Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Monday, June 25, 2012


(Matthew 13:24-29; 36-42)
Fred Vergara

New York is known as the “city that never sleeps.” Seattle is known as the “city that is not sleepless.” Las Vegas is known as“sin city.” The famous or infamous quote about Las Vegas is “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”

I was in Las Vegas last week. We had a conference attended by over a hundred Filipino American clergy and lay ministers serving in over twenty Filipino Episcopal churches in the country. In 2003, while serving as “Canon Missioner for Asian Cultures” in the Episcopal Diocese of El Camino Real, my wife (Angela) and I planted the first Filipino Episcopal congregation in Las Vegas, under the Diocese of Nevada. At that time, the bishop of El Camino Real (south coast of California) was Richard Shimpfky (deceased) while the Nevada bishop was Katharine Jefferts Schori, who would later become our Presiding Bishop. It was a cost-effective partnering of two dioceses in Province VIII. For the El Camino Real, they simply had to release me for one weekend a month and for Nevada, they offered the facility of All Saints Episcopal Church.

The reason for our planting of a Filipino Ministry in Las Vegas was missionary. Some of our Holy Child Episcopal Church members (the first Filipino Church we also founded in San Jose, California), including our Senior Warden (Manny Sese) and his family moved to Las Vegas for job opportunities. In the year 2000, Silicon Valley experienced a “bubble burst” due to economic recession. Many people lost their jobs. Meanwhile, Las Vegas experienced an economic boom. New homes were being built, new businesses came and the casino industry was flourishing. Many Californians moved to Vegas not only to work in casinos but to serve in hospitals and schools because Vegas turned from being simply a gambling paradise (or hell, depending on your winning or losing) into a good residential suburbia..

The Filipinos, Hawaiians, Vietnamese, Chinese and of course Latinos were some of the immigrant communities who moved to Vegas. At some point, the fastest growing ethnic group were the Pinoys. Both jobs and housing markets were magnets that drew them there.

Our first Mass in Vegas was attended by Bishop Katharine and her husband Richard Schori. Bishop Katharine encouraged us while Richard took some photos. We were welcomed by Rev. Frank Bergen, who was the rector of All Saints at that time. The “Daughters of the King” who also were the Altar Guild, prepared the sacred elements. Archdeacon Bob Nelson, the upbeat Canon to the Ordinary, was very supportive.

We invited some Filipino American leaders, including Martin Celemin and Atty. Jose Vergara (no relation to me) who lent moral support. From the beginning, it was going to be a “lay led ministry” with the Sese Family as some of the pioneers. There was no financial grant except for my gasoline expenses driving from San Jose to Las Vegas one weekend a month. Angela and I would stay overnight with the Seses before going back to California.

We would drive for ten hours from San Jose; leaving Saturday night and arriving in Las Vegas on Sunday morning and do calling, organizing and forming the congregation. Manny’s family (wife, Doris; daughters Melissa and Madelyn; and sons Ruel and Reineir) would arrange the potluck and lead the liturgy of the word, while Angela and I prepare the music and sacraments respectively. The congregation grew and contact with the Filam community became visible. The beginning of All Saints Filipino congregation at All Saints also sparked another Filipino Congregation at St. Luke’s Parish (closer to the Las Vegas Strip).

It was interesting how the Filipino Congregation began at St. Luke’s. Paul Colbert, who was then the priest-in-charge of the congregation and who was supporting the All Saints Filipino Ministry, invited me to speak to the people of St. Luke’s who were then a declining, graying Anglo population of at least eight members. They expressed they wanted to be a missionary church and just by looking at them I could not believe they could do it. In Philippines, Singapore and California I spent considerable time in planting churches, reviving congregations but mainly from the youth or young couples who have physical energy to move around and sprea the vision. But I articulated that “mission in the modern world does not mean going to the jungles of Africa or the islands of Asia and Latin America but simply opening the doors of your hearts and opening the doors of your churches to accept the peoples who God has placed in the vicinity of your community. They are your new neighbors, your long-lost cousins and your colleagues at work or at retirement homes.”

I had wondered how these Anglo elderly women would accept people from other races and cultures but I would found out later that one of the attendees of All Saints Filipino group (Mrs. Rose Kawi) had been attending All Saints prior to my coming. She had become inactive but because of All Saints Filipino service, she was motivated to revive St. Luke's. All Saints Filipino masses were held on Sunday afternoons (5pm), and she found it better to have a service in the morning at St. Luke’s at 10:00 A.M.. The style of worship at All Saints Filipino was contemporary and she felt more at home with the more traditional Episcopal liturgy. The planting of a Filipino Mass at All Saints therefore helped to motivate the revival of Filipino attendees at St. Luke’s. Overtime many Filipino Igorots who were also members of the BIBAK  (Benguet, Ifugao, Bontoc, Apayao, Kalinga) mountain provinces in the Philippines swelled the ranks of St. Luke’s, slowly becoming a bi-lingual, bi-cultural congregation. It was a joy to see two new churches (with different worship styles) grew.

