Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Monday, November 17, 2014


 (Sermon of the Rev. Canon Dr. Winfred B. Vergara, missioner for Asiamerica Ministries of The Episcopal Church during  the Revival Event of the Faith Community held at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Stockton, California, November 16, 2014.)

The Episcopal Church of St. John, the Evangelist. Stockton, California, USA. November 16, 2014.

This is an historic church, an historic city, and today is an historic moment.

We gather here today in the name of Christ to witness the work of a creating and re-creating God. The Church as the Body of Christ is God’s creation and God is pleased to recreate the Church today. In this beautiful city of Stockton, God will start this work with you and me. Together, we shall be God’s instrument in starting the revival, renewal and re-creation of St. John’s Episcopal Church.

Founded in 1850, just a year after the founding of Stockton itself, St. John’s has been part of the evolution of this city. Just like any historic church, it has its ups and downs in religious experience brought about by demographic, theological and ecclesiological changes. But despite the myriad changes and chances in the world and the wider Church, St. John’s always managed to bounce back and regain its place in the life and culture of Stockton. 

Perhaps this resilience is due to the power of its testimony.  Its address, “316 El Dorado Street” recalls the biblical text of John 3:16 which says, “For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son that whoever lives and believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.” The Spanish “El Dorado” means “The Golden One,” which not only recalls the city’s role in California’s history of the Gold Rush but also implies the Golden Rule by which all Christians subscribe, “Do not do unto others what you do not want others do unto you” or to put it in the words of Jesus, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

We also gather here today to honor the Rev. Fr. Justo Andres and to celebrate his 85th birthday. Fr. Andres is one of the pioneer Filipino priests who came to the United States in the early 1960’s to minister to the spiritual needs of Filipino immigrants.  It was in 1955 when the Most Rev. Isabelo Delos Reyes, Jr., Obispo Maximo of the Philippine Independent Church and the Rt. Rev. Harry Kennedy of the Episcopal Church of the USA met at the General Convention in Hawaii. Having just savored the beauty of the Concordat of Full Communion between the two churches, they dreamt of Filipino priests serving in the USA under the auspices of the Episcopal Church.

The first three priests who came to Hawaii were Fr. Timoteo Quintero, Fr. Jacinto Tabili and Fr. Justo Andres. Quintero arrived in 1959 and founded St. Paul’s Church in Honolulu, which has now become the largest congregation in the Diocese of Hawaii. Fr. Jacinto Tabili arrived in 1960 and was assigned in Hilo but later returned to become a Bishop in the Philippines. Fr. Justo Andres came in 1965 and served in Maui and Molokai and moved here in Stockton in 1983, where he founded Holy Cross Filipino Mission as an ethnic congregation here at St. John’s. Fr. Justo is the only surviving member of the Trio.

Disagreement over women’s ordination and the inclusive theology of the Episcopal Church resulted in an irreconcilable rift between the former bishop of the Diocese of San Joaquin and the national church. All of a sudden the congregations of St. John’s and other parishes in the Diocese were torn apart. Many members joined the schismatic groups but Fr. Justo Andres and the Holy Cross Mission remained loyal to the Episcopal Church. Instead of being forced into schism, they decided to disband. It is our hope that with the legal recovery of St. John’s properties, they will all return and help renew and revive this church.

So for being a faithful priest, for being the only surviving member of the Filipino missionary trio, for being a respected community leader of Stockton----and also because tomorrow is his 85th birthday---we honor Apo Lakay, the Rev. Fr. Justo Andres!

By the way, Quintero, Tabili and Andres are all Ilocanos. Ilocanos are known in Philippines for their industry (sipag), frugality (kuripot) and their entrepreneurial spirit.  It was no wonder that they were the first of the Filipino priests who were sent to the United States.

I too am a missionary and an entrepreneur and I credit it to my Ilocano roots. My grandfather originally came from Ilocos Sur in Northern Philippines and ventured as a young man in the Visayas in Western Philippines, where he married my grandma and we became Ilonggos. He was not able to return to his home province; he died in Capiz, Panay Island. And so in his memory, I tried to research about the character of Ilocanos and I learned about their fierce nationalism, their love of family and community and their entrepreneurial spirit. 

Even before Apple invented the iphone, it seems that one Ilocano already conceived of it, forty two years before the announcement of iphone by Steve Jobs in 2007. This Ilocano visionary happened to be a cook, hired by President Marcos in Malacanang Palace in 1965. This Ilocano cook was specially recruited from Ilocos Norte (a kababayan of Fr. Andres, who is from Bacarra) and as soon as he came to Malacanang (equivalent of the White House), he was so excited to see a telephone, which at that time, was a rotary phone. So he called up his compadre in Manila and said, “Compadre, ania te aldaw, umay ka ditoy, ada te kastoy, ada pa te kasta,” (meaning, “Friend, when that sun goes down, come over here, there’s food and there’s wine”) but all the way gesturing as if he was on Zoom or on Skype---apps that were never heard before.

