(RNS) — In her poem “I Have a New Name,” spoken-word artist Hosanna Wong boldly lists the names God calls her in Scripture: Friend, chosen, greatly loved.
But when she first released her bravura anthem of acceptance in 2017, it was under a pseudonym.
“Early on, a handful of leaders told me that my background might stand in the way of me being effective in the places and spaces I felt called to,” Wong, 33, told Religion News Service in a recent interview. “So they suggested that I don’t go by the last name ‘Wong.’”
After performing for most of her career as “Hosanna Poetry,” Wong, 33, now records under her own name. She’s one of several Asian American Christian leaders who have rejected the mold that others tried to force them into, forging a more expansive faith that acknowledges the rich dimensions of their identity.
But being open about who you are isn’t easy when you’ve been “shape shifting,” as Wong put it, from an early age.
Growing up in San Francisco in the 1990s, Wong felt most at home serving alongside her dad at his Christian outreach ministry for people living without homes and battling addiction.
“We had outdoor services two to three days a week. People brought their alcohol bottles, people brought their needles. That’s how I learned church,” said Wong, whose father was a former gang member who battled heroin addiction. “That’s where I learned that Jesus could save anyone’s soul and redeem anyone’s story…and that’s also where I learned the art of spoken word poetry.”
Freestyling about homework or her favorite snack, Wong felt accepted on the streets. But at school, where she was the only Chinese girl in her class, she learned to hide the home cooking she packed for lunch and to use makeup to make her eyes look wider.
“I just thought if I watered down my details, I’d be more accepted and have more friends, and maybe an easier life. I didn’t want to explain my dad, I didn’t want to explain my past, my background, my heritage.”
After Wong’s father died from cancer when she was 18, she packed two suitcases into an aging red Toyota Corolla and performed her Christian poetry at churches and ministries across the country. A successful summer turned into years of touring. At some point she decided to omit details about her family’s story in her set and dropped her last name.
She began to question her approach when she learned that others saw themselves in her Asian American heritage and in her experiences of losing a parent or having a loved one who battled addiction.
“They saw beauty in something I had not seen,” Wong said.