A Quiet Generosity

This is a photo of my grandfather and me. It is from commencement weekend at Tufts University in May 2002. Three years later, we would take a similar photo as I received my MDiv from Yale. And six years after that, he would fly to England to sit in an auditorium and watch me receive a hug from a Baroness and my PhD from the University of Exeter. My grandfather was a big supporter of education, and in my case, he quite literally made it possible for me to have so many initials after my name. Even more importantly, though, he inspired me to seek after all that knowledge.

My grandfather loved learning. He loved puzzles and problem solving. He was a voracious reader, particularly of anything related to politics or American history. He truly showed learning to be a lifelong endeavor. Again and again, his witty brilliance and his joy of learning reminded me how we are enriched when we know more, when our horizons are expanded.

I am not only inspired by his love of learning. I am also inspired by his quiet generosity, which made my education and the education of so many others possible. My grandfather made a lifetime of doing good works with gentleness. He spent his career as a lawyer, providing estate planning and creating trusts to preserve assets for future generations. Much of this work was done for charitable organizations. And he sat on numerous boards that worked to provide programs, education, and recreation for inner city and vulnerable youth. He was a faithful member of his church, giving of his time and his expertise whenever they were called for. He refereed countless rule disputes at professional golf tournaments. He gave significant amounts of his own resources to support causes in which he believed. Through his professional work and personal generosity, he has made a profound difference in the lives of countless individuals. But his name isn’t on any buildings, and he didn’t seek recognition in the headlines or the society pages. He lived a life of quiet servanthood, because that is who he was and who he was called to be.

My grandfather died recently at the age of 94. He left this world just as he lived his life and just as he would have wanted to go. He died peacefully and quickly, without making a fuss or being a burden on anyone. He made a lifetime of caring for the people he loved and for people he never met. He lived fully until the end. He never retired from being a lawyer nor gave up helping charitable boards or his church. His generosity of spirit and his humble demeanor continue to inspire me. They show me that it is quite possible to live a life out of the spotlight that makes a tremendous difference in the world. They show me that being a respected member of one’s profession or society as a whole does not require announcing one’s accomplishments or seeking worldly recognition. Being who he was, he would not want to be made into an example or have the spotlight shine on him, but I share his story now because it has given me such an example to live by.

I am tremendously grateful for the education that has set me on my career path and enriches my life, but I am even more grateful for the example of my grandfather’s life. While I no longer have the joy of helping him do the crossword, or discussing the merits of books we recently read, or hearing his take on the President’s State of the Union address or the outlook for the next election, I know that his spirit is with me. I hope that I will continue to be inspired by his example. I hope I will respond with genuine curiosity when confronted with an opinion vastly different than my own. I hope I will give generously of my time and resources to enable others to have the advantages his generosity offered me. I hope I will always stick to my principles and not get caught up in what someone else thinks I should do. I hope I will always make time to learn about that which inspires those around me. I hope I will always keep my sense of humor, and, like my grandfather, take time to enjoy a good cup of coffee after a delicious meal.

Taize Magnificat

There’s Something About Mary

Saint Mary the Brave

by Ann Bonner-Stewart

Taize Magnificat

Magnificat Window at Taize Community (Photo taken by the editor)

Since I have been serving at a community called Saint Mary’s for the past six years, I think about Mary a lot. When you factor in that this Saint Mary’s is an all-girls high school, I think about her even more. I am intrigued that most images of Mary show an obedient, calm-looking woman. I highly question and seriously doubt that image. I’ve come to think of Mary as curious, as she questions how this can be, and thoughtful, as she ponders in her heart. I’ve also come to think of her as extremely brave. Though Joseph chose not to put her aside, there is no way that what she went through was easy. In a world where girls and women are often evaluated by how likable we are, I find hope in the strong likelihood that Mary may not have been well-liked, and that later this was completely overshadowed and forgotten.

 

The Real Annunciation

by Katya Ouchakof

One of my ongoing projects is a Bible translation/paraphrase that portrays the mood of a scene, while translating the Greek into everyday English. The Annunciation is one of my favorite stories, because I don’t imagine Mary as the docile character portrayed by most Bible translations. Here’s a more realistic version of this defining scene, in my mind:

The angel said to Mary, “Peace, favored one, the Lord is with you!” And Mary was scared speechless. But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary, God will bless you by making you pregnant so you can bear a son, and you’ll name him Jesus.” And Mary was like, “WTF?” So the angel said, “The Holy Spirit will ‘come over’ you and impregnate you, so your son will be called ‘the holy child of God.’ Don’t you know what has happened with your cousin Elizabeth? They said she was barren, but now she is six months pregnant! Absolutely nothing is impossible for God.”

