Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Confluence 2012 Panel Discussion on Asian American Theologizing

Confluence 2012: Panel Discussion on Asian American Theologizing
(Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, Georgia, USA 7/18/2012)

The following are the responses of the Rev. Dr. Winfred Vergara (Episcopal) to the panel discussion sponsored by Confluence 2012 and moderated by Professor Timothy Son of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. The other panelists are: Dr. Russell Moy (American Baptist Church); Rev. Charles Ryu (United Methodist Church); and Gerri Yoshida (Reformed Church of America. For more information on Confluence, visit http:theconfluencenetwork.org )

Q1:  Please introduce yourself and the nature of your ministry
I am Fred Vergara, missioner for Asiamerica Ministries in the Episcopal Church and moderator of the PAACCEM (Pacific Asian American Canadian Christian Education Ministries) under the National Council of Churches. Born and raised in the Philippines, I was ordained in the Philippine Independent Church in 1978 and served as parish priest in Dagupan City in Northern Luzon and Pasay City in Metro Manila, respectively. In 1980, I went to Singapore to complete a Master’s degree in Theology and served as priest at St. Andrew’s Anglican Cathedral and was in-charge of its extension centers. It is heartwarming to note that one of these extensions became a large parish with a school, Chapel of Christ the Redeemer. The other extension produced good leaders, including the new bishop of Singapore, the Rt. Rev. Rennis Ponniah.

My wife, Angela, and I came to the United States in 1986. I completed a Doctor of Ministry at San Francisco Theological Seminary and later served as Canon Missioner for Asian Cultures in the Episcopal Diocese of El Camino Real. As missioner, we planted the first Episcopal Filipino American congregation in San Jose, California and opened up branches in Las Vegas, Sacramento and Queens, New York. In 2004, I was appointed Missioner for Asiamerica Ministries in the Episcopal Church.

“Asiamerica” is the word coined by my predecessor, the late Dr. Winston Ching to refer to all Episcopalians of Asian descent. It also refers to three areas of our contextual ministry: Asians in America; Asian Americans; and our relationships to the churches in Asia. We have grouped our Asian congregations into six convocations: Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Japanese, South Asian and Southeast Asian. Annually, we gather in a national consultation, meet separately as convocations and gather as a pan-Asian assembly through the Episcopal Asiamerica Ministry Council (EAMC), a 501c organization. Through the help of the Partnership Office for Asia and the Pacific, our EAM Consultation also serve as our link with our Anglican partners, Concordat and Ecumenical partners in Asia whose primates we invite to the Consultations.

Asiamerica Ministries Office, in which I am the Missioner, engages in partnership with other ethnic groups (Black, Latino and Indigenous) as well as Jubilee and Environmental offices into “Team DSE” (Diversity, Social and Environmental Ministries). AMO helps the development of diocesan Asian Commissions and how they can be effective agencies of their respective dioceses in planting new congregations and to strengthen existing ones. Diocesan EAMs also serves as support group for Asian clergy and lay leaders. AMO helps fund the EAM Ethnic Convocations to meet and develop strategies in evangelism, church growth and stewardship as well as to advocate for Asian involvement in the total life of the national Church. The EAM Korean Convocation for instance addresses itself in partnering with the Anglican Diocese of Seoul in missionary exchange. The EAM Filipino Convocation assists in providing connection to the Iglesia Filipina Independiente -US and Canada dioceses.

Last June 2012, AMO started a pilot project with the Episcopal Divinity School (EDS) in Cambridge, Massachusetts for a “Doctor of Ministry” with emphasis on Asiamerican Ministry. The goals is to develop a cadre of EAM clergy equipped as “working theologians” for the 21st century, both able to navigate the mainstream American culture as well as conversant with the cultures of Asia. The program is distributive learning with minimal residential seminary training (January and June) and the rest is by online and independent research and cohort work with other cultures. This enables the students to complete an advanced pastoral study without leaving their place of work. The curriculum is the normal D. Min. program with additional course on Asian American History, Culture and Theology. We have chosen EDS as the seminary to engage in this project because it is the only Episcopal seminary in the U.S. with four Asian faculty members who are excellent in their fields: Dr. Kwok Pui-lan, Dr. Gale Yee, Dr. Patrick Cheng and Professor Christopher Duraisingh. EAM scholarship is matched by EDS and we are happy that we have two EAM clergy: Rev. Ada Wong Nagata and Rev. Thomas Eoyang as our first D. Min. scholars.

Our Asiamerica theological education scholarship, managed by the national church, is spread out to seminarians taking M. Div. degree in various other U.S. seminaries. Our next hope in theological education is to develop partnership with another seminary on an Education for Lay Ministry. We feel that instead of reinventing the wheel (such as developing an Asian specific training institute) is to partner with existing seminaries and stylize our training to be sensitive to Asiamerican context.