In May 2004, then Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold appointed me as national Asian missioner for Asiamerica Ministries; my wife and I relocated in New York. Fr. Arsie Almodiel, who was then serving as associate priest in Delano, the Diocese of San Joaquin relocated to Vegas and took over my role. Fr. Colbert relocated to San Joaquin and Deacon Teogenes Bernardez took over his role as spiritual leader for St. Luke’s. Fr. Frank Bergen retired and Fr. Eldwin Lovelady became rector of All Saints. In the General Convention of 2006, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori became the first woman Presiding of the Episcopal Church, the first female primate in the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Postscript 2011: Today All Saints Church also has a vibrant Latino congregation and St. Luke’s has a full-time Latino priest. Deacon Bernardez was ordained priest and now serves as a chaplain in the U.S. Marines. Bishop Dan Edwards is the new bishop of Nevada and leading the Diocese in a new wave of church planting, renewal and growth.

Theological Reflection
I used to joke that the reason why the weather in Las Vegas is hot (up to 110 degrees during summer) was because it is close to hell. But I also say that while Vegas is known as the city of sin, it is also a city of grace. Who would ever imagine that this desert land would become like rivers of living waters? In Las Vegas, you would see a man-made city thriving in life and prosperity. St. Paul in his letter to the Romans 5:20 said, “where sin abounds, grace much more abounds.” How true that is, in Vegas.

Sin and grace, bad and good, evil people and holy people…the weeds and the wheat. Money, sex and power: symbols that bring life, or death.

This parable of Jesus, (Matthew 13:24-29; 36-42) while explained in the context of a rural, agricultural Palestine, is actually more pronounced in the modern city. It is in the city where the struggle between good and evil is more intense. Last week, we were shocked at the news of a little boy who was lost in New York city and fell into the hands of an deranged man, who instead of helping him, strangled him and dismembered his body.

In the parable of Jesus about the weeds and the wheat, the workers asked the farmer to pull out the weeds but the farmer said to leave them alone, or else by pulling out the weeds, they might pull out the wheat as well. This reasoning really goes against the grain of our activist, judgmental, righteous indignation. Why would you leave the weeds to stay and grow and even suck the fertilizer and the water and all the nutrients that should only go to the wheat? Shortly after the 9/11 tragedy, one of the immediate reaction of our fellow Americans was to find out the perpetrators, put the blame and bomb the hell out of any country identified with them.  Isn’t that what action-oriented righteous people need to do? What was God’s reason for this inaction implied in not pulling out the weeds?

 “Because while you are pulling out the weeds, you may root up the wheat as well.” I wonder how many wheat have also been uprooted in our eagerness to pull out the weeds. I heard sometime ago that Trinity Episcopal Church, Wall Street, New York had helped rebuild some mosques destroyed as collateral damages during the early bombings in Afghanistan. The action of the church in doing so might have saved us from having more enemies.

In his parable, Jesus spoke of the last judgment, the harvest time, when the weeds will be gathered separately and be burned into the fire while the wheat be gathered and brought into the barn. But how about the transformation of the weeds into wheat? If nothing is impossible with God, then this can transformation can also happen.

In the sharing of testimonies in the Filipino Convocation in Las Vegas, one of our speakers who happens to be a rector of a church in Boston, told the story of one of his parishioners. It is a well-known story in Boston about a man whose son was killed by another man who is now in jail. The man sought the life story of this criminal and found out that he also has a son, almost as young as his own son, who was murdered. Because this murderer’s son was now without a parent, this church member, decided to adopt him and treated him like his own son who died. This extraordinary gesture is creating a tremendous change in the man who is in jail. Would this weed turn out to become a wheat? It is possible. All we are but unfinished buildings needing reconstruction.

The parable of Jesus about the weeds and the wheat is about the kingdom or the reign of God. It is a kingdom pregnant with possibilities. It is about individuals being born again; it is about unjust structures undergoing social transformation; it is about hope becoming alive.  Our task as farm workers of Christ is to proclaim the kingdom of God in the life that we lead and in the relationships that we create. It is a noble task, challenging and exciting. It is an amazing task, difficult and fulfilling. It is an extraordinary task because it requires a miracle from the One who alone can make it happen. May the miraculous work of God among us turn water into wine, weed into wheat, until the kingdoms of this world shall be the kingdom of the Lord and of His Christ forever. Amen.

(My Ignatian Journal: July 17, 2011)

Friday, June 15, 2012

IN MY FATHER'S IMAGE (A Fathers Day Story)

Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you. – Exodus 20:12 (NIV)

My father, Aureo Pelias Vergara, was a story-teller, that’s probably the gift that I inherited from him. In the days when there were no televisions, in rural Philippines of the ‘60’s, a story-teller is synonymous to being a talk show host. At nighttime, children from the neighborhood would come to our home and my father would regale them with stories about his exploits during the Second World War, how he eluded the pursuing Japanese soldiers and how he camouflaged by hugging a banana tree, covering himself with its dried leaves. At other times, he would tell us about legends and folk tales: the story of the turtle and the monkey, the fable of the sky and the earth, the legend of a mysterious bird, Adarna. I always know when he would end the session. He would tell an open-ended story: “There was a flock of geese swimming in the river. It was a wide river so let us now turn off the lamp and go to sleep and let’s continue tomorrow when they have already crossed the river.” We would then sleep very well, knowing that there is indeed tomorrow.

