Kaitlin (“Kata”) Ho Givens was a minister with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship for 12 years, received her Masters of Divinity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and is currently a church planter in East Boston. She cares about the empowerment of lay leaders, radical hospitality of "outsiders," cross-cultural communities committed to reconciliation and justice. She loves languages, working out, and gardening.
Music by: @siryalibeats
Patrick: He and welcome back to the Sound of the Genuine. I'm Dr. Patrick Reyes, and this is the Forum for Theological Exploration's limited audio series on meaning and purpose. Today, I'm excited we get to talk to Reverend Kata Ho Givens, a campus minister, translator of the gospel and the good news and recently went into pastoral ministry in Boston. I'm so grateful that she decided to join us today and talk a little bit about her journey.
What's going on Kata? I'm so glad you're here talking to us about your life, your journey. It's good to see you.
Kata: Good to be with you, Pat. So good to see you.
Patrick: So tell me about yourself. Tell me about your beginnings.
Kata: So my name is Caitlin Ho Givens and many people call me Kata, you call me Kata. And that is because my name in Spanish is Katalina and it's like the nickname is Kata and it makes sense to my soul, which you might understand as you see my story unfold. I'm a Chinese American, third generation woman. My parents grew up in Chinatown, New York city and it was in their teenage college years where they met Christ through a Chinese church that played basketball and was just really involved in the neighborhood. And so they came to faith and that shaped them. They met each other. They started a family. And so we went to [00:01:30] church ever since I was born. It's been a part of my rhythm of life. Some of my earliest memories are with the Sunday school felt board stories that they would tell. There's like a sheet that they'd put on and they'd tell the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000. Some of the earliest memories I have are of that and of just being full of wonder. I was like, what is this man that you're talking about? That's not a man, but is a man. Confusing. And so some of my earliest memories are those just overwhelming feelings of this is amazing. Like how can you feed that many people with not that much? Like I'm like calculating in my head.
It's not making sense to my like four year old brain. Then I think I was five or six years old when we had some missionaries come back, and they were sharing about the work that they did. I think they were missionaries in Zimbabwe. And I was just listening to all of these stories.
When the service was over, I looked up at my mom, this powerful woman of God, prayer warrior. And I looked up at my mom and I said, I'm going to do that when I'm older. I'm going to be a missionary. I'm going to tell people about God. It's interesting because I remember that moment and my mom does too. Like I remember looking up at her in the pew. And I remember there was a face that she had. And she tells the story, she'll be like I knew that you were not lying. Like I knew that you were telling the truth. And so there was a really fascinating thing happening when I was very little about this call to serve people in some way, shape or form.
And I couldn't figure out exactly what that was for quite some time. I thought it would be likely, especially in high school and in college, as I realized, I love languages, I love the word of God, oh maybe it has to do with translating scripture. And so I went down that route, had a number of conversations with Wycliffe Bible translators.
And I was like this is obviously how it's supposed to work. I'm going to work in a French speaking country where there are dialects that need the word of God translated into so people can read it in their heart language. And that seemed very obvious to me especially in my senior year of college.
And I did not go. I remember that discernment process. But it became clear over a number of conversations with community and in prayer that, like not now, not yet. So I didn't know how to interpret that. But the call was to college students where I was, I had already been. I had seen a number of my friends take some really important steps in their faith and in college through the college ministry that I was a part of.
And so I took the leap, which felt like a very non adventurous leap, but I went to college ministry. And so it was in college ministry where I met you, Pat, actually. And where I started serving a group of students who was mostly East Asian and white. They were a great group of students, really teachable wanted to learn how to follow God, how to listen to him, how to do his work.
And one of the things that they wanted was a multiethnic group that, that exhibited and demonstrated and honored more than just white and Asian. But no one knew how to do it. And so it was really fascinating and it was a dream of mine, a hope of mine. Sometimes it seems like a dream of folly.
Of course you want that, but how do you do that? The barriers are so high. And, I had a dream, an actual dream of me. I was in the Latino student cultural center and there were a number of students around the table where they normally meet, there's a big communal center. There was a number of students there and we were singing and laughing and we were singing praises to God.