Q2:  In what ways does the reality of “marginality” influence in ways of doing your Christian ministry?
In biblical times, prophets normally come, not from the center but from the margins of society. They come from the boondocks, dressing the lofty sycamore trees like Amos from Tekoa; eating locusts and wild honey like John the Baptist. They boldly barge into the mainstream announcing a new way, a new paradigm, a new message, which God had spoken in their hearts. Now when they do that, they get even more marginalized, rejected, stoned, and in some cases, crucified or their heads cut off. But to those who receive the message and the messenger, the reward is great. The promise is peace and joy in the Spirit, abundant life on earth and eternal life in the heavens, the shalom of God. 

I believe, Asiamerican Christians are still in the margins of the American Church and society, and so our task is prophetic. We are standing at the edge of mission in the 21st century but do we have enough courage to speak about our visions and dreams?  Our immigrant historical narratives include being rebuffed by the socio-political systems, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 directed against the Chinese who worked the railroad and mining industries, the anti-miscegenation laws leveled against the Filipino sacadas (farm workers) in the 1900’s and the Japanese Internment camps during the Second World War directed against Japanese Americans, many of them were U.S. citizens. On July 29, 2012 we will give due recognition to one of these internees, the late Rev. Hiram Kano, the Japanese American Episcopal priest from Nebraska. The Japanese Heritage celebration and his inclusion into the list of “Holy Women, Holy Men,” will be a vindication of his legacy and the legacy of his fellow internees.

As we move to the 21st century, we need to deal with the question of why Asiamericans tend to become invisible, not making waves nor lifting their voices. Other ‘minorities’ have learned that “the squeaky wheels get the grease.” In a fiercely competitive American setting, Asians suffer in silence. “Swallow your tears,” “don’t show your pains,” “the nail that stick out will be pounded down.” Non-assertiveness (stoicism?) is not only an “Asianic character;” it is also product of Western (English, European, American) colonialism and a psyche of immigrant peoples who suffered from being rebuffed in history. We need a liberation.

The core vision of Asiamerica Ministry, and mine too, is to see the American Church become hospitable to “strangers from different shores,” (Ronald Takaki’s book)  and eventually become like a “rainbow denominaton” or a "diamond with many facets." The theology of inclusion of the Episcopal Church and its avowed “no outcast in the church” speaks to this vision. I believe it will eventually enable the Episcopal Church to repopulate its declining membership albeit with different faces and colors.

While the struggle of Asiamericans and other ethnic Christians is to move from the margins to the mainstream, we must also understand that even in the context of marginality of the immigrant minorities, there is marginalization. According to Census 2010, Asians in America occupy the highest as well as the lowest places in the economic ladder, which means to say; it is incorrect to say that Asians are generally upwardly-mobile “model minority.” The economically highest -ranking Asians are the Asian Indians and the lowest are the Southeast Asians (Lao, Cambodian, Hmong and Burmese). In the recent General Convention, we advocated for the Hmong language in one of the daily liturgies as a way of “lifting up the lowly.” The Hmong are a nomadic tribe in the jungles of Laos, Vietnam and China. They do not have a country of their own. During the Vietnam War, they were conscripted as soldiers (used by the CIA) to work alongside the American soldiers. After the Vietnam War, they were targeted for genocide and the American government relocated many of them in the U.S. Today, there are around 200,000 Hmong Americans, many of them in the Twin cities: Minnesota-St.Paul.  Holy Apostles at St. Paul is the largest and probably the only Hmong congregation in the entire Anglican Communion. We recently have our first Hmong seminarian, Toua Vang ordained to the diaconate. He is graduating next year and hopefully will become our first Hmong Episcopal priest.

Q3:  What would be your concrete suggestion(s) to confluence between “marginality” (including those who are in the margins) and “centrality” (those who are at the center of influence) in your church?
In 2006, I wrote my book Mainstreaming Asian Americans in the Episcopal Church. It arose from a vision I saw at the retreat of the Ethnic Congregational Development staff. I saw two rivers, one large river, flowing steadily but as it flows, it becomes narrower and slower. The other is a small one but as it flows it gathers water from little streams along the way and hence it grows bigger and stronger. The two rivers were flowing separately and in parallel patterns but at a distant horizon, I saw a meeting point like a huge basin. They two rivers are destined to converge in the basin and probably continue to flow down, no longer separate but together.

From that vision, I came to understand the development of the “New Community,” which has lied dormant for many years and now in the process of being revived. My colleague, Rev. Anthony Guillen, the Latino Missioner aptly described the New Community as a better term than “New Majority,” even though it points to the direction of minorities combining together and increasing in number. The New Community is led by “people of color” who have found nobler reasons for solidarity. In the Episcopal Church, the Ethnic Missioners (Angela Ifill, Black; Sarah Eagle Heart, Indigenous; Anthony Guillen, Latino; and Fred Vergara, Asian) together with various allies in the Anglo American staff provide thinking and direction to New Community events. The Ethnic Missioners of the Episcopal Church have been sponsoring Discernment Conferences for young adults of color, seminarians of color conferences and last March 2012, sponsored the first “New Community Clergy and Lay Conference” in San Diego, California. Dr. Russell Yee from the American Baptist Church participated and Dr. Rodger Nishioka from Columbia Theological Seminary was one of our keynote speakers, thus being also ecumenical as multicultural.

