Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Monday, October 31, 2016



(Keynote speech of the Rev. Canon Dr. Winfred B. Vergara at the 1st Intercultural Ministry Summit of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia held at Aquia Church, Stafford, Virginia, USA 10/29/2016)

We are standing on the threshold of the most revolutionary period of American history. America has become a truly multi-racial, multiracial and multicultural nation. Demographers project that by 2050, if the population trend continues there will no longer be a dominant majority and we shall all learn to live as a majority of minorities.

To many of us, this is a beautiful thing. A story is told of an extra-terrestrial bird that flew from outer space and landed in Virginia. The Native Americans welcomed the bird, the Anglo Americans studied the bird, the African Americans sang songs and played sports with the bird, the Hispanic/Latino Americans had a fiesta on the bird, and finally the Asian Americans cooked the bird!

So it is a beautiful thing when we learn to live together as “e pluribus unum,” from many to one. The vision in the Book of Revelation, Chapter 7, verse 9 says, “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were…holding palm branches in their hands.” Peoples from many nations, tongues and cultures coming together holding palm branches is a vision of peace; part of the Kingdom of heaven, realized on earth.

We shall learn from each other, we shall be enriched by the sharing of our cultures and traditions. What a great celebration!

But while this intercultural vision is a wonderful thing to some, to others it is a frightening scenario. According to Census projection, from 2010-2050, the Hispanic/Latino population will grow over 167%,  the Asians will grow 142%, the Blacks will grow 56% and the White will grow by only 1%.
So there is a fear on some members of the current dominant culture that the white men will no longer run the show, will no longer be in control. It is no wonder that this fear is being played up in the current political rhetoric: “let us build a great wall and close our borders, let us deport all the undocumented aliens, let us not welcome refugees anymore.”

My wife and I recently escorted our visitors to the Statue of Liberty. Believe it or not, I saw the Statue of Liberty crying. Why? Because beneath the Statue of Liberty is the poem by Emma Lazarus that says, "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" And now so many Americans want to put this poem into the dustbin of history. So the first time I saw the Statue of Liberty, it was like standing up proudly; recently she became depressed.



In 2004, I wrote an article in the Witness Magazine entitled “From Billiard Balls to Salad Bowl. Towards an Intercultural Church in a Multicultural Society” In that article, I differentiated “Multicultural” from “Intercultural.” ( I REPRINTED COPIES OF THIS FOR YOU)

  • Multicultural is when mono-cultural and ethnic-specific congregations are allowed equal and separate existence but with neither intention nor vision for interaction. The image of “billiard balls spread on the table” comes to mind. In that pluralistic and multicultural setting, various racial-ethnic peoples exist independent of each other and having no desire for a larger community bonding – unless you hit one ball to strike another. There is a high level of tolerance for pockets of specific community organizations (i.e. Filipino associations, Greek organizations, Kenyan associations, etc.) and even local villages (e.g. Koreatown, Chinatown, Mexican barrio, kosher village, etc.) but there is no movement for a greater circle of friendship. The silent but accepted rules are “mind your own business,”   “live and let live,” and “don't ask, don't tell.”

In the context of a church, this image is true with a diocese where there are many ethnic congregations (including Anglo ethnic churches) but with no inter-church relationship. Every congregation is its own silo; there is no active reaching out to one another, no opportunity for communication; no common activities where members can get to know one another. St. Paul said that the church is a Body with many parts so “when one member suffers, all suffer together; when one member rejoices, all rejoice together.” In a multicultural diocese, the church is not one body with many parts but a “Body with many bodies.” When one member suffers, he suffers alone; when one member rejoices, he rejoices alone.

 Intercultural is when racial-ethnic, cultural, language and generational congregations (parishes and missions) do intentional “unity in diversity” in the context of a diocese which considers itself as the basic missionary unit of the church. The image of “salad bowl” comes to mind. In this image, there is a mixing up or a gathering of various and diverse cultures (colors) each retaining its own color and striving for unity and harmony like a rainbow in the sky. This is the ideal vision of a Christian church in a multicultural society, an avante garde of “a community of communities” where the values of equality, fairness, justice and solidarity are actualized by the people in the life they lead and in the relationship that they create.


An “intercultural church” is a diocese where love and justice reign and where ethnic parishes and missions share common experiences of pain, common struggle and see a common vision of hope.