The Ilocanos are the first wave of Filipino immigrants who came to the U.S. way back in the early 1900s when the Philippines was still under American rule. They worked the pineapple plantation in Hawaii, the farmlands in California and the canneries of Alaska. They suffered the hard labor and were subjected to racial discrimination. Being young Ilocano males, they were not allowed to bring wives or girlfriends. By virtue of the then “anti-miscegenation laws” they were prevented from marrying Caucasian women who loved their romantic styles of courtship. So many of them lived and died as bachelors. In the 1930’s, there were signs in California restaurants which said, “No dogs, no Chinese and no Filipinos allowed.”

But in all their sacrifices and perseverance, God was kind to them and granted them long and productive lives. With the Great Immigration Reform in 1965, many of them were able to legally go home as balikbayans.  Some of them, like 80 or 90 years old, went back to Ilocos, married young Filipinas and brought them to the United States and bore offspring, many of them are here in Stockton. The Filipino Manongs, led by Larry Itliong, Andy Amutan and Philip Vera Cruz organized the farm workers unions here in Stockton and Delano which antedated the United Farm Workers led by the great Chicano leader, Cesar Chavez.

A story is told of an old Manong who was interviewed for U.S. citizenship. He was asked only two questions. First, “who is the president of the United States?” and he said in Ilocano, “Narigat!”which means in English, “It’s hard.” Well, at that time the president was Ronald Reagan and “Narigat” sounds like it, so the interviewer said, “That’s correct but next time, pronounce it better.” Then he was asked, “And who is the governor of California?” and he said, “Diak’amo” (which means “I don’t know”).Well, at that time the governor was Deukmejian and Diak’amo sounds like it so the interviewer said, “That’s correct but next time, pronounce it better.” He was granted citizenship, thanks to the Ilocano language!

One of the things I learned as a missionary is before I say something, I must first “smell the city.” So I spent time walking around Stockton this week, studied its history, talked with its people, observed its culture, discovered its needs, learned its assets and discerned its potentials. I read from recent news that Stockton, the city of 300,000 people, has declared bankruptcy and is one of the populous cities with problems of increasing crime, poverty and hopelessness. Forbes Magazine labeled Stockton as “one of America’s most miserable cities.”

Then I discovered the role of St. John’s in Stockton’s beginnings, in its early history as a prosperous and significant city. So this is the challenge to us, to rediscover the treasure that is at St. John and to invest our talents to pray for the revival of Stockton’s destiny. The Bible says in 2 Chronicles 7:14 “If my people who are called by my name shall humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I shall hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and heal their land.”
This then is the role of St. John’s. Just as its history is tied with Stockton’s history; so is the revival of Stockton be tied to the revival of St. John’s---and the destiny of Stockton be tied to the destiny of St. John’s. With the spiritual revival of St. John, will follow Stockton’s revival in peace, justice and prosperity.

The gospel this Sunday is about the parable of talents (Matthew 25:14-30.) A parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning, an ordinary story with extraordinary meaning. The Parable of the Talents reminds us that God gives us talents and overlooks the differences by which we receive these talents. But what God cannot overlook or tolerate is our failure of refusal to use the talents God has given us. Talents here are understood to be money, treasure or assets (physical, mental, spiritual).
In other words, it is all about faith, it is all about trust, it is all about taking risks. It is about faithfulness, more than success. The mission or God is an adventure and we are called to venture in faith and even to take risks for God. The commendation on those who invested their talents is not necessarily because they became successful but because they were faithful in using their talents. And the judgment against the one who did nothing, was because he had no faith, he had no trust. He was afraid take risks for his Master and so he buried his talents in the sand.

The  Episcopal Church is sometimes called the “best kept secret treasure in the United States.”  Well, we shall not keep it secret anymore. Let us take risks to shout it on the mountain tops, on the rooftops, in the cyberspace.  We have many talents endowed by our Creating and Re-Creating God. Our inclusive theology and welcoming spirit would enable us to receive and accommodate peoples from other races, cultures and ethnicities with love. Our talents at entrepreneurship and our courage to try new ways and to risk in mission, will enable us to gain God’s grace.  Let us use these talents for the revival and growth of the church and the revival of Stockton, for the glory of God and the blessings of justice, peace and prosperity of God’s people. Amen.

1 comment:

  1. Without wanting to rain on anyone's parade ... there is an historical inaccuracy in this post: Holy Cross Mission was dissolved in 2000, as the Filipino ministry was folded administratively and financially into St John's (I was the rector of St John's at the time), and the Vicar of Holy Cross, the successor of Fr Andres, became a staff priest of St John's. When the split occurred in 2008, there was no longer a Holy Cross to either stay or leave; there was only St John's. My information is that *all* the members of St John's chose to remain with the diocese under Bishop Schofield.