Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Monday, March 30, 2015


(A Sermon on Palm Sunday by the Rev. Dr. Winfred B. Vergara, St. James Episcopal Church, 84-07 Broadway, Elmhurst, NY 11373. 03/29/2015)

There are many lessons we gain from the episode of Palm Sunday but foremost among them is the lesson on humility. While it is often dubbed as “the triumphal entry of Jesus to Jerusalem,” it is actually a prelude to his humiliation and defeat. 

As he entered Jerusalem on a donkey, he would be met by the crowds shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Later the same crowds would shout, “Crucify him!” As he drove away the money changers from the temple with a whip, he himself would later be whipped and tortured by the Roman soldiers.

In all these shaming, Jesus as the Son of Man and Son of God, showed extraordinary meekness and humility and never used his power to exact vengeance upon those who rejected him, mocked him, spat upon him and crucified him. So if there is anything that we can learn most from Jesus, it is his humility. 

What is humility? Humility is the opposite of pride. In Christian ethics, pride is one of the “seven capital sins” (pride, greed, lust, sloth, gluttony, envy, wrath,) from which many of us needs redemption.

It is ironic that we, who are Christians and so-called “servants of God,” also have pride. I must confess that I am guilty of this myself. How is pride manifest in our lives?

1.     First, pride manifest itself in self-worship.
When you love yourself too much that you are no longer sensitive to the needs and feelings of others, you are falling into self-worship. 

In Greek mythology, there’s the story of Narcissus. He was so handsome and so attractive that when he looked at the pool, he fell in love with his own reflection, that he remained fixated to the water and drowned. 

In the Bible, there was Lucifer, the most beautiful of all the angels that he was called the “morning star.” Lucifer was also the most talented musician. It is said that whenever Lucifer moved, there was music. But with his beauty and talent, Lucifer wanted to occupy God’s throne and make himself “like the Most High” and so he was cast down from heaven.

The worship of self, this “narcissistic” or “luciferous” temptation, is often marketed in our modernistic, consumerist and me-generation. We love to take “selfies” with our iPhones or iPads and put them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.  In movies and television, we call actors and actresses as celebrities and starts. We are crazy about the American Idol, the Voice, and Dancing with the Stars. Even in the games such as Football, considered to be a “team sport,” some players would dance in self-congratulation---even before reaching the end zone. A teenager was asked what her dream is and she said, “I will be the next American Idol!” 

In Philippine culture, we even had degrees of stardoms. We call actress Nora Aunor as the “superstar;” singer Sharon Cuneta as the “megastar”; and actress-dancer Vilma Santos as “the star for all seasons.”

In the Bible, Jesus was asked by Pilate, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus was silent. The character of Leonardo De Caprio in Titanic proclaimed, “I am the king of the world!” But this “King of kings and Lord of lords,” the “Maker of heaven and earth,” “the One” who owns the world and everything in it, kept silent. That must be the loudest silence ever!

2.     Pride manifests itself in false modesty.
While pride manifests itself in self-congratulations, pride likewise manifests itself in self-devaluation. This is called false modesty. 

Many people, especially coming from situations or marginality or oppression, often do not want to be complimented. This may be due to “internalized oppression.” They have been used to being put down and so when someone makes a compliment, they feel uneasy. They are experts on what is called “self deprecation.” For instance, when someone said, “you’re beautiful,” instead of saying, “thank you,” they would say “No, I’m not beautiful; as a matter of fact, I’m ugly.” When someone says, “you have a beautiful dress,” they reply, “this dress? This is cheap; I bought this in the clearance sale.” 

False modesty is not humility. We are created by God in His image so that we can shine in human dignity. It does not do God any glory by us playing less than what we are created for. We should not worship or idolize ourselves but we should also not dishonor our human dignity by failing to be light of the world and salt of the earth. 
One of the baptismal vows in The Episcopal Church asks, “Will you respect the dignity of every human being?” And our response is “I will.” But respecting the dignity of every human being means respecting our own dignity as well. This is similar to what Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as (you love) yourself.” 