I had my guitar there. I have not played the guitar in forever. This was a dream. In the weeks to come after that, my supervisors, my partners in ministry were like what would it look like for you to try something at the Latino student cultural center? And I speak I don't know, I speak proficiently in Spanish.
It's a little dangerous cause I pick up accents fairly well. So it sounds like I am fluent when I am not quite, so it gets me into some trouble sometimes. I had picked up Spanish because I did a lot of work in the summers with InterVarsity, with global projects in the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
So at this time I'm like, oh maybe I'm supposed to go to the Dominican Republic as a missionary, like I thought when I was five or six years old. But the call there was no, it’s not there. Stay in your campus ministry in Boston, Massachusetts. So then I started trying to replicate some of the work I did on those summer trips with the students I had on campus in Boston.
And we started having small groups. Yes. At the Latino center, we started having bible studies with international students. You saw this group of like white and Asian kids who were like, that would be nice but we don't know how to do it starting to take more and more risks to go and reach athletes, business students, artists, black students.
We started having affinity groups that all became, and not without many bumps and bruises, one family. I really do believe that it was the shameless and very sweet desire for community of our international students, as well as the warmth of our Latino students that helped our white, black, and Asian students know how to speak in to be a family.
So we were learning how to do that and I was realizing a call on my life to gospel preaching, proclaiming spaces where there is an intentionally multi-ethnic community. Where reconciliation and the work of justice are not just values, but like we're trying to do the nitty gritty and really messy, chaotic work.
Really humbling work of it day in and day out. And it was there that I made tons of fumbles. I made tons of fumbles. My leadership team was diverse, which was beautiful. It was beautiful. Everyone wants a diverse leadership team. They don't realize what that comes with. Like different communication styles, different ways of making decisions.
People are stepping over each other or ignoring others. You don't realize that you're doing it. And I remember one time I called my Asian American students and I'm Chinese American. This was a deep place of humility and I had to ask them for forgiveness. And I was like, I have been so wanting to make this space safe for black and brown students, and direct communicators that I have not made any space in any of our meetings for any indirect input and there's no, there's just no space for you. It was really humbling because they're my own! And I was like, oh this is really hard. This is a lot harder than it seems.
So I was learning something there. Every year I'd go back to the Dominican Republic and I would ask God, do you want me here? Or what? Like, why? This is the 10th time I'm here. I have family there. And every time the call was no. So I had a mentor in my 10th year of staff when I was on sabbatical.
Her name is the Rev Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil, she's an incredible preacher. Just the embodiment of her obedience has like shaken something in me. So she mentored me and asked me the question, do you think you're going to stay here?
Are you going to stay here for a long time in this campus ministry? And I didn't know the answer to that because I didn't have an imagination that was, that could see anything involving me in a church because of my body. My particular body. I had never seen an Asian woman pastor before. Growing up my church was a nondenominational Chinese American church with a Chinese congregation and then an English speaking congregation, and women don't preach there. They share, they share like a story or a testimony, or if you're a missionary you can share. So I had just never seen it before. I just remember sitting across the table from Dr. Brenda and her asking like about church ministry. I just could not picture anything.
And now I understand why everyone talks about representation and how important that is for people to see the embodiment of what it could look like for them. Because I just had…it was a block. I was like, I guess I'll stay here at campus ministry forever. I love it. I do love it and I see God working here, but also, there is no other place I can go.
Unless it's the mission field. Which I was still asking God about. I continue to turn back to the Dominican Republic. I continued to ask about Bible translating. I think it was a number of years into campus ministry where I realized the desire to learn how to speak the word of God into various dialects so that people can understand. In a way I am doing that with these like athletes and Greek students. Not culturally Greek, but sororities and fraternities Greek.
Patrick: You might need to explain that a little bit for folks who are trying to piece together your college training and the campus you ended up on is very pre-professional. Or at least that was my experience of it when I was there, that folks are there to do whatever professional career that they want. Vocation isn't towards ministry. You went from this Bible translating spot to a pre-professional campus where students are taking jobs for six months at a time.
