Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Meditation: Sergius, Abbot of Russia


 (By Fred Vergara. Chapel of Christ the Lord, New York, 9.25. 2012)

In William Shakespeare’s play, Mark Anthony spoke at Julius Caesar’s funeral, saying“The evil that men do lives after them but the good is always buried with their bones.” 

Such is not true with the Christian community. We honor the men and women who in history have done good deeds and we remember their works for all eternity.  

Today, we honor St. Sergius, the abbot of Moscow who founded a monastery in 1345. This monastery has now become the spiritual center of the Russian Orthodox Church and home to around 300 monks. St. Sergius is revered as a national hero in Russia.* His fame is spoken by Russians in like manner as William Tell by the Swiss, Joan of Arc by the French; or Francis of Assisi by Italians.
Sergius was born to a poor peasant family in Russia in the 12th century. He was originally baptized with the name Bartholomew. He was an intelligent child but had difficulty learning to read. One day, the legend say, an angel gave him a piece of consecrated leavened bread (prosphoron) and from that day onward, he was able to read very well. Devout Orthodox Christians interpreted the incident as an angelic visitation and sign of God’s favor.**

When his parents, Maria and Kirill, died, Bartholomew went to Khotkovo near Moscow, where his older brother, Stefan, was a monk. He and Stefan sought out a more secluded place, and withdrew deep into the forest at Makovets Hill, where they built a small cell and a wooden church dedicated to the Holy Trinity. It was there that Bartholomew took the monastic vows and assumed the religious name Sergius.**

Sergius then spent more than a year in the forest alone as a hermit. It is amazing that the light of Christ shines even in the remotest forest away from the maddening crowd. When you are filled with the spirit, people will gravitate even when you keep from the crowd. There will be people who would seek your wisdom, counsel or message. In the gospels, we learn of Jesus who sometimes withdrew from the crowd, and yet people will seek after him and find him. John the Baptist was preaching in the desert but people flocked to hear his message. In the same manner, monks from near and far, in Moscow began to seek the hermit Sergius. They begged him to be their hegumen (father superior) and to teach them the ways of a religious life.** Sergius accepted the challenge; he was ordained a priest and became an abbot of the monastery he and his brother founded.

The rest is history: the forested place became a religious settlement and developed into a town named after Sergius. The monks were required to live by their own labor. They later scattered all over Russia and founded around 400 other monasteries, with hundreds of monks devoting their lives to prayer and worship, interceding for our needs and the needs of the world.

We stand today because God’s hand is upon us. When God takes His hand from our lives, our knees  shall turn into clay. The monks and nuns who devote their lives for this kind of monastic prayer ministry are the reservoir of this spiritual energy, the prayers that cry out to God, so He may continue to hold us, and the whole world, in the palm of His hands. Let us thank God for them. Amen.

*From: Holy Men, Holy Women Blogsite.
**From: The Good Heart Blogsite.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

WINSTON CHING: As Leader, as Episcopalian and As Asiamerican (By Fred Vergara)

Bulletin Cover of the Memorial Eucharist

At the reception following the Holy Eucharist. Bishop Catherine Roskam presided at the Eucharist; Fred Vergara gave the homily.

R-L: Jonathan Ching, Winston's brother; Angela Vergara; Joanne Ching and Fred Vergara.

Canon Peter Ng; Angela; Cecilee Longid and Jeremy Abeya, former Secretary of EAM Office.

WINSTON CHING:  As a Leader, An Episcopalian and as Asian American
(Homily delivered by the Rev. Dr. Winfred B. Vergara, missioner for Asiamerica Ministries at the Memorial Service for the Rev. Dr. Winston Ching held at the Church of our Savior, 48 Henry Street, New York City, Sept. 18, 2012)

“Remember  your leaders, who spoke the word of God  to you. Consider the outcome of their lives and  imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7).

