As you would expect at a church called The Salvation Army Asian American Yerba Buena Corps, the faces of young adults in the congregation are, well, Asian. But sit awhile and you'll notice that the young people are actually an assortment of ethnicities.
The 15-year-old church was founded by American-born, English-speaking, second-generation children of Chinese immigrants. But the church grew and assimilated into American culture so that the current generation is a mixture of many cultures and ethnicities. This blend shows in the church's music, which varies from contemporary praise and worship to black Gospel to updated hymns. At a potluck, the dishes are eclectic; besides myriad Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Filipino, Laotian, and other Asian dishes, there might be Mexican, French, Italian, or even "American" food.
Purity as cultural value
While they come from various Asian cultures, the young adults strive as a group to live "counterculture," especially in relationships. The majority do not date, and that's not for lack of opportunity. They follow what they have been taught in church: a God-honoring concept of emotional purity, in addition to physical purity, in relationships with the opposite gender. Some young couples go so far as to kiss for the first time on the day they are married. (See sidebar.)
Luke Rocheleau, a student at the Academy of Art University, fills his time with studies, work, playing drums on both of the church worship teams, and contributing to its multimedia ministry. The 23-year-old says he knows he's not ready for a relationship yet because he needs to concentrate on finishing school and getting a job first.
"I've seen too many people I grew up with get sidetracked with promiscuity, teen pregnancies, a lack of an education, direction, or a future, and I don't want to end up like that," he says.
Christopher Toy, 22, a classmate at the Academy of Art, agrees. The son of the Salvation Army officers who are the pastors of the church, Majors Ronald and Keilah Toy, Chris began mining God's Word on the subject of emotional purity at age 14 as a home-school student.
He says his research revealed to him that the American tradition of dating, usually a coming-of-age ritual, can do much to damage emotions, break friendships, dishonor others and God, and even teach lack of commitment.
"Emotional purity is not about dating being evil," he says. "[It] is treating the emotional relationship between a man and woman as sacred, something to be cherished and not taken lightly. It's about realizing that in order to find 'THE ONE,' we need to be one with our heavenly Father so we can hear what He has to say, without emotional influences."
Passion for Missions
Inherent in the multicultural identity of the congregation is a passion for service through missions. Church members minister regularly in China, India, Australia, Germany, Russia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Africa, and many more places. This year's corps mission teams include ambassadors to South Africa, Hong Kong, and Italy, where young people are serving in leadership roles, children's ministries, and summer camps.
Having just completed a year's service in The Salvation Army Children's Home in Penang, Malaysia, Andrew's brother, Alex Yee, 23, says, "God has planted in my heart a dream to see every longing for family, community, fulfillment, and adventure satisfied by Him." Known as "The Hair" on his Xanga web page, Alex continues his adventure with God; he has just signed on for an additional year's ministry in Penang.
Jenny Mao, 26, has led ministry teams in the Marshall Islands, Guam, and Africa and has just returned from leading a team for two months in South Africa. A nursing student, Jenny dreams of serving God as a medical missionary to Africa.
"The greatest joy I have in walking with God is that He surprises me all the time," she says. "What we plan, He plans ten times more, greater than I can imagine. The sunset is a glimpse of His glory!"
Serving the church family
The young adults at Yerba Buena also have a strong desire to serve and share God's story at home through ministries of the church.
- In the "Servants 2 Lead" training program, mentors walk students through hands-on leadership experiences.
- Once a month, the Youth Worship Team leads the congregation in worship.
- Informal gatherings at Youth Fellowship give them a chance to discuss relevant topics such as "From Singleness to Oneness: Preparing for Lasting Marriage."
- The multimedia ministry provides projects for the many film and art student majors in the church to showcase their talent through video sermon illustrations, commercials, and documentaries for the Sunday worship service.
- A year-round sports program includes basketball, volleyball, softball, bowling, and golf leagues, all of which provide opportunities for young adults to have fun as they practice leadership skills and share their faith in Christ with their teammates and friends.
Relationship evangelism continues to bring new young adults to Yerba Buena. Valeska Santana, 22, first came to the corps when she heard classmate Luke talk about his involvement in his church, The Salvation Army. Curious, Valeska began attending on Sundays, then made a decision to recommit her life to Christ.
"The greatest joy I have in walking with God is realizing His love for me," she says today. "I can't help but be filled with overwhelming emotion." She now sings of that love regularly on the Youth Worship Team.
Keyboardist Nikole Lim, 17, is also on that team. Nikole graduated from high school at 16 and began running her own wedding video business; she also uses her expertise in video production in the corps' multimedia ministry. Nikole says her God-given vision is to make a positive difference in the world through film and art.
But before entering college at Southern California's Loyola Marymount University this fall, Nikole spent six months in Italy, where she served meals to the homeless and worked as a summer camp staffer. She found that period of going to another country by herself a great challenge that helped her grow in her walk with God.
Many of the young people have found, like Nikole, that God uses struggles and trials to mold their pliable hearts for his purpose and vision.
Amelia Jones, 20, faced her greatest test when she moved to San Francisco two years ago as a freshman at the University of San Francisco (UCSF), where she is training to be a child psychologist for special needs elementary school children.
"I became very homesick, and God used that to teach me to trust in Him completely and that He is always there for me," she says. "I just had to put my life completely in His hands."
Since Amelia's surrender, she has found assurance through her favorite Bible passage, Matthew 6:25–34, which teaches her not to worry but to depend on God to care for her. Last year Amelia brought her roommate, Aimee Tran, to church, and Aimee has just been enrolled as a new member (soldier) of the church. In the past two years, Amelia discovered a new joy in overseas missions; she served two weeks in Hong Kong and five weeks in Italy.
Sam Tsang, who graduated at age 19 from the University of California at Berkeley with a mathematics degree, is experiencing both struggle and joy. Sam, now 21, has completed preliminary requirements for a teaching credential but now is considering becoming an actuary. The 21-year-old confesses he is still "figuring out what he wants to do when he grows up."
Sam's greatest struggle is that he finds "People are infinitely frustrating and inherently unlovable. I know this well. Yet God loves me and calls me to love others."
He finds comfort in God's Word in James 1:2–4, which promises "... whenever trouble comes your way, let it be an opportunity for joy. For when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be strong in character and ready for anything."
The young adults of the Asian American Yerba Buena Salvation Army in downtown San Francisco are a mixture of talents, personalities, backgrounds, and ethnicities, but they share a common experience. God is working through their convictions, their ministries, and their struggles to mold them and prepare them to fulfill His purpose for their lives—and to live out that purpose to the fullest.
As Sam says, "I hope to be mature and complete one day. Trials are necessary for that. Just ask Batman."