, who is from Taiwan and is a first generation immigrant kid who grew up learning to speak English in Colorado after moving here from Taiwan. And so, suddenly all of this became really, really personal for me because his experience has informed how I understand my students’ experience now.
– [Brett] Absolutely.
– So, I’m learning a lot still in this way. I’m learning what it means to partner with families, and my own small group right now looks a little bit like the United Nations. And I love that. But also that means there’s a lot of connecting dots. Like, this makes sense for your family, but I don’t think this makes sense for your family. And how can I help? And so, I’m really grateful that we get to have this conversation with Jean and with Esther because I’m like, teach me all the things. Teach me the things I don’t know.
– I want to get into the student ministry conversation in just a minute, but first I still want to dive a little bit deeper into this idea of what do, as ministry leaders that might come from this, what’d you call it?
– Monoculture. What are some other things that we just absolutely can’t recognize and don’t understand about some of the unique challenges that come along with that?
– Yeah, so, for me, I think, as 14, 15, because I was on the verge there, I had to grow up really fast. I had to go into a lawyer’s office and translate legal talk to my parents. I mean, what 14-year-old does that?
– [Brett] Yeah.
– And then, throughout the whole time, like up to maybe a couple years ago, the uncertainty of will this work out? You know, will, and I’ve been here for 15 years. It’s still had, what was in my mind.
– So, that was still a concern. That was a still a worry.
– Still a concern.
– As an adult.
– As an adult, yes.
– As a person who married a white guy. You know, like , it’s still. And it was because of my, my parents were still on that process of getting their legal status figured out. But it was the uncertainty definitely. It was big part of our life, everyday life. Another thing would be future. Like the concept of the future was, was a hard thing to think about. Just, not just because of the uncertainties, because of opportunities available. I graduated with great grades. I had, if I were, if I were to be a resident when at the time that I graduated, I would’ve gotten a scholarship to go to school. I didn’t. Even though I had everything, I didn’t have what it took to get that, and that was really hard, you know? And then, for an illegal immigrant child or a family that is here illegally, it is a very, very hard time, and it’s a, their uncertainty is way greater. And the shut doors and things that they can experience are very, very interesting and very hard for that.
– Yeah, and what’s wild is you at 14 years old, you had absolutely no play in whether you were an illegal or a legal immigrant.
– Your, you know, your parents made decisions, and they came here, and they were illegal immigrants.
– [Esther] That’s right.
– And students, I think, aren’t even always aware of their family’s status.
– Like, I remember teaching this young lady in my class. Her name was Ruthie, and Ruthie, I mean, she was a child. So, no one discusses their legal status with their children always.
– And so she didn’t discover her status until she was 16 and starting to think about college. And suddenly that, like you said, reframed her future.
– Yeah, and, you know, some kids might know. Some kids might feel the tension at home, and that might be something for our leaders to really think about. If you’re seeing some tension in students or some tension in kids, then maybe start thinking of how to help or how to have conversations that it’s not. And not putting anybody on, you know, hey, tell me what’s goin’ on in your family because that is a very real thing that people do not want to disclose their status. And I didn’t even, and I was legal. I didn’t even want to get into that conversation with anybody that I didn’t trust. So, I might’ve talked to some of my friends and some of my leaders, but this is what’s not an open conversation to everybody. And it’s just because you have fear of what that information can do for your family or for you. And so, yeah, people treat you differently, and it’s just something to think about.
– Yeah, I totally agree with the having to grow up and become an adult super fast because, yeah, I’ve had to, I’ve walked in to like post offices and had to fill out, you know, certified mail forms as a five-year-old ’cause I was the only one that could read and really understand. Or my parents being entrepreneurs, and if we went on vacation, I was the one who had to type up on my computer, like, going on vacation, we’ll be, store will be closed. You know, I had to do a lot of the things my parents just weren’t able to do. So, if phone bills came in that were weird or the charges were really high, my parents would say, can you look at this? Like, I don’t understand why. Can you call the phone company? And I’m like, I don’t really want to. Because I don’t even know what I’m supposed to be asking either. You know, ’cause like you’re literally 12, 13 years old, and you’re on the phone with Bell South. And you’re like, “Ah, something’s wrong with the charges.” And they’re like, “Well, what’s wrong with them?” I have no idea. My mom just told me to call you guys so.
