Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Interview: Stephen Leung

For some time, I've been kicking around the idea of adding interviews to my blog as a regular feature. Today we're going to have our first go at it as I have the pleasure of interacting with Stephen Leung. Stephen is the Assistant Pastor at Ascension Church (PCA) in Queens, New York, and has been involved with the effort by New York City churches to retain their right to rent space in public schools.

Thanks so much, Stephen, for agreeing to take some time to answer my questions. First off, can you give us a little bit of your personal background (where you’re from, where you went to school, how the Lord called you to ministry, etc.)?

Thank you for inquiring, Pete. I am the husband of Vicki and the father to four boys: Benjamin, Matthias, Isaiah, and Timothy. I am also the son of Samuel and Esther Leung of Richmond, KY, where I grew up. Samuel and Esther are first generation immigrants from Hong Kong who came over in the 1960s. I was born in St. Louis, MO in 1964. I grew up in a Christian home and my earliest recollections were that of worship, fellowship, and instruction in the word, with other Christians. I was told I told a mean story even when I was four years old and adults would gather around for my retellings. 

I grew up attending Southern Baptist churches in Kentucky and wasn’t baptized until I was a sophomore in High School. I attended college at MIT in Cambridge, MA. It was there that I first had my taste of ministry – being invited to help with the youth at an immigrant church. Upon graduation from college I entered the Navy having been an ROTC student. I served nearly eight years in the Navy and was stationed up and down the East Coast. During my time in the Navy, I spent several months in the South Philadelphia Shipyards. It was there that I ran into my first serious Calvinists – a member of Tenth Presbyterian who was the first to ever ask me if I knew the Five Points of Calvinism. I met my wife when I rotated to a shore tour in Northern VA. When I left the Navy, I went to work for a Government Contractor for a little over ten years. I picked up my MBA from George Mason University along the way. Throughout all these years I was active in churches, but I wound up in an ethnic, PCA church in Alexandria, VA. It was there that I had a deeper exposure to the Reformed faith and the confessional standards of the PCA. I was elected a deacon and then a ruling elder, partly to be a representative of the small English-speaking congregation of Chinese Christian Church of Virginia. It was in the process of serving as an elder that I saw personally the benefits of the Presbyterian form of church government as well as the riches of Reformed Theology. Back in the late 90s and early 2000’s I also grew much more interested in pursuing my theological education. I hosted early online email discussion groups and web sites, and I explored distance education that a variety of Reformed seminaries offered. In 2003-2004, my call to full-time vocational ministry fully crystallized with encouragement from our assistant pastor and many others in our congregation. I declined a lucrative job offer that came my way right as I was preparing to move on, and took our family (of five at the time) to attend Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO.

How did you end up ministering in New York City?

So, how did I end up here? I never imagined it during my time in seminary. I was interested in church-planting. But New York City was not one of the spots that attracted me. To be honest, I was not looking to be part of the “Redeemer system” that seemed to orchestrate so much. I attended Old Orchard Church in Webster Groves, MO, and completed an internship there. The pastor at Old Orchard is Ron Lutjens. Near the end of seminary, without full-time call from any other part of the country, he suggested that I give his brother, Kurt Lutjens a call. Kurt is the pastor of Grace & Peace Fellowship in St. Louis. They were looking to bring on two part-time assistants temporarily until they were ready to hire a full-time assistant on the other side of their unique five-year review of their senior pastor. I wound up spending two years at Grace & Peace and was also ordained in the PCA in the meantime. At the end of that time I was informed that I was not among the finalists for the permanent assistant position. 

In the meantime, however, I had become aware of Ascension Presbyterian Church in Queens, which Grace & Peace helped support since its planting pastor, Michael Kytka, had served as an assistant at Grace & Peace during his time as a student at Covenant. I looked at job listings that Covenant maintained and saw that Ascension Church had this position for an Assistant Pastor listed. That Summer (2010), Grace & Peace sent a short-term missions team comprised of youth and a few adults to help with Ascension’s Vacation Bible School (VBS). When I saw the listing, I sent an inquiry into Pastor Kytka asking if the opening was still available, and if so, if he would take a look at my resume and also talk to some of the members of the short term missions team, especially Kurt Lutjens, who was with them. 

Things proceeded quickly after that. We came to understand the nature of Forest Hills, and Central Queens. About 25 percent of the population in Forest Hills is Asian and another 25 percent is Russian Jews, and the remaining 50 percent is also richly diverse, but primarily European Roman Catholics. It is also a rather strategic place for global missions, as in Queens people have extensions around the globe. There are over 120 languages spoken here. I had some experience working with international students with International Students Inc, my other part-time position, while I was in St. Louis. Missions To the World (MTW) farms some of its missionaries to Ascension Church for its hands-on portion of cross-cultural ministry training. I sensed the situation here was ideal. 