During the past couple of months after his death, there have been four memorial services, in various places, for the Rev. Dr. Winston Wyman Ching. The first memorial was held in Virginia, July 13; the second was in Hong Kong, July 19; the third was in San Francisco ,August 4; the fourth was in Los Angeles, September 8; and today, September 18, is the fifth of these remembrances.  For one who was not fond of drawing attention and who had wished to die quietly and far away, Winston is looking at us today with a sense of unbelief. He has touched so many lives more than he could ever imagined.

When the heart is full, the mouth speaks. And our hearts today are filled with praise and thanksgiving to God for giving us Winston, “to know and to love as a companion in our earthly pilgrimage” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 493). As the first missioner of Episcopal Asiamerica Ministries, Winston has been described as a pioneer, a trail blazer, a mentor and teacher, a brother and a friend.  I would like to speak of Winston as a spiritual leader, a true Episcopalian and an authentic ‘Asiamerican.’

Winston as a Spiritual Leader:
One of my favorite Aesop’s fable was about the contest between the wind and the sun on who was more powerful.  The test was who can remove the coat from the man who was walking on the road. First it was the wind who tried to blow off the man’s coat. The wind blew and blew but was not able to remove it, because the harder it blew, the stronger the man held on to his coat. When it was the turn of the sun, it simply shone brighter and warmer, and the man voluntarily removed his coat off.

The leadership of Winston is like that of the sun: it is warm, it is bright, and it is confident. It does not operate on force. It is gentle and soft but it achieves the desired the result.

I first met Winston when I was a seminarian at St. Andrew’s Theological Seminary in the Philippines sometime in 1976. He was accompanying the then Presiding Bishop John Allin. Even as an Asian, Winston was taller and bigger than most of us (definitely taller and bigger than me), but I was struck by his humility. He seldom, if ever, drew attention to himself, even when he was introduced to be the first Asian American staff of the Presiding Bishop of the PECUSA (Protestant Episcopal Church of the USA). At that time, it was rare to see an Asian staff in the Episcopal Church Center.

When I got to know him, I learned that he was a good mentor because he teaches from example. So when I succeeded him as the second missioner of Asiamerica Ministries 28 years later, in 2004,  I have already imbibed the values, the vision and the ethos of the Episcopal Asiamerica Ministry (EAM) which pioneered. I recognized there was a need for change but mostly one of continued expansion. He had  already laid a good foundation, the infrastructure of what is now the Episcopal Asiamerica Network, Henri Nouwen, in his book “The Wounded Healer,” once described three qualities of spiritual leaders: “a personal concern, a deep-rooted faith, and an outgoing hope.” Winston had embodied those qualities.

Winston as a True Episcopalian:
I began my 'ecclesial travelogue' from the Iglesia Filipina Independiente, where I was ordained; the Anglican Church of Singapore where I served as missionary-priest; and the Presbyterian Church, USA where I took my Doctor of Ministry degree. I officially became an Episcopalian in 1993 while serving as Canon Asian Missioner in the Episcopal Diocese of El Camino Real and church planter in San Jose, California. Winston and the EAM helped me in that journey.

What drew me to the Episcopal Church is its contextual adaptation of Anglicanism. Anglicanism has always been described as via media, having a sense of balance, a kind of comprehensiveness that accommodates prophetically and prophetically accommodates. Its theological circle is wide and able to contain the swings of the pendulum from either ends. Its fundamental position is not “either or” but “both and”--- both catholic and reforming, both conservative and liberal; both ancient and modern. It is both Sophia wisdom and mother-church. Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie described the missionary character of Anglicanism as “passionate coolness.” There is freedom of dissent but in the context of “loyal opposition.” 

Together with its orderly-flowing liturgy, I love the Anglican ethos---and I love the Episcopal Church.

Winston, in his 30 years of being Episcopal Asiamerican missioner, was so fortunate to have served with four presiding bishops of the Episcopal Church who distinguished themselves as genuine Episcopalians in the sense that they navigated the Church in turbulent seas of contradictions, conflicts and controversies by keeping the sense of Anglican balance.