– Oh, my gosh.
– Yeah, so, I was, I’ve been doin’ that since I was about five years old, writing forms, filling things out for my parents, all of it. So, yeah.
– Okay, so, let’s fast forward a little bit to middle school, high school years. Let’s talk about your experiences in student ministry. So, Esther, you already shared a little bit. You got a ministry background. Crystal, we know, ministry background, small group leader currently. And, Jean, you’ve been on the podcast before, and you’ve explained this.
– But give us a little bit of feedback about what your ministry looks like right now.
– Yeah, so, I work at Gwinnett Church, which is a church here in Atlanta, Georgia, and I am the director for our middle school ministry over there. So, we have a new campus over in Hamilton Mill where we just have different kinds of students walkin’ in, and not everyone looks the same. We all look very different, and we try really hard to reflect that even in our volunteers, in the people on our stage, and even our communicators, band people, and staff, just like me.
– Awesome. So, you guys are coming at this from the perspective of we lived through some of these challenges going through middle school and high school, and we’ve also worked on the leadership side of ministry and trying to help this happen. So, from your perspective now looking back, what are some of the things in middle school and high school that you feel like the churches did well? The way that you feel like the churches help set you guys up for success to transition well, to have community where you were.
– Yeah, so, for me, I grew up in a monoculture Korean church where you walked in, everyone looks Asian. And that’s not what the world is like. So, Sundays was kind of the day where you actually got to be yourself.
– And you weren’t looking around the room going, is there anyone else that looks exactly like me? And I actually still do that as an adult. I will walk into a room, and I’m like, oh, look, there’s an Asian person there. Oh, there’s, oh, there’s an Asian person on stage. Like, there’s an Asian person on TV. That’s so cool. A whole movie on Asian people. It’s amazing, and I’m sure if you have not experienced that, like, you just are not aware of just kind of the different cultures that are around. But, yeah, like when you, since I’ve grown up in just a monoculture on Sundays with my youth group, that’s, you just kind of get to go in. There’s an understanding amongst everyone that there is this pressure with your parents, that your parents are really strict, that you’re not allowed to do certain things. Or you have to go to tutoring, or you’re learning a stringed instrument, or you play the flute and piano. Like, those were kind of the things that we all kind of commiserated on, and there was just a common understanding, which in our youth group that’s kind of what made us all really mesh really well together. ‘Cause there was just this common understanding. There didn’t need to be any explanation about how we grew up, what family was like, because everyone understood.
– Awesome. So, your experience was a little bit different. It wasn’t necessarily a monoculture.
– Yes, right.
– What do you feel like your student ministry did well?
– Yeah, so, so we went to this First Baptist Church in Fort Lauderdale, which that’s the name, First Baptist Church.
– Shout out.
– Yeah, shout out.
– So, I hope that we won’t get too specific about what they didn’t do well in case they’re listening.
– It was great, it was great. They really did really good with us. So, I think that being in a church in the middle of Fort Lauderdale was an easy, well, at least it seemed like it was an easy fit bein’ into a melting pot of people right there in downtown Fort Lauderdale. And they did that very, very well. They, the church was translated in many languages, and the service, and for the student ministry, I think that my favorite part is that they did not separate us. I’ve seen it in other places that they have, like, Spanish, you know, thing over here. And then, they had the regular youth group, and I, for, in my experience and what I wanted, was to belong with everybody. So, for me it was the best thing that I went into this ministry where we were all different, and they kind of really, kind of banked on that and really encouraged that and loved on us. And our small group was filled of all different things, all different, all different kinds of people, and we loved it. And I think we were loved and cared for, and it didn’t matter what we looked like or what we sound like . You know, and it was great. I think that’s what they did really, really good for us.