And Mary said, “Whatever, dude. Sounds like I don’t have much choice in the matter. So if you’re actually serious, and I’m going to be the mother of God, I guess that’s cool.” Then the angel departed from her.

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A Legacy of Gratitude

UTO Blue BoxI currently sit on the board of a very old organization within The Episcopal Church, aptly named the United Thank Offering. The United Thank Offering exists to fund and promote mission work in the church. It does this through the Blue Box, where folks are invited to prayerfully place their coins as they offer up their thanksgivings to God. It is an actual box with a little slot at the top, just like a mite box. Mine sits on our dining room table. What I try to do each evening as we sit down to dinner is bring out change from the day’s transactions and give it to my husband and my young daughter. With our coins in hand we take turns talking about what we are thankful for, and as we do so, we place the coins in the box. (FYI, this is a hit with toddlers.) Eventually, we count up those coins and send them along to the United Thank Offering with everyone else’s during our church’s ingathering. Millions of dollars get raised this way: through simple coins and lots of gratitude.

When it was created in the late 19th century, the United Thank Offering’s purpose was to enable a young and growing Episcopal Church to spread the Gospel to the furthest boundaries of a similarly young and growing nation—and beyond. At nearly 125 years old, its focus has not changed. When my thirty-one year-old self became involved with this ministry, I had no idea that I would also be getting a crash course in women’s history within the Episcopal Church. For the first time, I heard a narrative emerge that I’d never really encountered in its fullness. It detailed both the disenfranchisement and the indefatigable efforts of women in service of the Gospel. My teachers are the women I’ve been blessed to work with, who themselves embody their own role and history within this greater narrative of women in the church and who have seen great change take place. I have become aware of the fact I am also a receiver of the stories and gifts of women no longer with us, but whose work remains present today. This mission work of the church through the United Thank Offering, and indeed the United Thank Offering itself, is the offering of countless women who served in a boundless mission field yet were so often bound by the cultural expectation and insistence that they could only accomplish “women’s work” in the church.

One woman in particular stands out: Julia Chester Emery. She was Secretary of the Women’s Auxiliary to the Board of Missions (the women’s work) for forty years. Under her leadership, the Women’s Auxiliary became the driving force behind the mission work of the entire church and grew into a network that emphasized education, addressed social issues, and eventually created the United Thank Offering. Julia traveled all over the world and the church as part of her work. After she retired as Secretary, she wrote a history of The Episcopal Church called A Century of Endeavor, 1821-1921: A Record of the First Hundred Years of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. In short, she was unstoppable.

In looking at her life and reading some of her history of the church, I have a sense of Julia as someone who, being grounded in a boundless Gospel, was boundless herself. She could not be contained by the limits placed on her because of her gender or even by the limited means of communication and travel in her era. Instead of being still and confined, she was expansive. She worked as a woman who had looked out onto the vast mission field and was overcome by the sole desire to fill it with the Gospel.

Julia did all of this knowing that there were barriers. She was acutely aware of the limitations placed on faithful Christian women during her ministry. The Women’s Auxiliary existed because while women were denied a place in leadership in the church, their ability to fund and support mission made them a force that the church had to recognize. But Julia knew that it could do more. When the church considered restructuring, the possibility of women having a voice in the church became more real. It must have been a terrible disappointment to her that the church did not change to include women in its structure as anything more than auxiliary. Julia’s last report to the Board of Missions included her understanding that the Women’s Auxiliary “…was unsatisfied with its past and eager for its future…. the Women’s Auxiliary has been given tasks entirely incommensurate with its strength.” The Women’s Auxiliary had already been a considerable force in carrying out mission, and even then, Julia believed that more could be accomplished.

My response to this is to be grateful for her, and for the women and men who have carried her work forward. I am grateful for her witness and devotion, grateful for the church, and grateful to be a part of it. It is gratitude, I think, that ties all of this history and ourselves and Julia together.

