“I AM A MISSIONARY:” Reflections from the Ethnic Missioners
In a special meeting last October 11, 2013, between Bishop Stacy Sauls, Chief Operating Officer (COO); Sam McDonald, Director for Mission and Deputy Chief Operating Officer; and the Ethnic Missioners of the Episcopal Church ( Sarah Eagle Heart; Angela Ifill; Anthony Guillen and Fred Vergara); the discussion on “Mission” and “Missionary” became very lively and enlightening. At the end, Sam asked the Missioners to pen their thoughts in an essay, “I am a missionary” and the following are the four reflections.
ASIAMERICAN MISSIONER: The Rev. Canon Dr. Winfred (Fred) Vergara
I am a missionary. Wherever I am; I plant a church, I build a church, I revive a church, I grow a church. I felt called to the priesthood, when as a young adult leader from the Philippines in 1975, I attended the 5th Assembly of the World Council of Churches and the corresponding Youth Conference in Arusha, Tanzania. After theological studies and ordination from the Iglesia Filipina Independiente , I served in the Philippines for three years. I was known as a “healing and trouble-shooting priest” i.e., healing conflicted parishes and revitalizing stagnant congregations.
In 1981, I went to Singapore, took up further studies, and served as missionary priest at St. Andrew’s Anglican Cathedral, in-charge of its daughter-churches. One became a large parish with a school and another became an English-speaking congregation of a Chinese Church. The new diocesan bishop of Singapore, Rennis Ponniah (2012), is my former Senior Warden.
In 1986, I came to the U.S. to complete a doctorate at San Francisco Theological Seminary and was appointed by the Presbytery of San Jose, California as Director of Filipino/Asian Ministry Probe in Silicon Valley. There were three startling revelations in my research. First, in 1990, the ratio of the population was 60% white and 40% non-white. Ten years later, the ratio reversed: 60% non-white and 40% white. The trend is that “there would no longer be any one racial majority.”
Second, I surveyed church goers vis-à-vis the population and discovered that of its 2.5 million population in 1990, only 10% go to church. This led me to comment: “If Silicon Valley were in Africa or Asia or Latin America in the 1950’s, the American Church would declare it a mission field, send its missionaries, and pour its mission dollars to convert its millions of ‘unchurched’ peoples.”
Third, I surveyed 1,000 “unchurched” Filipinos which congregation they would prefer: Filipino Church; Filipinos and Asians; Filipinos and Latinos, Filipinos and White (there is no critical number in the Black population of San Jose). The answer was in this order: “Filipino Church; Filipinos and White; Filipinos and Latinos; and Filipinos and Asians.” Even though they are fluent in English, Filipinos felt that worship (prayer) is more potent when expressed as “a language of the heart.” Their “closeness” to White and Latino Americans are vestiges of Spanish and White American colonial influences on Filipino culture. Distance from other Asian immigrants was a result of their perception of inter-Asian competition (especially in government block grants to organizations). As pan-Asian Missioner, I therefore endeavored to develop coalition among all Asian Americans and other marginalized communities and became active in intercultural work and the ecumenical movement.
It was in the course of my research that I got introduced by Jerry Drino to the Episcopal Diocese of El Camino Real. I was appointed “Canon Missioner for Asian Cultures” by Bishop Shannon Mallory and Bishop Richard Shimpfky. I founded Holy Child Filipino Church, coordinated a Laotian congregation, and co-founded Holy Light Chinese Church. In 2003, upon permission from then Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of Nevada, I planted Holy Child Church in Las Vegas. Then I planted another one in Sacramento, California and Woodside, New York. On May 2004, Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold appointed me missioner for Asiamerica Ministries serving Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Southeast Asian and South Asian churches. In 2005, we welcomed the first Hmong Church in St. Paul, Minnesota---among the many more new churches of Asian heritage in the Episcopal Church.
“The heartbeat of the Church is mission, mission, mission,” said Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori in her message to the General Convention in Anaheim, California in 2009. It is therefore fitting that we be called “The Missionary Society” of The Episcopal Church.
BLACK MISSIONER: The Rev. Canon Angela Ifill
I am a Missionary and I feel blessed every day as I interact with people inside of the church and outside, meeting them where they are and sharing the word and love of God in diverse ways. They are people from Africa, the Caribbean, America, Central and South America, people of every color and class. The gift of this ministry connects me with being a missionary, going from one location to another meeting with communities of faith in dioceses, sharing faith stories, talking about who we are as ‘the church’ and our role as ‘church.’ Going deeper into spiritual learning and experiences of the Christian Faith as a lifelong journey and discerning God’s call to us as Christians into the world living the faith we promised in the Baptismal Covenant.
Before we are even aware of it, God puts us in places and prepares us for work in the vineyard while we wonder what are we doing here and why? This reflection takes me back to the year I spent in East Africa. I was a seminarian at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia, when in a Church History class one day I asked about the lack of any mention of African Christianity as we learned about Euro-American Christianity. The answer led me to Bishop Tucker Theological College, in Mukono Uganda, studying African Spirituality. During those nine months I traveled to Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia meeting and talking with people, sharing their lives and experiences to write about the Revival of the Church in East Africa. My time was also spent as a missionary from the Episcopal Church going from place to place into remote villages way up in the North with local church leaders to take the Good News of Christ to people who had never heard of his name.
