Expendable / Exceptional

Expendable / Exceptional

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
     we are the clay, and you are our potter;
     we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
     and do not remember iniquity forever.
     Now consider, we are all your people.     Isaiah 64:8-9

We are in the midst of a very active political season. Some churches shy away from acknowledging this, but Presbyterians have a history of recognizing God’s call in social action and political leadership. John Calvin had great political power in Geneva. John Knox fought the English crown and its claims of authority over Scotland. John Witherspoon was the only clergy to sign the Declaration of Independence. The Presbyterian Church in Taiwan has been and continues to be a major proponent of national sovereignty for Taiwan. And we have not shied away from having our Stated Clerk comment on subjects including gun violence, immigrants’ rights, and Palestine, among other things.

Two weeks ago, I found myself with about ten representatives from various faith-based organizations meeting with Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. I ended up at this face-to-face because Ralph Su was not able (or did not want) to attend. I was told the meeting was to discuss violence against religious groups; Ralph was invited because of his work with FEMA after the shooting at Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods.

It turns out that the main focus of the meeting was to repair broken relationships from DHS’ past actions in Los Angeles, when their attempts to address international terrorism resulted in active harassment of members of some LA-based Muslim mosques. The discussion started with ways for DHS to repent of the ways they mistook religion for terrorism, then moved to the need for better mental health resources and culturally-competent first responders, and whether there was any way to reduce the easy availability of guns.

The main question I raised to Secretary Mayorkas was, “Who is expendable in this society?” So many victims of gun violence are people of color or people struggling with mental illness such as depression. For instance, 60% of US people dying of gun violence die by suicide. Disturbing reports from Uvalde seem to confirm that first responders chose their own safety over the children being shot at, even though, as one parent stated, they had shields and weapons and training while the children had none. One has to wonder if government officials would continue to be so reluctant to enact more stringent controls over access to guns if the victims were more influential than people of color, religious minorities, people struggling with mental illness, or children.

In the last week, the Supreme Court has rejected New York state’s century-old statute that requires confirmation of the need for a concealed weapon, and then the same body affirmed the right of states to limit or eliminate a woman’s right to have an abortion.

Now I can imagine that the people who have waited and prayed and planned for the elimination of Roe v. Wade would ask the same question, who is expendable? Would a fetus be expendable, and at what point along a pregnancy? And if a fetus is not expendable, what about the mother? The maternal mortality rate in the US is higher than over 50 other nations, including Russia, Iran, and Turkey. African-American women die in childbirth at a rate that is over three times that of White American women; their rate would put them below 85 other nations. And how do we support the children as they are growing up, ensuring that US children have adequate nutrition, health care, and education throughout their young lives?

Next week is the 4th of July. That is the date when we give thanks for the blessings of American exceptionalism, as we are unique in the freedoms, wealth and natural resources, and power with which we lead the world’s nations. Lately, however, we are confronted with the irony of the negative exceptions we also deal with, such as the high rates of gun violence, gun ownership, and maternal mortality. My guess is that these are not contradictory, however. One of our most fundamental American myths is what I’d call rugged individualism, the belief that our success as a nation comes from the freedom for any individual American to make your own wealth, defend yourself, and look out for yourself (and not necessarily others, who should be doing for themselves as well).

The result of this mindset is that people who are poor or marginalized or in need of special assistance are seen as failures—and, therefore, expendable. But this is not the way of Jesus. Jesus did not gather his followers and say, “You’re on your own. Go, make all you can for yourself, and don’t bother with the others.” Nope. There is no mistaking that we are called by God to trust in God, and care for each other, especially the weak, the needy, and the marginalized.

We are truly blessed as a nation, and we have shown ourselves to be capable of generosity among the nations. There is more we can do, through the government but also in our ministries. May our faith lead us to give even more of ourselves, trusting that God will provide for us and through us, even to those who may not seem to deserve it. Let us see every individual not as expendable, but exceptional, because every person is created and loved by God, and every individual has gifts of their own.

