Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Friday, March 30, 2012


Caption: Early Filipinos in
America called Manongs were farm workers in California and Hawaii.


Contextualization is a term that refers to application of the Bible into the context in which people find themselves. And it is amazing how people who read the Bible against the background of their particular contexts have found answers to their basic questions.

A case in point in the story of Exodus. For a long time, we have been accustomed to looking at this biblical account as a story of liberation. Many Christian writers and theologians present exodus as a model of how God favors the oppressed against the oppressors. The famous movie The Ten Commandments present Exodus as a fascinating drama of how God called Moses to set God’s people free. The remaining biblical account tells of Joshua, Moses’ successor, who finally crossed the river Jordan and entered Canaan, the promise Land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

So much of our understanding of Exodus are gleaned from the context  of the Israelites but what about that from the context of the Canaanites? In modern Israel, the Palestinians are those who identify with the Canaanites and they look at the Exodus story, not as a liberation story but as a story of terror. In his book, Towards a Palestinian Liberation Theology, Naim Ateek who happens to be a Palestinian Christian, in fact an Anglican priest, cursorily examines how from his own personal experience and from the experience of his people, it is the Palestinians who need liberation from the very same people who claim a holy heritage  as God’s chosen people. I was in Palestine in 2008 and have seen the oppressive situation of the Palestinians in contrast to the power structure of the Jewish state.

Close to our yard, the Native Americans are also reinterpreting Exodus from their own context. An indigenous writer, Roland Allen Warrior,  in an article, “Canaanites, Cowboys and Indians” also affirmed that like the biblical Canaanites, Native Americans also suffered conquest and genocide from those who escaped from the Old World and laid claim to the promised land of the New World. While the English and European Pilgrims  ended up with the taking possession of the “land of the free and the home of the brave”; the Native Americans ended up in losing their lands.

And there is still one interesting contextualization from my own racial-ethnic context. Filipino Americans are finding resonance to the views articulated by Palestinian and Native American theologians but with a twist. A Filipino theologian, Eleazar Fernandez, is developing a narrative which interprets the immigration of the Filipinos to the United States not an exodus to Canaan but an exodus to Egypt. Filipinos were once colonials of the United States. For fifty years from 1898 to 1946, America took over from Spain as a colonial master of the Philippine Islands.

The first wave of Filipinos in America  in early 1900’s were young males from Luzon (particularly Ilocanos) who were recruited to work in the farms of California and Hawaii and the canneries of Alaska. Like most people of color, they also suffered under “the sweltering heat of racism” and were treated like second-class citizens. Due to the anti-miscegenation law, they were not allowed to marry Caucasians and most of them ended up bachelors until they died.  The second wave of Filipino-American immigrants in post World War II, were U.S. navy men and War Brides of United States Armed Forces in the Far East (USAFFE). The U.S. War in the Pacific against Japanese Imperial forces endeared Filipinos to the Americans for their gallantry and valor. The succeeding Filipino Immigration following the 1965 Immigration reform brought Filipino professionals to the United States and increased their number through family reunification. It is estimated that there are around four (4) million Filipinos in the United States, majority of them have become American citizens.

The four million Filipinos in America is part of the 11million Filipinos in global diaspora who together send around $34 billion annually to their native land, an amount constituting some 14% of the Philippines Gross National Product (GNP). Given the fact that Filipinos abroad (America, Asia and Europe) send not only money but also goods delivered through hundreds of thousands of Balikbayan (“back to country”) boxes, it is no wonder that the Philippine government would often call Pinoys (other name for Filipinos outside the Philippines)  as their modern heroes.

The situation of the overseas Filipinos is both a bed of roses as well as a bed of nails. Suffering and hope intersect in the lives of overseas Pinoys  especially those who work as domestic helpers, construction workers, factory assembly line workers. Many are victims of human trafficking and all kinds of human exploitation. Tremendous pastoral care is needed especially to families who are separated due to global migration and resettlements.

In the context of Filipino American liberation theology, the narrative that fits, according to  Eleazar Fernandez, is not Moses leading the oppressed Israelites from Egypt but Jacob bringing his family to Egypt. In this case, the promised land of Canaan is the Philippines (Lupang Hinirang) which has fallen on hard times due to centuries of colonization and exploitation from various empires. If Israel had been colonized by Syrian, Assyrian and Babylonian Empires in the past; Philippines too was colonized by Spain, America and Japan empires. For Filipino Americans struggling in the United States, North America is Egyptian empire where Jacob and his family were reunited by their son, Joseph, who successfully interpreted the American Dream. While some of them share in the prosperity of because the Empire, many are struggling and hoping to one day return to the promised land of their birth, hoping that by that time, it would already be a land flowing with milk and honey.