– Did your small group leader do anything specific that was helpful in helping other students understand you or helping you understand other students?
– One of my favorite things that they did not do was kind of put me on the spot and ask me to pray. That was my number one fear . I was like, please don’t ask me to pray in English or Spanish. I just don’t want it. So, I think that’s something that they did was that. They didn’t put any pressure on me. You know, to participate or not. Just listen, and stay here, and be a part of us, even if you don’t say anything for the whole day. They introduced me to some people. They spoke Spanish, and that was helpful for me. I was able, I remember comin’ in with my Spanish bible, and whenever they were talkin’ about something, I’m like, okay, where is it, where is it? Oh, that, that’s what they’re talking about. Okay, great. You know, so, it was just that. It was great that they will give me this flexibility to, to be myself, to go ahead and say things if I wanted to, and I didn’t have to. You know, I was not forced to participate. I was not forced to make anything. But even though I was not forced to do that, they were always checkin’ on me. So, they always asked me how I was doin’. They always like took care of that side of me, even if it wasn’t in front of everybody. They’re like, hey, how’s everything? How’s everything with your mom? How’s everything with you? Hey, what’s going on? Okay, are you guys doin’ okay? Okay, great. How’s school? ‘Cause they, that was one of the hardest part for me was school, and they were very, they asked for those things. And to this day, to this day, those small group leaders are my favorite people and the people that impacted my life in the biggest way.
– ‘Cause I can imagine there’s this tension between wanting to ask questions and wanting to be specific but also not wanting to feel like you are being called out or that we’re singling people out. And so, what, what’s that tension? How do you walk in that tension between recognizing that you just have different circumstance, and we want to walk along side of you and serve you in the circumstance, but we don’t want to treat you different than all of your peers?
– Right. I think it’s the leader. It will be more of your personal experience with that person. Not in front of everybody.
– So, this isn’t a group thing.
– No, this is how you care for that specific person, what you do to that one person.
– Because within that relationship, then it can open up to, hey, this is what really is going on at home, or. But if we don’t have that relationship, if you don’t care enough to ask those questions not in front of people, then I don’t feel safe so.
– Yeah, I definitely think the relational equity is so important when you have, for any student that’s just different in your group. But I know for like when I grew up in the Korean church, what they could probably improve on was that relational equity between the ministry and the parents.
– So, I grew up in the Korean church. Within the Korean one, this one Korean church, there are actually two separate ministries, one that only spoke Korean, and the other ministry only spoke English.
– So, I attended just the English ministry side. So, there was actually two youth groups.
– But one was considered a Korean ministry youth group. The other one was the English ministry.
– And they met like at different times?
– They met at different times, different locations.
– Oh, that’s interesting.
– We did not, it did not mesh.
– Were they people you went to school with?
– Yeah, sometimes you would go to, yeah, you would go to the same school as some of these kids.
– But you were, they were separate. But because it was English ministry, like we spoke English, and most of the parents are first generation, don’t speak that much English, it was hard to build that like partnering with parents.
– The bridge.
– The bridge, that gap, to communicate. Like, hey, is everything okay? And also in just our culture, it’s so valued that you respect your elders. So, if an elder says something like, you’re not allowed to go on this weekend retreat. There, that’s the final word. Like, there is no, but, you know, your life can be changed. Yeah, your life could be changed at home too. You know, it could just be. So, like the final, whatever the parents said was the final word, and you never debated that or could really sway them. And so, I think in the monoculture church that I grew up in, we could have probably improved on building those better relationships with parents to gain their trust. Because for me, my parents had a hard time trusting people, other people outside of our family because they just didn’t understand. They’re new. They don’t understand. They don’t understand what’s going on. They don’t really know what a church retreat is. You mean you’re goin’ away for a whole weekend? Like, what are you doing? Is there studying involved? Is there a time when you’re going to open up some text books and is someone coming to tutor? Like that, anything, I was only allowed to do anything if it advanced my, I guess, my life and my career.