Jesus bore all humiliation but when he saw merchants and money changers in the temple cheating other people, Jesus was filled with righteous indignation. He took a whip and drove away the money changers and overturned their tables. He shouted at them, “My Father’s house is a house of prayer but you made it a den of thieves!” We should not keep silent when the human dignity of others, especially the poor and oppressed,  and ours are being trampled upon.

3.     Pride manifests itself in racism and cultural arrogance.
Individual pride hurts relationships but communal pride hurts the whole society. When one race or culture exalts itself as superior over the others, it becomes racism. Racism is a systemic sin not only by individuals but by people. 

What is racism?Racism is prejudice plus power. For instance, almost every racial-ethnic person has certain amount of prejudice over others. White maybe prejudiced against black, black maybe prejudiced against brown, brown maybe prejudiced against yellow, yellow maybe prejudiced against red. Sometimes there is even prejudice within a racial-ethnic group. Thus Filipinos maybe prejudiced against other Asians; Chinese maybe prejudiced against Indians; Mexicans maybe prejudiced against Cubans. Sometimes Filipino immigrants who have become U.S. citizens are prejudiced against Filipino immigrants who are undocumented.

So it is common to have prejudices but when you act out that prejudice with power, then it becomes racism.  Just as example, the employee who is black or brown maybe prejudiced against his employer who is white but he has no power to execute his prejudice. But his boss who is white has the power to fire his employee whom he is prejudiced against. So racism is prejudice with power---and in this country, the United States, the so-called “white privilege” is embedded in our political systems and social structures.

In this country, the natives are the Indians, our indigenous brothers and sisters. We are all immigrants--Anglos, Europeans, Asians, Middle Easterners, and to certain degrees---Latinos. The origin of Black History is one of African slavery and so racism by white against black is deeply imbedded in history. That is why the struggle against slavery is a struggle for human dignity, a struggle for human equality that God has given all of God’s creation. 

In God’s economy, no race can arrogate superiority over other races. God created all human beings equal in His sight. And so we, who are Asian Americans, Latino Americans and Anglo Americans as well, owe it to our Afro-American and Indigenous brothers and sisters, the struggle to free us all from any racial-ethnic superiority and to see ourselves equal as we are equal in God’s sight.

So the coming of Jesus on Palm Sunday was an extraordinary example of humility to show to us that God humbled himself and became a human being so that human beings would treat one other with equal worth, status and dignity.

4.     Pride manifests itself in Sexism, Homophobia and Bigotry.
When I was in Israel studying “The Palestine of Jesus,” I learned that “sexism, homophobia and bigotry” are the lot of the “scribes and the Pharisees” who rejected Jesus and whom Jesus called “hypocrites.” The typical “Pharisaic prayer,” goes like this: “God, I thank thee that I am a Jew, not a gentile; a Man, not a woman; a Son, not a dog.”

Sexism is gender discrimination and prejudice; homophobia is an irrational fear or hatred against gays and lesbians; and bigotry is an irrational intolerance of diversity of ideas or perspectives. On the whole, they are “pharisaic” attitude that accepts only one orientation, one perspective and does not have an open mind nor embraces the diversity and plurality of human natures.

I must confess that the Church of our generation, as in past generations, needs liberation in humility and openness to God’s continuing revelations. Some strongly conservative and fundamental Christians need to be freed from sexism, homophobia and bigotry; others need to come closer to the embrace and celebration of God’s amazing diversity. By oppressing, marginalizing and demonizing the gays and lesbians--and those different from them---they have unwittingly allied themselves with the scribes and the pharisees.

This is also true to the arm chair liberals. For a long time, many of us who call ourselves “balanced Christians” have skillfully avoided celebrating sexual diversity. Our tacit policy with regards to GLBTQ (gays, lesbians, bi-sexual, transgender, and queer) was one of “don’t ask, don’t tell”. While we have known many friends and family members who are GLBTQ, we keep them under wraps, seemingly hiding from shame. While we proclaim being open and tolerant, we do it from a safe distance, from the theology of convenience and from the security of our comfort zones. 