Gratitude is an attitude of abundance, of awe, and of boundlessness. It doesn’t seek to be fulfilled; rather, it prompts us to pour out our gifts into the world. Gratitude is being mindful of the blessings in our lives, and because we are mindful, we are able to see just what it is we can give. It places us in a position of empowerment despite our limitations, real or perceived. We can be grateful in all circumstances for things big or small. And the tiniest of thanksgivings, much like the mustard seed, can grow into something surprisingly large and wonderful, which then blesses those around us.

The Gospel is shared because people are grateful for having received it. God’s mission is carried out because with grateful hearts we participate in that work. Julia Chester Emery understood this. Because of her, the United Thank Offering still seeks to fulfill God’s mission in the world by reminding us all to be thankful and to live out our gratitude one coin and prayer at a time.

My Saint Margaret

I have come across a few genuine miracles in my life. The Rev. Dr. Margaret Neill was one of them.

I remember the first time I met her. I must have been in that impressionable teen/tween phase, and I had never met a woman preacher. It had always been men: Roman Catholic men with their solemn faces and their majestic robes, Baptist men with their sonorous voices and well-cut suits, and Episcopal men who did a little bit of both (and sometimes wore Mr. Rogers–style cardigans). But that world beyond the pews, the world of public supplication and proclamation, that was squarely the domain of men.Hold Hands And Go Right

Yet there she stood, as graceful and elegant as a dancer. I will always remember her at the altar: arms spread in the orans position, her face a warm walnut brown, and her eyes full of joy and wonder.

She had been the priest at my grandparents’ parish, and then, quite unexpectedly, we met again. She became my mentor and spiritual director for the last two years of seminary and first two years of ordained ministry. Hers is the voice I hear when I am asking myself the difficult questions: “What is really happening here? What is my part? Where is God?” She would ask me these questions, over and over, and laugh with me when I realized my own mistakes, and cry with me when my heart was breaking. She never let me forget how loved I was and how great a joy it is to serve in God’s church. Hers were not the Pollyanna thoughts of a flighty dreamer. She had faced great adversity in the church, and she spoke to me from the depths of that experience. I marvel at her tenacity and faithfulness.

She really was my spiritual mother. She comforted me when I was bruised on the playground of church by a disappointing pastoral encounter or a challenging colleague relationship. And she celebrated with me the milestones: my first sermon in my new church! My ordination to the priesthood! She held my hand those four years, even as disease racked her body with pain and fatigue.

I was not prepared for the extraordinary grief that seized me upon learning of her death. I had not realized how much I relied on her spiritual mother love, how I looked forward to my seaside visits with her.  And yet, she never felt far. I had the strangest sense that, in the case of Margaret Neill, the cloud of witnesses was closer than I had thought possible. I like to believe that she gave me a measure of her joy, that she bequeathed to me the seedling of that tenacity and hope. Maybe one day, I will meet a young woman much like I was, and in the way of my St. Margaret, I will walk a bit of the way with her, reminding her of the joy of this wild and wonderful vocation.

How Dorothy L. Sayers Made Me an Anglican

Dorothy L. Sayers“So long as the Church continues to teach the [humanity] of God and to celebrate the sacraments of the Eucharist and of marriage, no living man should dare to say that matter and the body are not sacred to her. She must insist strongly that the whole material universe is an expression and incarnation of the creative energy of God.”

Dorothy L. Sayers, “Creed or Chaos?”

Although I am an American, this month, I passed my 10-year mark living in Canada. Certainly, much has happened in my life in a decade. (Producing a tiny human being for one!) But the biggest shock in that time was stepping off the path toward an academic career and discovering a vocation in the church. As I ponder that transition, I realize it would not be a stretch to say that I might not be a priest today—or even an Anglican—if I had never encountered the work of Dorothy L. Sayers. Ok, that’s probably not fair. I am quite confident the Holy Spirit would have found some other way to get through my thick skull. Yet Sayers’ reflections on the creative mind of God and the drama inherent to the Christian story salvaged my faith at a particularly vulnerable time in my life.

These days, if anyone is familiar with the work of Dorothy Sayers at all, they know her through the adventures of her aristocratic sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey. I have never been much of a murder mystery fan, but I am enough of an academic nerd to appreciate a series in which the protagonist finally convinces the love of his life to marry him by proposing to her in Latin, thereby signaling their intellectual equality. Not bad for the 1940s! But Sayers was far more than a mystery writer. She was among the first women to graduate from Oxford (in 1915), as well as a close associate of the famous Inklings literary group. Being barred from academic pursuits, Sayers earned her keep writing copy for an advertisement firm for several years—a forerunner of Mad Men’s Peggy Olsen. This afforded her a keener eye for cultural commentary than her male colleagues, like C.S. Lewis.

