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MMBB News & Notes: Spotlight on Rev. Kathryn Choy-Wong

August 29, 2023


The Rev. Kathryn Choy-Wong’s road to becoming a pastor wasn’t as clear as some others may have been, but what was clear is that God had a plan.

When Rev. Choy-Wong, aka Rev. Katie, was growing up one of the only places she truly felt she belonged and was comfortable was in church. Growing up in San Francisco in a predominately black neighborhood and later moving to a San Francisco suburb, she always felt “odd and different.”

“I was always a minority in both my educational and living environments,” she said. “Attending First Chinese Baptist Church in San Francisco, I didn’t have to explain myself.”

Choy-Wong said she didn’t embrace who she was or appreciate her culture until attending San Francisco State University, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. She was then hired full time with the Northern California Ecumenical Center as an active lay leader working with children, when she interviewed with an American Baptist Churches (ABCUSA) pastor to work with a hunger and homeless program. She was offered the job on the spot as they recognized her passion for social justice. Even though she accepted the role Rev. Katie wasn’t sure she wanted to give up her journalism dream.

For three years, she worked with different denominational church organizations and leaders and their hunger programs that included cooperative purchasing of basic staples (rice, beans, powder milk), distribution of donated foods, gleaning agricultural fields for fresh produce and passing a bill to exempt businesses from being for donated food. Choy-Wong saw many people serve through Christian churches and organizations. During this time Choy-Wong had her first experience with female clergy. One person who influenced her was a Maryknoll nun; she stayed for a couple of weeks to assist with migrant workers in the Central Valley of California.

“Wow,” thought Rev. Katie. “I would love to do Christian work and social justice work. I saw how the Church can make a difference in the world.”

After making the decision to attend seminary she found there was no degree for Christian Social Ministry at American Baptist Seminary of the West. She took the standard MDiv degree which focused on the local church. However, she soon discovered she loved working within the local church and with laity. Best of all her passion for marginalized populations found an avenue in which to continue her work. It was still a long road to being a pastor of a church. Rev. Katie received a Master of Divinity degree and was ordained in 1980. At that time women made up one third of the seminary’s student body and many churches still weren’t open to having a woman at the helm.

After seminary, Choy-Wong worked for American Baptist Home Mission Society (ABHMS) in Valley Forge, PA, where she was hired to work with Asian churches, as the first full-time Asian Ministries Director. In the unit were also Hispanic, Native American, African American rural ministries and American Baptist Extension Corporation. “We helped these churches minister to their communities,” she said.

“We really got involved in each other’s ministry and found we all had common concerns,” said Rev. Katie.

Four years later she headed back to California, married Arthur Wong, and joined the staff of American Baptist Churches of the West with responsibilities in public ministries and area ministry. In 2000, Choy-Wong became the admissions director and adjunct professor at American Baptist Seminary of the West. She joined the staff and became the senior pastor in 2004 of New Life Christian Fellowship, an American Baptist Church in Castro Valley, Calif. When she first arrived, the small congregation consisted of middle-class Chinese Americans and by her retirement there were 13 different ethnic groups. Not only was there ethnic diversity but also economic diversity. One member was homeless and others former convicted felons.

“It was like being in Heaven,” said Rev. Katie, adding at first, she had a real feeling of being concerned on how educated middle class Asian Americans were going to accept the homeless members or those who had been incarcerated. “I told my husband this will either work or I may get fired.”

Choy-Wong said it worked because members of the congregation took the time to get to know one another and when one person didn’t show up, the others expressed genuine concern. She explained it started with a concern from a member who with worked with a Christian organization that helped people to get clean and back on their feet. He explained that when the men showed up at a church, they often felt coldness and rejected. Rev. Katie responded, “Bring them here.”

“A lot of stereotypes come from the fear of the unknown,” said Rev. Katie. “But we got to know one another.” She emphasized the importance of being open to God’s opportunities. “I kept the door open and diverse people came.” When others saw the diversity in the congregation, they too joined, and the new people brought in new connections which resulted in the church becoming more diverse.

Using her lifelong understanding of different cultures and experience of internalized racism, she wrote a short book called Building Bridges: A Handbook for Cross-Cultural Ministry. Shortly after retiring in 2019, she was asked by Judson Press to expand the book. The perspectives of Dr. Lucia Ann McSpadden and Rev. Dr. Dale M. Weatherspoon, two colleagues whom Choy- Wong worked with for over 25 years in intercultural ministries, were added. The trio range in age from late 50s to 70 and 80 bringing even more diversity to the book. They began to work on the book in 2020 when much of the nation was on lockdown. Their collaboration took place over Zoom calls. The new edition, Building Lasting Bridges: An Updated Handbook for Intercultural Ministries, accompanied with an online free workbook, was released in November 2022.

One of her biggest challenges during retirement comes from the book’s success. She wants to continue to do diversity workshops and speaking but doesn’t want it to be a full-time job.

“I need to monitor my time,” she said. “I want to do other things like travel before we aren’t able to. Health issues can happen quickly.”

She believes when in retirement you need to pursue your passions, and one of her passions is writing. She is working on a fiction novel based on her father, something she has dreamt about for 20 years. Rev. Katie also believes you should spend time with loved ones. Create a plan together and then pursue it.

The hardest thing in retirement is not feeling useful or wanted. “People often say, I don’t hear from everyone any more or what am I supposed to do?” she said. “Volunteer. Retired people still have many gifts. Stay socially active.”

Lastly, she recommends churches not cut out retirement benefits. While she’s aware young pastors need the cash and aren’t always paid well, retirement benefits are important so there are adequate funds later in life, to live comfortably and especially to pursue delayed passions.




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