I am a bit embarrassed writing about my Chinese heritage. I cannot speak Chinese, neither Cantonese nor Mandarin. I understand a little Taishanese, but I am very American. If I were on your Trivial Pursuit team, give me the questions about the Beatles or the ‘69 Mets. I’ll take a pass on the questions on Chinese culture.
My Chinese name is 陳健光 (Chen Jianguang). My parents came to the U.S. from Guangdong province in China and I was born in Manhattan. Therefore, I am not an immigrant, but a native New Yorker. I grew up on East Broadway in Manhattan’s Chinatown in the 1970’s. But my experience was unlike that of most Chinatown kids.
I came to know Christ as a child at the Chinese Evangel Mission (CEM), which was on East Broadway, two blocks from my house. During that time, Nyack College sent a Chinatown Gospel Team of students to Chinese Evangel Mission every Friday night to engage youth. Lee Hearn, was a member of that team who eventually became my English pastor at CEM. He had an apartment in the building where I hung out as a child. It was in that apartment where I became introduced to Christian books from Lee Hearn’s personal library. My favorite books were Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology and Don Kenyon’s commentary on Romans (Dr. Kenyon taught at Nyack). By the time I was in high school, I knew I wanted to go to Bible school. None of my Chinatown friends thought that way.
In the meantime, I was becoming more and more serious as a Christian teenager in Chinatown. The old neighborhood was different back then. There were no upscale boutiques and million-dollar condos like there are now. It was poorer and much more dangerous.
I would take it upon myself to go on “prayer walks” through the neighborhood, going to the spots that I thought needed Christ the most. I would take regular walks to the Buddhist temples on Madison Street and Division Street, praying for the people who went in and came out, that they would no longer dedicate themselves to the Buddha statues inside.
I would hold my breath and walk into the smoke-filled Off Track Betting (OTB) building in Chatham Square, praying for freedom to the addicted gamblers, clutching their tickets as they watched the race results from Saratoga on the TV screens.
I would pray as I walked past the hangout spots for the Flying Dragons and the Ghost Shadows on Mott Street, though I was careful not to stand out there too long. In those days, you could be accidentally shot if you were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I would be sad as I prayed for the women in the brothels on Market Street. I always had a sense that my neighborhood was a spiritually dark place, but I also felt that I wanted to “go to battle” and be a light-bearer in that dark place.
I am now in my fifties and I am a professor of Bible at—of all places—Nyack College, which is now in Lower Manhattan, less than a mile from my old neighborhood. I can hardly believe it. I preach regularly at Chinese churches in the metro NY area, includ-ing a few Chinatown churches.
Things have come full circle. I now get to train and call others to the fight. I could not be happier. Life is funny that way, isn’t it?
Dr. Frank Chan began teaching at Nyack College in 1999 and in 2005 was named Department Head at Nyack’s School of Bible and Christian Ministry. Today Dr. Chan is a professor of Bible and is Coordinator of the Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.) Dissertation Research.