At the time when I first encountered her work, I was entering the second year of my PhD program, and honestly, I was feeling a bit burned out. I was also ripe for spiritual renewal, after moving away from the Baptist  faith tradition of my childhood, which had never been the right place for me. On the recommendation of a friend, I picked up a copy of Sayers’ essays compiled under the title Letters to a Diminished Church.

Sayers spoke to me in a way no Christian writer had before. Yes, she is unapologetic in her defense of Christian doctrine, but not out of reactionary “defensiveness.” As she often says, “the dogma is the drama”—the “terrifying drama of which God is both victim and hero.” Her essays introduced me to the passion and the joy of the Christian story. Through her words, I met a God who is first and foremost a creator, and specifically, the creator that came and inhabited his own creation. I encountered a valuing of God’s material world that made me finally able to embrace the activity of God in the church’s sacramental life. Not to mention, the woman is just able to have fun with her faith. How can you not love someone who titles a collection of essays The Whimsical Christian?

It was particularly in Sayers’ reflections on the sacraments that I found what I can only describe as the missing link in my spiritual journey up to that point. I had never resonated with an expression of Christianity that seem so resistant to any physical elements of faith. When I read her words about the sacraments (quoted at the top), it was as if a light went on in my head. Of course God can work through material elements like bread, wine, and water! Of course our bodies are as redeemable as our souls! Our belief in the Incarnation must have ramifications for how we value all of creation. Not long after, I found myself sitting in the rector’s office discussing not just confirmation, but also ordination.

In the near decade that has passed since then, Sayers has been a faithful guide on my spiritual journey. I return to her when I need to be reminded of the joy I take in my faith. The more I learn of Sayers’ life, the more I find her an inspiring Christian witness. I appreciate her struggle to be taken seriously as a scholar. She had a son out of wedlock in her youth, whom she kept hidden from even her closest family, until she adopted him later in life. Sayers remains an example of humility and strength that encapsulates the Christian life at its best.

We might be a bit behind the ideal season for summer reading. But if you find a moment, pick up a copy of Gaudy Night (the finest of the Peter Wimsey mysteries), Sayers’ translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, or her exploration of the creative activity of the Trinity in The Mind of the Maker. Dorothy L. Sayers may be an obscure spiritual foremother, but she is one well worth getting to know.

The Moms’ Group

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Let’s talk about babies. For the last five years of my life, something has been happening in the background.

I’ve already shared on my blog about my journey through seminary and internship, and my first years of being a pastor. I’ve shared about my family and some of my vacations, my love for baseball and knitting, my thoughts on dialogue and division, and my crazy idealism for the world we live in. Recently, because I’ve been busy, I’ve shared more sermon transcripts than life reflections.

But behind all of this, for the last five years, Matt and I have been on a long journey to try to start a family.

It has been quite a journey. A journey that has included frustration and tears, losses and medical interventions, countless needle-stabs and blood draws, surgeries (major and minor), and through it all, enough peace in our hearts to keep stepping forward, one day at a time, without counting up our fears or losses or heartbreaks. Which is not to say that there weren’t bad days (there were plenty), or that we had the strength or gumption to keep pressing ahead indefinitely (there comes a point when you have to start thinking about stopping, for the sake of your sanity).

I wouldn’t wish this journey on anyone. And yet, as I have come to learn, this journey is so very common, and nobody really knows it.

There have been lots of blessings to come out of this journey that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. I have made new friends and built new relationships with others who have struggled, just like we have. Friends of mine have come out of the woodwork to share with me their own stories of infertility and pregnancy loss. I have been forced to think – deeply! – about what I hope my life will look like, and what pieces of my body and soul I am willing to make vulnerable in order to pursue those hopes and dreams. I would venture a guess that Matt and I are closer and better because of all of this, and that our relationship is in a deeper place than we could ever have expected it to be after 8.5 years of marriage. I’ve been forced to be emotionally vulnerable (in a good way), and to learn to ask for/accept help (which I’m terrible at). Spiritually, I’ve run the gamut from praying fervently with hope to shouting at God in absolute anger. I’ve connected to Bible stories in far different ways, especially stories of barren women, but also stories of finding peace in trial, and finding kindred spirits in all those in the Bible who felt they had no other option but to cry out to God and put themselves out there, because they had no other choice.