My father was a man of principles, a fiercely idealistic man, something which my mother, a pragmatist, did not fully share. My Mom thought that we could not survive only on ideals and principles. We had to do something to survive and for that matter even swallow our pride. My Dad would never stoop down to that level. For him, there were only two sides: right or wrong, black or white. After the Second World War, my Dad was supposed to pursue his military career (as soldier of the USAFFE or United States Armed Forces in the Far East) by going to Korea to participate in the Korean War. He refused to do so and was penalized by having his pension withheld. He resigned from the service. At “peace time”, he was advised to kowtow with some politicians so he could have his pension but he refused. Instead, he turned to become a tailor, working day and night, drinking away his frustrations with coconut wine (tuba), till he developed tuberculosis.

We were six children in the family and although we were poor, we excelled in elementary school. Every graduation day, my mother would come up the stage several times to pin ribbons for her honored children. When I finished Grade Six, I was supposed to be the salutatorian (second honor) but was demoted to third honor because my father refused to give a contribution of a chicken. It was a school tradition that the honor students would each give a chicken for the reception dinner for the visiting school superintendent. Although he would have freely given such a chicken as a gift, he was questioning the morality that it be tied to being in the honor roll. “It’s tantamount to a bribe,” my Dad said. My mother, behind my father’s back, surreptitiously gave a chicken to the school principal but it was too late. Furthermore, it was a spring chicken and she was ridiculed by some teachers for giving a “chicken-chicken” (a Filipino play on words, meaning a small chicken.) I would have reported it to my Dad but I knew it would be trouble.

One night, my father and mother had a quarrel. It was about our future. My mother was blaming him for our poverty. Had he not stood on his principles, we would have enjoyed receiving a military pension. He would have had money to send us to high school. We would not have to miss a meal. We would not have to squat on someone’s land. The argument became so heated that my father decided to leave. He packed up a luggage and headed to the bus station. I followed him, crying and begging for him to stay. It was providential that the bus was delayed. Till midnight, we were looking at each other. My tears dried up and the bus did not come. He finally relented. He took my hand, I carried the luggage, and we both went back home. His was the first marriage I was able to help save.

Later it was my turn to run away from home, not to spite my family, but to seek my future. When I read the parable of the prodigal son in the bible (Luke 15:11-32), I did not resonate with it personally. I was the runaway child but my father did not have material inheritance for me to squander. I suffered being homeless and alone in the big city of Manila but I was fortunate to finally land a job, obtain higher education and improve myself. When I returned home, years later, it was not to regain a gold ring or to enjoy a feast of fatted calf, like the returning prodigal. It was to buy that piece of land for our house, to help my siblings go to school and to pay for the treatment of my father’s tuberculosis. In one of his wartime stories, he talked about his favorite meal in the barracks, “pork luncheon meat.” I brought a whole box of canned pork luncheon meat. They lasted a few weeks, to his heart’s content.

I believe my own ideas and ideals were both a combination of my father’s idealism and my Mom’s pragmatism. In college, in the ‘70’s, I was one of the leaders in the National Union of Students of the Philippines (NUSP) and the College Editors’ Guild and our mantra was towards a “truly free, truly human and truly Christian Philippine society.” While obviously it was an influence from the Jesuits, whom our NUSP President, the national youth leader, Edgar Jopson embodied, it was also one that resonated within me. While I was doing a “teach in” on Marxist’s “dialectical materialism” using Mao’s Red Book, I was actually wondering whether a godless societal development was right. When martial law was declared in 1972, it was a deciding moment for the moderates: some went to the hills and became communists while others acquiesced and worked with the government. I went to the church and later entered seminary.

At seminary, I had a visit from Jopson (who would later die from a military raid) and he asked why I wanted to be a priest, thinking it was simply taking a refuge. I responded that I heeded the call from my three fathers: my Heavenly Father (God), my spiritual Father (the priest who ‘adopted’ and helped me go to college), and my earthly Father (my Dad).

For the short time that I had lived with my Dad and family (because I was a stow-away), the memory of him as a highly principled man never left me. Priesthood does not promise a bed of roses nor threaten a bed of nails but it offers plenty of principles to live by. To paraphrase Frederick Buechner, “vocation is where the world’s greatest need and your deepest joy meet” and I found the vocation of priesthood as a fulfillment of my Dad’s idealism and my Mom's practicality.

I was a missionary clergy in Singapore when I learned that my father was gravely-ill. I hurried to return home once again but my plane was delayed. I finally arrived but he was gone to be with the Lord. His last words were one of thanksgiving. My youngest brother said he died with a smile for he knew I was coming and we are much better than we were before. I remain a priest in gratitude to God, our heavenly Father, who makes all things possible, and who makes His children’s dreams come true.