FILIPINO AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM: FEAR NOT, GET READY AND TAKE RISKS
(The Rev. Canon Dr. Winfred Vergara, Holy Trinity & St. Benedict’s Episcopal Church,412 Garfield Avenue, Alhambra, California. August 7, 2016 )
A Pentecostal preacher was invited to the Episcopal Church. He asked, “Brother, how long do I preach?” The Episcopal priest replied, “You can preach as long as you like but at 12noon, we’re out of the church.”
The acolyte asked the Vicar, “Father, do you make holy water?” The priest replied, “I boil the hell out of it.”The rector made an announcement: ”Brothers and sisters, I have good news and bad news. The good news is we now have money to fix our leaking roof; the bad news is the money is still in your pocket.”
Joking aside now, let me thank you for inviting me to be your preacher today. We just concluded the EAM Filipino Convocation and without appearing bias, I would like to say that this convocation was the happiest, the funniest, the craziest and the largest of all the convocations I have attended!I also would like to congratulate your vicar, the Rev. Brent Quines, Jr. for being elected, along with the Rev. Gerry Engnan, as the co-conveners of this Convocation. Thank you Holy Trinity & St. Benedict’s for sharing his gifts to us, in the Episcopal Asiamerica Ministry.
A.BE NOT AFRAID: Jesus said: “Be not afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”Story is told of a selfish billionaire who died and the embalmers could not find his heart. They searched in every place and they finally found his heart on top of his treasure chest. The question oft-repeated: “Where is your heart?” “What motivates you to do what you do?” “Why are you hoarding stuff?” “Are you afraid of the future?”
“Be not afraid,” was the hallmark of God’s message to His people that has rung though the ages. In the Old Testament, God spoke through the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 43): “Fear not for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name. When you walk through the rivers I will be with you and the waters will not overflow you; when you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not consume you.”“Be not afraid” because “I love you” and “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
In the New Testament, “Be not afraid” was the hallmark of the Christian message of salvation. The angels said to the shepherds watching their flocks by night, “Be not afraid for I bring you Good News: A Child was born today on the manger.”
Jesus to his disciples, “Be not afraid; come follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” Jesus to the faithful “Be not afraid; my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Come follow me and I will give you rest.”
Be not afraid was the word that has given God’s people with tremendous inspiration, courage and strength in times of need and in times of persecution. Many have given their lives and their treasures in exchange of riches that cannot be counted or measured by time and space.
When I was a child, poor and needy, I knew that the little beautiful island in the Philippines where I was born was not enough to contain my dreams. When I looked at the horizon of the sea, I wondered, “What is beyond that shining sea?” When I looked up the mountain, I wondered, “What’s on the other side of the mountain?” I wanted to travel, I wanted to discover the unknown, I wanted to have higher education, which my family could not afford.
So at age 13, I run away from home, stowed away on a ship to Manila, to risk an adventure of my life. Since then, this priest who ran away from home has never looked back. My adventure has enabled me to travel the distance in life, in ministry, and in outlook in life. I obtained higher education, my wife and I have practically traveled the world, and my ministry in the church had been a tremendous blessing.
And the word that has sustained me all these chapters of my life is “Be not afraid.” “Where God guides, God provides. God’s work, done in God’s way, in God’s time, will never lack provision.”Where God calls, he enables; where he enables, he equips; where he equips, he empowers; and where he empowers, he sustains. If today, you worry about the present and the future, listen to his voice, “Be not afraid.”
B. GET READYThe second word of God today is “Get Ready.” Get ready because God has something for you to do. In the context of this gospel, Christ is coming soon so get dressed and get ready.
Sometime ago, I did a Bible Study to a group of Filipino immigrants and I asked the question, “If you know Christ is coming soon, what are you going to do today?” I received so many noble and spiritual answers but one that surprised me was from a mother who said, “Father, I will max out my credit cards and give my children all they want. Then I will eat, drink and be merry for I would be ready to die---and I don’t need to worry about paying the bills.”
The other side of that answer of course, when thinking about the end of the world and death, is to say “I pass through this world only once and so whatever good I can do or give to my fellow human beings, I will do it now for I will not pass through this world again.”
In June 2010, billionaire Bill Gates and Warren Buffett announced a new charity initiative for billionaires: the Giving Pledge. So far, Gates and Buffett have received pledges from 137 billionaires from around the world who have pledged to donate at least half of their fortunes to charity. Five years in, a total of 365 billion dollars has been pledged.