First, Winston served under Presiding Bishop John Hines (1910-1997), who was a leading advocate of the social gospel, civil rights movement and empowerment of racial ethnic minorities. In the turbulent era of the late 1960’s and the early 1970’s, Hines navigated the Episcopal Church to address the deep inequalities in American society and promoted the inclusion of African-Americans in the structure of the church. In all his social activism, Hines described himself as “theologically conservative but socially progressive.” Passionate coolness.

Second, Winston served under Presiding John Allin (1921-1997) whose talent for “compromise to promote reconciliation” was legendary.  Unity was the call of the times. Both the American Church and Society were rocked by divisions resulting from the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement and Liberation Theology. Allin steadied the course of the Episcopal Church and maintained its harmony even as he struggled from internal divisions arising from the adoption of Women’s Ordination (1976) and the 1979 Prayer Book. Notwithstanding his conservative view on women’s ordination, Allin became the prime mover of the “Venture in Mission” which expanded congregational development and social justice programs of the church. It was during his term that the four ethnic ministries: Asian, Black, Latino and Native American had their full desks at “815,” the Episcopal Church Center in New York City. Passionate Coolness.

Third, Winston served under Presiding Bishop Edmund Browning (1929-    ), who upon his election on September 19, 1985 proclaimed his vision of inclusivity: “there will be no outcasts in the Church.” Like Hines and Allin, Browning navigated the Church through turbulent times, addressing the deepening rift of the church due to women’s ordination and the growing GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bi-Sexual and Transgender) movement. Browning’s liberal views earned him the admiration of the progressives and the criticism of the conservatives, but due to his charisma and gentle persuasion, he helped keep the unity in diversity. Passionate coolness.

Fourth and finally, Winston served under Presiding Bishop Frank Tracy Griswold III (1937 – ) who was also a paragon of Anglican balance. Despite his pro-gay and pro-choice views, Griswold was co-chair of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission from 1998 to 2003. He is monastic and yet ecumenical; broadly identifying himself as being in the Anglo-Catholic tradition yet deeply interested in interfaith dialogue. It was during his term as presiding bishop that the first openly-gay bishop, Gene Robinson was ordained; and it was his enabling leadership that helped pave the way for the first woman primate in the Anglican Communion, our current presiding bishop, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori. Passionate coolness.

 It is amazing that Winston, being one of those who enjoyed a long tenure of employment in the Episcopal Church Center had adapted the “passionate coolness” of his presiding bishops. He had experienced the ever changing tides of modern church history. He had seen that in all the changes in leadership and in all the vicissitudes of life and ministry, the church remains. Winston had survived many staff changes, reorganizations and restructuring in the national church and learned to keep a balanced perspective. Indeed, leaders and styles of leadership come and go but the Church as the Body of Christ, remains.

I always prefer the analogy of Church .as the Body of Christ than the Bride of Christ. Brides may run away from the groom but the Body can not sever from the head. And for as long as Christ is the head, the Church will stand forever. I believe Winston believed that too. When he retired from the Episcopal Church, he moved to Hong Kong and served as instructor and chaplain at St. John's College and as one of the priests of St. John's Cathedral.

Winston as an Authentic 'Asiamerican':
The marks of an Asian American are exactly what Winston has described in the word “Asiamerica” which he had coined. We are proud of our Asian heritage; we live in the context of America; and we are connected with the global village which is Asia-America. One of Winston words was, “I will never be one to burn bridges.” Indeed, Asiamerican Christians never burn bridges nor build walls. Instead, we are bridge-builders, reconcilers, harmonizers. Yin-Yang.  E pluribus onum. Even in our diversity, we are one. This is our character, our mission and our DNA. We are ambassadors for Christ, entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation, Christ making His appeal through us. (2 Corinthians 5:20)