That giftedness is not always obvious at first sight. I remember my church in the Bay Area, when we started a Sunday evening service. They wanted to have a praise group to lead the worship. The Sunday School superintendent thought it might be nice to help out with the music, even though she never did music—ever. But the group leader was open to anyone who was willing to help. As they began to rehearse, it became clear that Gina did not understand even the basics of intonation in her singing. I was deeply troubled, as she was the lead singer since she also did not play any instruments. I suggested—strongly—that she be replaced. Well, good thing they did not listen to me. By the time the evening service started, Gina learned how to sing closer to in tune. Then she bought a djembe drum and started to play it, quite well. As her singing blossomed, she began to write music. Within a year, this totally untrained, out-of-tune novice became an excellent songleader, drummer, and songwriter! I know that if it were up to me, these gifts would never have been allowed to emerge.

Again, let us see every individual not as expendable, but exceptional. And let us trust enough in the creative genius of God to try new things, invite newcomers into leadership, and share our own gifts generously, knowing that God will continue to bless us—sometimes with the very folks we are helping!

In Christ’s Peace,

Wendy

Holidays

Holidays

“In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”  Acts 2:17

This last weekend, we commemorated not one but two holidays. The third Sunday of June is Father’s Day, which happened this year on June 19. June 19th is also known as Juneteenth, and it is our newest federal holiday. On June 19, 1865, Gen. Gordon Granger announced General Order No. 3, which confirmed freedom for enslaved people in Texas. This was the last such announcement, occurring 2.5 years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

In addition to official holidays, some of us have our own personal holidays. This last weekend, General Assembly started. Steve Salyards, also known as the GA Junkie, is one of the writers covering the GA for the Presbyterian Outlook. I wouldn’t be surprised if Steve, and several others who are regulars at GA, consider the start of GA as a kind of personal holiday! This year is special, not only for the unusual hybrid format of the GA, but because our own Ruth Santana-Grace, former Executive Presbyter, was elected on Saturday as Co-Moderator of the GA, along with Shavon Starling-Louis. We will certainly look to welcome Ruth in her new capacity in the coming two years!

For myself, I can name two very specific personal holidays. One is King and Queen Sunday, my take on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Dr. King’s birthday, January 15, 1929, is often honored on the same Sunday when churches in Hawai‘i remember with grief the illegal overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i and the forced abdication of Queen Lili‘uokalani, on January 17, 1893. Both of these leaders spent their lives seeking justice for their people, drawing on their deep Christian faith and modeling non-violent protest in their approach.

My second personal holiday just happened last Thursday, the commencement for Ted K. Tajima High School. This public charter school is not selective, and nearly all the students come from immigrant families. Most of the students are bilingual and are the first in their family to go to college. In this year’s graduating class of 112 students, 99% were admitted to 4-year colleges, including one student going to Stanford, one to Dartmouth, and several who will be attending UC schools including Berkeley, UCLA, Irvine, Riverside, and Santa Cruz. The valedictorian will be attending the University of Chicago, a recipient of QuestBridge and Gates scholarships. In his speech, he recalled being temporarily homeless when he started at Tajima High, and then his family found an apartment in Whittier, which required that he take a bus and then walk for 30 minutes to get to school near downtown LA each day. He remembered struggling with serious depression during the COVID lockdown. He honored his mother by attempting to speak in her indigenous native language from

Central America. And he closed by thanking his teachers and school counselors, including the one who encouraged him as he completed his college applications by saying, “You’re not as boring as you think you are.”

Watching these kids and seeing and hearing their families, bursting with pride, I imagined my father looking down from heaven, happy with what has been done with his legacy. When alive, he worked to inspire many students to dream beyond what society told them they deserved. In his death, this little school enables about 100 students and families to achieve their dreams every year.

We Christians often have to remind ourselves that new life comes out of death. The seed must die to bear fruit, and the Messiah must suffer on the cross before rising to new life for all of us. We are a people who see the cycle of life, and in our communal life, we weep with those who weep, and rejoice with those who rejoice. In the very full life of Rev. Mariko Yanagihara, we have occasion to do it all. Mariko has been spending years caring for her parents’ generation, and last month her father-in-law passed away. But Mariko now has another generation to care for. She is now a grandma, of two beautiful babies! Emilee Akemi Yoshida was born on April 3rd, and Kaylin Toyoko Blagaich was born on June 14th!