– When I became an adult so.
– I think that that is a very good point. And in our church that it was great. It took care of the immigrant families and all of that. I think that for the student ministry, that was something that was missing also, the connection with the family. And I don’t know. It might’ve had to, it might have to do with the fact that we had tons of different leaders going through the ministry so it was kind of hard to.
– [Brett] Yeah, not a lot of consistency, yeah.
– That consistency, but.
– And so, probably a lack of trust.
– If there’s not a lot of consistency, longevity, there’s some trust issues maybe.
– Right, but I think that my parents didn’t know anything unless I told them, that was goin’ on in our, in the student ministry. And I was very involved in it. And then, because I was involved kind of made them be involved. So, that kind of helped a little, you know? But I think that’s somethin’ that they could’ve done better.
– So, there’s almost a level of overcommunicating or at least looking at the way that we are communicating and trying to look at it kind of through the culture lens that you were talkin’ about earlier, Crystal, where I feel like I’m communicating well. But am I just communicating well to people that already have the disposition to understand some of this thing, some of this naturally? And do I need to do a better job of helping people understand. If it’s a weekend trip, really laying out. ‘Cause most of my parents, if I say, “Hey, we’re doin’ a fall retreat.” They might already know a lot of what that means, but are there some families who need some more explanation to lay out, hey, this is what we’re going to be doing. This is why we do, cast a little vision, give a little bit more of an explanation.
– Yeah, like missions trips are like, what is a missions trip? That doesn’t translate to another language as easily. Maybe even explaining that. Not assuming that parents already know some of these words, or just being like, “Oh, well, it’s a camp.” Well, what’s a camp like? I don’t understand what that means.
– To explain all that.
– I’ve noticed in my own group, faith traditions like baptism need sometimes some cultural like explanation. There’s a girl in my group whose family is from Germany, and initially they were really uncomfortable with the idea of her being baptized. And the girl’s explanation, because she was a 15-year-old girl, was, “My parents “aren’t into anything religious “so they’re just not okay with it.” And I called her mom just to have a conversation about it, and what it came down to was not at all her assumptions. What it came down to is in Germany there would’ve been a legal requirement to go physically to an office and change her name.
– Oh, wow.
– Because baptism and naming are connected legally there, and I was explaining, no, no, no. In our faith tradition, this is entirely symbolic. There’s nothing legal attached. You don’t have to go back to Germany.
– [Brett] Interesting.
– And her mom’s response was, “Oh, great, I’ll throw a party. “Everyone come over.”
– She was all in.
– I love it.
– Oh, that’s all it took? Like, that was it.
– Oh, wow.
– And so, I’m learning as a leader to just ask the questions sometimes. Like, what do you think about this? And how can I help?
– And that’s where, that’s where to me I think sometimes fear would stop me from reaching out because I wouldn’t want to, I wouldn’t want to reach out to somebody and say, “Hey, so, maybe you’ve heard “that there’s this mission trip coming up.” And in my mind, I wouldn’t be able to figure out how to say, “I don’t know “if you know what that is. “Do you know what that is? “Do you need me to explain what that is?”
– Yeah, that feels offensive. No, don’t do that.
– And then my fear is that I’ve made you feel absolutely terrible when I’m just trying to help. And so, it’s probably just trying to figure out and have some outside conversations to say, maybe even with the student themselves, saying, hey, what’s the best way for me to help your parents understand what this is to the place where they’ll be more comfortable letting you go or at least they’ll have a better grasp on what this looks like for us.
– Does that make sense? Would you guys have any tips of how ministry leaders could communicate better to their parents?
– So, for my parents, it would’ve been a little different. And the way that my family, or my, at least just my mom and dad, work is if you know their name, you know, very simple. But if you go, hey, Guana, thank you so much for, I love your daughter. She is awesome, always say that. Just kidding. So, we love havin’ her. We love havin’ your son. So, we’re havin’ this trip. It’s a, you guys are okay with that? You have any questions? Alright, cool, great, thank you. And just by makin’ that connection that, oh, my goodness, he knew my name. Wow, that made, that would’ve made a huge difference in my parents’ life, or in my mom’s life, you know? And I think that just makin’ it like that will be helpful.