In an intercultural diocese, parishes develop “missionary partnerships” to plant a new ethnic, bicultural or multi-ethnic congregation and assist in the growth and development of smaller congregations. They do not consider their financial assistance to struggling congregations as a “dole out” or an “outreach” because they feel ownership of every congregation that declines or thrives. 

In an intercultural diocese, no one congregation claims sole ownership of a parish building (because every congregation is a mission outreach of the diocese).

In an intercultural diocese, parishes develop “missionary partnerships” to plant a new ethnic or intercultural congregation and assist in the growth and development of smaller congregations.

In an intercultural diocese, well-to-do parishes do not consider their financial assistance to struggling congregations as a “dole out” or an “outreach” because they feel ownership of every congregation that declines or thrives.

 In an intercultural diocese, the bishop is a healer, reconciler and enabler subordinates his natural bias his/her racial-ethnic heritage in order to become a bishop for all of God's people. Like the Greek concept of diakonia (someone who is sandwiched between the dust), the intercultural Bishop is in between God and God's peoples. What breaks his heart is racism in all its protean forms and what warms his heart is unconditional love being embraced by all. 

In an intercultural diocese, the Bishop is an arbiter of truth and a dispenser of justice. She speaks the truth in love and harmonizes the various opposites (yin and yang) so they complement each other, not competes against each other.  She learns and teaches new vocabulary like gotong-royong (Indonesian for “pulling heavy loads together”) and  A Luta Continua (Zaire/Portuguese for “continue the struggle”) when she rallies the clergy and faithful towards the intercultural vision.


The prophet Micah in the Old Testament told Israel, “He has showed you, O people, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.  

What are the virtues, the values of an Intercultural Church?

The first virtue of an Intercultural Church is hospitality.
Hospitality –In the Beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was hospitality.

The Hmong are jungle people in the mountains of Laos and China. They were nomadic and had no country of their own. During the Vietnam War, they became allies with the United States. When the War ended, they were marked for genocide by the Viet Cong. So they were repatriated to the United States as refugees, many of them in Minnesota. That was in the 70’s. Now many of them have become US citizens.  

Holy Apostles in St. Paul, Minnesota was a dying church. By demographic change, retirement and relocation, the church had declined. The vicar Bill Bulson was sent there basically to perform the last rites, to channel the remaining dozen members to other churches. But one Episcopalian who happened to befriend a Hmong, told him there was a Hmong tribe looking for a spiritual community. Bulson opened the doors of the church and the remnants of the Church opened the doors of their hearts. He thought there were only 50 people: it turned out there were 75 families, large families. On Pentecost Sunday of 2005, I was invited to preached at that church and join in welcoming the new Episcopalians. Standing room with hundreds of people! Indeed, the Hmong are among us!

On September of that year, I was invited again to preach at the Cathedral in Minneapolis. I was standing on tip toes with excitement (well, the pulpit was taller than me) as more than 300 Hmong adults were confirmed! It took three bishops and over three hours to lay hands on the confirmands. The Holy Spirit was moving mightily!

Ten years have passed and the Hmong Episcopalians have now produced seven ordained clergy---including a first Hmong female priest, Rev. Bao. They have become the first and largest Hmong congregation in the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Yes, hospitality is the key to reviving or re-peopling our declining parishes.

HUMILITY: These days are election fever days so allow me to give a political joke. Story is told that three weeks ago, Donald Trump, greatly bothered by the polls, went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York in the middle of the night and confessed to Timothy Cardinal Dolan. The Donald said, “Your Eminence, I can’t sleep, I can’t eat, I can’t tweet. Many people are saying---the Clinton campaign, the media, even some of my fellow Republicans---that I am a racist, a sexist, a misogynist. On top of it, they call me a bigot and a narcissist. And I don’t get it. Is it a sin if I think that I am the most amazing and wonderful person in the world? The Cardinal looked at him with love and said, “No Donald; it’s not a sin; it’s a mistake!”

So the second virtue of an Intercultural Church is Humility. D. T. Niles, a Sri Lankan theologian and pastor said, “Evangelism is a beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” Episcopal Asiamerica Ministries adopted this Nestorian Cross, with lotus flower (symbol of Christ) at the center of the cross.

