Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Missioner's Mooring:If They Don't Embrace Change, Some of our Dioceses May Become Extinct


The Rev. Dr. Winfred Vergara (Address delivered at the New Community Clergy and Lay Conference in Kanuga, North Carolina, March 13, 2014.

My name is Fred Vergara, missioner for Asiamerica Ministries of The Episcopal Church. I’d like to be candid today. The New Community is a safe place and I like to model an honest sharing, speaking the truth in love. 

I also wrote down my words. When you are young, you can speak extemporaneously because you have more time to correct your mistakes; when you get old, you do not have much time. I also tend to lose two things: one is my memory; the other, I can’t remember. 

On May this year, I will celebrate my 10th year as missioner. I am fortunate to have served two Presiding Bishops, three Chief Operating Officers and five Mission Directors, each of them have their own styles of management.

I survived three reorganizations and three General Conventions. 

As missioner, you have to be a “trail blazer and a risk taker” but at the same time understand, that as staff of the Presiding Bishop, you operate in a structure which has its own bureaucracy and protocols. So I borrowed wisdom from cultures: One Chinese proverb says, “Always take two steps forward and one step backward;” and one African proverb says, “Do not test the depth of the river using both feet.” One Anglican archbishop puts it this way, “passionate coolness.”

 I must confess that I have not been very good at keeping that balance, so it is only by the grace of God that I am still here today. So what have I learned? What can I impart?

Advocacy and Congregational Development: that’s how I understand the nature of my job.  For me, they are like two wings of a bird. If one wing is broken, the bird will have difficulty flying.

When I came to the Missionary Society (short for Domestic and Missionary Society or DFMS, the official and legal corporate name of The Episcopal Church) in 2004, I was told that the main goal of Ethnic Ministries was to grow congregations towards the 20/20 vision. Some of you may remember what 20/20 means: “We are to double the membership of the Episcopal Church by the Year 2020.” 

Not too many of us are still talking about it now, because we know we cannot make it, judging from the trends. In fact, those who were very vocal about 20/20 in the year 2000 are no longer around!

So this preference on one wing was imbedded in structure when it was called “Ethnic Congregational Development” (ECD). The Advocacy wing was clipped. As a matter of fact, there was some sort of an unwritten law that missioners were prohibited from doing advocacy. This was exacerbated by the fact that there was another and much bigger department called “Congregational Development” which refers to “white CD” compared and contrasted to “ECD.”

My predecessor used Asian pragmatism by creating the EAM Council as 501c non-profit organization and having a convocation called “EAM Advocates.” I think they were trying to create an advocacy group similar to the Union of Black Episcopalians (UBE) but closely connected to the Missioner. The implied strategy was for the EAM Council to do the advocating to keep the Missioner "unprophetic" and therefore safe from any political backlash and confine himself to only congregational development.

Well, I am not one who wants to profit from being a “non-prophet.” I soon realized that congregational development alone without advocacy was not effective. The missioners are the ones being paid to connect with their constituencies. We know the struggle and the suffering of our people; we hear their cries and see their tears, and our hearts ache with compassion. We are also buoyed up by their dreams and visions.

Going around churches, I learned that most of our mainstream parishes and dioceses are predominantly white and existing under some kind of patronage system that makes it difficult for ethnic members to thrive. New groups within the existing parishes are considered by the dominant congregations as poor cousins at best, and a burden at worst. Ethnic congregations and their clergy are marginalized. Mutual understanding, respect and affirmation of cultural diversity was wanting. It was almost impossible for vestries to accept rectors of color and doubly rare for Asian clergy to be considered for bishops. One of our ethnic leaders who became rector or a mainstream church, puts it this way, “If you are a clergy of color, you have to be an ethnic super star or an honorary white, to be considered in this position.” There are indeed a “white privilege” and a “colored responsibility.” One has a privilege of being there; the other has a responsibility of proving he or she deserves to be there. 

That is why I was overjoyed when Rev. Allen Shin was elected Suffragan Bishop of New York because although we have a few bishops from Asian heritage, Allen is really the first one to emerge from Episcopal Asiamerica Ministries.

Now, I am not saying this because the Presiding Bishop is here today, but she did the right thing when she restructured Ethnic Congregational Development into “Diversity & Ethnic Ministries.” This new name implies both Advocacy and Congregational Development. I guess that as a pilot, Bishop Katharine knows that it is very hard, maybe impossible, to fly a plane with only one wing!

Advocacy and Congregational Development must go together. Asian American history bears the truth that the sudden death of the first Chinese Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Nevada was due to lack of advocacy against the unjust Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The demise of many Japanese Churches after World War II was due to the lack of advocacy against the unjust Japanese American Internment. In Vancouver, they even sold the Japanese churches while the Japanese church members were in the internment camps. I am glad that there was a repentance made by the Anglican Church of Canada (thanks to the advocacy of some EAM leaders, notably Rev. Timothy Nakayama). 

