Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Tuesday, April 9, 2013


From Billiard Balls to Salad Bowl: Towards an Intercultural Church
By Winfred B. Vergara 
I would like to address the issue of ethnic churches and the vision of an inclusive, intercultural church. A number of people are still asking the question, “Why do we need to have ethnic churches? Why can't we all be together?”

In his 2003 report to the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church, The Most Rev. Frank Griswold, the TEC ‘s Presiding Bishop said, “We have come to this place with regards to ethnic ministries. In a church that is free of the sin of racism and other ‘isms,' there would be no need for a focus upon particular ethnic groups and identities because the church, in all its variations, would reflect the fullness of Christ and the face of Christ, and be transformed by the multiplicity of languages, races, and cultural particularities incarnate in the members of Christ's risen body. But we have not yet become who we are called to be. Given that, it has become clear that our best energies in seeking to serve ethnic communities need to be focused on congregational development and clergy recruitment. This is in line with the vision of 20/20, the mission energies around the church and the demographics of our nation . . . and the focus of our energies shall be the African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic-American, and Native-American ministries.” 

Asian, Black, Latino, Indigenous Americans – these four ethnic groupings are what I would call the “four aces” of the Episcopal Church. Together, they represent a new force for change. Not in an adversarial but in complementary relationship with the Caucasian (or Anglo-European) peoples, they constitute an emerging majority that is neither simple nor simplistic. What are the characteristics of these four ethnic groupings? 

First, in their differences. Even in and among themselves, these “four Aces” are already very diverse – culturally, linguistically and historically. I still hear some Caucasians say to my Filipino face, “You Vietnamese look alike.”  Thank you, but no thank you, Sir. Asians do not necessarily  look alike.

Asian Americans come from countries whose geography, history and culture set them apart from each other. From India to China, from Laos to Australasia, from Japan to the Philippines, from Korea to Vietnam, from Malaysia to Taiwan, etc., our colors and facial features are not the same. Many Asian countries have histories of colonialism but there are some whose cultures remained untouched, untainted or uncorrupted by western civilization. Asian languages are so different from each other even within our sub-ethnic groupings. The Philippines has 7,100 islands with as many as 700 dialects and 80 distinct languages. China has even more languages, and so does India. With regards to skin color, the people from North India are fairer in complexion than the ones in South India. And the people from Cashmere are as white as the Europeans.

The intra-ethnic differences are also true with Latino-Hispanic Americans. Having lived in San Jose, California (the home of farm worker Cesar Chavez) for fifteen years, where Latinos now constitute around 35% of the population, I was amazed to discover the big differences in outlook and culture that exist between the Salvadoran and the Guatemalans, the Puerto Ricans and the Belizeans and between the “Mexicans in California and the Californian Mexicans!” 

Facial and cultural differences are also true with the African-American community. Not only are they different from their countries of origin and in complexion (I hesitate to call African Americans as blacks because there are some who are brown or mulatto), but also in the degree of their historical experience of slavery and colonial oppression. 

I was also amazed to learn from a Native-American leader who said that the tribal differences among them continue even today. She told me a story of the crabs placed by a man in a basket. These crabs were all struggling to climb up the basket and the man was nonchalant about it. Someone said, “Why don't you do something about those crabs, they might climb up so high and get out of the basket.” The man replied, “Oh don't worry, they'll not succeed in doing that because they're ‘Indian crabs' – as soon as one of them climbs up high, the others will pull him down.” I was amazed by that story for two reasons: one, because it is the same story as the “Filipino crab mentality;” and two, because most ethnic groups have the same penchant for self-deprecating humor. 

This brings us to the similarity among the “four aces.” First, there is a similarity in their Western colonial experience. Most of the four ethnic groupings have a history of being conquered, oppressed, divided and ruled by Western colonialism and white racism. Second, there is a similarity in the way they responded to Western colonialism, i.e., they turn the Western symbols of oppression to their own advantage. For instance, Spain and Portugal colonized the Americas, but instead of rejecting the Spanish or Portuguese language as symbols of oppression, the new Latinos used them as their own medium of unification, communication and solidarity. When Filipinos revolted against Spanish colonization from 1896-1898, the Castillan rulers imposed a rule that the natives wear a very thin and transparent dress made from pineapple fiber (so that the guardia civil could see if the Filipinos were concealing weapons.) How did the Filipinos respond? They adopted this Barong Tagalog as their national costume! And how did the Japanese turn their humiliating defeat from the Americans into victory? They copied American technology (that which invented the atom bomb) to build superiority in the electronics and car industry.