Today, our bridge-building continues domestically and globally. In America, we are connected as one Episcopal Asiamerica Community of six Asian ethnic convocations: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, South Asian and Southeast Asian. Our bridge-building in the Anglican Global Communion and ecumenical seas continues. Both Peter Ng and I work so closely together making sure that the name "DFMS" (Domestic & Foreign Missionary Society), which is the official name of The Episcopal Church, remains operative in the bridges that we build and keep, through the Episcopal Asiamerica Ministry Council and its ethnic convocations and the Partnership for Asia and the Pacific in both the Anglican Communion, the Concordat churches and ecumenical relations with Asian churches.

When I spent part of my sabbatical in Hong Kong in 2010, Winston accompanied me to the Buddhist monastery where I learned a few good things about Buddhism. Later, we took part in an Interfaith Prayer Rally organized by the Filipino Migrants Ministry, which was a partnership between the Iglesia Filipina Independiente and the Anglican Church of Hong Kong. A true Asiamerican is one who engages issues in the adopted country of America but remains compassionate to the plight of the peoples of Asia. Such was Winston Ching.

The Coming 40th Anniversary of EAM
In its recent meeting, the Episcopal Asiamerica Ministry Council planned to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the EAM in San Francisco on June 20-24, 2013.  We unanimously agreed on the theme “EAM@40: Remember, Celebrate & Re-Envision.” I emailed Winston about this saying we want him to attend and honor us with his presence and his words and vice-versa. A week before he died, he responded to me. His email is still in my file. He wrote: “Fred, you may still be busy with this coming General Convention (July 5-12) but thereafter, I will come to new York and will sit down together and surely, I will be there at the EAM Consultation and 40th Anniversary in San Francisco.”

He died on July 3, 2012 on the eve of the General Convention. We will miss his physical presence in New York as well as in San Francisco but I believe his spirit will be with us as we celebrate his life, his work and his legacy among us in New York, in San Francisco, in Hong Kong, in Honolulu and in the global world of Asia-America where he once roamed and left footprints on the sand. Amen.

Facebook: Fred Vergara (The Episcopal Church)

Saturday, September 1, 2012


Grace, Faith and Vision: 50 Years of Filipino Ministry in Hawaii
(Sermon delivered by the Rev. Dr. Winfred Vergara. Missioner for Asiamerica Ministry of the Episcopal Church at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Honolulu, Hawaii, on the occasion of their 50th Founding Anniversary, last August 23,2009. )

“Be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might” (Ephesians 6:10)

Today in history is a significant moment in the life of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Honolulu. Fifty years ago, August 23, 1959, the first Filipino-American Eucharist of the Episcopal Church was held here in Honolulu, just a month after Hawaii achieved its statehood. It is amazing to know that the history of St. Paul’s congregation coincides with the history of the state of Hawaii.

From its small and humble beginning, this Filipino mission is now the largest congregation in the Diocese of Hawaii. As a pioneering church, it has inspired new Filipino churches in the United States including Guam and Saipan. Like “milkfish in brackish water,” it continues to thrive in the context of multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic America. What makes for the success of St. Paul’s as a Filipino ethnic church in America?

The very first reason for the success of St. Paul’s Church, is surely the grace of God. The Apostle Paul, your patron saint, wrote this affirmation: “I planted; Apollos watered, but it is God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6). Grace is a gift; we do not earn it by the goodness of our hearts or the industry of our hands. Grace is simply God’s unsolicited, unmerited favor. We may glory with all our strategic goals and well-conceived plans but without God’s grace, our labor is in vain. In doing God’s work, there are times that we do not know what to do; there are times that we don’t even know how to pray. It is at this point that God comes to lift us up and fill our inadequacy. Some call it luck; we call it grace. Grace is amazingly sufficient for us.

