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Chinese church redefines itself

By Jennifer Dix Daily Planet Correspondent
Friday February 23, 2001

The Berkeley Chinese Community Church celebrated its centennial late last year.  

It began as a missionary outreach program of the First Congregational Church to Chinese students in 1900, in the days when Asians and other minorities were not allowed to mix with whites in many public places, not even for worship. The Chinese Mission School, as it was then called, offered fellowship for Chinese Christians and taught English to UC Berkeley Chinese students. It grew quickly, soon becoming an independent congregation and a center of the Chinese-American community in the East Bay.  

Many prominent members of the Chinese-American community were associated with BCCC. They include the late Alice Yu, who was the first Chinese educator to break racial barriers in San Francisco. Local personality York Jue, known for his curious sculpture garden on McKinley Street, has been a member of the church for nearly 50 years. Through the early postwar years, BCCC was one of the main centers of the local Chinese-American community. 

Today, the BCCC is balanced, not without some tension, between two generations and two cultures. There is a young immigrant congregation which attends its own Cantonese service every Sunday, while older members of the church are longtime residents who speak no Chinese. 

The senior center at the BCCC is a vital component of the church today. Founded 15 years ago by member Dorothy Wong, a retired supervisor with the California Department of Employment and Development, the center draws visitors every weekday for exercise, lunch, music and social activities. Many of the participants, such as Jimmy Chang, are not even church members. Chang, a retired butcher is at the church five days a week ”but not on Sundays,” he says. He maintains the building and runs an informal farmers’ market at the senior center, selling at cost, produce he’s bought wholesale. “I consider this my home,” he says. 

Many seniors lend their talents to the program, which runs entirely on volunteer labor. Ben Young is another retired butcher – a member of Butchers United Food and Commercial Workers Local 120, he notes proudly – who keeps busy in the kitchen on Tuesdays. Ed Young (no relation) is also frequently found in the kitchen, but he’s famous for his singing voice, which he lends lustily to group choruses of “Begin the Beguine” and “Baby Face.”  

“I love to sing,” he said. “Especially the old songs.” 

It’s clear that many of the seniors have found a family in BCCC. Some regulars come from as far away as Vallejo or Marin County. The program is immensely popular, sometimes attracting more than 100 people weekly. That’s remarkable considering the congregation only numbers about 130.  

Members said there is some uncertainty about the future of their church, which is now really two separate and distinct congregations. “We don’t see (the Chinese immigrants) that often,” said Jenny Louie, who along with her husband, Milton, has been a member of BCCC for 45 years. The Louie’s children were raised in the church, but moved to the suburbs, like so many young people, she said. They are active in their own churches now, but not those that are specifically Chinese congregations. 

“The truth is, most of our children have intermarried,” said Mabel Low, enjoying lunch at the church’s Tuesday senior-center program. Her friends Rose Lee and Bernice Young nod in agreement. Maintaining a Chinese-American identity is not necessarily the chief concern of contemporary generations. Times have certainly changed from the days when Chinese and other minorities couldn’t even worship with whites.  

When Louie looks at BCCC these days, she is not sure what will happen in another generation. “We’re trying to figure out how to grow,” she says. 

“That’s definitely our challenge,” said senior Pastor Rodney Lee. “We’re a modern church struggling to define our future.” 

At the turn of the 21st century, the BCCC is very different from the small group of foreign students that used to meet in the basement of First Congregational. Housed in a handsome building with beautiful gardens on Acton Street, the BCCC is seeking to redefine its identity for the next century.  

The congregation today consists of two distinct groups: the English-speaking and the Cantonese-speaking. The Chinese language school, originally founded to teach English to Chinese students, reversed itself and began teaching Chinese to American-born members of Chinese descent. 

Lee, who is a type of unofficial historian for the BCCC, said she remembers attending the language school as a girl. Lee’s mother wasn’t even a Christian, although she later converted, when she enrolled her daughter. “Christianity wasn’t really why they came,” Lee said. “They came because this was where the Chinese community went.” 

Today the language school has discontinued, although BCCC occasionally offers classes in Cantonese or Mandarin. In some ways, the church seems to have come full circle, with a new congregation of immigrants drawn from the UC community. 

Lee takes an optimistic view of her church’s future. She has seen many changes in her community over the decades, but they don’t faze her. Perhaps there’s a poetic justice in the peculiar tension of immigrant and American, English and Chinese-speaking generations that populate the church today. “Everything comes around again,” she said.