Kata: Yeah. The co-op model, man. Yeah. Pharmacists business people who are just like they're there to, I don't know, to take over the world to change the world and to get a career. And to bring the gospel there and say when you go to those spaces, serve a greater King, right? That was such an honor. And I was like, oh I'm like learning how to translate this to people very different from me.
Like it almost felt like another language when I was working with Greek students when I was working with architects. I was like, tell me what your life is. I was learning about these cultural values and what success looked like for them and having to offer them the teachings and the life of Jesus and the purpose and the call of following Jesus. And every time it was challenging.
And I was realizing, oh I'm in a way I'm doing the thing that I thought I would be called to, but I thought that would be in West Africa. I had some mentorship through Brenda Salter McNeil, which lifted my gaze, but in seminary which I was at very slowly. I just finished my MDiv after 10 years because I was working full-time ministry the whole time, so I didn't have time. But there was a class by Dr. Kirsten Sanders, and it was about women and the church.
And it was a very important part of me even hearing the call. I couldn't hear the call cause I didn't think it was theologically possible because of the way I had been taught. To understand things that you read in Paul's letter, right? Women should be silent in the church.
I had never been taught, as I grew up that there is a context for those letters, so when you read them, they're not letters for you. They're letters from Paul to a certain place in a situational context that he needed to address.
I grew up with kind of the practice of, oh like here's a saying from Paul, we should just do it. Which I didn't have the hermeneutical tools to interpret. And so, in the beginning of COVID, like a year ago, a lot of people were preaching like, Hey one of the ways to love your neighbor is to wear a mask, right? Like I know this is weird and it feels like an infringement, but this is a very tangible way to love your neighbor. So you hear that even from the pulpit. And imagine if a clip of that was heard 30 years from now and people are like, so we should all wear masks and there's no pandemic. It's not like a correct interpretation. You're not understanding the situational context within which we're to be in, like living out the life of love. So that was all new to me. Learning how to read scripture with a lens that actually takes into account context.
That was revelational. And Dr. Sanders, she loves the word of God and she was like, all of the word of God is good news. How will we preach this to people? And the work that happened in that class made me face the theological barriers that I thought I was like, there's no way that I could ever be called to church ministry that I could ever be called to pastoral ministry.
And I actually felt maybe this is a possibility. For 13 years during my time at campus ministry, I was in a Presbyterian church of America, which does not have women ordained.
And what was ironic is that I loved that church, I was really built up in that church. But I could only, like I could give the announcements or I could read scripture. And so I would give announcements. I love being in front of people. I love speaking to the people. People would come up to me after the announcements and be like, that was so powerful.
And I'd be like, what? So that would be Sunday. And then on Monday I would go to Northeastern University and there'd be like 150 students and I would get to preach and I was never bothered by it. Other people were bothered by it and they would call it out.
They'd be like, you should consider going to a place where the fullness of your call to minister is appreciated and there's space for that. But I was like, there's no problem here.
Patrick: Why do you think that was? Just to give context of how much you did in campus ministry; you fundraised, you designed worship, you did meals, events, and you're a full-time student. You were doing all of these things at the same time. Was it just that you have a rhythm, a life rhythm that was going? Tell me about that.
Kata: Yeah. It is a bewildering part of my story to think about. I'm like I was ministering regularly, powerfully, learning, being humble, all the things and I did not start asking questions about it until fairly late. I think it has to do with the lack of imagination, because I had not seen someone in my own body doing it.
I also have, although I'm a challenger, I'm an Enneagram eight. I'm a prophetic voice. I'm also Chinese American, which has high power distance and an honors authority. That's an unquestioned thing. And so I wonder if a mix of that just has left me, like not asking questions about why no woman ever taught from the scriptures or were allowed to do that. It never bothered me. There were a number of women and men who were like you, what? Like you have a call that you need to pay attention to you. I started hearing external voices from other people before I was ready. I was like, I don't know what to do with what you're saying. My friend Shadwa, she was like, you should consider being a pastor. I could see a pastoral call in you. Andrew, my husband is someone who believed in the full empowerment of women in the body of Christ way before I like wanted to even talk about it. Yeah, there's a number of women preachers who are all women of color. And they're incredible. And what we have realized is that for those of us who are married, we have men behind us who are not challenged or threatened by our, I don't know, like by our stepping into our calls and that has been so important.