When we did attend a church here or there the people had one question for me, “are you saved?” I learned that the question had to do with the early experiences and impact of missionaries from Britain who brought the message of Jesus the Christ clothed in raiments of superiority and all knowing, who taught that the local African names were pagan so names were changed to those from the bible. Africans were dressed up in suits with shirts and ties as the way to obtain work, and gain a place as highly favored in the eyes of the “missionaries.” One professor said that after the missionaries left, they still got dressed up but did not know what to do. The far reaching and devastating result was that hearts were not changed, but people took on the trappings espoused as “Christian” to survive. As the people began to read and discovered for themselves the message in the bible, they understood the Gospel of love that changed their hearts.
One quote from the Afro-Anglicanism Conference held in 1985 in Barbados said, “Many of us owe our Anglican connections to the missionary initiatives taken by the British and North Americans in former years. We thank God for these initiatives. The missionaries brought the Gospel in their own cultural vessels. The message has survived, but the vessels are being retired in the face of our own cultural traditions.”
We have since learned from the lessons taught by early missionaries, and it is this knowledge and experience that I bring to the ministry as a humble missionary. This work is done with the understanding that as a missionary I do not lead, it is God who leads; that it is God who sends each of us with the gifts given us to faithfully join with others where they are to begin a journey together to win souls for Christ as we do our part in helping to build God’s Kingdom.
INDIGENOUS/NATIVE AMERICAN MISSIONER: Ms. Sarah Eagle Heart
I am a missionary. Ironically, I am writing about being a missionary on Columbus Day. Yet this is the perfect day for me to write about being a missionary. I admit every fiber in my body shudders at the knowledge of the suffering indigenous peoples endured at the hands of missionaries 400 years ago. Manifest Destiny. Massacres. Rape. Assimilation. Because of this past, the word missionary has become synonymous with colonization. However this is not the work of The Episcopal Church today. While we cannot undo the past, we can reconcile our past. To reconcile does not mean sharing simple words of apology. To truly reconcile, we act by continuing to stand in solidarity with Indigenous Peoples. Today, I am proud to say we are doing this now with our work on the Repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery. My work as a Missioner serves to reconcile the wrongs of the past with tribal communities, but this cannot be truly accomplished by one person alone. It is the work of the entire Church.
To be an Episcopalian and an Oglala Lakota is to live every day with the tension of this past. The history of my ancestors is carried with me through stories. My defining story is that of my great-grandmother Emma Brave Hawk. She was a lay leader in the Episcopal Church and read her book of common prayer every day. She became an Episcopalian because she did not see a difference between Christianity and traditional Lakota spirituality. Old Grandma chose to honor Episcopalian traditions, even though non-native ancestors did not. The vision of Indigenous ancestors was to honor and respect others. They did this knowingly and many times even to their detriment. Some might call this foolish. Oglala Lakota’s called this true wisdom because they knew understood that following the Lakota way of life was the highest calling of the Great Spirit, Tunkasila. Today, Episcopalians would call it “loving your neighbor as yourself” as defined in our Baptismal Covenant.
We must also remember the good deeds of missionaries. On December 16, 1862, Bishop Whipple who managed to advocate to President Abraham Lincoln to reduce the number from 303 to 38 Santee Dakotas at the largest mass hanging in United States history in Mankato, Minnesota. Historical accounts called it a result of a war induced by a starving and desperate people. We remember this deed in Hymnal 385, as those condemned to death sang a Dakota chant honoring the Creator and calling for eternal life, “Many and great, O God, are they works, maker of earth and sky; thy hands have set the heavens with stars; they fingers spread the mountains and plains. Lo, at they word the waters were formed; deep seas obey thy voice. Grant unto us communion with thee, though star abiding one; come unto us and dwell with us; with thee are found the gifts of life. Bless us with life that has no end, eternal life with thee.”
Our past will always be there, but how do we ensure the direction of our work today responds accordingly? By being present. By witnessing. By responding. By continuing to pursue radical equality of the human family. A 1997 Anglican Communion news article of the signing of the Jamestown Covenant states, “The original Jamestown charter granted colonial status to what became the state of Virginia and commanded that the Church of England propagate Christianity among "the infidels and savages" who "live in darkness and miserable ignorance of true knowledge". In his sermon, Edmond Browning said re-reading the first charter was "painful ... it is not surprising that Christians who know this history are outraged by it. It certainly is an outrage." Still, the royal ordinance "carried within its sinfulness the seeds of its redemption," Bishop Browning said. "James I and his advisers would never in a million years have guessed that their descendants would be led by the Gospel to pursue the radical equality of the human family," he said. The ashes of injustice were many, and included "sins of both commission and omission," Bishop Charleston said of the church, which was "the chaplain to colonialism in the Western Hemisphere. Sometimes it was a good chaplain, at times standing with the oppressed. At other times, it aided and abetted the system of colonialism."