One other thing happened during my first visit to New York that was also affirming. Ascension was hosting a concert by Michael Card. At a dinner with him, he shared that he believed community would be very important in confirming my call here – both at this receiving end and the sending end in St. Louis. That was timely wisdom. I sought and received such confirmation. Of course along the way, there was confirmation from the temporary session for Ascension (since it continues to be a mission work) and from the Metro New York Presbytery. So despite Ascension being a plant out of Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan, and there being a representative from the Redeemer’s church planting center (now City to City) on the session, this is where I wound up. God has a sense of humor in addition to being sovereign and using things in ways that we would never think or imagine to answer our prayers. (Of course, I am not advocating this way of finding God’s calling as being typical or normative.)

Can you give us a brief synopsis of the situation that currently is taking place in New York City in regards to public schools and churches (both the history of it and where things currently stand)?

In a nutshell, New York City has been fighting to get “religious organizations”out of its public schools for a long time. It started in NYC before Mayor Michael Bloomberg ever got into office, however, it has come back around to be an issue here late in Mayor Bloomberg’s extra term because several factors seemed to align. One of the major factors is the Federal 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals vacating an injunction that the Federal District Court for the Southern New York Region had granted churches in the long-running Bronx Household of Faith versus Board of Education cases. The District Court judge had granted the injunction because of the precedence that had come down from the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) regarding equal access. However, the City, arguing for the Board of Education (now the Department of Education) changed its arguments to preclude the conduct of worship services and not just the meetings of “religious organizations.” In that way, it convinced the majority of a three-judge panel of the 2nd Circuit Court to see the case as not being equal access or viewpoint discrimination that would violate the 1st Amendment but as a ban on certain activity that simply serves to protect the Establishment Clause by precluding even the perception of the violation of the separation of Church and State. To everyone’s surprise, SCOTUS did not grant cert (meaning review) of the case after the 2nd Circuit Court overturned the District Court judge’s injunction against the City’s rule. 

With the U.S. Supreme Court opting not to overturn the case, the city now had the green light (not the requirement) to proceed with its law that required churches to stop worshiping in schools. Since then, the City has erroneously argued that SCOTUS agreed with the 2nd Circuit Court’s majority opinion by not choosing this case to be among the 80 or so it chooses to review for the year. This in fact is false. It also continues to wage a campaign that says it is only churches that can rent schools after hours because they are only available on Sunday, thereby effectively establishing the Christian religion or (potentially) confusing children to think that Christianity is the preferred religion and that they are special and they are less special if they are not Christian. Fortunately for the churches, the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) lawyer arguing for Bronx Household went to the District Court one more time and got the judge to grant yet another injunction. This time the argument is that the City is violating the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment when it excessively entangles itself in deciding who is or is not conducting a worship service in order to approve or deny permits for any group applying to rent space at a public school. The final opinion of the preliminary injunction granted by Judge Loretta Preska is due in June of this year. The Circuit Court will probably hear the City’s appeal in August. Now, that’s the legal summary.

In addition to what is happening in litigation, there is also what has been involved legislatively. There are bills before the New York State Legislature to change its Education Laws so that the City is not able to enforce such a ban on “religious groups” conducting “worship services.” It in effect says that “religious groups” will not be among those denied the opportunity to rent like every other non-profit or non-political group. It would preclude what the judicial branch has said is permissible, but it would still only affect the state of New York. The bill in the State Senate passed. The bill in the State Assembly is being held up by the Speaker of the State Assembly, Sheldon Silver. This is despite a majority being secured in the Assembly over a long and hard-fought battle by lobbyist, including many of our affected pastors. 

At the city level, a resolution was introduced by a pastor/city council member that has the support of a clear majority but is also held up from a vote by the Speaker of the City Council, Christine Quinn. The resolution would have no binding effect but would send a strong signal to the State Legislature. So, in essence, two Speakers have their way and are ensuring the Mayor has his way. The New York Governor has not come on record saying whether he would sign the bill into law if the bills clear both chambers of the State Legislature, but the political calculus is on the side of him not holding it up since 1) he has higher political aspirations and this would not look good in other parts of the country and 2) he has already recently gone against his word to New York clergy in signing same-sex marriage into New York law. Within the city of New York, we hear and see that the opinion is not merely about (perceived) threat to the separation of church and state, it is also the notion (real or argued) that the GLBT community feels that churches are homophobic and engage in hate speech and therefore should not be accommodated by the State. There are also arguments and fears that there is some church-planting movement that is out to take over all the schools.

What would you say to those who would suggest that the separation of church and state should forbid public schools being used for religious purposes?

There are several aspects of the argument here that need to be stepped through. First of all, the idea of separation of church and state was to preclude the state from interfering with the church and the state from establishing a particular sect as the state church. That was the original intent. It has been radically reinterpreted by some to mean some type of freedom from religion instead of freedom of religion. 

Even the idea of some sort of “clear wall” does not mean that all traces of faith should disappear from the public square. We are not advocating some sort of theocracy as some would imagine or spin the intent. However, our faith does inform all of life and the Kuyperian understanding of God ruling in every sphere is not precluded as Christians who vote and who have a calling in the arena of government and politics are not supposed to be uninformed by the teaching of their faith or Scriptures and never to act upon their convictions that are so informed. Politicians voting to allow religious organizations to rent schools is not a theocratic move or a case of politicians allowing religion to unconstitutionally sway their lawmaking. Allowing churches to rent schools after hours does not establish one religion. Accommodation does not equal endorsement. Churches should be able to rent the exact same way that other groups rent. To exclude them is to discriminate and in fact is precisely the interference of the State in the church. 