Q4:  Reflecting on your ministry experience, tell us one thing that Asian American churches need to do in order to revitalize the life of both Asian American churches and non-AA churches in the United States?
One lesson I learned and continue to learn is that we can have a great and brilliant idea but without people who believe and commit themselves to advocate for it, it simply remains an idea. We need people both from the New Community as well as enlightened allies in the mainstream to buy into the idea, advocate for it and be committed to help make it a reality. From my perspective, the old river (the mainstream American Church) is fatigued and they need help from the new river (the New Community) and I hope that in the interaction, a greater mainstream can emerge.

I believe that a new reformation can happen that is ecumenical, multicultural and global. This Confluence Conference which is widely ecumenical (Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, Baptist, UCC and Reformed Churches) is a step in this direction for the coalition of Asian American Christians. In these times of economic and spiritual crises, the need is not to retreat into our narrow denominational self-branding but in moving forward to greater ecumenical sharing of resources. I believe revolutionary change begins not from the church as an institution but from a group of Christians committed to working together to transform unjust structures. The amazing solidarity of the LGBT Christian Community for instance, began not from the center of the church hierarchy but from a group of gays and lesbians (clergy and lay) who shared common experiences of pain and common visions of hope. In their suffering and hope, authentic leaders arose that successfully lead to advocacy and change.

Q5:  Reflecting upon the concept of “liminality,” in what ways do you find the concept helpful and how do you apply it to your role as a “transitional leader”?
Wikipedia defines liminality as “the quality of ambiguity,” standing at the threshold of being in-between, never fully leaving the old and never fully adopting the new. Sang Hyun Lee in an article “Marginality as Coerced Liminality: Towards an Understanding of Asian American Theology” (Fumitaka & Fernandez, Realizing the America of our Hearts. St. Louis, MS: Chalice Press, c. 2003), wrote that Asian Americans are “in-between and in-betwixt Asia and America” and never fully in either or. He wrote that they are in this liminal space not because of their own choosing but that “they were pushed there and coerced to remain there” by the racist barriers set up by the dominant culture, meaning the white Americans. He laments the stereotype of Asian Americans as “forever foreigner” or “honorary whites”---never fully accepted and never fully assimilated.

I do not look at liminality in the negative sense but in a potentially positive sense. As a child, I was a “stow away.” I ran away from home but home never ran away from me. I carried the values, the experiences, the love and warmth of home, even though I explored new worlds. As a pastor I have been to very conservative (charismatic) churches as well as to ultra liberal ones. As a working theologian, I see myself as a pilgrim with one foot on earth and one foot on heaven, never fully settled in one. We all are, both spirit and matter; we all are, tourists and pilgrims on the journey, until Kingdom come. The liminality provides a malleable, flexible space to go back and forth. I believe we must hold on to essential Christian values like love and hospitality but must guard against fundamentalism and the pharisaic tendency to be closed minded and judgmental over non-essentials. The Church often shoots itself on the foot because it spends inordinate amount of time in non essential parts of mission.

Yes, I am one of the leaders in transition. Like many of my colleagues in the Episcopal Church and in PAACCEM, I belong to the “baby boomer” generation and the noble goal for us is to begin preparing the next generation of leaders. I plan to devote the following years of ministry to developing youth and young adults for greater leadership roles and providing them such opportunities. Being “both and” (both Asian and American; both foreign and domestic; both spiritual and religious) make us better serve as transitional leaders.

One of the qualities that Asian American Episcopalians possess is the tradition of respect to our elders. For instance, I look to my predecessor, The Rev. Dr. Winston Ching with great respect and feel like standing on top of his shoulders. Winston served as the first EAM Missioner for almost 30 years, serving under four Presiding Bishops (John Hines, John Allen, Edmond Browning and Frank Griswold). He has laid the foundation of building networks both domestic and foreign, meaning in the U.S. and Asia, a liminal space. It is in this space that EAM continues to exist. At one point, he said that “I am not one to burn the bridges” and so connection with Asia while serving in the United States is still the ethos of the EAM. When I assumed the position as the second EAM Missioner, I made it a point that while he was still alive, continuity and expansion, rather than change in direction will be my goals. Now as a mentor to younger Asian Episcopalians, the model of bridge-building, not bridge-burning is what I would recommend to my mentees. I do not intend to stay in this position for thirty years like my predecessor and that is why I intend to devote my time and energy to help prepare the next generation of Asiamerican leaders. The “liminal space” will help enable me to accomplish it.

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