I guess the point of biblical contextualization is not necessarily to negate the narrative from one context, such as the Hebrew narrative of God as a liberator God, but  to discover and bring out other peoples’ narratives,  because the progressive revelation of God in Jesus Christ, ultimately points out that the God of liberation is not just the God of liberation of one elect people. As a matter of fact, Jesus as the Son of God also became the Son of Man so that we will all become sons and daughters of the one true God. The God incarnate in Jesus Christ is therefore not a tribal God but a universal God. He came not to liberate one tribe and condemn the others but that He came so that that all may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10).

Thursday, March 22, 2012


“You know that the rulers of this world have power over the people and the leaders have complete authority. But it shall not be so among you…(Mark 10:35-45)”

In 2006, I was part of a group of church leaders who visited the People’s Republic of China as guests of the China Christian Council and the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA). I observed that the protocol officer would always give careful attention to the seating arrangement. Whether in business meetings or at banquets, we would always be meticulously arranged in the order of importance.

At some point, I was seated either at the left or the right of a major dignitary and it made me feel good to be close to power. Cameras and people’s attention are focused on the celebrity and when you are near the popular figure, you somehow share the limelight.

I could therefore understand why the apostles James and John, the sons of Zebedee,  would ask Jesus about their place in the seating arrangement: “Teacher, we want you to do for us…When you sit on your throne in your glorious kingdom, we want you to let us sit with you, one at your right and one at your left” (Mark 10:35-37). Like me, they wanted to share the limelight.

The problem arose when the ten other apostles overheard it and got jealous because they too wanted to be on the same spots. There was no Chinese protocol officer to announce the seating order and so the team was thrown into chaos as the spirit of envy and personal ambitions threatened their unity.

Leadership often has two challenges: technical and adaptive. Technical challenge refers to the traditional functions of authority which are to provide direction, protection and order. Adaptive challenge refers to how a leader responds to the dynamics of power when a community experiences conflict and disorder. Jesus demonstrated adaptive leadership by redefining power: “If you want to be great in the Kingdom, you must be the servant of all; and if you want to be first, you must be the last of all. For the Son of man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:44-45).

Leadership from human perspective has always been one of authority and power. Whenever one’s security is threatened, leaders would invoke that power: physical, military, social, political or ecclesiastical. For example, whenever a country’s security is threatened by another country, it is almost automatic that the government of that country, would parade its armed forces, not necessarily to fight but as a show of force.

From his perspective as God-come-down, Jesus taught that ultimate power is achieved through powerlessness and ultimate authority is gained by relinquishing that authority. St. Paul expounded the power of powerlessness to the Christians in Philippi. Philippi was the city named after the powerful King Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great and Philippians are awed with power. Paul explained: “Though He was God, Jesus did not count equality with God a power to be grasped but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant and becoming obedient unto death...Therefore God has highly exalted him and given Him a name that is above every name...” (Philippians 3:6-8). 

The glorious Kingdom, which the apostles had imagined was not the same as the kingdom that Jesus envisioned: “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). Leadership in that Kingdom is defined not by the power that would make one feel secure or important but by a total abandonment of such power and in total vulnerability to the will of God.

In this season of Lent, let us reflect upon our leadership as God’s servants in the world. By the relationship we create, by the words we say and by the works we do, let us lead as Jesus leads. Amen.

Thursday, March 8, 2012


(Photo 1: Visit to the Iglesia Filipina Independiente in Manila, Feb. 8-10, 2012). Advance Party to the Presiding Bishop's Visit. Left to Right: Fred Vergara, Peter Ng, Rev. Margaret Rose (PB Deputy for Ecumenical and Interfaith Collaboration. At center is The Most Rev. Ephraim Fajutagana, Obispo Maximo of the IFI; Mrs. Julie Esclamado and Bishop Vic Esclamado, IFI President of the Supreme Council of Bishops.

Photo 2: Peter Margaret and Fred displaying the raw and young mango fruits, taken from Cabiao, Nueva Ecija, where one of the Asset-Based Community Development of the Episcopal Church in the Philippines is located.)

