MISSIONER’S MOORINGS: 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.