These are tremendous and noble achievement which can be measured by facts and figures but they cannot erase the gross inequality in the world. Dom Helder Camara once said, “When I give money to the poor, they call me a saint; but when I ask why there are so many poor and few who are filthy rich, they call me a communist.”
The fact of the matter is that the best system we can think of, the capitalist system, has always benefited the 10% percent who are rich and leaving the rest 90% poor. The capitalist system and free enterprise seems beneficial as a form of superior wealth to the fittest and bare survival to the rest.
The Kingdom of God that Jesus has inaugurated is world where no one is wallowing in poverty, where no one is sweltering in the heat of injustice, and where everyone enjoys shalom or peace. This is the world that God is asking us to get ready for---and we are called upon to get ready.
C. TAKE RISKS: Take risks for the kingdom of God; take risks for the gospel of peace; take risks for the ministry of love and reconciliation.
The Kingdom of God is not a pie in the sky that we get by and by. The Kingdom is right here and right now. The Kingdom of God is in our midst. People who take the Kingdom as only realized in heaven will not take care of the environment, will not take care of the planet earth, will not struggle to improve the quality of life, will not fight for equality and justice for all.
But we learned from the Lord’s Prayer what Jesus want us to pray “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” While we are on earth, we must pray and work that this Kingdom be on earth, as it is in heaven, where peace and justice and love are realized, not only in the eschaton, on the last day, but now, right now.
At this point, let me address myself to Filipino-Americans, the immigrant Filipinos in America and especially those who, like me, have chosen to become citizens of the United States of America. I would like to point to the special calling and destiny which God has prepared for Filipinos in America. To borrow an oft-repeated word in American politics, I would like to call this the Filipino American Exceptionalism. This Filipino American Exceptionalism” is founded on three things:
First, among Asians, the Filipinos share the birthright of being the first to set foot on American soil. It was way back in 1587 when the first Filipinos jumped ship from the Spanish Galleon Trade and settled in New Orleans in Louisiana. They were called the “shrimp people” because they swam the sea and crawled on the mud and as they built the “Malong Village” and intermarried with the Mexicans and Native Americans, they became pioneers of the shrimp drying industry in Louisiana.
Second, the Philippines is the first nation in Asia to have a special relationship with the United States. Shortly after Philippine Independence from Spain in 1898, we fell under the tutelage of American democracy and were at some point called “the brown Americans.” It was of course an unflattering comment at that time, referring to our “colonial mentality” and “internalized oppression.”
But in reality, so much of what Filipinos know about politics, about higher education, about social affairs, about entertainment, the owe to America. The famous playwright Nick Joaquin says, “Filipinos were under the Spanish convent for 300 years and under Hollywood for 50 years.” I say, even more years than that. Philippines was, in fact, as author Stanley Karnow called, “created in the American image.”
Third, in the greater Asia-Pacific basin, the Philippines is the first and only predominantly Christian country. Of course, there is South Korea which has now around 33% of its population being Christians; there is East Timor, which is predominantly Roman Catholic. But when it comes to the size of population and length of its Christian history, Philippines ranks as “the first and only Christian nation in Asia.”
Filipinos are also the most traveled people in the world, with many of its people traveling overseas as migrant workers, as crewmen in the ships, as nannies and care givers in urban centers. Go to Europe, go to the Middle East, go to other parts of Asia and Africa and you will find Filipinos in the factories, in construction industry, in hotel industry. One captain of a European liner was once quoted as saying, “If all the Filipinos in my ship refuse to work or jump ship, we cannot move.” That is why Filipino chaplains to seafarers are needed because there so many Filipino men in the maritime industry.
These Filipino diaspora have innate and imbedded Christian values. When a Filipino nanny in Singapore or Saudi Arabia or Amsterdam hears her baby cry, (i.e., the baby of her employer) she pacifies him with a Christian song she learns from childhood. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” These nannies are what I call the cryptic missionaries. They can penetrate a Muslim home, a Buddhist temple, an atheist enclave. I have seen Filipino nannies in Hong Kong and Singapore introducing their employers to the Anglican Church.
So we, Filipinos in America have also the innate gift as well as nascent and insipient ability to lead in what Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry says as “The Jesus Movement,” the movement for compassionate evangelism and racial reconciliation.
We should not be content to follow but to lead. So I will call on you to move from being followers to being leaders, from disciples to disciple-makers---and to take risks for God.
