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?
GRACE OF GOD
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!
FAITH OF THE (ILOCANO) PEOPLE
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.
VISIONS AND DREAMS
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)