This piece originally appeared in the print edition of Westminster Magazine, Vol. 1, Issue 1
The Szto family has a remarkable history with Westminster—perhaps even one of a kind. Reverend Paul Szto studied under Cornelius Van Til, and graduated from Westminster in 1951. In the years since, all four of Rev. Szto’s children followed in their father’s footsteps, attending and graduating from Westminster. In fact, Irene, the oldest sibling, was one of the first woman to graduate from Westminster. Peter is now a professor of social work at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. Mary teaches law at Syracuse. And John is an architect and musician.
Earlier this summer, Westminster Magazine’s Joel Richards sat down (virtually) with Peter, Mary, and John Szto to talk about their late father, Reverend Paul Szto, and the family’s legacy of education at Westminster. The interview has been lightly compressed, and edited for clarity.
Joel: Tell me a little bit about your father and his story at Westminster.
Peter: Well, my father became a Christian when he was in China studying at university, and missionaries from the university were connected with Westminster. So when he had the opportunity to leave China at 47 or so, he was looking at Westminster because of those missionary connections, so then of course he came and very much enjoyed his theological education.
Mary: It was transformative for our father. My father’s generation, but also many, many generations of Chinese people, were trying to solve the question of how China was once a great civilization militarily, but fell behind technologically in the 1800s. So my father, like many others, was trying to see whether or not Christianity was key to some of that development. When he came to Westminster, he was affirmed in his Christian faith and he was taught the treasures of Scripture, but he was also given tools to understand how Christianity and culture relate to each other. From day one, he was in awe of professor Van Til’s analysis of Scripture and philosophy. From then on, Professor Van Til became our father’s favorite professor.
Joel: How did your father’s experience here influence your decision to attend Westminster? How did that impact your personal occupations or ministries?
Peter: We all were taught to believe in God’s divine plan and in his sovereignty, but I think in terms of our experience at Westminster, it kind of happened haphazardly. I don’t think my parents whispered to each other or planned that we would all go there, but with the influence of their lives on us, as we watched them and saw how they interacted with other people, the impact of Westminster was very significant. I never felt pressure from my father or from my mother to go there, it was just what I wanted for my life. I thought, “I need to take some time out to study Scripture to reflect more about life and then my career.” So that’s my journey.
Mary: I feel like we grew up in a seminary. Our father became a pastor around 1957. His original plan was to go back to China to start a seminary, but that didn’t happen because of the communist takeover of China, and so our father did student ministry in New York City in the 1950s, and then started a Christian Reformed Church in New York City. So I thought our family was a seminary because whether it was in the morning, noon, or evening, or whether it was in the church or at home, our father was constantly teaching us theology and teaching us how to apply Scripture to all realms of life. He was constantly training church members, Chinese students, and other students, and urging them to go to Westminster. He was sending dozens of people to Westminster throughout his life. However, he never told us to go to Westminster. It was something that we wanted to do because we saw the value of a theological education.
Joel: How has Westminster’s education served you in your lives and work today?
Peter: I have several graduate degrees including a doctorate, but I found Westminster to be the most rigorous as far as giving insights into all areas of life. I ended up going into social work and getting a doctorate in social welfare, but the Westminster way of thinking, in its analysis-driven nature, alongside Van Til’s presuppositional critique, really gave me a framework to look into my area of social work, both on a theoretical level and also as far as social services and social work practice go. Actually, next week I’ll be teaching a summer course on spirituality and social work. The insights from Westminster have grounded me so that I can look at other faith systems and other spiritualities with no fear, because of the truth claims that I embraced at Westminster.