But don’t be mistaken. These beautiful and unforeseen blessings do not, in any way, make this path easier. They don’t make this journey “better.” They don’t redeem the pain and frustration of spending so much time, money, and energy trying to accomplish something that should be simple; something that biology has been making happen since the start of the human race. Infertility and pregnancy loss are HARD.

As we crossed over into 2013, there were lots of transitions on the horizon. I had just accepted a new call, which meant leaving a church I loved in order to follow God’s call to a new church that I was excited to love. Goodbyes and hellos are hard. Even (especially!) the good ones. Also, this new church was in a new town in a new state…putting me five hours from most of my family and from the Chicagoland that is a HUGE part of who I am. Moving is my least favorite thing ever, because it involves packing, and so there was plenty of stress on the horizon as I packed both our apartment and my office, and as we went house-hunting in Decorah, and as we tried to make the most of our last weeks in Chicago before moving.

During this time of crazy transitions, we also decided to take one more (last?) shot at a round of IVF. We’d done a few cycles before, and still had a couple embryos frozen, and we decided (with the encouragement and blessing of my doctor), to try one last round before we moved away (and out of his care).

My official start date here at First Lutheran was March 1. I preached my first sermon here on Sunday, March 3. I spent Monday and Tuesday of that week trying to get my office unpacked and set up. And then on Wednesday, we drove back to Chicago, because that Thursday was my embryo transfer (the culmination of a month-plus cycle of medications and monitoring). The timing of the cycle and the transfer was certainly not ideal. It was just another thing to add to all the madness of moving and starting a new job and closing on a house.

But for some crazy reason, the absolute wrong time turned out to be the absolute right time. And so two weeks after starting my new job, we found out that one of those little embryos had stuck around, and we were pregnant. Thrilling news, and terrifying. Because once you’ve experienced a loss, it takes a long time for you to actually believe that the pregnancy is going to last. Between then and now, there have been plenty of anxious days. Plenty of worry and wonder. Plenty of huge sighs of relief every time blood draws showed my hormone levels going up, and every time my doctor has been able to easily find a heartbeat at our monthly appointments.

It took us until week 13 to start telling close family and friends. It took us until week 16 to share the news with the congregation. And it took us until week 17 to go public. For as much as your head knows that, statistically, chances of loss after 13, 16, 17 weeks are incredibly low, your heart still worries that you will (continue to) be the exception to the rule, the person who keeps defying the odds in the wrong way.

But it’s getting harder and harder to worry, and easier and easier to believe that THIS IS HAPPENING. FOR REAL. We crossed the 20-week mark over the weekend (halfway there!), and had our big mid-pregnancy ultrasound yesterday. And yes. There’s a baby in there. A baby with arms and legs that move and kick, a baby with a little heart beating away in its chest, a baby with teensy toes and little lips, who is just starting to get big enough for me to feel it when it tumbles and flips and kicks.

This article originally posted at Melissa’s blog on July 10, 2013 and is reprinted here in revised form with her permission. Currently, her little hedgehog is a bouncing happy baby named Sam.

Pilgrimage with My Mother

In May 2014, my mother and I walked the last 110km of the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela, in Spain. There have been many wonderful books, blogs and websites published about the pilgrim journey to Santiago, as well as many films, such as The Way with Martin Sheen. I commend all of these resources to you. I could fill pages with stories about the pilgrim route itself, about the wonderful experience of meeting God’s people in all their infinite variety, about what it is like to go on a literal and spiritual journey…but what I really want to reflect on is what it was like making the journey with my mother. Making the journey with my mother is what truly made the pilgrimage a God-filled experience for me.

Spending ten days, walking close to seventy miles, with ones mother may sound like a nightmare to some people. It was wonderful for us! My mother and I have always had a close and loving relationship. We get along; more than that, we actually enjoy and value each other’s company, insight, and conversation. I have especially enjoyed, now that I am officially in my early thirties, getting to know my mother as a fellow adult. She was a wonderful and amazing parent—she is also a wonderful and amazing woman. I feel very blessed to have such a supportive and caring relationship with my mother, knowing especially, that not everyone has such a gift available to them.

My mother and I had an interest in making the pilgrim journey to Santiago for a long time. One day, in the course of a phone conversation, we just decided to do it. We had the time, health, resources, and motivation, so why not make it happen? Until the day we boarded the plane to Spain, we literally could not quite believe what it was that we were about to do.