Since many of you are Ilocano-Filipinos, I like to tell my favorite Ilocano story in America: It is also a story of God’s grace. There was this Manong (Ilocano immigrant) who was interviewed for citizenship in 1983 when Ronald Reagan was president of the United States and Deukmejian was governor of California. Manong had been a green card holder for several years and the opportunity came for him to be interviewed for citizenship at the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Being old and hard of hearing, he was asked only two questions. The first question was, “who is the president of the United States?” Not knowing the answer, he said in Ilocano, “narigat.” meaning, “it’s difficult.” The INS interviewer, thinking it was just his Filipino accent, replied, “Yes, Sir, it’s Reagan but next time you pronounce it better”. The second question was, “Who is the governor of California?” Manong responded again in Ilocano, “diak ‘amo,” meaning, “I don’t know.” The INS interviewer thinking it was just bad Filipino accent, said:  “Yes, Sir; it’s Deukmejian; but next time you pronounce it better.” Well, he got his citizenship, by the grace of God!

Fr. Timoteo Quintero who, planted this church in 1959, had a similar story of grace. Fr. Tim said, “I arrived in Hawaii on August 12, 1959. This was my first airplane ride. I was sent by the Most Reverend Isabelo Delos Reyes, Jr., Obispo Maximo of the Philippine Independent Church and received by Bishop Harry Kennedy of the Episcopal Church. Without any strategic plan, I was charged with establishing the first Filipino congregation. I felt like a novice mosquito buzzing around not knowing how and where to make the first bite. It is by the grace of God that on August 13, while shopping for a pair of slippers in a downtown store, I overheard a mother and daughter talking in Ilocano. I engaged them in conversation---and they became the first members of this congregation.”

By the grace of God, the two initial members became twenty, the twenty became two hundred, the 200 became 400---and now, with Father Randy Albano, succeeding Father Quintero---it is now over 500.  To use Pauline theology, “Father Quintero planted, Father Albano watered, but it is God who gives the growth.” To God be the glory!  Thy grace is sufficient for us!

The second reason for your success as a Church is the faith that was handed over to you by your ancestors. As the faith of Timothy (student of St. Paul) was given through his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice (2 Timothy 1:5), so your faith in God and love of His church must have been the spiritual deposit or legacy of Bishop Gregorio Aglipay and the many Ilocanos who began the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI) in Philippine history.

I was born in Iloilo and grew up in Manila but according to our family history, my great grandfather was actually an Ilocano from the Vergara clan of San Esteban, Ilocos Sur (whose progenitor was an adventurer from Catalan, Spain). My great grandfather, so the anecdotal story goes, ventured to Panay Island; as a young run-away, and settled in Capiz, where she married and never returned to Ilocos. I must have inherited such a love of adventure, when at the age of 16; I also stowed away in a ship from Iloilo Island and ventured in Manila. I became a homeless youth, sleeping on the parks and by the sidewalks, until I found new life under the care of a priest of the IFI or Philippine Independent Church.

I had been asked where I draw my inner character and I would attribute it to my “semi G.I. blood” (half-genuine Ilocano and half-Ilonggo) and the Ilocano indomitable spirit. Among the Filipino people, the Ilocanos are known to be the most hard working, the most patient, the most frugal (many Ilocanos are also generous), the most adventurous and probably one of the people most gifted with faith. Hebrews 11 defined faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Most people see things as they are; faithful people see things as they will be.

The immigrant history of the United States is not complete without the history of the Filipinos who were among the first immigrants to this country (1930-1945). They came as single, young Ilocano males and worked the pineapple plantations of Hawaii, the farms of California and the fish canneries of Alaska. One of the most vivid accounts of their suffering, their hope and their faith, is the book by Carlos Bulosan, America is in the Heart. Written as an embellished autobiography, this classic tells of how these Ilocano males endured racism and struggled to survive racial discrimination and economic depression because they believed that behind their pains and suffering is the promise of a better future for those who would come after them.