– And just for our English speaking friends, knowing the name and pronouncing the name correctly is a really big deal.
– Yeah, for sure.
– Like, it takes an extra 10 seconds to learn how to pronounce a name correctly.
– Or, you know, a little tries, a few tries.
– Yeah. Just a little practice.
– I know sometimes in our student ministries though, we rely on our students to, I guess, explain all the announcements that are kind of happening in our, but with I think, students that are coming from this different background. They don’t want to spend the time to like explain to their parents. It just gets really frustrating. So that language barrier is, can be really difficult because sometimes students just say, well, it’s just not worth my time to try and explain to my parents. And then, it gets frustrating, and then they get angry. You know, so, that can be hard. So, with an adult small group leader who can partner together with that parent and explain really well what these different things look like in our ministry area I think would be really helpful.
– So, along these same lines, are there any things that as ministry leaders we can be doing to really serve the entire family? It feels a little bit different, maybe even more intentional than normal, in these sort of situations where there might be a language barrier, where there’s obviously a culture barrier. There might be some pieces that just aren’t necessarily connecting. What are some things that we can do on our end to help serve those families better and not just the students?
– It will definitely put you out of your comfort zone as a leader. It will definitely do that, but I think it is, it is so necessary. If you really want to reach out, if you really want to help, then get to know your people. Get to know their stories. You know, we talked about all the things, all the things to make things personal in the life of a ministry or a child, and you have to do those for immigrant families too. You know, and get to know them, get to know their story. And, but all of that doesn’t happen from afar. Like, you have to get dirty. You have to go down there and just go and serve your people no matter what they’re going through, no matter who they are. Maybe you have like 300 kids in your ministry, but this is important. This is somebody’s life that you don’t even know is struggling, you know? And that you should take care of because maybe you are the person that can link them back to God. Or you’re the person that can make ’em stay. You know, yeah, so, it’s important I think. Be personable.
– And honestly it feels like the bar is really low when it comes to caring for families who are from different places because I think our culture, at least in the U.S., our culture doesn’t do that very well. So, sometimes one extra step of being kind towards the family is so different than what they’re experiencing at school or what they’re experiencing at work.
– I think it’s noticeable.
– Yeah. And, yeah, definitely just bein’ the church even though you don’t really understand them or even though you don’t, you don’t really know what they’re going through. But just loving like Jesus does. I mean, it’s super simple, but it’s, but that’s what’s needed.
– It’s, that’s it.
– And I’m a fear-based person. Maybe some people can relate with me. And so, like so often in those situations, I would shy away from that because I’m afraid I’m going to offend somebody. I’m going to say the wrong thing. Something along those lines. But like what you guys have already said, which I know to be true, is that when you just are genuinely interested in somebody, you build trust.
– For sure.
– And that trust builds the, builds a bridge to where, even if you end up saying something you didn’t mean to be offensive, when there’s trust, when they know that you’re genuinely interested in getting to know them, that stuff just, you know.
– It blows away.
– I’m assuming it just kind of bounces off more than if somebody says something, and you don’t have that relationship.
– But I think when you go into conversations with parents going back to when you were talking about I’m afraid to offend someone.
– I think it’s okay to preface, like, I just am new at this. I don’t really know.
– For sure.
– And please let me know if this is not helpful.
– [Crystal] Give me some grace.
– Give me some grace. Please forgive me. But we really love your child, and we really want him or her to be at this event or to come on Sunday or come to the Friday night whatever because we. You know, and I think the more you show that, parents love their kids, and they want to have other people that love their kids too.
– [Crystal] That’s right.
– And the more you really show that you really care about their child, they’re going to be like, hey, they’re awesome. And you build that trust.
