Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Immigrants and the Table of Thanksgiving

I am a first generation immigrant from the Philippines. My wife and I, together with our older son, came to America in 2008 when I was appointed to serve the United Methodist Church of Chugiak here in Alaska. Our younger son was born here.

As an immigrant family, adjusting to life and ministry in a foreign land had its challenges. Transitioning to ministry here was the easy part, almost seamless, thanks to the United Methodist connectional system which makes us do things in distinct, almost similar or at least recognizable ways wherever we are in the world.

It was adjusting to American culture and lifestyle that was a little more difficult. When we first got here, we had to apply for social security numbers, driver's licenses and other documents that established our identity and our residency. It felt like starting from scratch, that we never existed prior to coming here. Coming from a cash-based economy, we had to apply for credit cards and learn how to use them. We had to establish credit before we could own property. We couldn't even own a cellphone with a line and monthly bill without paying an insane amount of money because we didn't have any credit. So, for the longest time, we used cellphones with prepaid cards.

We also had to understand the tax system which was made complicated by the fact that I am clergy. Thankfully, I am married to a financial genius who read the books and figured it all out, to the utter amazement of the employees of a popular tax-preparation office. They were so impressed that they offered her a job, which at that time she couldn't take, because of our immigration status. You see, we came on Temporary Religious Worker visas. I had an R1 as the primary religious worker and my wife and son had R2s- dependents of the religious worker. One of the stipulations of the R2 visa is that my wife is not allowed to work and that my compensation should be enough to support the whole family. Three years after, our visas expired and we had to navigate the complicated (and expensive) immigration process, to become green card holders or permanent residents.

I could go on about the challenges but I think you get - it's hard being an immigrant. And our's was even a relatively easy, straight-forward process. I know of others whose journeys have been more circuitous. It's one thing to visit and be a tourist in a foreign land. It's another thing to decide to live there for good, or at least for a season or for the foreseeable future.

Around this time of the year, we feel another tension, this time cultural. In the Philippines, we do not celebrate Thanksgiving, at least not in the traditional sense that Americans celebrate it as a national holiday. Filipinos give thanks, of course, and in numerous settings, but we do not connect our thanksgiving to the Pilgrims at Plymouth. We just couldn't. It is not part of our story. And so it is not a national holiday for us. 

So how have we managed the tension these past 6 years? There is an aspect of the first thanksgiving, or at least the one we attribute this national holiday to, that strikes me as relevant, even for us immigrants:

The original Table of Thanksgiving was a table of immigrants and natives coming together around a common meal. It was a celebration of diversity. The menu was a combination of immigrant dishes and recipes cooked with ingredients harvested in the new land using agricultural techniques taught to them by the natives. It was a celebration of their shared life in the shared land!

For the past two years, we have celebrated Thanksgiving with dear friends whom we very much consider family. They are a younger American couple who are godparents to one of our sons. Our thanksgiving table is definitely non-traditional but is a wonderful coming together of two cultures. One year we had turkey, stuffings and cookies with pancit, lumpia and leche flan. The next year we had ribs, oven-roasted veggies, pasta and pumpkin pie. Both years, we had a great time and we are looking forward to Thursday!

It is not so much how perfect the turkey turns out, or how the spread looks like, or how all the elements should be there. Thanksgiving was and always should be a celebration of diversity. That as people of different color, race or tribe, we can come together to lay aside our pride, celebrate the things we have in common as well as our differences, and sincerely give thanks to the God who loves us all.

It is my prayer that this diverse table of thanksgiving extend to the table of daily life. May each day be a day of laying aside our hatred and pride, a day of celebrating our diversity and a day of living the truth that God's love is for all.

From our family to yours, Happy Thanksgiving!

Your fellow disciple,

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Special Breed

Bishop Hagiya commissioning new Alaska Clergy in 2013
It takes a special breed of person to live in Alaska and call it home. It also takes a special breed of person to serve as a pastor here. It is a beautiful land with unique ministry settings, each with its own set of joys and challenges.

In my role as Superintendent, I have received and continue to receive applications to serve here in Alaska. Some of them are legit and worth considering. But some of them, I feel, are for the wrong reasons. Some say they love to fish & hunt and so Alaska would be a great fit for them. Some say they love the outdoors. Some say they love to hike and ski. Some say they want to be away, to live in extreme, isolated settings. While these are good skills and interests to have for one who is serving in Alaska, these, in my opinion, shouldn't be the primary reasons to come here. One has to feel called to serve in any of our settings.

