During May, The United Church of Canada celebrates the contributions of many Asian-Canadian members.
May is Asian Heritage Month, and the perfect time to prayerfully reflect on the contributions of Asian Canadians to Canadian society. Liturgies, songs, and other material that can be used in Asian Heritage Month services can be found on our Worship Resources pages.
The month has been celebrated in the United States since 1979. In December 2001, the Canadian Senate adopted a motion proposed by Senator Vivienne Poy — the first Canadian of Asian descent appointed to the Senate of Canada — to officially designate May as Asian Heritage Month in Canada. In May 2002, Parliament approved that designation.
The United Church of Canada has benefitted from the inclusion of many Asian-Canadian members, in congregations that stretch across the country. The first Asian-heritage congregational members came from China, Korea, and Japan, with the churches they formed here acting as sanctuaries from racism, while allowing them to keep their culture and language alive.
But in the early 1940s, even being part of the United Church was no protection against laws which stripped Japanese-Canadians of their property, businesses, and even their churches. Many ended up in internment camps. Over sixty years later, British Columbia Conference acknowledged the injustice of its treatment of Japanese-Canadian church members. In addition, the 40th General Council in Kelowna, B.C., heard first-hand from some of the internment survivors. But it was too late for many of the former detainees.
During the 20th century, new waves of immigrants from Taiwan, Korea, and the Philippines began to arrive and form congregations. For many of these new Canadians, their United Church congregations become their extended family.
The most recent influx of Asian members to the church occurred in the 1980s, when people fleeing the civil war in Sri Lanka arrived in Canada.
The church now has 12 congregations made up of Korean-Canadians, eight Chinese churches, six Japanese churches, one Tamil church, and one Taiwanese church. These diverse congregations not only provide vitality and new perspectives for the church, but they have also given us some great leaders, such as The Very Rev. Sang Chul Lee.
Rev. Lee became the church's first Moderator of Asian heritage in 1988. Born in Siberia, the son of Korean immigrants, he received his theological education in Korea, Switzerland, and Vancouver, with his ordination in the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea. He came to Canada in 1961, where he served a three-point charge in Vancouver comprising English, Japanese, and Korean-speaking congregations, requiring him to preach three sermons every Sunday in three different languages.
The Rev. Lee came to Toronto in 1969 and was minister for the Toronto Korean United Church. His election as Moderator in 1988 surprised many, including himself. “I just didn’t think the church was ready to elect an ethnic person,” he said at the time.
The intercultural vitality of the church continues to expand today, including through mutual recognition of ministries with The Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea (PROK) and The United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP).
The United Church of Canada has benefited from the participation of many Asian-Canadian members. They have helped us strive to become an intercultural church, a church where all are welcome.
For more information about Asian Heritage Month, please view the videos Struggle and Grace: Asian Heritage in the United Church, and Asian Cultures, Asian Heritage.