Article & videos: EAM@40 celebrates legacy of Asiamerican ministry

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Jun 26, 2013

[Episcopal News Service – Burlingame, California] The gift of water and the sins of racism were major symbols and themes during the June 20-24 Episcopal Church’s Asiamerica Ministries gathering to celebrate EAM @ 40.

The conference began with a Eucharist in which representatives of EAM’s six ethnic convocations were given flasks of blessed water to symbolically hold over the course of the gathering as a way to reiterate the baptismal call to ministry. Diocese of El Camino Real Bishop Mary Gray Reeves had blessed a mixture of water and oil in a simple, large white ceramic bowl.

On June 23, those representatives added the water from their flasks to Grace Cathedral’s huge baptismal font, after which Diocese of California Bishop Marc Andrus prayed that the water would become “the water of liberation, healing and sanctification.”

The service in Grace Cathedral was a traditional Episcopal Church Eucharist expressed through multiple Asian cultures, beginning with a prelude by Japanese taiko drummers from in the plaza alongside the cathedral. Those drummers, along with Korean drummers, Igorot gongs, three Filipino-Ifugao dancers with clay pots on their heads and Filipino candle dancers, led Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and House of Deputies President the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, 10 bishops from across the Episcopal Church and the Asian reaches of the Anglican Communion and the congregants — many of whom were dressed in their traditional clothing — into the nave.

Dancers accompanied the gospel procession and St. Mary’s Japanese Dance Troupe from Los Angeles was part of the offertory. Hymns, readings and the prayers of the people were offered in multiple languages and the Rev. Fran Toy, the presider, prayed the Words of Institution from Enriching Our Worship Eucharistic Prayer 2 in Cantonese.

Before beginning the Great Thanksgiving, Toy reminded the congregation that “Eucharist” means thanksgiving and that the Grace Cathedral Eucharist was being prayed “with special thanksgiving” for the Rev. Winston Wyman Ching, EAM’s founder and the person who coined the term “Asiamerican” to include all Episcopalians of Asian descent. Ching would have been 70 years old on June 23.

After the blessing and dismissal, Andrus, Jefferts Schori, Jennings and the Rev. Winfred Vergara, the Episcopal Church’s missioner for Asiamerica ministries, were invited to “light” with paint the eyes, ears, foreheads, backs and tails to bring life the lion in the Lion Dancers from the Salvation Army San Francisco Chinatown Corps that were sponsored by the Asian Commission of the Diocese of California. The lions led the congregation out of the cathedral to the sound of drums, gongs and cymbals.

In between the opening liturgy in a tent outside a hotel near the San Francisco airport and the closing Eucharist atop Nob Hill, EAM@40 participants told and heard stories of the history of Asiamericans in the Episcopal Church and in the world, their current ministries and their hopes for the future of their communities and the world.

The counterpoint to the stories of dreams and hopes were accounts of oppression and division.

There were also examples of how 40 years of EAM have bridged some internal divisions. Toy, who has been involved with EAM since a gathering that predated the group’s official beginnings, said the June 20-24 gathering was a time, for instance, when Japanese and Koreans who have historically been in tension and “could never sit together and be at table” were doing just that at EAM@40.

“Although we do have our separate times as ethnic convocations, the rest of the time we’re eating meals together, we’re taking workshops together,” she told ENS during a June 22 interview. “It’s just wonderful that those historic [dividing] lines just sort of blur and disappear.””

Vergara said during his sermon to the opening Eucharist that the term “Asiamerican” is the “best legacy that Ching and the people he called the “other pioneers of EAM” have given the church.

At EAM’s beginning, the term in the church meant to be a two-pronged ministry: ministry to immigrants from Asia and to American citizens of Asian ancestry, Vergara said. “As EAM has evolved in history, it has now become a three-fold ministry: ministry to Asian immigrants, ministry to Asian Americans and ministry of building bridges to Asia. It is a cultural ministry, a cross-cultural ministry, a transcultural ministry. It is an ethnic ministry, a generational ministry, an ecumenical ministry. It is an immigrant ministry, a domestic ministry and a global ministry.”

Video of Vergara’s sermon is here and the text is here.

The Rev. Rodger Nishioka, associate professor of Christian education at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, said during a June 22 presentation that he was “intrigued” by the term Asiamerican, especially because of the changing ethnic landscape in the United States. He noted that 15 percent of the Asian American population is identified as multiracial and 61 percent of those Asians who intermarried married a white person.

And, Nishioka said, that trend is coupled with the changing generational expectations of Asiamericans as some move from seeing themselves as Asians who happen to live in the United States to seeing themselves as American who happen to be of Asian ancestry.