(January-March 2012
Episcopal Asiamerica Ministries (EAM)
Rev. Dr. Winfred Vergara, Missioner
Consultation on Alternative Theological Training (Oklahoma City, January 12-15 ) –Collaborated with Ethnic Missioners in a gathering of bishops, priests and lay leaders for cross-cultural conversation and sharing of alternative education and ordination tracks. EAM presented its Pilot Project on “Doctor of Ministry in Asia-America Ministry” in partnership with the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which starts on June 2012 with initial six EAM clergy. Will also be working on a Christian Education grid towards faith formation and ministry of all the baptized.
Forum on Filipino American Christianity: Like Milkfish in Brackish Water Book (San Francisco, January 27-28) – Led a well-attended symposium of a culture-specific approach to mission and evangelism, a new paradigm of mission in American and global context. Presentation and discussion included “chosenness” as servanthood;  Philippine religious history; motifs in Filipino American immigration history; Symbols and stereotypes of Filipino American immigrants. Filipino American Christianity is likened to a Philippine fish called “bangus” (milkfish) for its three characteristics: adaptability, hospitality and versatility.  A contextual Filipino American liturgy was held at St. Martin & Holy Child Episcopal Church in Daly City.
Worship on the Way: A Resource – As chair of the Pacific Asian American Canadian Christian Education (PAACCE) of the National Council of Churches, I wrote the preface to this new ecumenical resource authored by Russell Yee, off the press by April 2012. This is a collection of diverse Asian North American contextual worship styles. Liturgy is the work of the people and culture matters.  It will become one of the resources for Asian American ministry.
Visit to Asia (Manila and HongKong, February 1-15) – As part of the Presiding Bishop Visit to Asia, involving the Partnership Office for Asia and the Pacific and the Ecumenical and Interfaith Collaboration,  I participated in the planning of Concordat Meeting with the Iglesia Filipina Independiente.  In parallel visit to the Episcopal Church in the Philippines (ECP), we were introduced to one of their  “Asset Based Community Development projects,” which featured a self-help program that turned a problem into an asset. In this project, headed by the town mayor of Cabiao, the water hyacinths which were once a cause of flooding, has been transformed into handicrafts products, deodorizers and charcoal. The community is looking for markets for its products. In the IFI, we visited the Aglipay Central Theological Seminary, which has grown over the years.  IFI has now a total membership of around 8 million and needed more clergy to supply pastoral leadership. Upon return to the U.S., I stopped by HongKong to minister to the Migrant Workers at St. John’s Anglican Cathedral and discussed with Canon Thomas Pang, provincial coordinator and Archbishop’s adviser on Christian Education about the possibility of Asia-America Theological Forum in 2013.
Asia-America Theology Forum 2013 (EAM and Asia Pacific Partnership ) – As a result of our Asia Visit, we are exploring an Asia-America Theology Forum to be held at Trinity University of Asia campus on February 2013 to gather representative Asian and Asian American theologians and scholars. With an initial theme  “One Host, One Banquet, Many Guests,” our hope is to present many and diverse voices in Asia-America global Christianity. This project will involve multilateral and multidimensional collaboration.
New Community Clergy and Lay Conference (Feb. 29-March 4, 2012)
'New Community Gathering' unites Episcopal ethnic ministries

By Pat McCaughan

[Episcopal News Service] Stories of faith and personal witness animated the historic Feb. 29 - March 3 "New Community Gathering" in San Diego of about 300 Asian, Black, Latino and Native American clergy and laity from across the Episcopal Church.Community engagement, mission focus and collaboration ranked high on the agenda for the event, themed "Reclaiming our Mission; Reinterpreting Our Contexts and Renewing Our Communities."Organized through the Ethnic Ministries offices of the Episcopal Church (http://www.episcopalchurch.org), the gathering challenged enthusiastic participants - as well as the wider church - to embrace renewal through creative mission, sharing resources and honoring ethnic and community context.Full story: http://bit.ly/w8PIhu

Future Travel/Events:
Mar. 9-11- Washington, DC: Design Team for Why Serve Discernment Conference for Young Adults of Color to be held in Virginia Theological Seminary sometime September 2012

April12-15: Tampa, Florida: IFI Convention and International Forum on Migrants Ministry

April 16-17: Tampa, Florida: Concordat Council Meeting

April 28- Episcopal Asiamerica Ministry of Long Island, New York Asian Festival and Conference on the theme “Beyond Survival: Ministry in the 21st Century.”