Know A Good Westminster Story?

June 10, 2018
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Genesis 9:12-17; Philippians 1:1-2

On July 21, 1889, a young woman named Lian May Seen contacted the Presbyterian Mission Home in San Francisco. She had been sold at age 14 in Guangdong province in China to a man who promised her parents she would be taken to California to marry a rich Chinese merchant.

Instead, Lian May was forced to be a sex worker in San Francisco. Four years later, when she heard that the Presbyterian Mission Home was rescuing young women in her situation, she waited for the right moment to escape. On that day in July she saw her chance.

It was a Sunday. She was to sing at a well-known Chinese restaurant late that night and thought she could slip away. She got word to the Mission Home to meet her at a certain intersection. Margaret Culbertson, the Home’s Supervisor, , waited in a horse-drawn carriage for several hours at the rendezvous point, accompanied by an assistant and a police officer.

When Lian May came walking through the dark streets they quickly helped her into the carriage and sped off to the Mission Home. Lian May lived there for three years, learning English, basic school subjects, and household tasks. She came to Christian faith among those Presbyterians.

Holy Scripture is holy story. The Bible is a collection of sacred narratives about and by and for the people of God. God moves through all the stories, sometimes in ways that are clear; at other times, God seems to be hidden and only emerges in retrospect. Any one of us might see that pattern in our own lives: sometimes we sense the distinct presence of the holy…at other times it’s hard to imagine any divine interest at all in the mundane aspects of our lives.

The biblical story of the Great Flood concludes with God making a promise that will forever be signified by a bow in the sky: God’s covenant with God’s people will never again be broken. It’s a forward-looking promise to be carried through the ages, and cared-for, by succeeding generations. The stories of scripture are reminders of the unfolding rainbow promise in the lives of the people of God.

We see that in the story of Lian May Seen.

The Presbyterian Mission Home in San Francisco was started in 1874, when bigotry and violence against Chinese immigrants had intensified. Dozens of Presbyterian churches across the nation pitched in to support the work of the Mission Home. Westminster was one of them, led by the women of our congregation’s Foreign Mission Society.

In the 1870s, only 20 years after this church had been established by immigrants from Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, Westminster began to welcome Chinese men to our city as they fled rampant racism on the west coast. When the U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, Westminster countered by starting a Chinese Sunday School to support immigrants from China. That ministry among Chinese immigrants would continue until the late 1950s.

Westminster’s building in the early 1880s was located at 4th St. and Hennepin Avenue. One of the first students at the Chinese Sunday School was Woo Yee Sing, who had opened a laundry at 13th St. and Nicollet. He soon became an active member of Westminster. Ten years later, in 1892, he set out to go back to China to find a bride. While in San Francisco, he visited the Presbyterian Mission Home, which he had learned about at Westminster.

Woo Yee Sing was greeted by Margaret Culbertson, who was impressed with the Chinese Presbyterian from Minneapolis. She introduced him to 21-year old Lian May Seen and the bride-seeking expedition to China was quickly called off. Woo Yee lingered in San Francisco and he and Lian May soon fell in love. Supervisor Culbertson contacted the Rev. Pleasant Hunter, Westminster’s senior minister, to verify his church member’s trustworthiness, and then endorsed the marriage proposal made by Woo Yee.

We believe that God is at work in the world, that the Holy Spirit moves through the people of God in a providential way, that the promise of God’s covenantal love will never be broken. In the opening lines of his letter to the young church in Philippi the Apostle Paul attests to this claim: “I am confident of this,” he says, “That the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6)

Sometimes it’s only in hindsight that we see the providence of God at work in our lives. From the vantage point of history that certainly seems to be the case with Lian May and Woo Yee.

The wedding took place in the Presbyterian Church of Chinatown, San Francisco, three years to the day after Lian May had made her escape. She and her new husband were soon on their way to Minneapolis, where she, too, joined Westminster. Five years later, after the devastating fire at the new building at 7th and Nicollet, the congregation moved and built this sanctuary next door to the Yee Sing Laundry.

Lian May was the first Chinese woman to settle in this city, and she became an active force in the growing community of immigrants, welcoming newcomers, teaching them, and counseling them as they made their home in the city. She and her husband Woo Yee lived around the corner from the church, on Grant St. The two of them were key leaders in the Chinese community. They opened other laundries and restaurants and developed an import business. Lian May herself opened a small gift shop next to Westminster; many of her customers were members of the church.

At the same time that Lian May was settling in Minneapolis, another woman came to town, Mabeth Hurd. She was from the east, and moved to Minneapolis to accept a position teaching art in the Minneapolis Public Schools. Mabeth soon met James Paige, a member of Westminster and the second full-time professor hired by the University of Minnesota’s new School of Law. Eventually they married.

In the recently-released documentary on the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, called RBG, the film portrays her attorney husband Marty as an enlightened supporter of his wife’s calling into a legal career. James Paige served that same role with his wife Mabeth. He encouraged her to enroll at Law School, which she did. She graduated in 1900 and was admitted to the Bar soon thereafter, becoming one of the first women lawyers in the state.

Mabeth became involved at Westminster, especially in the church’s Foreign Missionary Society. She soon met Lian May and they became close friends. They lived only a few blocks apart and spent many long hours together.

Mabeth became active in the community, joining African-American leaders in agitating for racial justice. She helped found the Minneapolis chapters of the Urban League and the League of Women Voters. She was an activist for women’s rights and a leading suffragette in Minnesota, marching for the right to vote. She founded a women’s boarding house that today is owned by Aeon, the affordable housing developer and our partner in providing low-cost housing. Westminster’s Open Doors Open Futures campaign provided funds to expand residential capacity at Paige Hall, named for Mabeth.

In 1922 – two years after women got the right to vote – Mabeth Hurd Paige, women’s rights activist and advocate for the Chinese immigrant and African-American communities, was elected with the first four women to serve in the Minnesota State Legislature. Her district stretched from downtown through north Minneapolis to Lowry Avenue. She was re-elected to ten terms, until she retired in 1945.

These two Westminster women, good friends and community leaders, Lian May See and Mabeth Hurd Paige – one who came to this country a teenage girl trapped in the sex trade and the other a public school art teacher – both had a profound impact on the role of women in Minnesota. They helped this city address injustice among the immigrant and African-American communities. They paved the way for others.

Our church’s history is full of stories. Each of us has our own; a narrative of how the covenantal promise of God is working its way through our lives.

The Church is a kind of living Bible, a repository of narratives of God at work in your life and in mine, and in our world. That work is still underway. We can see it all around us today on Heritage Sunday, when we honor those who have been in this particular congregation for at least half a century.

I spoke with a 76-year member of Westminster this week. We talked about the history of the congregation and some of the issues he had seen the church face over time. I asked if he thought much about the way things once were and he said, “No, not really. I’ve always been one to focus not on the past, but on the future.”

That is a healthy outlook, and a biblical one, as well – to trust that God’s purpose is being worked out as the years unfold.

“I am confident of this,” Paul says to the Philippians, “That the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”

The work begun by Lian May See and Mabeth Hurd Paige for racial justice and women’s rights and for immigrants is not yet done. To use Pauls’ wording, that work has not yet been brought to completion among us.

The work of these courageous, strong women, this church’s historic work, the pursuit of the love and justice of God as we know them in Jesus Christ, is our work today.

Thanks be to God.


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