Our faith ancestor, Abraham, was a wandering Aramean. He was the first immigrant and the patron saint of all immigrants. In the Bible (Genesis 12), God called Abraham to leave his country and his people and go to the “promise land” which God would show him. In his wandering, Abraham became wealthy but he did not build a mansion or a palace. Instead he lived in tents, always ready for another adventure with God. The Book of Hebrews reckoned that Abraham was a man of faith, because he “was not searching for city made by human hands but for or a city with a strong foundation, whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 11:8-10). After all, as St. Augustine would confirm later, “the city made by man will always die; but the city made by God will never die.”

So the faith of Abraham, the faith of St. Paul, the faith of all our ancestors, and the faith of the Ilocano people (the majority of your members) are the key to your continued success. In the economy of God, “success is never-ending and failure is never-final.” We need to increase our faith, sharpen this gift, to believe that God can truly answer our deepest needs, mend our broken hearts, wipe the tears from our eyes and give us new and abundant life. In the church, we need to believe that God can heal us, renew us and build us up as the Body of Christ in the world.

Thirdly and finally, the success of St. Paul Episcopal Church and the key to its continued success lies on the vision and dreams of its leaders. Proverb 29:18 says, “Without vision, the people perish.”  Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I have a dream.” Eleanor Roosevelt said, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” Bulosan said that "America is the heart of those who love freedom."

St. Paul’s Congregation was born out of the visions and dreams of  IFI Obispo Maximo Isabelo Delos Reyes and Episcopal Bishop Harry Kennedy who agreed to develop a Filipino ministry among the Filipino immigrants in the Diocese of Hawaii. It was carried out, for many years until his retirement, by Father Tim Quintero and later, by Father Randy Albano. The vision has bore fruit in Oahu and became the model in other Filipino ministries in Maui and the Big Island. Now a new vision is being formed as a new partnership between the Episcopal Diocese of Hawaii and the IFI Diocese of Laoag, Ilocos Norte. With the leadership of the new bishop of Hawaii, the Rt. Rev. Robert Fitzpatrick, whose heart if for mission; it is my prayer that God will consecrate these new visions and dreams for the growth of not only the Filipino-American mission but also of many other Asian-American and ethnic congregations in the Diocese of Hawaii and beyond..

Visions and dreams are the language of the Holy Spirit. Even in times of crises, we should not give up on our visions and dreams. If your God is big, your big problem will become small; if your God is small, your small problem will become big. We must therefore always see a vision of a great and mighty God “who sits enthroned amidst the floods and gives strength to His people” (Psalm 29:10-11).  We must always see a vision of God who loves us, who cares for us, who will never leave us nor forsake us.

We must not only see the vision of a great and mighty God. We must also believe in the power of our dreams.  St. Paul said the power within us is greater than the power that is in the world. With all the crises in our lives, we need to know, that in the end, God wins. Crisis or no crisis, we need to reaffirm these words from St. Paul who said, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13), for with God, nothing is impossible.

In today’s world, many people seem to have forgotten God. They are actually in denial because the truth of the matter is, “there is a God-shaped vacuum in the human heart that only God can fill.” And that is the core of our Christian message. Jesus is the God-incarnate, the Bread of Life who came down from heaven and dwelt among us. He continues to be with us, through the Holy Spirit. Those who come to Him shall not hunger; those who believe in Him shall never thirst! Let us continue to move forward in the power of the Spirit. God bless youl, God bless St. Paul’s; and God bless God’s Church! Amen.

(Photo 1:Fr. Randy Albano; Fr. Tim Quintero; Bishop Bob Fitzpatrick at the 50th Anniversary Dinner. Photo 2: Fr. Tim with the younger generation; Photo 3: Fr. Randy at one of the hosts of the 2007 Episcopal Asiamerica Ministry Consultation; Photo 4: St. Paul's Episcopal Church Building; Photo 5: Former Obispo Maximo Godofredo David, Me and Bishop Bob at the 50th Anniversary Dinner)