In our family of faith, we indeed have reason to weep, and reason to rejoice. Praise God for all these reminders that we can witness sons and daughters prophesying, young men seeing visions, and old men on earth and in heaven dreaming dreams. Thank God that whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. Together, let us continue to live into our faith, drawing strength from the love we share, and reflecting God’s kin-dom with the compassion and justice we offer. There is hope. There is life. There is Christ in our midst.

Peace,

Wendy

A Good Day

A Good Day

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose. Romans 8:28

Maligayang Araw ng Kasarinlan!
Happy Philippine Independence Day!

Yesterday I preached at Filipino Community United Presbyterian Church in Azusa. They started worship by sending their holiday greeting to their livestream audience in the Philippines. (They are also planning a new “Operation Sunshine” mission trip to Cavite and Batangas n February 2023.) June 12 is Independence Day, and it also signals the end of the school term and the start of summer.

For San Gabriel Presbytery, our June Day of Service signals the start of summer. Since our Day of Service was Saturday, it does feel like summer. The warm weather helps confirm it.

Our Presbytery meeting and Day of Service reflected this “hybrid” time we are experiencing in our churches. Because the Day of Service activities were in person, at the Presbytery Center in Temple City, we were focusing on this as an in-person meeting. But, like our churches, we do not want to exclude people who cannot physically attend the meeting, so we offered a Zoom option. I don’t have the official numbers, but I’d guess the Zoom attendees represented at least a third of the voting members of Presbytery.

In the sanctuary, we reflected COVID times. Folks wore masks, we borrowed air purifiers from Calvary South Pasadena, and had communion with bread pieces and cups spread out so people could pick them up easily. The offering for the day contributed to the LAC+USC Medical Center/Angel Interfaith hygiene kits and gift cards as patients are released from the hospital, some to lives without shelter. If you would like to give, you can still do so by going to https://sangabpres.org/donate/.

Under the dollar amount you want to give, please click “Give to Presbytery Offering” in the first drop-down menu.

There was one major item of business for the Presbytery meeting, as we received Rev. Chris Jinyoung Choi, who is transferring from the Korean Presbyterian Church Abroad (KPCA), and approving him as temporary pastor for the Korean Language Ministry (KLM) of Pasadena Presbyterian Church (PPC). Chris is not unknown to us, as he served for a few years at New Hope Church, and his wife is Kayla Kim, the conductor of the KLM Trinity Choir at PPC. They are both world-class musicians: Chris on cello and Kayla on voice. They have offered transcendent music to PPC’s worship life, together, solo, or with others, and in all-church services, Kayla conducts the combined choir. Blessings to Chris as he serves PPC with his faithfulness and pastor’s heart.

We also commissioned our folks for General Assembly: Ruling Elder Commission Joshua Marmol (Knox), Teaching Elder Ally Lee (Interwoven/San Gabriel Presbytery), and Young Adult Advisory Delegate Joselyne Gonzalez (Puente de Esperanza). In her Stated Clerk’s report, Ally gave an overview of this hybrid General Assembly, which begins this Saturday, June 18, with opening worship at 8 am Pacific Time, but most of the decision-making will be done July 5-9. You can view General Assembly, and locate many other resources such as information on moderatorial candidates (including our own Ruth Santana-Grace) at https://ga-pcusa.org/. The schedule for the whole GA is at https://ga-pcusa.org/docket/.

There have already been several “Riverside Conversations,” one-hour preview discussions of specific topics that will be considered in this GA, such as the new Rules of Discipline, the report from the Committee on Racism Truth and Reconciliation, the proposal to explore an advisory committee on LGBTQIA+ Concerns, and the recommendations of the Special Committee on Per Capita and Financial Sustainability. You can see recordings of these discussions and more at https://ga- pcusa.org/riverside-conversations/.

For the Day of Service, we had five teams:

  • Organizing office files and preparing some for shipment to the Presbyterian Historical Society
  • Cleaning out the Rainbow Room classroom
  • Piloting an approach to sharing our stories, which will be rolled out presbytery-wide
  • Cleaning out a garden area and planting succulents, which were bought from Plants Colectivo, the recipient of our recent Self-Development of People grant who spoke at our April Presbytery meeting
  • Assembling hygiene kits for LAC+USC Medical Center/Angel Interfaith Network, and hearing a presentation from chaplain Rev. Elizabeth Gibbs-Zehnder on Spiritual Pain and the “Total Pain Model” approach to addressing multiple aspects of trauma.

