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Theology of inclusion empowers ethnic communities

By ENS staff

In San Jose, California the Diocese of El Camino Real ordained its first Filipino-American woman clergy, The Rev. Ruth Casipit-Paguio  

In the Diocese of Virginia, the Rev. Dr. Fred Vergara (right) confers with Chinese lay leaders Dr. Philip Yen and Peter Lu  

[Episcopal News Service]  The theology of inclusion in the Episcopal Church is drawing in 'unchurched' people from ethnic minorities who have historically been marginalized in American church and society, said the Rev. Dr. Fred Vergara, national missioner for Asian American Ministries of the Episcopal Church.

Speaking at a Book Forum at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia, October 23, Vergara said that many Episcopal dioceses in the country reported welcoming Asian communities receptive to the inclusive trends of the Episcopal Church.

"I think the message they are getting is that if the Church is capable of welcoming and empowering women, gays and lesbians as equal members of the Body of Christ, then it is capable of welcoming and empowering almost everybody," Vergara said. "It is a radical form of hospitality that says, 'you are accepted whoever and whatever you are and you don't need to be like us.' It is a closer approximation of God's unconditional love."

Promoting his book, "Mainstreaming: Asian Americans in the Episcopal Church," Vergara noted that ethnic congregations in the Episcopal Church had historically "suffered from being marginalized." Many dioceses looked upon ethnic congregations as "specialized ministries" rather than an integral part of its life and mission. "There was a lot of paternalism and tokenism in these ministries and many ethnic clergy felt like 'second-rate' ministers, Vergara said.

In history, American churches participated in racial and cultural injustice such as Black slavery, Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese Internment and other forms of racial and cultural prejudices.

"They had not lifted the prophetic voice for the rights of minorities and disadvantaged immigrants whom Jesus would call harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd," Vergara said. "There are still vestiges of racism in the structures of the church that must be dismantled and that can only happen if we 'mainstream' the marginalized, include and empower them in the decision-making bodies of the Church."

Vergara explained that the Episcopal Church is serving as an "avant garde" in radical hospitality and affirmative action toward ethnic missions.

"The election of a woman Presiding Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, who strongly believes in inclusive theology is a great and bold step towards this new 'mainstreaming' in The Episcopal Church, which Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold had also upheld."

Radical hospitality or "mainstreaming" does not mean conformity to the values of the dominant culture but acceptance and learning from each others cultures, Vergara explained.

"The new phenomenon in the Body of Christ is not one of a melting pot where one dominant culture melts the lesser ones in some kind of a stew," he said. "Rather we look at the images of a salad bowl, a patch quilt or a mosaic. There is a lot to learn from each other's cultures and ethnicities. Nature itself, as in the case of flowers and fruits, favors diversity. Church planting is also a natural congregational development."
Vergara reported that during the past two years, ethnic churches have began to blossom in the Episcopal Church. At St. Paul's, Minnesota, more than 600 Hmong immigrants have joined Holy Apostles' Parish and revitalized its multicultural ministry; in Hacienda Heights, Los Angeles, a Taiwanese congregation is growing in the context of a multi-ethnic parish of St. Thomas; in Nashville, Tennessee, a former Korean Pentecostal congregation has become an Episcopal parish; in Las Vegas, Nevada, a Filipino congregation is rapidly growing; and in Queens, New York various Asian and pan-Asian churches are thriving.

In October, Vergara met with Filipino, Vietnamese and Chinese communities in Maryland and Virginia "and all of them are excited to be part of The Episcopal Church," he said. "In Sacramento both the outgoing and incoming bishops of Northern California jointly planned to develop two Filipino ministries in partnership with its neighboring Diocese of El Camino Real. I say that the future of The Episcopal Church in Church planting and Church Growth has to do with 'mainstreaming the formerly marginalized.'"

Vergara noted that the mainstreaming in dioceses has risen to the national level. In the preface of his book, which was published prior to General Convention in June 2006, he wrote that there was only one Asian member in the Episcopal Church's Executive Council and hardly any Asian member in the national commissions, committees, agencies and boards (CCABs). "Now I am glad to report that there are four Asian members of the Executive Council and ten Asians in the CCABs," he said.

"I firmly believe we will continue to see the results of this 'mainstreaming' in the flowering of Asian, Black, Latino and Native American ministries along with the growth of women, youth, gay and all ministries which were once marginalized," he said. "I am glad that recent events indicate that the Church is recovering its role as a leader and advocate for justice, equality and harmony in society."