Mary: Our father taught us, and then we learned ourselves about the absolute truth of Scripture when we got to Westminster. We learned to study Scripture rigorously, and our father really encouraged us to apply that truth—the systematic theology, biblical theology, and other disciplines. That’s something I really admire in my father. That’s what he did, whether it be in his preaching or in his teaching. Moreover, he was always getting people to apply scriptural truth to various disciplines, in addition to getting church members to do so. When we were growing up, we would have scientists stay with us, along with businessmen, artists, and historians, and our dad would talk to them in the middle of the night. Our house was like a YMCA. He would always go into the airport, picking people up. They would stay in the house, some for months at a time, and he would teach them into the wee hours of the night, but he would constantly challenge them to think about science, history, and art differently, depending on what field they were in. So when I got to seminary I really loved my training there. Eventually I went to law school, and the way I read Scripture was very helpful when I started reading legal texts, and now I’m teaching law. I try to bring that scriptural approach to my understanding of law, and especially to my understanding of policy. Today we’re facing a lot of issues in our country about race relations, and that’s something that God has called me to work on. Right now, I’m working on a restorative justice project. My theological training is directing me in this way—to bring God’s truth and his grace to racial reconciliation through restorative justice.
Joel: John [using Zoom’s chat feature] wrote that your father was the first Chinese man to be ordained in the Christian Reform Church in Queens. Could you tell me a little bit about that?
Peter: I can talk a little about that, but I want to just mention one other memory that I had regarding Westminster. I remember I had orientation, and Sam Logan, the president at that time, was telling us the nuts and bolts about registration and things like that, but he also mentioned something I will always remember. He said that even though classes haven’t started yet, because of the academic rigor of Westminster, we’re already two weeks behind in our reading.
Joel: That’s how I feel every semester.
Peter: God created my father as a Chinese man, and so what comes along with that is food habits, ways of thinking, and of course, language. He was fluent in Mandarin, Cantonese, English, and Greek, and Hebrew. New York City was the place to be at that time because of his Chinese-ness. If he was in other places like Omaha, maybe it would’ve been more challenging to use his gifts. So New York was a natural attraction. When he was ordained in the Christian Reformed Church, they encouraged him to do traditional pastoral ministry. He moved from the upper West side, leaving a student ministry based at Columbia, to Jamaica Queens, and then started the first Chinese congregation to have its own building outside of Chinatown. So from a church history point of view, it’s historical, but at the same time, the movement to the suburbs was happening in the sixties and the seventies, along with immigration. God foreknew that Queens would be a very strategic location for the Chinese. It’s currently the most ethnically diverse county in the United States, and maybe the world. So it continues to be of high value for ministry, as far as location goes. He would do everything possible ministry-wise: he would visit the Chinese restaurants and the laundromats, and then he also reached out to the intellectuals.
It never was a problem for him to develop the ministry. The church in the sixties and seventies that I grew up in was predominantly Chinese earlier on, but later on, it was multiethnic and contained people from all over the neighborhood. It was quite phenomenal. When I look back on his life in relation to my own, I go, “Oh, I could never do that.” He just had so much energy. Of course, it was his dependence on the Holy Spirit that enabled him to deal with ministry and our family. Living in New York City, he was really faithful.
Joel: Could you tell me a little bit about how you saw his gospel ministry change Queens, or how the church in general helped make some changes in Queens?
Peter: That’s a great question, both in terms of my father’s ministry and how he did it, and also how that could be a model for the future. One of the ideas that he hung on to dearly was the notion of the covenant. God created us—the creator/creature distinction—but he created everybody. He really embraced that concept. It wasn’t just theoretical. He was open to all people because of this idea of the covenant, present throughout church history, throughout Scripture, and into the modern age. He was also steadfast in systematic theology. We want that intellectually, but how do you put that into practice in a ministry context that’s so diverse, such as New York City?That was his vision: to be principled in applying Scripture because there were so many things going on. Think back to the sixties—counter-cultural attitudes, with Woodstock, the space age, race riots, and civil rights—all of that was going on. But he maintained a focus on the scriptures, reaching out to the Chinese so that they could hear the gospel in its purest form, maintaining that we’re all made in the image of God as a bedrock principle because that’s what Scripture teaches. Scripture has a lot to say about diversity, as it pertains to race relations. There is a trend that churches have, say, a middle-class model of ministry, that doesn’t always work across cultures. But I think my father knew that and he was encouraged by Dr. Van Til. They maintained a close relationship and then he was able to develop that, manifest it, and make it visible in Queens.