The ability to turn their “mourning into dancing” is true with other ethnic groupings. When African slaves were imposed the back-breaking work of harvesting cotton by their English taskmasters, how did they respond? They sang the Lord's song in beautiful African melodies, songs and music being the fine arts of their slave masters. And what do we say about the Native Americans? They were stripped of their lands and placed into reservations. Now they are fiercely competing with the American business and raking huge profits in the operation of Indian casinos all over the United States. I once attended a meeting of First Nations about the casino in Tacoma. One of the tribal leaders confirmed that the were able to buy back the lands that once were taken away from them.

Western civilization – which ironically, was used to subjugate Third World countries – has now become the dynamic force in the rapid developments in the Third World. Kosuke Koyama, a noted Asian (Japanese) theologian, speaking to the 5th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1975, said: ”If (Western civilization) were simply demonic, then we need to launch a   ‘Program to Combat Western Civilization.' But it is not a simple monster; it is an ambiguous monster! Western civilization has a ‘wounding and healing' effect on other civilizations.” 

So instead of totally rejecting Western civilization, Third World countries adopt, baptize and marry it to their own cultures. From Borneo to Timbukto, the picture of the “beauty-saloon, blue-eyed Jesus,” adorned the electronics stores and car interiors along with nativistic and cultural handicrafts.
One of my tasks in Asian American Ministries is to lead in the advocacy of Asians and other ethnic groups so they move from their marginalized status into the mainstream of the American church. These new American Christians are no longer content in standing by the periphery or eavesdropping from the outside and waiting to be invited. They see that the mainline Anglo culture is fatigued, tired and worn out and apparently needing help. The Asians, Blacks, Latinos and Indigenous American Christians want to get involved in the American church at all levels of its life and in all aspects of its activities. What is remarkable is if we could work together now, we can ensure that the church of the future will not only survive, but prevail. We need to see an intercultural vision of the church in the 21 st century and that vision can be realized in these United States. 

The United States is not one monolithic population but a marvelous mosaic of races, ethnicity, cultures and ideologies. The American global villages, like New York City or Los Angeles or San Jose or Seattle, mirror the planet earth. We are a pluralistic, diverse, multicultural and multilingual peoples. Yet despite our diversity, we know that God loves us and cares for us individually. Caucasians are no more precious in the Lord's eyes than Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Latinos, Arabs, Africans, Russians or Iraqis. According to the Bible, we are all God's children, and Jesus died not for some special racial-ethnic groups but for all humankind. 