On Palm Sunday, Jesus did not enter Jerusalem riding on a horse, a symbol of certainty, strength and superiority. Instead, he entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey, a symbol of vulnerability, weakness and humility. Come holy week, He would be despised and rejected; betrayed and denied; beaten and tortured. He would be acquainted with grief and sorrows, he would be stripped naked, crowned with thorns, bearing our shame---and crucified for our sins. 

The Bible says Jesus did not use his power as God, a thing to be grasped but he humbled himself in human form and became obedient-- even to death on the cross. Therefore God, the Father has highly exulted him and given Him a name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue confess---that Jesus Christ is Lord to the Father’s glory.

So the lesson we have on Palm Sunday is that our dignity, our honor, our standing with God is attainable through a life of humility.A wheat that is full of rich grains, stoops down; but a weed that is empty and has no grain, stands up. The richer the grains grow, the lower the wheat bends. So it is with us, God’s created beings. If we are rich because of God’s grace, we humble ourselves; if we are empty because of human pride, we are arrogant. May we learn from the way of Christ, the way of humility?

Friday, February 27, 2015


By Alex S. Fabros, Jr. (Reprinted from Filipinas Magazine, February 1995)

Bachelors’ club dinner parties were occasions for manongs to show off their girlfriends and dates. (Source: FANHS Stockton, Pangasinan Association of Los Angeles)
The simple act of falling in love is a right we take for granted today. Whom we love and how we love is no longer questioned for the most part; nor is the race of the object of our affections a major legal barrier. For the manong generation of 70 years ago, however, the right to fall in love was one of the battles in their long fight for civil rights in this country.

White America has had a long history of trying to separate the races to preserve the purity of the “white race.” Over the years, whenever it was perceived that white women were in danger of being “despoiled” by men of other races, white gentlemen came to the rescue by passing anti-miscegenation laws.

Before anti-miscegenation laws were ruled unconstitutional in 1967, they were in effect in 38 states. If the letter of the law was not enough to keep the races apart, midnight “necktie parties” enforced the moral judgment of white society.

Maryland passed the first anti-miscegenation law in 1661 aimed at preventing African Americans and Native Americans from marrying white women. It did not, of course, prohibit white men from exploiting non-white women. 

Before the Manongs
By 1765, Filipino Indios who had escaped from Spanish servitude were finding their way to the bayous of Southern Louisiana. Although most of these men were from the Visayan region of the Philippines, collectively they were called “Manilamen.” Louisiana, under U.S. rule after 1803, enacted laws barring marriages between African Americans, Native Americans and Caucasians. Filipinos were considered “white” and were free to court white women. Their children were mestizos (mixed blood). In the early 1900s, a few “mail-order brides” arrived from the Philippines and married these Filipino Cajuns.

Prof. Marina E. Espina has documented the family of Felipe Madrigal, a sailor who served in the Atlantic trade between Europe and the U.S. in 1850. He married Bridgett Nugent, an Irish immigrant. They settled in New Orleans just before the start of the Civil War. Over the next 145 years, that union created ten generations of Filipino Americans of various cultural and racial backgrounds living throughout the U.S.

Pensionados, or government-sponsored men and women students, arrived in the early 1900s to study U.S. history and government as future colonial bureaucrats and teachers. Because pensionados were perceived to be members of the ruling elite in the Philippines, the few mixed marriages that occurred between Filipino men and white women were not a major issue. Antonio Torres, George Washington University law school graduate of 1905, returned to the Philippines with his American wife. He later organized two companies of the national guard in 1906.

“It was not until 1967 that all anti-interracial marriage laws in the United States were deemed unconstitutional.”

The Hawaiian Sugar Plantation Association began recruiting workers from the Philippines in 1906 when mainland agitation against the flood of “Oriental heathens” cut off their labor sources in Asia. These men, called sakadas, came to work for three years and were entitled to return tickets at the end of their stint. The majority of the sakadas were bachelors, and few Filipino women came with them. 
By 1920, Hawaii had become a cultural and racial melting pot. Mixed marriages between the “pure white” stock of residents was discouraged, but there was a large “mixed” population that the sakadas could choose from for companionship and marriage. Successful sakadas who chose not to return to the Philippines brought their families to Hawaii to settle on the sugar plantations. Their children also entered the pool of eligible marriage partners. Although few Filipino women married outside the Filipino circle, some did.

A Vision of America
The first manongs arrived in the mainland to replace the Japanese and Chinese field workers in California around 1910. Unlike the sakadas in Hawaii, the manongs came as independent workers and had to pay their own way to the U.S.

These young Filipino men had a vision of an America where all men and women were equal under the law. Opportunities to succeed were only limited by one’s own ambition. These were the lessons taught in their classrooms by American teachers. They also had seen white American men dating Filipinas in the Philippines, and they, too, looked forward to dating American women in the U.S. 
By working hard and saving their money, they planned to return to their barrios to buy a piece of land, marry their sweethearts and raise a family. But because they were forced to compete against other ethnic labor groups, they often had to accept sub-standard wages. It was enough to live on but not enough to buy their dreams of success at home. Their dreams died hard.

The majority of the manongs were bachelors. By the 1940s there were fewer then 3,000 Filipino families in the U.S., and many of these were racially mixed families. In the towns and cities across the U.S., and especially along the Pacific coast, where there were large concentrations of Filipinos, there was always a shortage of Filipina women. The bachelor manongs, however, found fulfillment elsewhere.

One of the most popular groups to choose from were Japanese women, the daughters of Isei immigrant farmers. The manongs must have impressed the Japanese women greatly to cause many of them to reject the strong Japanese dislike of “Gai-jins” (foreigners). C. Sales wrote in the January 29, 1934 issue of the Philippine Mail of a young Romeo-and-Juliet couple. Silvestre, a Filipino, and Alice Taneka were engaged to be married. When her family tried to force her to break off their engagement, they committed double suicide.

In April 1942, Lt. Gen. John L. Dewitt, Western defense commander, ordered the Japanese on the West Coast into concentration camps. Miguel Ignacio, secretary of the Filipino Community of San Francisco, called attention to several American-born Japanese women, citizens of the United States, who had Filipino husbands. But as far as Dewitt was concerned, the women and children would remain in the camps for the duration of the war. Many of these Filipino husbands went on to serve in the 1st & 2nd Filipino U.S. Infantry Regiments, defending the nation whose racist policies held their families hostage.

The attention lonely Filipino manongs lavished on white women, as in this beach scene in the ’30s, incensed many white men. (Source: "Letters in Exile" Asian Studies Center, 1976)

The few Filipinas of marrying age were courted with fervor by the manongs. Many studies suggested a ratio of 14 males to 1 female. In reality the ratio of males to marriageable Filipinas was closer to 40 to 1. One Rosita Dionisio was the toast of Stockton society in 1934 when she was crowned queen of the annual Dimas Alang convention. She received proposals from hundreds of eligible bachelors and selected Jesus Tabasa, a successful farm labor contractor from Watsonville, California to be her husband.

Bachelors’ clubs sprang up throughout California. Their dinner parties were an opportunity for the men to show off their women. As long as the Filipinos focused their attention on other Asian women or excluded groups, white society did not object.

As the manongs followed the crops through the rich agricultural valleys of California, they became a perceived threat to white America’s moral values and to the chastity of the latter’s daughters. In October 1929 in Exeter, white youths objected to the attention that Filipino men lavished on white girls. Heated words were exchanged, and knives flashed. An angry mob chased the Filipinos out of town.

The Exeter incident was followed by the Watsonville Riot in January 1930. The presence of white taxi-dance women at the Filipino club house at Palm Beach incensed the whites in nearby Watsonville. The police stood by as white thugs attacked the manongs and only came to their rescue after Fermin Tobera, a young farm worker, was killed.

In the cities, taxi-dance halls attracted the manongs. For ten cents a dance, a young man could hold a beautiful woman in his arms for a few moments and forget the hardships of America. The women were often first generation immigrants from Europe. In Chicago, Filipinos fell in love and married Polish women, in Boston, Irish women and in New York, Italians. 

Court Cases
In California, the local authorities applied state anti-miscegenation laws on Filipinos. The original laws were written to prevent the marriage of Caucasians and African Americans. In 1880, Section 69 of the California Civil Code was amended to include Mongolians. In a series of court cases, the manongs argued that they were not Mongolians but Malaysians, and therefore the laws did not apply to them.

Henry Empeno documented the efforts of Los Angeles County in the ’20s and ’30s to deprive Filipinos of their civil rights through racist interpretations of the law. For example, Timothy S. Yatko, Jr. was charged with the first-degree murder of a white man he had caught in bed with his white wife. In order for his wife to testify against her husband, their marriage had to be invalidated. The defense argued that the state law did not specifically exclude Malaysians or Filipinos from marrying whites, and that the marriage was valid. Judge Carlos S. Hardy, however, agreed with the prosecution that “...the dominant race of the country has a perfect right to exclude other races from equal rights with its own people...the Filipino is a Malay and...the Malay is a Mongolian. Hence... intermarriage between a Filipino and a Caucasian would be void.” Yatko was tried, found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment at San Quentin State Prison.

Alejo Filomeno and Jessie Chaverria (with daughter Mary Ester) had to go to New Mexico to get married. (Source: Mary Ester Filomeno Collection, FAX-RP, San Francisco)

The California Court of Appeals ruling on Salvador Roldan v. Los Angeles, confirmed the classification of Filipinos as Malaysians. Roldan was denied a license to marry Marjorie Rogers by the L.A. county clerk. The L.A. county superior court ordered the clerk to issue a license. L.A. county appealed the decision to the California Court of Appeals. On January 27, 1933, the Court ruled that Filipinos were indeed Malaysians and were not prohibited under the laws of 1880 to marry whites.
The victory was short-lived when on August 21, 1933 Gov. James Rolph signed two bills into law that retroactively invalidated all white marriages with non-whites. The law specifically mentioned the Malay race for exclusion under section 69 of the anti-miscegenation law.

Honeymoon Express
Filipinos who wanted to get married traveled to states that did not have any racial barriers. When Alejo P. Filomeno proposed to Jessie Chavarria, a Mexican woman from Texas, they had to drive to Gallup, New Mexico to get married. This was a route of the “honeymoon express” in 1943-1944, which members of the 1st & 2nd Filipino Infantry Regiments had to take to marry their white sweethearts. 

In 1948, the California Supreme Court held that the state’s anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional and said that “restricting marriage solely on the basis of race violated the equal protection clause under the U.S. Constitution.”

It was not until 1967 that all anti-interracial marriage laws in the United States were deemed unconstitutional. It came too late to spare Col. Leon Punsalan the embarrassment of having to move the site of his daughter’s wedding to a white American. Punsalan had commanded the 1st Battalion, 1st Filipino Infantry Regiment in combat against Japanese forces in 1945 and was a U.S. citizen. Because they were residents of Virginia which prohibited interracial marriages, Col. Punsalan had to move the wedding to Washington, D.C.

It has been less than 28 years since all barriers to interracial union were torn down in this country. For some people, interracial dating or marriage is still objectionable, a crime that cries out for a return to the old days. It’s easy to take for granted the right to fall in love with a person of another race or culture; but as the recent passage of Proposition 187 in California demonstrated, there are those who would force us back into the courts to fight the old battles once again. When you kiss your loved one on Valentine’s Day, remember the likes of Manong Alejo and Auntie Jessie, and what they had to overcome to have each other. 
Reprinted from Filipinas Magazine, February 1995.