When we stand for justice, when we advocate for the oppressed, when we empower the marginalized, we are building the Kingdom of God! And when we are faithful in proclaiming the Good News of justice and love, God’s favor, including Church growth of will be upon us. 

WHAT’S NEW IN ASIAMERICA MINISTRIES?                                                                                                                                                                                 We invest on education and training. Our Episcopal Asiamerica Ministry Consultations, Convocational gatherings and collaborative events with our the Diversity & Ethnic Ministries Team have resulted in a cadre of leaders trained in development and mission. The New Community has provided a new impetus by which the four ethnic groups can learn from each other and support one another. 

In Asiamerica Ministries, we have at least three innovative programs: 

1.     Doctor of Ministry Program for Asiamerica Studies – This is our partnership with the Episcopal Divinity School to develop advanced pastoral studies for our clergy. The program is tailored for working clergy-theologians so they do not have to leave their work. They only have to spend two months at EDS and the rest of the three years are by distance learning. So far we have two students, Ada Wong Nagata and Thomas Eoyang and they are now on their dissertation stage. We have obtained a grant from Constable Fund to support at 12 scholars.

2.     Asia-America Virtual Classroom – We are building a Virtual Classroom at St. James Church in Elmhurst (Queens), New York which will be used for our “Asiamerica Theological Exchange Forum (ATEF),” “Asiamerica Congregational Development Academy (ACDA)”; “Asset-Based Community Development” (ABCD) training. We envision a “classroom without walls” where instructors from Asia, America and the world can present internet workshops on best practices with regards to Bible Studies, Church planting, evangelism, worship and mission. 

3.     Advocacy Works. The Office of Asiamerica Ministries is currently involved in the supporting Comprehensive Immigration Reform, Human Trafficking and TPS Philippines in partnership with the Office of Government Relations (Alex Baumgarten), Office of Global Relations (Lynnaia Main), Episcopal Migrations Ministry, Domestic Poverty & Social Justice (Mark Stevenson) and other entities of the Missionary Society. (TPS means “temporary protected status” for Philippine migrants in light of the devastation from recent typhoon Haiyan.) 

On May 10, 2014 in observance of Asian American Heritage Month, we are sponsoring a “Summit on Human Trafficking: Focus on Asia-America” in Queens. Warren Wong of the EAM Advocates is the co-author of the General Convention Resolution on Human Trafficking and Fr. Ray Bonoan is our clergy engaged in ministry to victims of Human Trafficking. We are networking with local and global agencies on this fight against “modern slavery.”

How do I see the future of The Episcopal Church (in the USA)?
There was a man who loved the color yellow. He painted his house yellow, his kitchen yellow, his bedroom yellow. Around the house, he planted yellow roses. Then he wore yellow pajamas. One day, he got sick---of hepatitis! He called 911 and when the paramedics arrived they looked for him--- but they could not find him!

I think, unless we learn to embrace change, some of our dioceses will be like this “hepatitic” man. They could not be found. 

Sometime ago, I was in a predominantly white Diocese where I observed that most of the clergy and lay leaders are on the verge of retirement. The demographics have changed but the Diocese has not. At least, not yet. The bishop made a challenge to reach out to the young. I hope he will be followed and I hope, the young would include the youth from racial-ethnic communities (the New Community).

A week ago, I brought six Asians to the Clergy Discernment Conference of Long Island. There were sixteen seekers and only one is Anglo-American. Majority are Asians, Latinos, Blacks and Indigenous. Exactly like what I see in this New Community gathering today!

So I believe the future of The Episcopal Church belongs to racially, ethnically and culturally diverse dioceses such as Long Island, Los Angeles or Hawaii---and we in the New Community will have a role to play in this revolutionary change. Let us take the challenge. Maybe 20/20 is still possible. Thank you.

Monday, March 3, 2014


Sermon by The Rev. Dr. Fred Vergara, St. James’s Elmhurst,2/16/14. 
Text: Matthew 5:21-37

In any organization, the church included, there are always three kinds of members: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who don’t care what happens.

Those who make things happen are the pillars of the organization. They work hard and do not care who gets the credit. To them, being a member is a responsibility as well as a privilege. They do their duties with diligence and are concerned about the welfare of the organization. They love their jobs and they enjoy the company of their peers. They desire nothing more but the welfare of the organization and they are willing to subordinate their own self-interests in favor of the values, the visions and the goals of the organization.

Those who watch things happen are those who stand by the side to observe what the others are doing. They are quick to criticize, to point out the mistakes, to judge the actions of those who make things happen. Oftentimes, they love to talk, to whine, to murmur and to find faults. They will be the first to condemn and crucify those who make things happen.

Those who don’t care what happens are those who are members only in name. They come and go and no one notices them and they notice no one. The organization will rise and fall but those who don’t care don’t care. Even when they see their fellow members drowning, they can’t be bothered.

