Joe Ho became director of InterVarsity’s Asian American Ministries last July. It is not the career path he expected to be on when he joined InterVarsity staff 20 years ago. “I was fairly distant from Asian American ministries for quite a long time,” he said.
Attending Urbana, InterVarsity’s Student Missions Conference, as a college sophomore he sat in on a workshop on Asian American identity. “It was a way of thinking that I didn’t really get,” he recalled. Multiethnic Ministry was not on his radar.
His first five years working for InterVarsity at his alma mater, Duke University, he was the only Asian American Campus Staff Member in his region. The Duke chapter was thriving and his work with the chapter was very similar to what other staff in the region were doing.
But then the number of Asian American students at Duke began to grow. Many visited the InterVarsity chapter but didn’t seem to fit in and drifted away. As he took some intentional steps to help Asian American students fit in, and train some of them for leadership, he was surprised to see the chapter develop a reputation as an Asian group and became less attractive to White students.
“That was the crucible in which my leadership was tested, and when most of my mistakes were made,” Joe said. Looking back now, Joe sees things much differently than he did then. “The years between five and ten were the ones where I had the least confidence in myself as a campus staff but also the years where I made the most significant contributions to the ministry at Duke.”
Developing As a Leader
Ten years ago, nearing the end of his tenure at Duke, Joe received an invitation to join InterVarsity’s first Daniel Project, a development program for Asian American staff with leadership potential. Daniel Project director Paul Tokunaga, now InterVarsity’s Vice President, Director of Strategic Ministries, was Joe’s mentor.
“What immediately impressed my about Joe was his can-do spirit,” Paul said. “Other Asian American staff might have wanted to transfer to another part of the country with more Asian Americans. But Joe had a ‘bloom where you are planted’ mindset.
Joe started Asian American conferences in the Blue Ridge region and Asian American break-out sessions at other InterVarsity gatherings. “He started partnering with Asian American churches even though he attended a predominantly white church,” Paul said. “To Joe’s credit, there are now more Asian American students and staff in the Blue Ridge than any time in its history.”
By the time Joe left Duke to become Area Director for the Shenandoah Area in Virginia he was strongly committed to multiethnic ministry. His wife Traci, who had been teaching at a predominantly African American school, also played a role. “I think my wife’s journey in terms of the public school system was as integral to my thinking and our family’s calling to multiethnic ministry as anything that InterVarsity taught me,” he said.
Later Joe was also invited to join the Asian American Ministries Leadership Team. This further deepened his appreciation for Asian American ministry, and helped him make the decision apply to become Asian American Ministries director.
During his seven years in Virginia the number of white students in the area’s InterVarsity chapters grew steadily but they also began to reach new populations of Greek students, black students, and Asian American students. However, Joe felt a persistent desire to contribute more to Asian American and multiethnic ministry. Strangely enough, he realized later, he never prayed to ask God about fulfilling that desire.
When the Asian American Ministries Director job opened up and his application was selected he was pleased. “It shows God answers the desires of our hearts that are according to his will, way beyond what we could’ve asked, even when we didn’t have the faith to ask,” he observed.
True to His Calling
Joe grew up in a Chinese American church community in Cincinnati. During his college years he discovered that many of his church youth group friends had left the faith. He also discovered, in a conversation with a close non-Christian friend from high school, that she had gone through four years of college without having a spiritual conversation or thinking about faith.
“I joined staff at first because I thought neither of those two things should happen; that was my motivation,” he said. “I didn’t realize until two years ago, all of those high school friends are Asian Americans. I was drawn to lead Asian American Ministries by the realization of how my life had intersected with Asian Americans who were not believers. It turns out my calling with InterVarsity is the same as it always has been.”
Joe believes he has a compelling vision for his new position. But he’s thankful he’s not doing the job all by himself.
“I’m riding on the coat tails of 250 of the most passionate, talented, committed, creative, culturally-savvy, leaders that I know,” he said. “All InterVarsity staff are remarkable but this Asian American staff team…if someone could run with this crew why wouldn’t they?”