There's a verse in Judges where it’s talking about Deborah. And it's like the introductory verse of judges and Deborah was the wife of Lapidoth. And then you don't hear about him anymore, but we owing these woman of color preachers that are just growing mighty in the kingdom. We are always so grateful for the Lapidoth men in our life. That makes space for us, are not threatened by us, want us to come into the fullness of who we are and don't feel like, Oh, that's going to take away from what and who they are or what they can offer. So after 12 years of ministry, I was offered a job as a church planter, alongside another Lapidoth and someone who I thought I would have to fight, cause you hear all these things about, oh they're not going to really want your voice. And every single time I'm like, oh maybe I'll have to fight my way in it.
The doors just way open. I keep having these experiences. And they feel rare when I listen to other stories of people's experiences, but it feels like a blessing from God. Like the table has been set so that I don't have to fight the people I'm working with. I can just fight for the people that are within my care, instead of vying for a space and a voice. The church planting call came after the times in seminary, after I had rounded a corner of the theological barriers in my own life. And after I had been seeing all these powerful woman preachers who were pulling out the seeds of smallness in me, just like, why do you think of yourself like that? And I'm like, I never had questioned any of these things. And they're like I want you, I am asking you, my body and then my direct voice is asking you now to ask questions there, to wrestle there. So I had rounded that corner. I'm offered a job in church ministry, which would lead to after I get my MDiv of which I had just got like ordination and becoming a Reverend, and that all sounded insane to me.
It was gradual, like the glass was shattering, gradually, like they came in layers. And there was this one time I remember, I love gardening, but I live in Boston and don't have land. I've never had any land. So I garden in pots. I have like tons of pots. I've small ones, big ones. And I was planting Brussels sprouts and I only had, I had three small pots and then three big ones. And I was taking care of them and realizing, the ones in the small pot could only grow so big. So they were all like the size of the palm of my hand and they couldn't get any bigger, but the ones in the big pots were like all the same size, much bigger.
And I was like oh they're just stuck in the pots, like their roots don't have the space to grow and so they need bigger pots. So I got bigger pots. I'm repotting them. I'm having this experience with God where I'm like, oh I need to ask for a bigger pot so that I can grow larger. This had to do with the PCA church I was at and it had to do with this church planting job.
I was like, oh I need to ask God for a bigger pot. And in that moment, I actually felt like God was rebuking me. And he said, no, I don't want you to ask for a bigger pot, I want you to ask to be planted in the land. No pot. No boundary for where your roots can grow.
And I was like, I'm just asking for a little more space and he's like, I want your prayers to stretch with imagination in a way that makes you uncomfortable. I want you to ask me to plant you in the land. That brought up a lot of things for me. Cause I was like, that sounds selfish. Like I don't need that much space. And he's like, if you have more space, you can bless more. This is not about your like ambition. This is about you to be fully who I created you to be so that you can fully bless who I have intended you to bless. This church plant is in East Boston, which is a fascinating neighborhood. It is a neighborhood with a lot of central American immigrants.
There's a number of undocumented immigrants. There are a lot of our essential workers basically are here. There's also an older generation of Italian immigrants who own a lot of homes. They're like my parents' age and a little older, they know the good old days. And then there's the new wave of gentrification, which is bringing in upward professionals. It's a very tense time to be here as a church planter who, same as when I was in campus ministry, I was like, I want to see a multiethnic group of people worshiping God, known by God, family to each other from all three of those different people groups. I really want to see in a time of great tension when no one trusts each other, right? The yuppies or no one likes the yuppies. People always blame the violence on the Central American immigrants. The Italian immigrants are the old ones that people are like, you guys need to get with the times. Everyone is at each other's throat.
