Angela Ying, MDiv ’91, has social justice in her DNA. Her parents were immigrants from Taiwan (“they were teenagers and rebels,” she says) in the 1950s during martial law under Chiang Kai-shek. To ensure their safety, they were forced to conceal their engagement and move to the United States separately, three years apart. They kept connected by faith by praying at the same time every day, her father praying in the morning in Minnesota while her mother prayed in the evening in Taiwan. Leaving behind their families, they pursued PhD and MA degrees at the University of Minnesota. In America, they instilled in her and her sisters the importance of giving back from a very young age. She recalls trick-or-treating for UNICEF and sleeping on the floor when her parents opened their home to international students who couldn’t afford to travel during holidays from university, where her father was an economics professor and her mother a head librarian.
Remaining connected to the church allowed Ying to continue to give back as a young adult, but seminary wasn’t ever on her radar. In fact, she was pursuing an advanced degree in physiology when she started joining weekly church visitations to the women’s state prison. It sparked a change in her. “We’d go as a group to be present, listen, and just be with the prisoners,” she says. “I will never forget the injustice against Black and Brown people I witnessed in the prison industrial complex. I loved science, but that was my first call to ministry, where my faith, spirituality, prayers, and meditation intersected with my interest in social justice.”
While enrolled in Princeton Theological Seminary, Ying refined her goals. “I went to Philadelphia, Trenton, and Camden, right into the heart of urban ministry,” she says. “I was trying to make a difference, and this sowed the seeds in me.” In 1992, Ying became the first second generation Taiwanese American minister ordained in the United States, by the Presbyterian Church (USA). Today, as senior pastor at Seattle’s Bethany United Church of Christ, Ying marries her passion for justice with her call to ministry, defining the church by a mission of worship, spirituality, radical hospitality, and justice. Through a variety of community outreach programs, including those surrounding climate change, housing, youth issues, and race, church members get involved and make a real difference in local, national, and international issues.
One example is the church’s sponsorship of two tiny house villages, which house 120 homeless neighbors so they’re not out on the street. “One Sunday prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, we had all the congregation make sandwiches — one for you and one for your homeless neighbor,” Ying says. “We went into the tiny house villages and met our homeless neighbors and made connections. Then some of the people from the village showed up in church.” This is just one way in which her church brings together different denominations, socioeconomic strata, genders, sexualities, and races, united under a common message: As a community, they believe that all are beloved by God.
And while many issues still keep her up at night, including the health of the planet, the housing and homelessness crisis, and racial and economic inequality, she is empowered when she sees her teenage daughter and her generation speak truth to power. “Never forget what Cornel West said: ‘Justice is what love looks like in public, you can’t lead the people if you don’t love the people, and you can’t save the people if you don't serve the people,’” Ying reminds her fellow Princeton Seminary graduates. “I would add that you can’t teach the people if you aren’t willing to lead by example.”