Previous to making the journey, my mother and I talked some about what we hoped to get out of the pilgrimage to Santiago. I was hoping for time and space for personal, spiritual and professional discernment, especially in my role as a parish priest in the congregation. My mother, who recently retired from a longtime career in clinical social work, was hoping to gain some spiritual insight into her goals and purpose post-retirement. We were both at different places in our personal and professional lives.

We were also at different places in our spiritual lives. I am an Episcopal priest. My mother attends an ELCA Lutheran church, which she joined after an extended period of spiritual seeking. While I serve God as a clergy woman in the church, in the capacity of inviting people into the life of faith, my mother has struggled for a while with the institutional practice of faith. She is a deeply religious and faithful person, but, like many people, has a difficult and sometimes painful past with the organized church, both as a child and adult. What’s more, the question of what to believe and why, is a very present matter for my mother, as it is also sometimes for me. Essentially, we were both seeking some of the same things, but for different reasons, and coming from drastically different personal, professional and spiritual contexts.

To be honest, I was hoping that God would speak to me somehow, and let me know clearly and compellingly, what God wanted me to do with the rest of my life. My mother was essentially hoping for the same thing. That’s not quite what happened.

Here’s what did happen. We had a very long and beautiful walk together, as mother and daughter. We were up at 9am and walked steadily until 6pm, for 6 days straight. Sometimes other people would be beside us on the path, sometimes, for long stretches of time—even, for about eight hours—there would be no one but us. We walked together, at the same pace, the whole time. Sometimes we laughed and talked together. Sometimes we walked in silence, lost in our own thoughts. What was especially wonderful about our walk together is that, when you walk for such a long time and over such distances, everything else falls away. The to-do lists, the professional and personal pressures, even the big spiritual questions—all of it fades away into the background. All we needed to do was put one foot in front of the other. All we needed to do was to be together. All we needed to do was just to be. At no other time in my life, has it been quite as possible or quite as easy to fall into simply being–being so present in the current moment and present also, to the woman beside me.

Not surprisingly, neither of us received a clear and compelling vision from God for our individual futures. There were no straightforward answers. I have a friend and fellow priest who has walked the pilgrim journey in the past, and she believes that answers and insights come over time, after the journey is over. I think she is right. I am sure that I will gain even more from the journey, now that the actual walking has ended. From a practical standpoint, once the trip was over and we went back to our separate homes and lives, I found that I really missed my mother. I had just spent every day with her for ten days straight. I felt the need to call her, to email her, to hear her voice even after the trip had ended—so I did, and have continued doing all those things regularly. But what God did give my mother and me, while on the journey itself, is the ability to be freed for a while, even of the questions and the need to ask them. The questions didn’t matter, and certainly not the answers either, at least not while we were walking together. We were able to simply be together, and I believe that God was with us in that space also.

I wish I could offer you wise words or a great insight at the close of this reflection. I really can’t. All I can say is that being present to someone you love, taking the time and the space to do it, is absolutely worth doing. I believe God is present with us in any loving relationship–in the conversations, the laughter, the weighty matters, the long walks, and the tired feet. Yet God is present in the silences too, when no one is talking, or laughing, or asking questions, but just connected by loving presence beyond words. When we talk about being surrounded by a Great Cloud of Witnesses, I believe those witnesses are the god-filled relationships in our life—like my relationship with my mother, and all the people who I care about. I truly am blessed; I truly am surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, people to love and who love me, and to know that God is in the midst of the relationships we share. That is so good to know again in my heart and my body and to remember into my future – whatever the journey holds.

First Asian American Young Adult Clergy Woman Elected Vice Moderator of PCUSA

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The 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) recently elected Larissa Kwong Abazia to be Vice-Moderator. She graciously agreed to a blog interview for Fidelia.
Who inspires you?
My mother who, though the youngest child and only daughter in her family, proved that she could do just as much as her two brothers. She pursued her dreams and interests despite what others thought. My friends who are clergywomen of color. They inspire me by serving the Church in creative, innovative, honest and prophetic ways. But, perhaps even more significant on a personal level, they remind me to live unabashedly as a beloved child of God.

Who are your clouds of witnesses?