Here are two stories of two such people I am honored to call colleagues. Charley is an Alaska Native from Barrow belonging to the Inupiaq tribe. Jenny is, in the truest sense, a Native Alaskan because while she wasn't born in Alaska, she has spent most of her life here (except for time away in college and seminary). Both of them have a deep love for Christ and a passion for ministry with and among the people of Alaska. These are the kinds of pastors we are looking for.

(If your device or browser is not showing the video on this page, click here: Charley's video and Jenny's video)
If you are applying to serve up here for all the wrong reasons, don't bother. You'll just be wasting your time (and mine).
However, if you are sensing that God is calling you to serve in Alaska, that you are wired and have a passion for ministry here, then let's talk!

And if you are from Alaska or now living here and are feeling a call to pastoral ministry, I would like to talk to you as well!

Your fellow disciple,

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Anchorage is Not Alaska

One of my biggest learnings so far in this new role is this: "Anchorage is not Alaska." Its part of it, but its not the whole of it. The more I travel to our different ministry settings around the state, the more my eyes are opened to the reality that there is more to life and ministry in Alaska than my experience of it as pastor of a bedroom community of Anchorage has given me.

There are different ministry contexts with unique opportunities and challenges. When I visited Southeast Alaska a couple of months ago, my mind was opened to the realities of air travel in that part of the state. I became acquainted with terms such as "fly over" and "milk run". A "fly over" happens when it is too stormy, or too windy, or too foggy for an airplane to land and so it flies over and goes on to the next destination in the "milk run" which is a chain of airport stops a airline flight needs to make to pick-up and unload passengers and cargo before it reaches its final destination.

When I was in Ketchikan, the flight I was going to be on was a milk run flight that went from Seattle to Ketchikan to Sitka to Juneau to Anchorage. I was going to Juneau and had scheduled a meeting an hour and a half after my plane was scheduled to land and yet another meeting after that. "I have enough time," I thought to myself. But it was stormy and visibility was less than a mile. The plane tried to land three times (we could hear it approaching only to pull back up at the last minute). After the third attempt it flew over and went on to Sitka. Needless to say, I had to rebook and catch the later flight and reschedule all my meetings. What was I thinking! I was scheduling meetings like I was in Anchorage. Anchorage is not Alaska. Its part of it, but its not all of it.

It is easy to get myopic about our ministry settings, thinking that the only way of doing things is the way we do it, that the only great things that are happening in ministry are the stuff that's happening in our own backyards, that there is no greater ministry challenge than that of our own. But the reality is, no ministry context, even a mega church, can claim a monopoly of ministry processes, successes and challenges. Every context is unique and has a story to tell. Every context is different and deserves to be celebrated. Every context has its set of challenges and has to be supported.

On a personal level, it is also easy to get myopic about ourselves and our concerns, as if the world and life itself revolved around us. But it doesn't. Life is not all about us. We are part of a greater whole, a bigger fabric called humanity. The apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 reminds us of this, warning us against believing that we alone are the whole body and encouraging us to consider others who are also part of the same body.

The Alaska United Methodist Conference is a beautiful tapestry of different ministry contexts with their own unique ways of doing ministry. I invite us to an openness to know what is happening in our other settings and a willingness to be in partnership with each other. I invite us to find ways of celebrating each others successes and supporting each other in our challenges and times of failure.

Your fellow disciple,

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Let Your Voice be Heard

East Anchorage UMC, where the Conference office is housed, is a polling place and so as I write this post today, I am watching people from all walks of life coming in and out of the building to vote. It's been a steady stream of people since I came in! And this is a good thing! I am not a U.S. Citizen (at least not yet) but if I were, I would be part of this exodus.

As I sit here, I am also witnessing how folks from East Anchorage UMC are engaging the voters, offering them coffee and treats. There is so much negativity and mudslinging clouding every election season that this simple act of hospitality comes as a breath of fresh air. No, they are not campaigning for any candidate or advocating for a certain cause. They are merely saying "Thank you for voting." What a great witness! And what a great way to engage their neighbors! They are certainly making great connections.

If you have already voted, I thank you for doing so! If you haven't, I encourage you to do so and let your voice be heard! Here are John Wesley's words for voters during his time and us today: