Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Florence Li Tim Oi and the Asian American Struggle

“Then he (Jesus) appointed seventy others and sent them ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go… heal the sick and proclaim that the kingdom has come near.” (Luke 10:1-9)

Throughout history, God has called certain individuals or groups to become trail blazers, pioneers, explorers, discoverers, entrepreneurs, the avant garde of the march towards the future. Today, January 24, we celebrate the feast of Florence Li Tim Oi, the first woman to be ordained in the worldwide Anglican Communion. We also read about the calling of the seventy disciples to go ahead of Jesus to announce that the kingdom of God has come near.

I was privileged last year during my Sabbatical, to have the opportunity to visit Morrison Chapel in Macao where Florence Li Tim Oi served as deacon and priest. As I was looking at her photo on the wall (and the photo of  Bishop Ronald Hall who ordained her), I kept thinking what kinds of struggle that she and the others who trailed the blaze towards new frontiers had experienced, and I came up with three struggles: the struggle for meaning, the struggle for vision, and the struggle for acceptance.

Now some of you know by now understand why I am a three-point preacher: first, I am a Trinitarian; second, I am the third child in my family; and third, three points are the most that people can remember. I just turned 60 and I am learning that as you grow older you tend to lose three things: first is your memory, the second and third, I can’t remember…

  1. Struggle One: The search for meaning.
Why am I doing what I am doing? Pioneers and trail blazers are not really persons say, “ours is not to reason why but to do or die.” Rather they are persons who constantly seek for meaning to what they are doing. Karl Bushby, an ex-British paratrooper who wants to be the first one to walk around the world---on foot. He started in 1998 and still walks on. He was in his late 20’s when he began his walk from Chile and if ever he survives and succeeds in this mission, he would be able to reach his hometown in Hull, England at least in his fifties. So far, he has surmounted seemingly-impossible obstacles including walking the sea-ice of Bering Strait from Alaska to Russia. When asked why he does what he does, he replied, “Because no one else has done it.”

The struggle for meaning must have plagued Li Tim Oi even when the Chinese culture is one of pragmatism. She knew that her ordination was done because of practical reason. There was a crisis in 1944 brought about by the invasion of Japan to China. The ordination was conducted by Bishop Hall in order that Anglican Christians in Tim-Oi's parish of Macao, the Portuguese island colony, could receive the sacrament of Holy Communion. There was no male priest who was available to supply the needed ministry. But the ordination of women was a controversial issue in the mainstream Anglican Church and the ordination generated tremendous amount of pressures to the point that Lim Tim Oi was being pressed to renounce her ordination. The pressure on Li Tim Oi was so much that she was forced to resign her license (though not her orders) and gave in to the dominant culture. It would take thirty years before the ordination of women would be regularized.

There is a saying that the early bird catches the worm but there is another one that says it is the second mouse that gets the cheese. Frankly, I would rather be the second mouse than the first. But the struggle for meaning is the first struggle of the pioneers.

  1. Struggle Two: The Struggle for vision and to give shape to that vision.
Clearly the vision is clear to the visionary but how would he communicate the vision and give shape to that vision? Deng Shao Ping, the Chinese Premier who gave shape to the new economic vision of China said, “I don’t care a black cat or a white cat so long as it catches mice.”

The call to the seventy disciples must have been crystal clear to Jesus but to the seventy, there are a lot of questions and bewilderment. They were asked to go ahead and act like sheep in the midst of wolves. They were to pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out more laborers; they were told to carry no purse, no bag, no tunic, no sandals and to greet no one of the road. They were told to eat whatever is set before them; to say peace to those who welcome them and if they encounter hostility, to get back the peace. They were told to heal the sick and to announce that the kingdom has come near.

 If I were one of the seventy, I may have a lot of questions. “Lord, are we to reason why or to do or die?” How are we to see what you see; and how are we to do from the meager resources that you provide? Lord, we’ve never built a kingdom without purse, without tunic, with out sandals? What kind of kingdom are you talking about? We’ve never done it that way before.

As missioner for Asiamerica Ministry, my vision  to to see  Asian ministries move from the margins to the mainstream  of the Episcopal Church and become integral parts of its total life and mission.  I want to see more Asians in the leadership of the church at all levels of our life and at all structures of our activities---in the parishes, in dioceses and in the national church. I want to see more Asian American rectors, bishops and maybe even presiding bishop. This is not easy because Asians are known in many circles as either “model minority” or “forever foreigners.” Model minority, because they do not complain; forever foreigners, because they do not assimilate. Rather than confront, they bend like the bamboo and act with their feet. If they see hospitality, they come in; if they sense hostility, they walk out, quietly.
The struggle for vision and how to give shape to that vision is the second struggle of the pioneers and trail blazers.

  1. Struggle Three: the Struggle for Acceptance
By the way, I learned that the  best three-point sermon was done by John Wesley, the Anglican who became the pioneer of the United Methodist Church. Wesley’s three point sermon was  about money and it was addressed to the Anglicans. Wesley said, “first point, earn as much money as you can.” And all people said, “Amen.” “Second point, save as much money as you can” and all people said, “Amen.” Third point, Wesley said, “give as much money as you can” and all people said, “Lord, have mercy.”

The Asian struggle for Acceptance: Whenever I think of this third struggle, I am reminded of the Asian pioneers in this country, how they suffered in order for us to be accepted by the dominant culture. Let me cite three examples. They are stories of historical proportions and stories we can learn from and lessons we can by.

The Chinese pioneers came to this country in mid-1800’s mainly to work in two areas: the mining industry and the transcontinental railroads. They were recruited as cheap laborers and became the fodder for dynamite blasting and so suffered the most in the loss of lives and limbs. But when the mining industry and the railroad industry were accomplished, the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882  was promulgated---and the Chinese were forced out of the country. It is a blight in American hospitality that there are two islands in the U.S. that speaks about this disparity: the Ellis Island in New York which welcomed the European immigrants and the Angel Island in San Francisco which processed the deportations of the Chinese.

The second story is about the Japanese immigrants. They came to this country after the expulsion of the Chinese. They took over the Chinese work in railroads, agriculture and small business. They became exemplary citizens but when the Japanese imperial army bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the Second World War erupted in the Pacific, these Japanese American citizens were herded like cattle and banished and relocated into internment camps in remote and uninhabited areas in California, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado. Although they were not gassed like the Jews in Germany, these “internment camps” were actually concentration camps. They were told that were done to protect them but the guns were pointed inside the camps not outside the camps.

The third story is about Filipino-Americans. Did you hear of the U.S. “anti-miscegenation law?” It was promulgated to safeguard the purity of the Caucasian race. The Filipinos first came to this country when Philippines became a colony of the United States from 1900-1946. Like the Chinese and Japanese, they were recruited as cheap labor to farm the fields of California and Hawaii and to work in the canneries of Alaska. They were all young males when they came but were not allowed to go home, to marry and bring their wives---and under the “anti-miscegenation law,” were prohibited from marrying Caucasians. Thus they ended up old, lonely and childless bachelors until they died.

Today things have changed and much has improved. For example, just in the Bay Area, the new deputy Mayor of San Francisco (Edwin Lee)  is Chinese; the first female mayo of Oakkland (Ms. Jean Quan ) is Chinese; the mayor of Milpitas (Jose Estevez) is Filipino and the San Jose international airport was named in honor of Japanese American congressman Norman Mineta, a survivor of the internment camp. These are just some of the few gains of Asians in the American society but it can be said that “if the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” the suffering and prayers of our forebears ushered in the blessings we enjoy today. 

The Challenge to us
In another way of saying that we are standing today on the shoulders of the Asian American pioneers and trail blazers who opened the gateways for us by their blood, sweat and tears. In the Church, the tears of Li Tim Oi overflowed into the mainstream and created a river of acceptance. Thirty years later after her controversial ordination, in 1971, the Anglican Communion agreed to the ordination of women.  In 1976, the Episcopal Church approved the ordination of women; and in 1989 Barbara Harris, an African American became the first female bishop in the Episcopal Church.

The challenge for us today as descendants of Florence Li Tim Oi and our Asian American pioneers, is how we can use our historical and cultural experiences to feel the pain of others who likewise suffer from the many “isms” of our time. For while it is true that things have improved since the time of our forbears, the evils of racism, sexism and discrimination continues to plague the structures of our church and society against other minorities. The challenge to us who are the legacies of Li Tim Oi and the early Asian American pioneers is how to become the new trail blazers, explorers, discoverers, entrepreneurs, pioneers and avant garde for change. Today, as we engaged in holy conversation in  this holy place, may the Lord speak to us anew, through the Holy Spirit, and commission us afresh to become laborers in God’s harvest , to heal and to proclaim that the “the kingdom of God has come near.”

(Homily by The Rev. Dr. Winfred B. Vergara, Asian American Missioner of the Episcopal Church at the Chinese Convocation Leadership Gathering held in Cathedral Center, Los Angeles, January 24-26, 2011)


  1. Rev. Vergara, I would like your permission to repost this homily on our blog, GlobalTheology.org this month to honor Florence Li Tim Oi. Please inform me via email, submissions.globaltheology@gmail.com

    1. Sorry, Michael I have not read your comment. Only today because I am doing a homily at the Chapel for Li Tim Oi's anniversary. Yes, you may repost this homily in your blog.