Jefferts Schori said during her sermon for the June 24 Eucharist that it was “exceedingly fitting” to celebrate 40 years of Asiamerica ministry at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.

She noted that on June 23 or 24, 1579, when Sir Francis Drake’s crew came ashore to pray just north of the city on what is now called Point Reyes, some Native Americans apparently stood and watched. “The ancestors of those Native Americans came here from Asia thousands of years before,” she said.

And migrants from Asia have come ever since, she noted. North America’s first Anglican worship in Chinese took place just east of San Francisco in Nevada Territory, in the early 1870s, “and grew into a ministry that lasted until the ore played out and the miners and railway builders moved on or were expelled,” Jefferts Schori said.

Noting the legacy of Japanese-Americans along the West Coast who were forced into internment camps during World War II, the presiding bishop called Winston Ching “a saint of this church forged in the aftermath of that era.”

“People have found in the Episcopal Church a place to worship, a community to help them settle in a new land, safe harbor from the larger society’s discrimination (although that discrimination has been abundant even within this church), and partners in building a society of greater justice that looks more like the Reign of God,” Jefferts Schori said.

Yet, she cautioned, the Episcopal Church’s interaction with Asia and with Asian-Americans is “a mixture of holy witness, prejudice and exclusion, solidarity, and all sorts and conditions of charity and mission work.”

“We have not yet told the whole truth or fully reconciled that history,” she said. “This celebration is a sacramental recognition that God continues to bring forth light out of darkness, wholeness from destruction, and new life from death.”

Jefferts Schori likened the journeys of migrants to what she called “the cosmic migration” whose primary example is Jesus as “God enters foreign flesh and continues to bless it” and she called on   her listeners to realize that they are all migrants who “are not yet permanent residents of the kingdom of God.”

“We will not find the reign of God if we’re unwilling to migrate down the road and across the barriers that separate us from God-with-us in those we too often call alien, foreign, or other,” she said. “Those others are also part of God’s body, and our own ultimate healing depends on discovering that they are part of us, we are part of them, and we are all part of the same whole.”

The text and video of the presiding bishop’s sermon are here.

Jennings also addressed racism in the church and in the world during her remarks to the gathering’s June 23 banquet at the New Asia Restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown after the cathedral Eucharist.

She said she had never heard about institutionalized racism such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborer to the United States and severely punished those who were already in the United States.

Jennings said Vergara was the one who told her about how miscegenation laws made old bachelors of prevented Filipino Manong men who worked in the pineapple plantations of Hawaii and California and in the canneries of Alaska by preventing them from marrying.

Instead of learning about these acts during her education in the 1950s and 1960s, Jennings said “I was taught instead about the melting pot where all races and cultures come to the United States and are assimilated.”

Jennings reported that in her travels around the Episcopal Church she is hearing “more and more people” asking the question “how can we learn to talk about race and racism in the Episcopal Church in new ways that will help us break out of old categories and old dichotomies?”

“I’ve heard that we aren’t talking enough across the categories we are assigned to by the forms we fill out,” she said, referring to the racial categories people are often asked to use to describe themselves. “We aren’t hearing each other’s stories, and we don’t know each other’s histories.”

She said the church celebrates its vital ethnic congregations “without acknowledging that many of these congregations exist because their founders weren’t welcome in white Episcopal parishes.”

“We glory in the church’s Anglophile culture but don’t talk about what it is like to be part of the Anglican Communion when many of us still bear the scars of the British Empire,” she said.

Jennings said she is coming to understand that “the check-mark categories that we substitute for talking with each other also divide people of color from one another and allows white culture to perpetuate its oppressive patterns.”

Too often “a hierarchy of race, ethnicity and privilege” is used to silence people whose stories don’t conform to the history others think they know and understand, she said.

“Too often we try to struggle against racism by mimicking its divide-and-conquer ways of categorizing and ranking people by their differences,” Jennings said.

Episcopalians can “help dismantle racism by refusing to classify one another using its taxonomy” and instead “listen to each other’s stories and pay more attention to the common threads than to who got here first, who came with documents, who came voluntarily, or who came with money or education,” Jennings said.

“We can settle for nothing less than a truly multilingual, multicultural and multiethnic church,” she said to applause.

The text and video of Jennings’ remarks are here.

Also during the gathering, EAM@40 participants heard from Bishop Stacy Sauls, the Episcopal Church’s chief operating officer, on the topic of “Domestic Mission: Focus on the Poor.” The video and text of his remarks are here.

— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.