Today, the work of the Repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery continues our commitment to 1997 Jamestown Covenant by exposing the wrongs done “on behalf” of Native Americans through the brutal settlement and conquest of the Americas. It would be easier to forget missionaries of the past did not engage in the colonization of indigenous peoples, if it were not for the fact that indigenous peoples today are still suffering with the affects. The strength of Episcopalians is that we do not run from the tension of shame and guilt, we face it with Jesus at our side. Then we act through our Baptismal Covenant “to strive for peace and justice.”
This weeks lectionary included the reading 2 Timothy 2:14-15, “Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly by speaking the truth.”
Today, we do not omit the past. We stand in solidarity advocating for the oppressed and pray for the oppressors of 400 years ago. Today, the missionary work combines leadership with faith and dedication. We live in the tension of the unknown and turn our face to God with humility for guidance. That is the meaning of missionary today.
Our strength as Episcopalians is our acceptance of the unknown. We are a diverse group of believers who live in the tension of the unknown. Diversity can be a source of harmony and strength, rather than a source of conflict, as we find the parallels in our beliefs and goals. I am proud to work for The Episcopal Church because of our long legacy recognizing the sovereignty of tribal nations by creating the Executive Council on Indigenous Ministry to advise on policy. I also work with the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition as they seek advice to find a meaningful and appropriate response from responsible agencies and identify a strategy for collective healing from the historical trauma. I work with Bishops and Native American congregations to connect them with tribal leaders, encouraging them to work together on common goals. I know this is the work God called me to do. This is why I am a missionary today. A colleague once called my work peacemaking. By facing history and acting to reconcile the past… you are peacemakers too.
“Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.” Matthew 5:9
|Mission Society of the Episcopal Church DSE Staff with the COO and the Director of Mission:||(L-R): Anthony Guillen, Bishop Stacy Sauls, Sam McDonald, Angela Ifill, Sarah Eagle Heart and Fred Vergara.|
LATINO/HISPANIC MISSIONER: The Rev. Canon Anthony Guillén
I am a missionary. I’ve always been a missionary though what I thought God had called me to be was a parish priest. My first mission trip was in 1973. I was 20 years old when I joined the Church Army and was sent to Church of the Good Shepherd in Hartford Connecticut to minister to the people who lived in public housing around the church. I had no official training but I responded with the gifts that God had given me and in a short time realized that I had a knack for working with youth. I developed a junior high youth group from the projects and a high school youth group in the parish mostly from the suburbs and together we had fun, worshipped, served the community and raised leaders. At the end of 8 months I left a viable coffee house ministry that continued for several years.
This confirmed that God had called me to do mission work and so I applied and was accepted at the Church Army Training Program at General [GTS] in New York City in 1974. After graduation I was commissioned as a Church Army Evangelist by Bishop Roger Cilley at St Stephen’s Church in Houston, Texas which was my home parish and where I was first introduced to the Episcopal Church through a coffee house ministry.
Less than a decade later after many years of youth ministry as director of Happening in the Diocese of Texas I felt called and was sent as a missionary to the Diocese of Western Mexico. This was back when the church in Mexico was still a part of The Episcopal Church. I went to serve as the diocesan youth coordinator and to learn Spanish. Along the way I went to seminary, was ordained, founded two congregations – one of which is now the cathedral and directed an earthquake relief program. It was a rich experience and I discovered and learned that being a missionary was not so much about giving and teaching as it was about receiving and learning.
I spent 15 years in parish ministry in the Diocese of Los Angeles and helped to strengthen an existing Latino ministry at my first parish and to develop and grow a viable bilingual, bicultural congregation at All Saints in Oxnard. Even though I was doing what I had always wanted to do – being a parish priest – I found that I was restless and that I was more alive when I was involved in diocesan and wider church activities like the Executive Council, the 20/20 Task Force and the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music. When I read the description for the Missioner for Latino/Hispanic Ministries at the Church Center I knew without a doubt that this was what all of my years of experience and preparation was all about. When I began we were called staff officers but soon that name was changed to missioner and I was so glad because to me that name said more clearly what my work was all about – it was missionary work. And I had the gifts and experience to assist the church to grow by planting new Latino congregations and re-vitalizing existing small English speaking congregations by inviting their Latino neighbors.
As I travel across the church I am proud to say that I am the Missioner for Latino/Hispanic Ministries which in Spanish translates as the Misionero which actually means “the Missionary”. My ministry is one of teaching, creating, networking and empowering. One of the primary things that I do is in workshops and training events where I share the excitement about the ministry and invite dioceses and congregations to look at the possibilities all around them. I know that there is a lot of fear associated with this ministry around the issue of language and perceived differences. My job is to dispel the myths about Latinos and Latino Ministry and to motivate them to let go of the fear that has held them back.
In the last eight years I have seen a tremendous growth in this ministry – not only in the number of new members and congregations – but also in the number of organizations, agencies and seminaries across the church that are directing resources to better serve this growing segment of our church; re-thinking about how to better respond to the needs and creating new partnerships and models for the future.