Moreover, to call the gatherings of some churches, typically of the higher liturgical end, a "worship service" and thus bar them and then not call the gatherings of other churches or religious groups "worship" and permit them to meet is precisely the kind of interference that the U.S. Constitution does not allow. As for the perception of establishment being the same as establishment, that is too much of a stretch. Thus far, no confused children have been brought forth for testimony. What we have is a hypothetical perception of a violation of the Establishment Clause being allowed to put in place a city ordinance that in fact perpetuates an actual violation of the Establishment Clause.

The idea that there is a subsidy of religious organizations that amounts to endorsement because the rates are more affordable than what can be found from commercial landlords also fails to even-handedly call every agreement to rent to any other “non-religious” organization a case of subsidizing what that organization stands for. If anyone is unhappy that churches are able to find an affordable solution to their need to find a gathering place, raise the rent, but do so on all the organizations that are renting. The fact that affordable renting arrangements are not allowed for religious organizations only is in fact the soft erection of barriers of entry to congregations not already established in a neighborhood from being able to provide services to people of that neighborhood, who desire to have a congregation of their preference in their proximity. In other words, the favor is given to religious organizations who already have the means and or longstanding possession of buildings in a community to be present but not to others. Many of the churches affected have also been found to be comprised of and serving the materially and financially disadvantaged. It is citizens who are in possession of less wealth and churches of fewer resources that are being disproportionately affected. What we clearly have is an effort to discriminate that amounts to the state violating the separation of church and state and in effect playing favorites.

Two other arguments that have been put forth relate to who owns the building and whether the building becomes a church building or a house of worship when it is used by religious renters. In fact, the building is owned by tax-payers. It is not for bureaucrats of the state to decide who can or cannot rent the building for use beyond what has been allowed or not allowed by laws voted on by tax-payers, especially if those bureaucrats are not even those on the ground and in the community, i.e. the principals of the schools. Principals could deny a permit if they deem use of the school to be detrimental to the well-being of the community. But, even if they rule as such, they would be reflecting the sentiment of local tax-payers and not the whim of a centralized government official. As for the notion that the buildings are being converted to houses of worship, the idea that the building is somehow sanctified in the worship service is a particularly Roman Catholic practice and not the classic understanding of most Christians who say that the church is not the building but the community of worshipers. We do not convert the building any more than the musicians who play in our subway trains and stations convert the trains and stations to concert halls. The activity does not define the nature of the venue. Taxpayers have not unknowingly built a church, scout meeting hall, or lecture hall instead of a school when those schools are used after hours for other purposes than the primary purpose of the building.

Why should people in other parts of the country take particular note of this situation?

It is not too difficult to see that this is a harbinger of the attitude that is taking root throughout our country and the attempts in other parts of the country to try to follow the example of what New York City has tried to do and is apparently meeting some success in doing. All that is necessary is a favorable legislative and judicial arrangement – one made up of a majority of those opposing the church either vehemently or apathetically. Already we see in places like Orange County, CA were other municipal measures reflect an animus towards religions in general and Christianity in particular. New York City is the only one of the 50 largest school districts in the country that has a law on the table that so discriminates in precluding religious organizations from renting its school buildings when they are not in use and do not interfere with the primary mission of the school. But if and when this is finally cleared for implementation, the other major school districts around the country are going to take notice of the precedence – including the refusal of SCOTUS to intervene in this first case. As someone has aptly put it, this is like a contagion that threatens to go viral around the country. In other words, it’s coming to a community near you.

What would you like to see people in other parts of the country to do?

Please pray for your brothers and sisters that are affected here. Pray that the Lord would continue to build his church and let his Gospel go forth without hindrance, even in this city (and this country). Pray for the civil leaders involved – at all levels and in all branches. Pray that they would rule justly and equitably as servants of God. Pray that we would have the right attitude to obey our leaders and serve our communities, come what may. Please pray that other churches throughout our city would come together in solidarity to understand the plight of sister churches and demonstrate the unity that the Lord Jesus prayed for would be true among his people. Before April 22, 2012, please pray that this coming together would be visibly expressed and understood by onlookers in the march and celebration scheduled to start in Brooklyn, cross the Brooklyn Bridge, and wind up next to City Hall in Manhattan. Pray for and contact their friends in New York to express their convictions and communicate to the Speaker of the State Assembly, the Governor, and their elected State Assembly members that they wish to see the Assembly Bill A8800A voted on and passed. We are grateful for the prayers and willingness to be involved from a distance by our brothers and sisters across the country.

Any thing else you’d like to add?

God is clearly still at work in this city. He even uses obstacles and seeming defeats to work his purposes. We have benefited from learning to identify with other churches and Christians across our city – those of different denominational, social-economic, and ethnic backgrounds. His glory will cover the earth like the waters cover the sea!

Thanks so much, Stephen, for taking the time to answer my questions. May God bless you as you continue to serve him in New York City!

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