The spirit of the day was good, and much was accomplished. The initial goal of the Day of Service was helping Presbytery members get to know each other better, and some good connections were made.

This year’s Day of Service was planned by members of the Justice Peacemaking and Mission and Education Equipping and Empowerment committees, with support from Presbytery staff. Thanks to everyone who participated, contributed, and helped to prepare. In this time of violence, illness, and political division, this was a very good day. It gave me cause to hope. Thanks be to God, and to you.

Living in hope,

Wendy

The New Church

The New Church

For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls.                                                                                                  Acts 2:39

Yesterday was Pentecost, sometimes called the birthday of the Christian church, when the followers of Jesus Christ were empowered by the Holy Spirit to speak all the languages of the earth, so that they can proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to all the world.

After the rush of the Holy Spirit comes over the disciples and they get attention with their instant linguistic abilities, the first converts hear Peter’s message, then ask, “what should we do?” Peter tells them to repent, and assures them that when they are baptized, their sins are forgiven and they too will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. They will receive the promise, as well as their children and even people who are far away, and in Acts 2:40, Peter suggests that the people “save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”

Certainly we are living in a corrupt generation; maybe it even feels like a lost generation. So as we celebrate another Pentecost, it’s like another birthday, an opportunity to recommit and start over for another year. How do we as a church start anew, and provide this hurting world a glimpse into God’s promise of salvation?

Just this last week, I have seen some hopeful signs within our Presbytery family. Even as we continue to be burdened by continuing threats of violence here and abroad, and an upsurge in COVID infections, there is hope, and we have the opportunity to share that hope with others who so need it.

In June 2019, Grace Presbyterian Church in Highland Park closed. There was special concern for Grace’s Spanish-speaking fellowship, and they moved as a group to Iglesia de la Comunidad. For the last three years they worshiped separately, while finding ways to connect in mission, fellowship, and worship.

Yesterday, the members of Grace’s Latino fellowship became members of Iglesia de la Comunidad in a most joyous Pentecost celebration, as the people became truly one in Christ. Thanks go to Roberto Ramírez and Edgardo Cedeño Diaz, as well as Dave Tomlinson, Pat Martinez-Miller, and Judie Evers, who all worked sensitively and patiently to bring the churches together.

As it happens, I was able to worship with three of our churches yesterday: Westminster Temple City, Mideast Evangelical, and Interwoven. The three are quite different from each other, but they all showed good energy, love for each other and for God, and a desire to deepen their faith and receive the power of the Holy Spirit in their church families. In the absence of a pastor, the people of Westminster are showing great resourcefulness as the session considers future leadership options. Mideast Evangelical continues to celebrate the gifted commitment of their young people, and Pastor Maher Makar arranged for a great scholar and teacher to preach as he takes a sabbatical. And Interwoven offers profoundly moving opportunities for people to connect with each other in all the complexities of life. Sometimes their music leader Astyn Turrentine will offer a new interpretation of an old hymn, and it brings tears to my eyes, as I witness the old traditions continuing to live in new ways for a new generation of disciples.

Indeed, I have been able to see this old Presbyterian Church in new ways, thanks to several close colleagues who came to this church in recent years. My love for this church is matched by my awareness of our shortcomings, so I am thankful to hear how, in spite of our faults, we are offering welcome, compassion, opportunity, and new awareness to friends who are faithful but seeking a new home where they can be more fully engaged in ministry.

Also, I have heard recently from folks who are LGBTQIA+, or who have family members who are. One long-time leader mentioned a confrontation at a presbytery meeting many years ago, when another commissioner told her and a gay elder that they were going to hell. (This is extremely

troubling to me. Even at the height of controversy over LGBT inclusion, there was always one point of agreement from all sides, that there is no tolerance in the PCUSA for hostility or condemnation of persons, including for their sexual orientation.) And yet, this leader has stayed faithful in serving the presbytery, and has shown unusual grace and sensitivity to those who are not in agreement about LGBT inclusion in the church.

I have also heard stories of new ministries that are starting up in our presbytery. One is an innovative “dinner church” outreach to the community which has been led by one of our pastors who happens to be gay. The other is a potential new worshiping community that offers welcome and support for LGBT Christians who have experienced rejection by their home churches and even their families.