I will call on you to take risks in the ministry. If you are a Filipino American clergy, I challenge you to be creative and let your imaginations run wild. Do not be content on staying by the sidelines. Get into the arena. Don’t stay on the river bank, jump into the river because you know how to swim. Don’t stay on the shores, let down your sails and ride the waves because you are a sailor and a fisher of people. Life is an adventure----and the Christian faith is full of surprises!
If you are a lay leader, I call on you to take risks in politics. I was appalled to learn that there are many Filipinos who have been U.S. citizens for a long time but have never voted. They have not exercised their right of suffrage. When asked why, they said “the politicians are all the same” and “I do not want to get involved.” Well, this coming presidential election on November is quite different. The stakes couldn’t be higher. The outcome of the elections may determine whether there will be a new resurgence of racism and hostility against new immigrants or a continued march to inclusion and multiracial unity.
The talk about building walls, deporting 12 million undocumented immigrants and banning Muslims is frightening not because it cannot be done without a having a constitutional and social crises, but because it can be done and had been done in the past. Racism is no respecter of persons. It has caused so much suffering not only on the Native Americans, the Black Community, the Latino/Hispanic community but also on the Asian cmmunity!
U.S. history is replete with racism against Asians. In 1882, after they helped build the California mining industry and the transcontinental railroads, the Chinese Exclusion Act was promulgated. As Ellis Island in New York City was welcoming new immigrants from Europe, Angel Island in San Francisco became the clearing house of mass deportation of the Chinese whom American racists demonized as “the yellow peril.”
In the 1930’s while the Philippines was still a vassal of the United States, Filipinos were sent to America for two reasons. Some were sent to American universities to study and to return to Philippines to institute American democracy. They were called the “fountain pen boys.” But the others were sent to farm the field of California and to work the canneries in Alaska. They were called the “Manongs” as most of them were Ilocano males. They were not allowed to bring their wives or petition their girlfriends and were not allowed to marry by virtue of the “anti-miscegenation laws.” This whole generation of Manongs lived and died as the bachelor society.
In 1942, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the onset of the Pacific War, over250,000 Japanese in the West Coast, many of them US citizens, were imprisoned in Internment Camps, just because they looked like the enemy. Some were able to return after the war to their homes but many of their properties destroyed, their lives shattered and their spirits crushed.
So if we do not want a repeat of this bad US history, we Filipinos and Asians should shake off our complacency and get ourselves wet in this equal struggle for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” which are the foundations of American society.
If you are a community leader in your own right, I would even challenge you to run for public office. When I was a priest in San Jose, California in the 1990’s, I served as spiritual adviser to the Filipino American Council and get to know some leaders who made a difference in the community. I was encouraged by their faith and concerned of their blunders, especially when they fought among themselves. But I particularly remember seeing the victory of the first Filipino mayor in Milpitas, Henry Manayan. Then he was followed by another Filipino, Mayor Jose Estevez.
I had invited Mayor Manayan as guest preacher at the church I founded, Holy Child Episcopal Church, and in one of his visits, Manayan preached: “There are three equalizers in American society: first, hard work; second, education; and third, politics.” So if you are a Filipino American, and if you have the gift and skill of leadership, and if you have a “high moral compass and empathy for people,”(as the famous South Asian American, Mr. Kassir Khan would say), get into politics! Start by being involved in your local community as what Mayors Manayan and Estevez had done, then affiliate yourself with a political party that speaks of Christian values and morality and finally run and win an election!
So this is the challenge I’m giving you today. And let me sound a warning. If you have a talent and you do not use it, it will be taken away from you. If you have a calling and you do not respond, God’s judgment will be upon you. In the Old Testament, God said to Israel: “Of all the people in the world, you only have I known, you only have chosen, therefore I will punish you for your disobedience.”
God’s calling is irrevocable, and to us Filipino Americans, God’s calling for us, bearing our Christian history and upbringing, is to become ministers of love and reconciliation. We must work for justice and peace, we must preach of love and forgiveness and we must call people to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. As “beggars who found bread,” let us tell others beggars where and how to find this Bread of life. Let us therefore, rise up to the challenge of the Jesus Movement!
Now, we seldom do it in the Episcopal Church, but today, I ask you: If the Holy Spirit is convicting you to this message, if the Holy Spirit is asking you to respond to God’s calling, I ask you to stand and I will pray a special prayer.
(Note: Around 2/3 of the congregation stood up and responded to the call. The Rev. Dr. Winfred Vergara prayed extemporaneously for the Holy Spirit to guide and govern the lives and ministry of those who responded.)