Innovative Space for Asian American Christianity
Innovative Space for Asian American Christianity (ISAAC) is a faith-based nonprofit organization in Los Angeles that mentors Asian American and Latina women faith leaders, facilitates conversations between scholars and church leaders, and curates resources for local churches. ISAAC builds thriving communities by providing intersectional learning spaces that bridge academia, church, and community – all to raise up the next generation of spiritual leaders. Through our partnership with Trinity Church Wall Street, NFF is working with ISAAC to address questions of sustainability and ensure that the organization can offer these critical programs for years to come.
I first met ISAAC’s co-founder and executive director Reverend Dr. Young Lee Hertig at a crossroads in life, during the last few weeks of my final semester at college. She spoke on a panel discussion at a national gathering for faith-based leaders, where we discussed race relations in light of the 2015 Charleston church shooting. I was drawn to the fact that she was the first woman of color faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary and the unmistakable magnetism she possessed as a speaker.
At that time, I was considering a career in full-time Christian ministry and envisioning what that path might look like. I will always remember Young’s first words to me as she slipped me her business card and said, “Call me. I mentor Asian American women.”
The following summer, I applied for and was accepted into ISAAC’s summer pastoral internship program, funded by the Forum for Theological Exploration. The focus of the internship that year was to build relationships between Asian American young adults and historically Black churches, and I was paired with West Angeles Church of God in Christ – located in the West Adams neighborhood of South Los Angeles. There, I met weekly with Elder Oscar Owens, who mentored me and facilitated meaningful conversations around race and faith.
ISAAC provided me and my fellow interns with the space to ask hard theological questions about career, calling, and self-awareness. Through weekly one-on-one and group mentorship meetings, I walked away enriched by opportunities to learn and dialogue within community. At a time when I was trying to find my footing, ISAAC offered a holistic and grounding communal learning experience that encouraged journeying together through cooking, community building, and transparent storytelling.
And while six years later, my professional path looks very different from what I imagined years ago, the impact of Young’s mentorship on my life is lasting. I’m so glad I called her.
- Janelle Paule, Specialist, Marketing and Communications
JP: Could you introduce yourself and ISAAC to our readers?
YLH: My name is Young Lee Hertig and I'm an ex-faculty who got bored of only talking in academia. I learned that I'm more of an entrepreneur and gain energy and joy when implementing ideas rather than having meeting after meeting. Show me what we do after we talk.
ISAAC bridges the gap wherever there's a gap. In a nutshell, we do knowledge activism. There is dissonance in the diet of theological equipping... and there is a lack of knowledge about who you are and where you have come from because most classrooms are white-centric. I saw a huge disparity.
The idea of a nonprofit organization percolated within me for decades. And finally, in April 2006, ISAAC was born. How do we create and generate our knowledge and stories? Whose stories are shaping us? That's how ISAAC began, and I've been building a plane while flying it.
JP: Can you tell me a little bit more about what ISAAC does?
YLH: What I try very hard to do is learn and network within the business sector to stretch my mindset beyond a Reverend Doctor's world. What kind of mindsets do business people have? My learning curve was very high; I've got three masters and one PhD, not a single course on economics or finance.
Out of those lived experiences, I designed an online program called How to Fuel Your Passion: Tangible Skill Sets of Faith Leaders. This program for Latina and Asian American women faith leaders integrates business acumen and God.
We have amazing women with amazing visions and missions, but do you know how to write mission statements? Do you know how to do budgets? Do you know how to talk money? That's what gives me the joy – that these women of color are not going to go through what I did. I’m trying to help them be better prepared and know what they don’t know.
JP: Can you share a story that demonstrates ISAAC's mission in action?
YLH: “What kind of diets are my people being fed?” I raised that question from day one when I became a faculty member.
When I submitted the manuscript for The Tao of Asian American Belonging: A Yinist Spirituality, my publishers said, “Your primary audience is Asian-American.” And my answer to them was, “When a white author publishes, do you also ask that question? Is their audience only white?
"Yes, it is for the Asian American audience, but it is also for the white. Because we've been reading your stuff, but you haven't been reading ours. It's time for you to understand ours.”
My strength is program development. Being able to see what I imagined and put down, just me and the Holy Spirit at the computer... having people jumping on that and seeing that unfold into reality, is so inspiring. I'm already thinking about how to sustain these programs because the funders do not want them to end after the grant cycles.
JP: Can you define the term “knowledge activism”?
YLH: It’s content generation of Asian American Christian stories and history since our theological constructions are not being taught as widely in educational institutions. I came up with the three "T’s” methodology. Transcribe our spiritual legacy, which then becomes the bridge across ethnicity, generation, and gender. Translate to different pan-Asian American contexts and even make it mainstream. What you translate, you need to also transmit – we do that by creating an intersectional learning space across race, class, and gender.
The Western paradigm splits all the disciplines; the Eastern Paradigm is about putting it all together. We have an annual peer-reviewed journal, with both academic and narrative articles. We don't want to just have a journal collecting dust, but it must be relevant and accessible. And we just came out with a book, A Biblical Study Guide for Equal Pulpits.
JP: What changes have you seen in the role of faith and faith-based organizations?
YLH: That’s a challenging question. I don't think I can really run a nonprofit if I don't have faith. Every morning, it is my faith and hope that anchors me. Even though I felt an emotionally paralyzing experience a few days ago, learning about when children were gunned down... that was really difficult for me. You get sick of mourning... it's more of an angry mourning and feeling so powerless.
I lament the fact that in Christianity’s landscape today, even more seminaries and churches are closing. I can see the trend and the waning impact of faith communities. The walls of church are so high, and I would love churches opening up rather than just being so concerned about their own missions. I want to see more impact coming out of faith communities. Talk is cheap.
JP: What has ISAAC’s experience been like working with NFF?
YLH: My hope is to build a collaborative community that learns how to work together rather than in competition. That’s why I appreciate NFF’s mission. When I was asked to partner with NFF beyond the Trinity Church Wall Street grant, I was really a little bit surprised. Nobody has ever volunteered and said, “We want to work with you for sustainability and capacity building.” I've never heard of anything like this coming from any pastors or churches. NFF’s resources have been proven very helpful.
JP: What is something inspiring you've learned from the communities you serve?
YLH: When people's lives are being changed and their questions are being changed, there's no greater reward. Education, when done right, is an enormous vehicle of social and individual change. I'm a change agent. I always ask tough questions and I'm asking PastoraLab and How to Fuel Your Passion participants to raise questions that they’ve never raised before. I don't have answers to everything, but it all begins with questioning the status quo – your default position – and learning to ask new, urgent questions that matter.
JP: Do you want to add anything else to that?
YLH: It's my faith that grounds me every day, and every day is a gift from God. So, I get super excited waking up in the morning. I say, “God, thank you for gifting me with another day.” Because time is not mine. It is God’s. So, I try to be a really good steward of the time God is allowing me. But my work is not going to end anytime soon.
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