– This, I think there’s some parallels to this story. So, like I said, I grew up in a pretty monoculture and, you know, one of the churches that I served at was pretty white. It just was what it was. And we had one African American student who started coming. He got really connected. He got really involved, and he was awesome. And we were at a fall retreat, and we put everybody in teams ’cause we’re youth ministry. And that’s what youth ministry, at least guy leaders, do at retreats is you put people on teams, and we play games. And they, everybody got to name their own team. And his team’s name was that one black kid. But he was the one.
– Who came up with it?
– Who chose the name?
– That apparently came up with the team.
– And so, I was, as you can imagine, horrified and had a conversation with him. And he was like, “No, I think it’s funny.” Whatever, whatever. Afterwards, at that point, I didn’t really have that much of a relationship other than, oh, hey, nice to meet you guys with his parents. But I called his parents afterwards, and I was like, alright, I need to talk this through with you all. And I don’t want to come off this way, that way, whatever and just kind of put my cards on the table. And I was like, “Here’s the situation. “How do I handle this?” Like, was, did he, do you think he did think that this was okay, and this was funny? And this was a way for him to kind of just own who he is in the group, or do you think that he was actually hurt by this, but he couldn’t be hurt in front of the rest of the group by this? And so, he played it off as if he doesn’t care? But just by being, just by going to them and being honest and saying, listen, I don’t want to say the wrong thing here. I don’t want to do the wrong thing, but I just don’t know how to handle this situation. And I love your son, and I want this to be the best experience possible for him.
– [Crystal] Right.
– Give me some guidelines here. How do I help make this the healthiest place possible for him?
– Brett, you’re such an empathetic leader. That’s a, I just think that’s a great way to talk about things with parents.
– I think sometimes, I mean, I’ve been the ministry leader who was just too scared to have that conversation. So, I think that’s really powerful.
– Yeah, but if we would’ve thrown a language barrier in there, where I couldn’t speak their language, and they could hardly speak, I don’t know how I would’ve handled it. I don’t know if I would’ve ignored it because I just couldn’t figure out, like, do I get a translator to come and to be a part of this conversation? Does that make it feel way too formal for them? Or would that make it feel like, oh, he really values having this conversation to the point where he went out of his. You know what I mean? Like, it would be so easy for me to get stuck in my own head with how do I, how do I build this bridge?
– I think it is good to ask for help always. You know, like, maybe you know of somebody that speaks the language, and say, hey, let me run this by you. Should I have this conversation? What do you think? You know, this is what happened. Tell me, you understand this language. You understand what it meant. So, please help me see if this needs more investigation, or do I need to call the parents? Do we need to have that conversation? But I think asking ’em for help will be the first thing.
– I love it. And we talk about that all the time. We talk about not doing ministry in a bubble, not doing ministry in a vacuum. But this is almost like a different, like a cultural vacuum, which is much easier for us to do ministry alone in,
– [Crystal] Right.
– Where we kind of only operate from our own bias, from our own perspective, different pieces like that. To me, that’s a completely separate challenge that I don’t know if I really thought a whole lot about in my years of leading ministry.
– I think it depends on the student as well, like, how comfortable they are with being their culture and different. So, the student that came up with that team name, he may have just been super comfortable with his small group and that team and was just okay knowing that it was a safe place for him to just be like, well, this is just me, and that’s fine. Or it could’ve been the other way where it was like, this is obvious, and I’m just going to go ahead and say the obvious because I feel uncomfortable. So, I think it just depends on the student in those kinds of situations and really reading, I guess, the room when it comes to that.
– Jean, you said something earlier that I thought was so important. You were talking about how when you walk into a room as an adult, you still notice, are there other Asian Americans in this room.
– Yeah, for sure.
– And I’ve seen my husband do that too. We walked into a room with 2000 students at a conference, and there was one, I think probably, bi-racial Asian bass player on stage. And he just zeroes in on this guy.