How does interculturalism operate in the context of American Christian ministry? In 1995, as chair of the Intercultural Task Force of the Diocese of El Camino Real, I defined the vision and development of an intercultural diocese as the following:
  • Cross-cultural is when a member of a dominant culture crosses over his boundary, immerses himself with a native culture in order to convert it. This is the missionary strategy of the colonial era when Western missionaries crossed over their Anglo-European boundaries and went to Africa, Asia or Latin America and operated parallel to Western socio-political colonization.This is sort of Kevin Costner in the movie "Dancing with the Wolves."
In cross-cultural development, the missionary learns the local culture, which he perceives to be inferior and then superimposes his own missionary culture. This strategy is perceived by the local culture as either paternalism or racism. The image of “melting pot” comes to mind except that the local culture is “melted” into the missionary's culture. In the context of America, cross-cultural is when an Anglo-European clergy or congregation evangelizes an individual from an ethnic minority group and then molds him into some one who will think like them and talk like them. This process often sets the convert apart from his community. He will be embraced by the dominant culture as one of them but he will be frowned upon or alienated by the community where he comes from. He would be labeled by his peers as an “Oreo Christian” if he is black or a “coconut Christian” if he is brown.
  • Multicultural is when mono-cultural and ethnic-specific congregations are allowed equal and separate existence but with neither intention nor vision for interaction. The image of “billiard balls spread on the table” comes to mind. In that pluralistic and multicultural setting, various racial-ethnic peoples exist independent of each other and having no desire for a larger community bonding – unless you hit one ball to strike another. There is a high level of tolerance for pockets of specific community organizations (i.e.. Filipino associations, Greek organizations, Kenyan associations, etc.) and even local villages (e.g. Koreatown, Chinatown, Mexican barrio, Kosher village, etc.) but there is no movement for a greater circle of friendship. The silent but accepted rules are “mind your own business,”   “live and let live,” and “don't ask, don't tell.”
In the context of a church, this image is true with a diocese (or presbytery, district or adjudicatory) where there are many ethnic congregations (including Anglo ethnic churches) but with no inter-church relationship. Every congregation is its own domain; there is no active reaching out to one another, no opportunity for communication exchange; no common activities where members can get to know one another. St. Paul said that the church is a Body with many parts so “when one member suffers, all suffer together; when one member rejoices, all rejoice together.” In a multicultural diocese, the church is not one body with many parts but a “Body with many bodies.” When one member suffers, he suffers alone; when one member rejoices, he rejoices alone.
  • Intercultural is when racial-ethnic, cultural, language and generational congregations (parishes and missions) do intentional “unity in diversity” in the context of a diocese (or presbytery, district or adjudicatory) which considers itself as the basic missionary unit of the church. The image of “salad bowl” comes to mind. In this image, there is a mixing up or a gathering of various and diverse cultures (colors) each retaining its own color and striving for unity and harmony like a rainbow in the sky. This is the ideal vision of a Christian church in a multicultural society, an avant garde of “a community of communities” where the values of equality, fairness, justice and solidarity are actualized by the people in the life they live and in the relationship that they create.
In an intercultural diocese, parishes develop “missionary partnerships” to plant a new ethnic or intercultural congregation and assist in the growth and development of smaller congregations. They do not consider their financial assistance to struggling congregations as a “dole out” or an “outreach” because they feel ownership of every congregation that declines or thrives. 

An “intercultural church” is a diocese where love and justice reign and where ethnic parishes and missions share common experience of pain and a common vision of hope. In an intercultural diocese, no one congregation claims sole ownership of a parish building (because every congregation is a mission outreach of the diocese). In an intercultural diocese, parishes develop “missionary partnerships” to plant a new ethnic or intercultural congregation and assist in the growth and development of smaller congregations. They do not consider their financial assistance to struggling congregations as a “dole out” or an “outreach” because they feel ownership of every congregation that declines or thrives. Indeed, “when one congregation suffers, they suffer with it” and “when one congregation thrives, they rejoice in it.” 

The bishop of an intercultural diocese is a healing (reconciling) bishop who has subordinated his peculiar love for his ethnic origin in order to become a bishop for all of God's people. Like the Greek concept of diakonia (someone who is sandwiched between the dust), he is in between God and God's peoples. What breaks his heart is racism in all its protean forms and what warms his heart is unconditional love being embraced by all. 

The bishop of an intercultural diocese is an arbiter of truth and a dispenser of justice. She speaks the truth in love and struggles to harmonize the various opposites or at least get them (like yin and yang ) to complement each other. She learns and teaches new vocabulary like gotong-royong (Indonesian for “pulling heavy loads together”) and a luta continua (Zaire/Portuguese for “continue the struggle”) when she rallies the clergy and faithful towards the intercultural vision. 

The success of an “intercultural vision” is measured by the “ease” with which people from diverse cultures interact with each other in the spirit of mutual respect, integrity, mutual responsibility and interdependence. You do not have to qualify your comment about another group with “with great respect to. . .” because they already know you have great respect for them. You do not have to be condescending nor apologetic because they knew you and having known you, loved you. The closest vision to the kingdom of God is an “intercultural diocese” where the “lion dwells with the lambs, the child plays with the asp . . . for they neither hurt nor kill in this holy mountain” (Isaiah 11:6, 9).

(Note: This article first appeared in Witness Magazine in 2004. It was also the subject of my recent interview from Voice of America. WBV)


  1. I was opposed to changing from Multicultural to Intercultural as a way to describe the vision of a true inclusive church. The Intercultural vision described by Fr. Vergara needs to be widely promoted in the full life of our church and become the dominate vision for mission and ministry.
    Ed Lovelady, Olympia, WA

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