In the gospel this morning, Jesus took a potshot, particularly on the category two. For even as he was talking to the crowd, it was obvious that he was referring to those who are fond of making legal, moral, ethical and religious judgments. It is obvious that Jesus was addressing himself to the Scribes and the Pharisees, whom he also called “hypocrites.”

By the way, in the Jewish society of Jesus time, there were also many religious and political parties but the most notorious among them were the Pharisees. They were experts of the law. They memorized the Torah, even the minutae of the Law of Moses and they interpreted them literally. In some way, they were also the “pillars” of the Jewish society, but in the case of Jesus’ ministry, they acted as watchers of his words and actions.

The Pharisees were there cursorily examining the ministry of Jesus, watching every move and making value judgments on his actions. When Jesus healed the sick, they criticized him because it happened in Sabbath. For them, it did not matter if the patient would die; it simply was not legal to do miracles on the Sabbath. Jesus reminded them that “Sabbath was made for man,” not otherwise. When Mary Magdalene was anointing the feet of Jesus with ointment, they were scandalized; and when the apostles of Jesus ate with their hands, the Pharisees called them ceremonially unclean. 

In this gospel, Jesus called their judgmental attitude in question. “You have heard that it was said” (he was referring to the Law of Moses), ‘You shall not murder’ and anyone who commits murder is liable for judgment.” 

Jesus established his knowledge of the letter of the law, then he followed it up with the spirit of the law, saying “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother is already guilty of murder.” The righteousness of Jesus far exceeded that of the Pharisees. Jesus again said, “you have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’ but I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman with lust in his eyes, has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Sin emanates from the heart, the act of doing it is the fruit of that sin.

What is Jesus’ message with regards to sin and judgment? That we refrain from being self-righteous because no one, absolutely no one is without sin. The Pharisees would say “I did not did not kill; I did not steal; I did not commit adultery.” In God’s standard, however, the very thought of anger or hatred, or malice or covetousness or lust is enough to convict the person guilty. In the eyes of the righteous God, our self-righteousness is but filthy rag.  In this side of heaven, God alone is without sin. So judge not, lest you be judged.

I learned during my recent sojourn in Israel that the typical prayer of the Pharisees is something like this. When he wakes up in the morning, he thanks God, but his thanking prayer was like this:

“Lord, thank you that I am a human and not an animal; that I am a Jew and not a Gentile; that I am a man and not a woman.” 

The Roman Catholic Church has a new Pope who is currently changing the thinking of the world about what a Pope is. His name is Jorge Mario Bergoglio, otherwise known as Pope Francis. He was born in Argentina and throughout his public life; he was noted for his humility, concern for the poor and commitment to dialogue with people of other faiths, cultures and ideologies. I think he surprised the world when in one of his interviews, he refrained from passing judgment on gays and lesbians, saying “who am I to judge.” 

Pope Francis, while affirming Catholic doctrines, also commented that for a long time, Catholics have concentrated on condemning abortion, contraception and homosexual acts “but neglected the greater need for tenderness, mercy and compassion.”

This is exactly what Jesus was saying to the Pharisees.  In his time, there was no Pope who claimed to be infallible when he speaks “ex cathedra.” But there were the lay popes, the Pharisees, who passed moral judgments on their brothers and sisters in the faith. They claimed to know more than the rabbis and were quick to murmur. Finally their murmuring led to condemning and then to crucifying. 

It is unfortunate that the majority of the people did not care what happens. In fact, they were misled by this people who watch things happen. At first, they shouted to Jesus, “Hosanna to the son of David.” But when the Pharisees agitated them with their condemnation, these very same people changed their shouts from “Hosanna to the Son of David,” into “Crucify Him!”

The real judgment, the true judgment, however comes from God Himself. Jesus is the One who makes things happen, and even when the Scribes and the Pharisees, succeeded in having him crucified, that same crucifixion became the avenue by which Jesus was able to accomplish his mission---to save the world from sin. The true righteousness ultimately belongs to the one who make things happen, not from those who watch things happen or from those who don’t care what happens.

What is the moral of the story to those who don’t care what happens? It is simple, “if you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.” 

What is the moral of the story to those who only watch things happen? “Judge not so you will not be judged.” 

What is the moral of the story to those who make things happen?  When you do something good, don’t look back. You will incur criticism, you will incur moral judgment, you will incur negative comments, but the in the end, God will vindicate you. 

In a poem attributed to her, Mother Teresa wrote:

People are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered. Love them anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Be kind anyway. If you are successful, you will win some false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway. The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Be good anyway. Honesty and frankness will make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway. What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway. People need help but will attack you if you help them. Help them anyway. In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway. 

I pray that at St., James, we will become people who make good things happen. Let us be doers of the word and not hearers only; that together we will make a difference in the church and in the world. AMEN.