– And I think as ministry leaders, we have to make sure that that happens in our ministry, that we have people from different backgrounds on stage but also in our volunteer base. Because if we have people from different backgrounds in our volunteer base, then when I have a conversation with a family who happens to be Venezuelan, and I have a Venezuelan small group leader, I can go ask them, hey, how do I do this well? How do I have this conversation in a way that’s not offensive? How do I honor the parents in this way? But if all of our volunteers are from the same culture,
– They can’t be helpful.
– Right, yeah.
– Yeah, we talk a lot about the idea that if a student doesn’t see themselves in something, they might not know that it’s for them. But at the same time, if they don’t see someone who looks different than them,
– That’s right.
– Then, they’re not going to fully understand the scope of the kingdom and of the gospel. And so, as a ministry leader, I hope that’s a burden that we all feel of who are we pushing on to platforms? Who are we giving the microphones to? Who are we gathering to help lead our community that looks the same and that also looks different from our students so that we can, that we can push them in ways that maybe to be honest we weren’t pushed or we didn’t have the opportunity, I don’t know, to be pushed when we were growing up.
– Right. Crystal, you said something earlier about finding leaders who are from different cultures and have them lead small groups and things like that in your ministry. And maybe you’re listening to this, and you do not have anybody. Maybe it’s just you, or maybe you think, well, I don’t have any kids that are from any other different cultures. Maybe you should really ask why?
– [Crystal] Right.
– Because there is. I’m sure there are a lot of people. There are people in your community who might need this, who might need you to think about them. And that is, this might be something that you can think of and improve on.
– That’s a great point, Esther. I do want to, I want to transition a little bit though. I’ve already talked about how I’m a fear-based person, and so I’m always afraid or guilty about something ’cause I’m a pastor’s kid. And, like, dealing with people from different cultures is a part of that, is I’m often afraid I’m going to say the wrong thing, or I’m going to offend somebody unintentionally, which often means that I unintentionally withdraw, which then isolates and offends in that way. So, it’s a lose/lose situation. Welcome to the inner workings of my broken brain. So, what advice would you give to leaders like me in the midst of that, where, how do we be intentional to not offend when we’re not intending to offend?
– So, I thought Esther brought up something great earlier where you said it’s not okay to talk about legal status. That’s not a question you ask a 14-year-old kid who just showed up at your ministry.
– And I think that’s true, like, there are a lot of things that we need to be careful bringing up. I was recently on a trip in a different country, and I was warned by a tour guide. There’s a painful part of our political past, and you shouldn’t ask people about it. Like that’s, Americans tend to be very open and talk about those things, and that’s not always okay. The other thing I’ve noticed in my own group is we have to be very careful about joking.
– [Esther] Oh, yeah.
– That culture and identity are very connected. So, when you make a joke about someone’s culture, you’re really poking fun at their identity. So, when it comes to food, or accents, or traditions, or the way their parents interacted, those are not okay things to joke about, you know?
– Yeah, definitely. I went through something like that in my youth group when I was younger. And if you’re watching, I’m sorry. And I know that you just flashed back to angry Esther at 14. But, so, I was 14 years old, and no, maybe 15. And we were in small group, and we were talking. And this is, okay, you have to understand. It is, you have to understand it is very big when a kid starts talking.
– For sure.
– So, please, do not make fun of ’em no matter what they say. So, for any kid. Anyway, so, I was finally beginning to express myself. I recently learned English, and I was havin’ a hard time with the words, oh, gosh, I’m going to say them wrong now, shoes and choose.
– Alright, so, I said, “Well, you can shoes something.” and whatever that was. And basically, I was talkin’ about shoes not really choosing something. And my leader laughed at me. And I immediately, I got so angry. I immediately got out of that group and moved to another one, didn’t even say anything. And I just started crying in the other group, and then the other group started talkin’ to me. And they’re like, “What happened? “What happened?” I was like, “I don’t want to talk about it.” But it hurt me. You know, like I’ve been working so hard and making sure, and I’m at three so I want everything to be perfect.
– Enneagram reference.
