Flavored by Culture

Tom Tsai is 8,000 miles from home. He last saw his parents and sister four years ago, when they moved back to Taiwan after just a year in America and left him here to finish high school. But thanks to Young Life, even though home is half a world away, “family” is just down the hall.

Tsai had been living with and working for his uncle since his family left in 2001. When Tsai moved out last spring, he had no place to go. One call to Tsai’s Young Life leader solved that problem. Tsai, now 21, moved in with Tony Lin and his family right away. Since then, Lin has helped Tsai buy a car and register for community college.

Lin is Tsai’s Young Life leader, but Tsai sees him as much more.

“I really admire Tony. He’s like my big brother,” Tsai said. “He is always taking care of me and helps me with everything I need. I am very blessed.”

“It’s like having a younger brother around,” Lin said of his new housemate. “We see each other every day so he sees the good and bad. I feel like I can keep a closer watch on him. And it’s easier for us to get together to do devotionals or if we need to pray about something.”

Across cultural lines
Lin and Tsai are part of a specialized Young Life ministry that reaches Bergen, Middlesex and Morris counties in New Jersey and touches lives around the world: “Asian” Young Life. Brian Hall, a high school history teacher, began this ministry two years ago and is already seeing his vision become a reality.

The inspiration for Asian Young Life dates from the mid-1990s, when Hall was a graduate student at Rutgers University involved in a doctoral research study of a Chinese Christian group. Through his research, he met Tony Lin and eventually helped lead him to Christ.

At the same time, Hall was helping out with a youth group in an Asian church and noticed the absence of relationships between the teenagers and the leaders. A former Young Life kid and leader, Hall knew there was another way to reach them.

“I saw such a need for the Young Life approach to youth ministry in the Asian church,” Hall said. “I thought, ‘Could we do this with Asian high school kids? What if we could bring kids to Young Life camp and show them a different way?’ So I started looking for people who would share my vision.”

In 1999, without any official connection to Young Life, Hall took Lin and several other friends to Saranac Village, a Young Life camp, as adult guests, where they observed the week of camp. Over the next four years, the number of adult guests Hall took to camp increased, along with the enthusiasm for the ministry itself.

Strong response
In the summer of 2003, Hall and Lin took eight Asian teenagers to Young Life camp at Saranac. That fall, contact work began, and the all-volunteer Asian Young Life area was established. In the spring of 2005, 65 kids showed up for the area’s first club. This past summer, they took 85 people to camp.

The response shows that Asian Young Life has met a need, and Hall explains the reason for the “Asian” distinction.

“It’s not to be exclusive, but having “Asian” in the name indicates this is for them,” Hall said. “We welcome kids from all races, but there is a desire to be with people of the same ethnicity when you’re the minority, especially the kids who are recent immigrants. Research shows our cultures are so different, that it’s difficult for Asians to connect in a majority white group. It’s hard to feel like they belong. We are providing a sense of community they are looking for but often don’t find in high school.”

“We can use the well-established tools, principles and resources of Young Life to offer Asian kids a new perspective on life,” Hall said. “We feel like we are on the verge of what could be something big.”

Some of the basic ingredients of Young Life — like contact work and club — sometimes need to be adjusted to work in the Asian culture as well.

“There’s a lot of emphasis on studying in the Asian culture,” Hall said. “So as far as contact work, maybe we’ll go to Borders or the university library with them. We do something parents want them to do to build trust. And there’s no way parents would let us have club every week or on weeknights. So we have a once-a-month big event on Saturday nights.

“There’s a lot we are still learning along the way. We’re trying to think outside the box and, so far, I think what we’re doing is working.”

Impacting kids and families
Asian Young Life has influenced not only kids, but also their parents and siblings as well. Hall met Joo Sung Kim when he first started teaching in Joo Sung’s high school. Eventually Hall introduced Joo Sung to Young Life.

“Young Life is awesome. I didn’t know something like this was out there,” Joo Sung said.

Joo Sung, who was 3 years old when he moved from Korea to the United States, said at first his parents were curious about his teacher and why they spent time together outside of class.

“I explained how Dr. Hall is someone I can talk to about things that I can’t talk with them about,” Joo Sung said. “My dad understands now that I think of him as an older brother and they are cool with it. My parents own a steakhouse and they ask him to come out for dinner sometimes. I think they are really grateful to Dr. Hall for all he’s done for me.”

Caleb King was born in America after his family emigrated from Taiwan and has been active in Asian Young Life from the start. The first Young Life club in Bergen County was held in Caleb’s home; he also plays the guitar for club and helps set up and clean up for each event.

“I see Young Life as a great way to have fun and build relationships,” Caleb said. “It’s also a great way to show my friends what’s important to me and introduce them to Jesus Christ.”

Caleb said the ministry of Young Life is important, but it’s his relationship with his Young Life leader, Gerald Juan, that has brought him closer to God.

“My close relationship with Gerald is really where my relationship with God has grown, and that’s not necessarily a Young Life thing. It’s just that relational-based approach to serving God and using the philosophy that relationships help people. That’s helped me grow the most.”

Caleb’s involvement with Young Life has impacted his family as well. His sister got married over the summer and instead of giving guests a wedding favor, she and her husband decided to make a more lasting contribution.

“At the dinner afterward, in front of each plate, was a card that read, ‘In honor of all of our guests, a donation has been made to …’ and it listed three organizations. Asian Young Life was one of them.

“I guess hearing me talk about it she gathered it was a big part of my life right now. And she’s excited about this new thing happening and wanted to support us.”

Hall said support is just what Asian Young Life needs right now. He thinks looking to Paul’s model of ministry in 1 Corinthians will help Young Life reach its ultimate goal.

“Paul said ‘I become all things to all people to save some.’ We’re not bound by any traditions. I think we’ve just begun to scratch the surface of what we can do. There are so many kids out there still to be met.

“I feel like the mission of Young Life is to help kids be the best they can be. And I feel like with Christ, they will be the best they can be. If we do a good job as Young Life leaders, kids will see what it’s all about.”

If you would like more information about Asian Young Life, check out their Web site at asian.younglife.org or contact Brian Hall at (201) 674-7966.