The unspoken, unknown women who have gone before me: those who raised children with a different vision for their future, worked in the church kitchen because that’s where people told them they belonged, served others who were in need without personal recognition, and sought a different world by pushing the boundaries. I am honored that, because these women have gone before me, they have paved the way for me to serve as a pastor and leader in all levels of the Church. These opportunities would not have even existed without them.
What are some challenges you see PCUSA church and the Church face these next five years?

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Remembering Our Long Legacy

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May is celebrated as the Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) Heritage Month and the first celebration took place in 1977. During this month, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders remember our long legacy and contributions to the building of America. The White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders has a blog focused on accomplishments and challenges. The theme for the month is “I Am Beyond”: Evoking the American Spirit. One post featured Julie Chu, four-time Olympic Medalist of the U.S. Women’s Ice Hockey Team, Nina Davuluri, Miss America 2014, and Tina Tchen, Chief of Staff to First Lady Michelle Obama & Executive Director of the White House Council on Women and Girls sharing their “I Am Beyond” Stories.

Asians have been migrating to all parts of the world, especially Europe, North America, South Africa, and Chile, since the early 19th century. Many migrated to the United States and Canada where Asians provided cheap labor. Asians first arrived in Hawaii and over three hundred thousand Asians entered the islands between 1850 and 1920. Asians labor became a commodity and the Chinese were among the first in that labor pool as they worked in the sugar industry in Hawaii.

The annexation of California in 1846 by the United States opened a door for Asian laborers. Since Asians were viewed as a commodity, Chinese laborers were essentially imported for the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. Other Asians also arrived in response to the need for laborers to build America: the Japanese (1880s), Filipinos (1900), Koreans (1903), and East Indians (1907).

Asian women sometimes made the decision to immigrate motivated by a desire for freedom. Other times men arranged the migration of Asian women for profit and exploitation . Many women were used for harsh labor to feed, wash and clean for the men. Many were not ready for the hardships of the immigrant life. Korean women worked long hours. Others who worked in the fields for wages spent a full day under the sun, perhaps with babies strapped to their backs, before returning home to fix dinner for their husbands or other male worker. Asian American women suffered in silence within a culture where their roles were defined by the men.

In addition to this difficult physical life, Asian American women experienced psychological and legal suffering in the form of prejudice and discrimination. A series of restrictive laws against Asians were enacted which discriminated against them and limited their life within the United States. In 1870, Congress passed a law that made Asian immigrants the only racial group barred from naturalization into United States citizenship. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Actsuspended the immigration of Chinese laborers for ten years, but this was later extended indefinitely, eventually being lifted only in 1943. The 1917 Immigration Act further limited Asian immigration, banning immigration from all countries in the Asia-Pacific Triangle except for the Philippines, a U.S. territory at the time, and Japan. Japanese immigration, however, was subsequently limited by the1924 Exclusionary Immigration Act, which stopped new immigration from Asia. In addition to these laws, Asians were segregated in public facilities including schools and subject to heavy taxation, prohibition of land ownership, and prohibition of intermarriage with whites. World War II brought the unnecessary internment of Japanese Americans. It was not until the passage of sweepingCivil Rights legislation in 1965 that state supported discrimination ended.

These hardships experienced by Asian Americans are not well known within our society today. Their hardships, difficulties and experiences are often overshadowed by other racial minority group’s experiences of racism. These difficulties continue today. Third, fourth and fifth generations of Asian Americans living in the United States believe that they will never find ‘home’ in this land where they are viewed as the perpetual foreigner.

Racism against Asian Americans is disguised under different expressions like“model minority” or “honorific whites” within our society. This is evident in the recent scandalous life of Donald Sterling who favored Korean tenants over other minority tenants. Some use Sterling’s preference to show that he welcomes people of color and do not recognize the racist behavior in such preference of one group over another. We also see model minority affects in the killing of Vincent Chen. Society failed to recognize that Chen was targeted because he was an Asian American. Although such targeting fits the definition of a hate crime, the perpetrators were not charged with such a crime.

Asian Americans made significant contributions to the growth of this country. Asian Americans continue to play important roles in our life together. We have contributed culturally (tai chi, martial arts, tae kwon do, graphic arts), we have contributed to the palette of America by sushi restaurants, Asian food groceries and Asian fruits and vegetables. We have contributed to the religious diversity through our Confucian, Buddhist, Taoist, Shinto, and Hindu religious heritage. We have also contributed in the area of sports, academia, and technology.

