David Chao, PhD ’19, ThM ’11, didn’t know what to expect when he traveled to Philadelphia for the Asian Theological Summer Institute in 2015.
But the academic workshop was a turning point, helping Chao bring together different aspects of his life — as an Asian American Christian, a son of immigrant Chinese parents, and a theological scholar.
Chao, then a PhD student at Princeton Theological Seminary, had his first significant encounter with other Asian American scholars in his field at the workshop. He met both fellow graduate students and established theologians who were developing a distinctive Asian American theology.
“It rocked my world,” Chao said. “I met people, who like myself, were Christian, had an Asian immigration story, and were integrating their Asian American identity with their faith and their scholarship. I had never encountered that type of community.”
Chao was soon teaching courses and organizing conferences on Asian American theology.
And this week he begins a new role as director of Princeton Seminary’s Asian American Program, where he will expand the program’s reach by organizing academic programs and events, teaching courses, and mentoring students.
The appointment comes at a critical time.
The population of Asian Americans in the United States has grown rapidly, and their influence, creativity, and energy are felt in many fields, including ministry and theological studies. At the same time, Asian Americans have had to battle discrimination, including a surge in racism during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The Asian American Program seeks to address the demographic trends,” Chao says. “We want to have innovative conversations about Asian American theology and ministry, enrich the theological formation of Asian and Asian American students, and equip and empower the practice of ministry in Asian American churches.”
Chao said his experience that summer revealed the potential reach of Asian American theology in a country that is becoming less white and more diverse. The senior scholars included Kwok Pui Lan, a Hong Kong-born feminist theologian, and Peter Phan, a Vietnamese-born Catholic scholar, whose scholarship on “migration theology” emphasizes the centrality of migrants to the church.
“There was this depth of riches,” Chao said. “My eyes were opened to new possibilities.”
Chao grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and graduated from Yale University with a plan to attend medical school. But he had a change of heart.
He attended Regent College in Vancouver for his MDiv, and eventually arrived at Princeton Seminary with a love for the Reformed tradition and Karl Barth. He earned his ThM in 2011 and PhD in 2019.
“My father was a chemist who saw reality through the lens of chemistry,” Chao said. “In the same way, I see reality through the lens of theology.”