– Enneagram, sorry, Enneagram.
– Three’s forever.
– Yeah. But I want everything to be perfect, and I worked really hard on my accent, worked really hard on saying the things right. And it really hurt me, you know? And he thought it was an innocent joke. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t to me. You know, so just bein’ very aware of your kids and what, just don’t, just don’t make fun of them. You know, that’s just not a place that you want to be at. And at the end, we all got through it, and he’s one of my favorite small group leaders of all time so. But we had some relationship equity there so we were able to come back to it. And he apologized and all that, but, yeah, it was a big, it was a big part. And just making sure that whatever you say, don’t offend, don’t offend, or just use loving words. You know, just make sure that you know your kids basically. Yeah.
– Or filter some things, and if you’re not sure that it won’t hurt their feelings,
– Don’t say it.
– Probably don’t say it.
– Stop in mid-sentence. It’s okay.
– There we go.
– And even if they’re laughing, right, we’ve talked about that a little bit. Even if the student’s laughing doesn’t mean the joke didn’t hurt their feelings.
– Sometimes it means they’re embarrassed.
– Our, like, the American culture joking is that something that is very, you guys, we do it a lot because I do it too, you know? But we do it a lot, and sometimes we don’t think. I found myself offending somebody from a different culture once. I said something about their government, and they were like, oh, and got really offended.
– Oh, wow.
– But I could do it too. You know, but you have to know, and you have to get to know and have those conversations too.
– Well, and I think as the ministry leader, then we have to be really intentional when we, even if we’re not the ones that do it, when we hear that, when we see that, we have to be prepared for how we’re going to have those conversations. Is that a group conversation? Is that a you pull someone aside afterwards and say, listen, you said this. I know they laughed, but you would’ve laughed in the situation even if your feelings were hurt.
– [Crystal] It’s probably not okay.
– And, again, it doesn’t always come from, it often doesn’t come from a place of wanting to hurt somebody.
– It just comes from a place of ignorance, or I’m just tryin’ to be funny. Or like, no, we have that kind of relationship. Like, well, but do you? I don’t know. And then what does that, what does that communicate to people that might not have that kind of relationship?
– And they’re hearing it.
– Right, you might have that relationship with that person, but what about the people that were listening to it?
– To that, you know? And that’s a huge thing.
– Okay, so, as we kind of wrap up the conversation, which has been, I know, at least enlightening to me. I appreciate that.
– Ah, for sure.
– Are there any kind of last thoughts that you would say, hey, for people listening, what would be helpful just as we wrap up the conversation?
– Yeah, I think just students in general, whether they’re, in particular we’re talking about immigrant students, they’re more than just their legal status. They’re more than just their culture and their ethnicity. They are people. They are people that want to be loved. They want to feel like they belong. They want to know that they matter and that they’re cared for. And so, I think we just love like Jesus loved and care for these students and partner with their parents. And do all of those things, and I think we can have just these really awesome ministries everywhere.
– Yeah, I was thinking that when it comes to kids, there’s no, there’s no rule or no exception. You know, there’s only kids who just want to belong and kids who want to be cared for. And that can be your immigrant students, or somebody with a different background, or it can be anybody. But just to keep that in mind for your ministry and to serve everybody that comes into your doors.
– And I would say that showing up for a kid translates in every language. So, even if you don’t speak the language of a parent, when you show up at the violin recital, or you show up at the international students night at your school, or you show up at the lacrosse game or wherever it is, that parent knows that you care about their kid. And you don’t even necessarily have to say a word. You can smile and be there.
– That’s awesome. Ladies, thank you so much for sharing your stories. I know that sometimes there’s a vulnerability in sharing some of the things that you guys shared. And I feel appreciative and lucky that I get to sit at the table and learn from three smart, wonderful ladies like you about something that I don’t have a lot of experience with. And so, I love that you have been willing to share your experience, obviously not just with me, but with everybody. So, thanks for doin’ that, and thanks for hangin’ out with us. And we will talk to you next time.
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