As we embrace the joy and accomplishments, we also need to remember the suffering and pain that so many Asian Americans endured to come to where we are today. And we need to recognize the need to do more. We need to promote more Asian Americans to the heads of companies and elect more Asian Americans to public office, even to the level of the president of the United States.

The effort to eradicate racism from our society needs to involve more solidarity, replacing charity and commiseration. We cannot continue to believe that racism does not exist except when someone makes a racist remark. Racism is a disease like alcoholism. Lots of alcoholics don’t drink, but that does not mean they are cured. It can flare up at a moment’s notice, erasing years of living in tolerance with other cultures. White privilege prevents many from recognizing that they perpetuate and contribute to racism. And this complicit perpetuation of systems of race happens just as much in the church. Therefore we must open ourselves and recognize that we all need to work together to fight for social justice and liberation. Silence on the sidelines is not an option in this matter. The way to begin is to provide platforms and share the true, and authentic stories of those legacies – of pain and suffering, of joys and victories – of those who’ve gone before us, so that we can leave the right legacy for those after us.

For futher reading and discussion, please read Gary Y. Okihiro, Margins and Mainstreams: Asian in American History and Culture, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014) & Seung Ai Yang, “Asian Americans,” in Handbook of U.S. Theologies of Liberation, p. 173-184, edited by Miguel A. De La Torre (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2004).

[read also: God, Woman and Our Bodies, & Jesus and the Cross]

We Have What It Takes

FS AlexIn 2002, my spouse and had I both graduated from seminary and had began serving as a clergy couple in rural Kentucky. Soon after we arrived, I experienced an incredibly sexist and hurtful incident while participating in a community ministerial alliance. I remember feeling so alone in my sadness and frustration. Even though my husband was my co-pastor, he could only sympathize up to a certain point.

Last week was Holy Week 2014. One of my clergy sisters experienced an incredibly sexist and hurtful incident while participating in an ecumenical worship service in her community. Hundreds of clergy sisters from across the globe reached out to offer support, good humor, and suggestions. I imagine she felt the power of the Holy Spirit reaching out in the spirit of “You’re not the only one!”

I attended my first Young Clergy Women conference in August of 2007 and haven’t missed a summer gathering since. We’ve met in Washington D.C., then D.C. again, St. Louis, Atlanta, Raleigh, Chicago, and Nashville. The 2014 conference will take place in Minneapolis. And I’m going to miss out! I’ll be in New Mexico, as my spouse has his twentieth boarding school reunion. It is so disappointing that these two events are happening at the same time, because I am keenly aware of what I will be missing.

By not gathering with my clergy sisters in Minneapolis in July, I will miss:

  • An engaging continuing education experience.
  • A chance to check out everyone’s pedicures and cute sandals.
  • The opportunity to share resources and best practices.
  • Margaritas. Or red wine. Or both.
  • An international, intercultural, ecumenical experience of women called to serve Christ.
  • The chance to cuddle babies.
  • Singing. The blending of women’s voices in prayer and song is a specifically profound experience of the Divine.
  • Hanging out with the most intelligent, hilarious, diverse group of women I know.

I turned thirty the month before attending the first YCW conference in 2007; it was at that same conference that we held our first board meeting. We began the process of drafting our by-laws, brainstorming the birth of this publication, Fidelia’s Sisters, and affirmed our desire to gather both in-person and on-line on a regular basis. I remember my best friend asking what I thought I might accomplish in my thirties; looking back, I realize that The Young Clergy Women Project has been one of the greatest professional accomplishments I’ve ever been part of.

I’m sure many of you reading this piece have also read articles or listened to sermons that decry the internet as the end of the church/humanity/God/life as we know it. I offer this counternarrative  a little bit of testimony to lessen the digital doom-and-gloom parade –

The Young Clergy Women Project and the virtual and in-person relationships that have resulted from TYCWP have allowed me to remain in ministry.  

Even though my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), has been ordaining women for nearly sixty years, it can still be a lonely, difficult vocation for young women.

Ground-breaking author and politician Clare Booth Luce once said, Because I am a woman, I must make unusual efforts to succeed. If I fail, no one will say, ‘She doesn’t have what it takes.’ They will say, ‘Women don’t have what it takes.” I can absolutely affirm that Young Clergy Women have what it takes…to be there for you, to show you the ways you are loved and not alone, to surround you as witnesses to your own ministry. If you aren’t sure, I encourage you to go to Minneapolis this July to find support, sisterhood, and a big dose of the Holy Spirit.