I'm like, oh what if the gospel of peace is a place where all of these people can be home. And it's been really fascinating because I get to preach in a time when East Boston has been really hit by COVID pretty badly because of essential workers, because of the housing situations of a lot of people scrunched together in small spaces. And the unemployment is staggering for our immigrant population. It's really a difficult time. So for such a time as this, our little church plant began. And I have been realizing that I can serve and I can preach the gospel on Sundays, which is such a high honor.
To read scripture, to speak about scripture, to preach from it, to teach from it, to call people, to apply it to their lives. That is an honor. But the work that I do between Sundays, a lot of times that's working with community partners who work with immigrant neighbors and getting them diapers and formulas, helping explain how government funding helps when you have rental arrears, when you haven't paid your rent for eight months, helping explain how people can do that.
Walking people through that slowly in Spanish. I realized that is, that's like proclaiming, that's like the pulpit, but on the streets. And it's proclaiming the good news of God in really tangible frustratingly slow ways. Because we're working with funding with the government that we apply for these residents who don't speak English.
And then we don't hear for six months and we are just starting to hear from them. There's a long, it's a slow process, but I have been having so much joy in the honor of speaking and preaching God's word and also in just the ability to embody it and to lead a church in caring for neighbor in really radical ways.
Being Chinese American, third generation, woman, pastor, to a community of Latino immigrants, Latinx immigrants, and these older Italian immigrants working with a church that is mostly white and Latino, I can feel lonely sometimes because I'm so often like reading and being hospitable and learning from different cultures and serving different people of different cultures.
And that's something that I felt actually ever since I've moved to East Boston. Andrew notices it. He notices that every about every month, two months I just need Asian food. There's no, there's not a lot of Asian food in East Boston. There's tons of amazing pupusas and tacos and arepas, but there's no Asian food. And so I've been paying attention with God, I've been like, oh what is this weird insatiable, I need this? I think it's a little bit of a loneliness that I experienced in my particular body and culture.
I love serving multi-ethnic communities. I feel very warm and at home and like serving Latino communities, but there is something to be said about your home culture. And so I'm still processing that with God. And in the loneliness of it, I've really felt solidarity with Jesus in a way that I had not before.
But the gift of being in my particular body, in this particular place that I'm getting to savor in a way that I never thought I would is like solidarity with a God who understands what it's like to be misunderstood. To have some understand, but to understand what it is like to be lonely or to be really excited about something and to ask your people to be with you in prayer and they fall asleep and you're like, hello.
I just, I feel like I am understanding the heart of God more and I feel more understood by him, but then I feel like I'm getting a picture of him that I didn't understand before.
Patrick: Can I ask a follow-up question on that? I think that's an experience a lot of ministers have because the congregation is, of course you're serving them, but a lot of times that can be a lonely position just in general. And if you're ministering across cultures, it's amplified. How do you fill yourself up? How do you fill up your cup so that way you're able to continue to do the ministry that you do?
Kata: Yeah, it's a very good question. I'm also, I'm so embodied. So anytime I'm feeling stress or carrying burdens of people, it is in my body.
It is on my actual shoulders. So it's a very important question what you're asking, like, how do you allow yourself to be held as you hold all of these things? One of the most important things that I come back to is the simplest thing. Reverend Brenda Salter McNeil taught it to me, she had learned it from someone else.
It was, it's the circle of influence. Your circle of influence, which is what you can do. And your circle of concern, which is much greater. And it was just like all the things you care about, right? Oh my gosh. Like the neighbor across the street, their like ankles broken. Oh, also like systemic injustice.
It's all the things and it’s acknowledging all of those and giving, giving space for you to say, I am concerned about this. I care about this. And then it's asking God and the Holy spirit for wisdom to discern what is your circle of influence? Like where and how can I use my power, my time, my resources to partner with you, God, in making all of these things new?
And a lot of it for me is discerning, okay this huge thing I care about, and that is good, that is of God, I cannot carry all of that. I can carry this particular part of it. I can do this part of the subversive work of the kingdom with God here in this community that I’m at. And I'm going to keep doing that.