Mary: Well, I think our father was really a pioneer because he was establishing the first Chinese church outside of Chinatown, and possibly in the United States at the time, and then he was still working with students and immigrants. So he was working with people from all socioeconomic and educational backgrounds. He was able to reach intellectuals. He was also able to reach people who were mainly laborers, like restaurant workers and laundry workers. He was also teaching at Queens college, so he was reaching out to the scholarly community too He was part of the Reformed Pastors Fellowship, and for a period of time, there were only two CRCs in New York city—it was our church and a church in Harlem. He was also doing a lot of church planting in New York City. But what was so wonderful was that he was connected to all sectors. God gave him a ministry to all of New York City, but then to all the world. He was in contact with people starting seminaries in Asia, and then he was planting CRCs throughout the country. God gave him his grace to do so. It’s just exhausting to think about all he was doing while raising us. Our home was a church and a seminary without walls. It was just so inspiring how he took Scripture so seriously. He took his community, different countries, and the world so seriously, and God just gave him the energy to be doing ministry on a global level.
Joel: John just wrote that your father “took the Great Commission seriously to the ends of the earth,” and that your father’s apologetics were “to become all things to all men.” I think it’s so cool, especially in this crazy time, to have the gospel be the center of the interactions we have with people around us, especially people who are culturally different than us. You mentioned a little bit earlier about the parsonage, and last time we spoke you mentioned plans to honor your father’s life and ministry. Tell me a little bit about that vision you have.
Peter: Well, in one sense, it is to honor our father, but it’s really to honor God—how God used him and how his faith in Jesus Christ continued to compel him to share that with other people. But even in that, in one sense, it’s just a space. We feel the space has made a unique contribution to church, life, church history, and ethnic ministries. It’d be nice to get the story out, to get the narrative out, in terms of how all the things that we just talked about happened there. We used to joke that we had theology for breakfast, and then we’d go downstairs and there would always be these new guests sleeping in our house.
We are hoping that we can continue to use this space for God’s glory, so other people can hear the story and see that it’s just not artifacts, and then wherever they are, they can be inspired to do the same thing. It should be like a living history; a living example of how well God used one individual to do so many things, and how you too can do the same thing wherever you are.
Also, he was a voracious reader, and so he accumulated a library at one point that contained maybe fifteen thousand volumes. So we grew up in a little library, and our house was just full of books, which we would like to preserve. He gave many away, but there’s still a lot left , so we’d like to share those. I’m also a photographer and we have a lot of photographs of the sixties, seventies, and the eighties, so we’d like to use those within the space.
Joel: What are ways that we at Westminster can be of service to you in this project?
Mary: I’d like to see if there are any people out there who are interested in helping out with the digitization process, and with organizing archives. Our father has amazing pieces of past correspondences. We have letters from Westminster faculty. We have letters from all the Christian leaders from the 1950s to the 1960s that our father was corresponding with. His reach was so broad and so wide, but he was very humble in that he didn’t go around promoting himself. He didn’t have a PR machine, and so very few people know about our father. People met him, they appreciated his ministry, but no one was writing about him. No one wrote a book about him. No one wrote articles about him. So I think that if there are people out there who did have contact with him who want to write about their experiences with him, and if there are also people out there who are interested in helping with the digitization, we would want their help, because I believe he’s a very important historical figure in the history of the church, but he’s like a well-kept secret.
Peter: Well, I think another important question is how Westminster can help the situation in Queens right now. It’s a joint ministry between the Queens Christian Reformed Church, which is CRC, and the Covenant of Grace Church, which is PCA, and so there you have a very unique situation where you have a CRC and a PCA congregation doing something mutually beneficial. Basically, it’s a merged congregation, but if you know anything about church ecclesiastical relations, they shouldn’t be doing that. But that’s maybe the genius of reformed thinking, in that everything’s possible under God. So, there’s a lovely ministry going on there. We should think and pray about how other people can go and help in diff erent ways, by preaching and by taking part in a summer internship, coming alongside us and doing some of the archival digital work, but also, in terms of curriculum, how some of the content of my father’s thinking can be studied, so it could impact urban ministry curriculums and our global ministry.
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