History tells us that during the persecution, the early Christians scattered from Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria and to the ends of the world. St Thomas went as far as India and planted churches there until he was martyred in Madras in 52 AD. Another group of Christians known as the Nestorians went as far as China and adopted Chinese cultures, putting the Lotus symbolizing Christ in the middle of the cross.

Evangelism began at the foot of the Cross when Jesus said to the Romans, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” and to the repentant thief, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”

We are all flawed sinners in need of God’s redemption. If God takes His hand from my life, my lips will turn into clay.

COMPASSION: Now I hope I did not offend the Republicans with my Trump joke; but just be fair, I have also a Hillary joke for the democrats. Now a story is to be told that three powerful Christian women in the world prayed to their God about reconciliation.

England’s new Prime Minister Theresa May, being Anglican prayed: “God, when will you reconcile Great Britain back with all European nations? God said, “In 20 years.” And Prime Minister May sadly replied, “I may not be here by then.”

South Korea’s first female president Park Gyun-Hye, being Roman Catholic prayed: “God when will you reconcile North Korea and South Korea?” God said, “In 30 years.” And President Park sadly replied, “I may not be here by then.”

USA’s first female president Hillary Clinton (assuming she wins next week), being a Methodist, and realizing the magnitude of divisiveness and vitriols in the election process, also prayed: “Lord, when will you reconcile and reunite the peoples of the United States of America?” And God sadly replied, “I may not be here by then.”

Yes, whoever next week, Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton will have a gargantuan task of reuniting this divined states. That is why Christ will call the Church, His Body to become  “agents of reconciliation.”

St. Theresa De Avila wrote: “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are His body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

And for that, we need the third virtue of the intercultural Church, Compassion!

There is a saying in India that says, “No one knows what someone is carrying unless they are bumped.” The image is that of a woman in the typical village in India carrying a jar atop their heads. You don’t know what she is carrying, milk or water. Then there are children playing around and bumped on the woman and her jar spilled. Now you know what she’s carrying.

Yes, we can know what burdens people carry but only in the context of interaction, of relationship. We can program our action but we cannot program our reaction. That is why we need to have empathy, to have compassion and to nourish empathy in our hearts.

The poet George Elliot wrote, “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”

There is so much pain and so much heart aches in the world and there are people who constantly live in the shadow of use and abuse, of bullying and shaming, of oppression and suppression---and in some ways these dark shadows get into the limelight of the current political rhetoric.

There is so many reasons to despair, so many reasons to give up on humanity. When powerful adult leaders display their values we wonder if there is a good future for the next generation. We wonder if we still have many role models to follow. And when we see the intolerable human suffering, we wonder how long we stay as bridges over troubled waters. But as Christians, we believe the grace of God is sufficient, for somewhere in this universe there is a place where all the heartaches and pains of humanity are funneled into---and that place is the heart of God. And if our hearts are too small for God, God’s heart is too large for ours.

When Jesus saw the crowd, he was filled with compassion for they were like sheep without a shepherd and he taught his disciples many things. Miracles happened that broke opened their hearts to God and they responded by the quality of the lives they lead and the beauty of the relationship they made.

In the final analysis, we are evangelists of attraction, not confrontation. Mahatma Gandhi said, “If your rose garden is so fragrant and attractive, people will jump the fence to smell the roses.” Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said that the Jesus Movement means we are to be caught up with Jesus to the point that our lives would look like His.

For me this is the major challenge that we should address ourselves to—how to be more like Jesus in his passion for the lost and his compassion for the oppressed.

Grace is free but it is not cheap; Jesus paid the price with his own blood. And so when we address ourselves to human sin in all its protean forms, when we address ourselves to calling people to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, we must do so as a divine-human interaction. God calls, we respond. This world is worth saving because God so loves it He gave His only Son.

People who only believe in the “pie in the sky” and who care only for the “end times” may not do their part in climate change, in environmental stewardship. But we who are Anglicans or Episcopalians are “passionately cool” because we believe in the resurrection but also care for the here and now. We are a both/and people of God.

People who believe only in the spiritualist understanding of the kingdom of God would be passive audience in the political arena. But we who believe as Jesus said that the “kingdom is in our midst” know that participation in the political system is an integral part of faith, that fighting to change unjust structures and challenging structures of injustice is an integral part of peace---and that our mission as an Intercultural Church is “to reconcile all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us now and ever more. Amen.

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