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The Sacredness of Being There: Race, Religion, and Place-Making at San Francisco's Presbyterian Church in Chinatown


Established in 1853, the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown (PCC) in San Francisco, CA is the oldest Asian church of any Christian denomination in North America and the first Chinese Protestant church outside China. Its history in the United States reaches back to the earliest days of Chinese migration to this country, giving the church a rootedness in Asian America that few other institutions can match. This dissertation examines how the contemporary community at PCC negotiates its institutional memory in creating a sense of place and a sense of collective self that is simultaneously both Protestant Christian and distinctively Chinese American.

Employing the use of archival materials and oral histories conducted specifically for this project, the study explores how the three language ministries which currently comprise the church--English, Mandarin, and Cantonese--navigate historical resources and contemporary memories in different ways to support varying ideological positions in the present. The project focuses specifically on place-making and the process of investing the physical space of the church and its location in a historically evolving Chinatown with meanings that distinguish the community from the white American Protestant establishment on the one hand and from non-Christian Chinese society on the other.

This process of place-making is mapped over three defining moments in the life of PCC: the church's founding, its institutionalization, and its struggle to redefine itself in the wake of trauma from clergy sexual abuse. The study argues that these three chapters, reaching from 1853 to the recent past, are especially formative for PCC's identity, because they span the period of white missionary leadership at the church from beginning to end and, as a result, become the terrain over which the racial/ethnic meanings of being Chinese American Christian are negotiated, contested, and defined. In its founding moment, the intersection of racialized thought and theological justification for the establishment of a physical home for anticipated Chinese Christians resulted in the first enduring expression of religion that was conceptually Asian American, rather than simply Asian religion transplanted to the United States or Western religion imposed upon Asian immigrants. The institutionalization of the church was the enfleshment of this concept with Chinese believers, whose practices of place subverted missionary understandings of Christianity and church by reinterpreting the Gospel message within the social, economic, and political contexts of being a racial/ethnic minority in the oftentimes hostile environment of the United States. Even as this hostility eventually seemed to give way before new visions of plurality in the 1960s, it lingered at PCC in the form of clergy sexual abuse, which came to define the final chapter of missionary leadership at the Chinatown church. Inscribing its insistence on truth and healing into the physical space of the church, PCC has embraced its response to the trauma as a defining element of its identity as a Chinese American congregation at the beginning of a new era beyond missionary control.

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