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WEEK OF PRAYER: An immigrant mindset in Toronto

[SLIDESHOW=39754,39755,39756]EDITOR’S NOTE: The annual Week of Prayer for North American Missions, March 1-8, and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering provide support for missionaries who serve on behalf of Southern Baptists across North America. With a goal of $60 million, this year’s offering theme is “Send North America.” For more information, visit AnnieArmstrong.com.

TORONTO (BP) — Clint Eastwood filmed and starred in “Grand Torino” in Daniel Yang’s childhood neighborhood.

The 2008 film was about a retired Detroit autoworker named Walt whose neighborhood had become gang-infested. When an Asian teen, facing gang initiation pressure, refused to steal Walt’s treasured Gran Torino automobile, the widower befriended the boy, who was Hmong.

“Gran Torino was glamorized compared to how I grew up,” said Yang, a second-generation American Hmong. “Jesus, rock-and-roll and the girls in my youth group saved me [from the gangs].”

The Hmong, a minority people group from Southeast Asia without a homeland, reside in Vietnam, Thailand, China and Laos. Following the Vietnam War and a civil war in Laos, many sought refuge in Thailand and, by the late 1970s, resettled in countries in the West. Detroit was just one landing spot.

The immigrant experience defined Yang then and now. As he struggled to define God’s call on his life after college and while starting his career, one thing became clear. “I made you for the Word,” Yang felt God saying. “I’m going to use your story of being a second-generation immigrant.”

Family stabilized by faith

Yang’s parents made a profession of faith through a Lutheran church, then started attending a Southern Baptist church. By age 7, he also had professed faith in Christ.

“There was a strong awareness of Jesus in my life,” Yang said. “It set the trajectory of my life.”

By age 21, Yang sensed a calling to “some kind of missional ministry.” But first, there was the American dream.

Yang attended the University of Michigan on a full scholarship, majoring in computer science, then spent eight-plus years as a software developer. But deep inside, he wanted to study the Bible and answer the question, “Do I believe this stuff?”

He enrolled in extension courses through Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and realized that God was directing him to vocational ministry.

“I didn’t want to be a pastor,” Yang said. “I thought I would be a missionary.”

He learned about church planting and saw it as a way of being a missionary while staying in North America where he felt led to help churches navigate cultural issues. Detroit seemed the natural place to do that. But even with a team and meeting place secured there, Daniel and his wife Linda realized that Detroit was not their destiny.

Texas then Toronto

After participating in an assessment process and deciding not to plant in Detroit, Yang received an invitation to Texas where he joined the staff of NorthWood Church for the Communities in Keller, a predominantly Anglo congregation where he developed a college and young adult ministry and served as an associate worship pastor.

“God was orchestrating something completely different from what I would have ever planned for myself,” Yang said.

He finished his seminary degree at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary while receiving mentoring at NorthWood. Senior pastor Bob Roberts introduced Yang to the “Farm System” of the North American Mission Board, aimed at assisting churches in discovering, developing and deploying the next generation of missionaries.

Yang began looking for a city to plant a church. That’s when Toronto came into view. After their second vision trip there, Yang recalled, “My wife looked at me and asked, ‘Why aren’t we doing this already?'”

Though Toronto is just four hours from Detroit, the cities are vastly different. Toronto is vastly intercultural while Detroit is nearly 90 percent black. Toronto is on the rise as the financial capital of Canada while Detroit has been in steady decline. Still, he found one similarity.

“I grew up in one of the worst neighborhoods in Detroit, and Regent Park historically was the worst in Toronto,” Yang said.

Fast-changing neighborhood

Regent Park is a revitalizing area near downtown Toronto, a city of neighborhoods. Today, Regent Park is fast changing as young adults, many of whom are college educated, are choosing to live there.

“Toronto is much like New York City,” Yang said. “It’s a thinking city. You engage people’s hearts through their minds.”

Fellow church planter Mike Seaman and his wife Missy joined the Yangs in planting Trinity Life Church. The families started a home Bible study as they began building relationships in a city where they knew no one.

“It’s always tempting to do what is manageable and predictable,” Yang said. “We could have stayed a house church for a long time.”

Through a relationship with the Toronto Kiwanis Boys and Girls Club, a meeting space opened up. In September 2013, Trinity Life Church launched with the motto “Discovering identity and destiny in Christ, influencing the city and the world.”

“It’s helpful when immigrants see that God sent me to North America and I’m on mission here,” Yang said of Toronto, one of NAMB’s 32 Send North America in its church planting strategy.

“We’d like to see multiple churches planted in different neighborhoods,” Yang said. Soon, a church planting intern will join them from NAMB’s Farm System.

Yang has come to appreciate how Canadian and Southern Baptists do missions through the Cooperative Program and Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions.

“We are NAMB missionaries,” Yang said of the advantage that support from NAMB and Canadian Baptists affords him. “[It] allows us to have a level of stability in terms of me raising my family here in Canada.”

He also likes the vision.

“We are part of something bigger,” Yang said of Southern Baptists’ cooperative missions. “It’s tempting to be a myopic church planter. The support encourages us to be more generous in the way we think.”

Watch Daniel Yang talk about his calling to and passion for Toronto:

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  • Jim Burton