In 1984, Asha and Kim saw their interracial marriage as an act of love, faith, and resistance. They did not expect to be fighting so hard in 2020.
At 16, Asha left India, her homeland, with the goal of becoming a doctor in the United States. She lived in Camden with the Lutheran pastor who was her visa sponsor and was shocked that such deep poverty existed in America. When Asha didn’t get into medical school, she began working alongside her sponsor, serving meals to the hungry, working with disadvantaged kids in a summer camp, and making every difference she could. What was supposed to be a temporary detour became Asha’s calling. In 1978, she enrolled in the United Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia.
Kim grew up in Philadelphia and Phoenixville but left Pennsylvania to become a commodities broker and labor contractor in Idaho and Arizona, where he hired teams of farm workers from Mexico. These men had little money, but so much joy and peace — exactly the opposite of Kim. The workers said they found these things through their Christian faith. Kim left his job in search of a more meaningful life, and in 1979 this man who did not own a Bible enrolled at the United Lutheran Seminary. He got lost on his first day but saw a woman who clearly knew what she was doing and asked for help.
Asha assisted, then introduced herself. She invited the new guy to her 22nd birthday party the following day, where each impressed the other with their how-I-got-to-seminary story and strong desire to improve the world.
After a few more days of talking at school, Kim asked Asha for a date but said he didn’t want her to answer without first knowing something that made him ashamed: When he first saw her, he assumed she was a maid.
There were few women, let alone brown-skinned women, in the seminary then. Based on his admission, and the positive interactions between them after, Asha decided to give him a chance. They saw a hot new flick that Kim promised was a romance: Rocky II.
Over time, most of Asha’s family immigrated to Philadelphia. When Kim drove her home after their first date, they discovered the Overbrook house her parents owned was just two doors down from the one where Kim lived with his parents before the family moved to Chester County.
It was hard to resist taking this coincidence as some sort of sign. Yet both knew their relationship would face opposition from others — including those who raised them in those neighboring homes.
“My father was a pretty overt racist,” said Kim.
“My parents absolutely did not want me marrying a white person,” said Asha. “They came out of British colonialism — we are talking about centuries of a lack of trust we would have to overcome.”
Banking on their mutual commitment to serving others, Kim and Asha allowed themselves to fall in love. In 1982, she was the first Asian woman to be ordained in the Lutheran church worldwide. She was assigned to a Coopersburg, Pa., parish. Kim graduated in 1983 and was assigned to a church in Fishtown. The couple married the following year.
“There were not a lot of brown or black people in Fishtown, but that is where we started our lives,” Kim said.
Everyone was friendly when Asha visited Kim before they married. Then the parish threw her a bridal shower and word spread that the woman wearing a black blouse with a white collar was not a nun sent to help the pastor, but the pastor’s future wife.
“The KKK and other white supremacists would put nasty notes and literature in the door,” Kim said. Several times after Asha moved in, someone tried to break down that door. “It was meant to intimidate,” Kim said. He scared them off.
Kim and Asha created a youth group and Sunday school that provided structure and a safe and happy place to go for many kids. They sponsored a food bank. Asha reached out to neighborhood women one on one, listening to the issues they faced and linking them with the help available at the Lutheran Settlement House, where Kim also led services for senior citizens.
After a year, the threats stopped. “We won them over,” Asha said.
Both sets of parents had attended the wedding, but it would take years and the birth of the couple’s daughter, Preeya, for Asha’s parents to soften, and Kim’s really never did.
Even within their own loving relationship, it took work to bridge cultural differences. “I come from a culture that is very much about familial and communal needs and American culture is very individualistic,” Asha said.
Her focus on her family would sometimes make Kim feel their relationship was coming second, and like he could never have time to himself. Kim would take phone calls even during dinner, which made Asha feel that he was putting work above their family.
“To be perfectly frank, we had an excellent therapist,” said Kim.
Kim, who is now 69, and Asha, now 63, began serving together at Trinity Lutheran Church in Norristown in 1986. In 1988, at Kim’s suggestion, the congregation agreed to sell the old building and start a new mission. A Worcester Township farm was purchased, money was raised, and a new church campus including a large preschool was built. The students were the children of a diverse group of parents who worked in the pharmaceutical industry. Their parents began joining the church congregation, and Kim and Asha made certain to appoint diverse leadership. For 10 years, Asha worked for the national Lutheran church cultivating a diverse clergy.
Inspired by her and Kim’s experience with counseling, Asha earned her doctorate in marriage and family therapy in 1994. In 2000, she opened Trinity Counseling Service, where she specializes in cross-cultural relationships.
Helping people from different cultures learn to appreciate and understand one another better has been the couple’s life’s work. They knew there would always be more work to do, but until recently, thought their efforts and those of many others to foster understanding and demand equality and civil rights were moving the country forward.
“When I heard about George Floyd’s death and the violence of it, I realized from the Fishtown days until now, we have not come as far as I thought we had come, and that’s been very difficult,” Asha said.
“We had overestimated our progress,” said Kim.
The nation has slid backward, said Asha.
The couple, who became Episcopalians in 2017 and were ordained priests in 2019, looked at the growing polarization of society and asked themselves, “What can we do in our little place, where we are?” said Kim.
Asha serves at the request of Episcopal Bishop Daniel Gutierrez on the Loving Presence Group, a committee working to transform the diocese in a racially divided time.
Kim is rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Honey Brook, Chester County, and Asha assists. She initiated a monthly workshop, based in part on Ibram X. Kendi’s book How to Be an Antiracist. Kim and Asha wanted to create a space for people in this majority-white congregation to discuss racism and white privilege and learn to recognize both without being defensive.
“This had led to new awareness” and awareness is necessary before action can be taken, said Kim.