So that has been really important for me. Also I have a lot of boundaries. I have stop times for work. Every Friday, Andrew is also a minister, every time when we finish work we dance for about an hour. We put on like a video or we'll learn a dance, we'll learn a tik-tok dance, or we'll do couples dancing because we need to work on something that isn't about everyone else.
That's just fun. And if you don't, if you fail, it's, it doesn't matter. And that's really important when you're working in a lot of like life and death, very important, heavy situations to have places where you can laugh and be filled up. So we always Sabbath and they are the best days ever. Just no plans, time with God exercising, cooking, creating. It's been a beautiful rhythm for us.
Patrick: That's so cool. As I hear you tell your story and all the steps from translating texts into the heart language, which is what you said. And then I almost hearing, translating community into the heart language as you were doing your campus ministry. And now this kind of deep translating your call into your own heart language for this neighborhood to drive these deep roots down. I'm curious how much of your sense of call and ministry comes from those conversations with God when you're gardening, when you're walking your neighborhood, when you're doing this work and how much comes with a conversation with the community going all the way back to that first time you looked up to your mom when you were five, how much is it your community that’s kind of cultivating your sense of call?
Kata: Yeah. I think hearing from God has been crucial, hearing from others has been really important for me because, if you hear something from God, you're like, okay God. I don't know. But when it's confirmed by the voices of your community multiple times. At least to consider something different, it took my attention but I really have needed the voice of community to pull it out. There was one time, it was like the first month of our church plant last year. There was an immigrant from El Salvador. And he had just shown up to Boston and he came through our doors cause we're a church.
And I was talking with him and the pastor I worked with, Justin was with me, we're talking and I'm translating some things and we're taking care of him and after that conversation, Justin was debriefing with me and was just like, I wonder if the reason why God asked me, like him - Justin, to be a part of a church plant in East Boston was so that you could come and pastor the people.
And again the word from God that I heard with the brussels sprouts, the thing that Justin said it's just like many steps ahead of where I currently am. But it's like I hear them and I treasure them in my heart. Like I ponder them. I'm like, what is that? And it stretches me to understand that the call that I have might take shape in different ways and might be a lot more than I even have the present imagination for. I had a professor whenever he talked about pastors, he would use the pronoun she. So he would be like, yeah, so if you're going to go to your pastor, you should ask her.
[unintelligible] And I just wept the first time I heard that and I asked him about it. He's like oh, I just think we have barriers into who can embody that space that we put pronouns to. And I want people to at least get to a point of discomfort. Like, why is he doing that? And to see if that can expand, if that would be a sacred and important thing for our own imaginations. It was so small and yet so important for me on my journey of call to be like, oh, like I wasn't seeing like a Chinese American pastor. It was a pronoun. It was a word that I heard, but it was part of the glass shattering.
I think we need to have more spacious view of the kingdom. And if, and when you're hearing voices that say no, you and your body in the way that you've been made, there's no space for that. I always think about the end of Hamilton when Burr is like, oops, I shouldn't have killed Hamilton.
He says, Ugh, like the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me. And I always think about that because the kingdom of God is wide enough for someone like you. And actually when you step into a spacious view of how God has created you to be and what your purpose is, it blesses me. And so allow your scarcity mentalities to be disrupted by the abundance of God.
Patrick: That's so powerful. I just want to say thank you for sharing your story with us. As I hear it, I'm grateful that you heard the call of your community, that you heard the call of God. That you've had your imagination expanded to listen, to pay attention to dreams, and to garden, and to drive your roots down deep. It's a gift, you're a gift Kata to the world and I'm grateful to know you and be inspired by you. And just deep gratitude for all that you do and live in the world.
Kata: Yeah. It's an honor. I feel very honored to do it. I feel like I have rounded the corner and now I feel so free to do what I've been created to do.
Patrick: Thanks again for joining us here on the sound of the genuine. We hope that Rev. Kata's story inspires you. And share this episode or the series with a friend. Don't forget you can get more information about the Forum for Theological Exploration and our many resources at ftleaders.org. Special shout out to Heather Wallace and Elsie Barnhart and @siryalibeats for his music. Thank you again for listening to the Sound of the Genuine.