Separately, another presbytery member shared that their relationship with a gay relative was marked with healing and joy because he feels seen and accepted, knowing that the PCUSA is now a place of welcome for him.

I strongly believe that we Presbyterians do best as a “Big Tent” church, meaning that we seek to be a church where people are gathered in mission and fellowship not because we agree on everything, but because we understand that God has chosen to bring us together. Perhaps the strongest witness we can offer to this hurting, violent, broken, divided world is to be a community of people bound together not by purity tests or exclusivist doctrine, but by our humble appreciation for the life-giving love that Jesus Christ has given to us, and his command that we love each other.

As we live into this renewed church this Pentecost season, may we be a church where we can honor the work God does for us, in us, and through us, regardless of how we are seen by others. May our commitment to unity and mutual respect, even if we don’t understand or don’t agree, be a beacon of hope for all who are weary of the fighting. I confess there have been moments when my hope has become quite thin, and I give thanks for being in community with a diversity of experiences, and we can be buoyed by those who are rejoicing, even as we also share in the grief that has marked our world these days and years. Personally, I do not have the energy to be angry or hateful, nor do I believe God has given us God’s role as judge. So all I can do is pray, and care, and be thankful.

Holding out for hope,

Wendy

Speak Up

Speak Up

Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.           Matthew 15:28

This last week brought new horrors on top of the horrors of the week before.

It wasn’t enough that folks could not go to their neighborhood supermarket, or to church, without losing their lives to gun violence. In yet another example of people going about the most basic of life activities—little children going to school, teachers going to teach them—more innocents were killed by another teenager with a gun.

The shock and agony was felt by anyone with a heart, but the pain was all the more acute for parents who think of their own little ones. And then there was the news that the killer was able to legally purchase two semi-automatic rifles within a few days of his 18th birthday, as well as 1,657 rounds of ammunition. And there was evidence of his violent tendencies on social media, and he was even reported to the platform, but nothing was done about it.

For myself, the most sickening revelation was the non-response of the dozens of first responders on the scene. The shooter was at the school for 80 minutes. There was some initial fire in the first few minutes, but later there was a span of 47 minutes while at least 19 officers waited inside the school, while students called 911 repeatedly for help, shots were heard, and more officers were outside, restraining parents from trying to go in and get their children. They all waited because one person— the chief of the 6-officer Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District police—told them to wait.

It triggered for me the memory of the three police officers who watched for 9 minutes 29 seconds as George Floyd was being killed. Other than two questions that perhaps he should be rolled over, there seemed to be more energy spent holding Mr. Floyd down and keeping the crowd from helping him.

There are people who seem to take comfort focusing on the one perpetrator for these tragic deaths. We don’t need to consider the idolatry of guns (as poet Amanda Gorman wrote, “The truth is, one nation under guns”), or the racism that is woven into the fabric of America, or the hatred that is fomented on social media, or the number of people who did nothing in the midst of a killing spree. Instead, we just need to restrain the “one bad guy with a gun,” possibly with a “good guy with a gun.”

This focus on condemning one individual, while assuming everyone else can go about their lives unchanged, fails to recognize the brokenness that plagues all humans—and human institutions. The Calvinist in me appreciates the tenet of mutual accountability which is foundational in our Presbyterian system. We all have vulnerabilities, and no individual is capable of making correct decisions every time. This is why I am disturbed that there seems to be so little questioning of decisions we make in our presbytery. While many people are uncomfortable with what feels like conflict and distrust when we Presbyterians debate decisions, I consider this engagement to be healthy and important (as well as it is done with respect, humility, and faithfulness to Christ’s guidance). As members of a connectional church, I hope you are also gravely concerned when people sit back and watch an unjustice being done, without speaking up.

Now the defense for this behavior is the protocol for obeying a command, even it is dangerously wrong. While rapid crisis response usually benefits from a clear command structure, in our church we count on the intelligence and awareness that come with multiple individuals sharing their wisdom. I love the story referenced in Matthew 15:22-28, when even Jesus makes a response that seems devoid of wisdom or compassion. Indeed, when a woman—a foreign Gentile, at that—persists, and even challenges Jesus, she is rewarded. It was probably her desperation to save her daughter that caused her to talk back, but she spoke up, and saved her daughter, and changed the scope of Jesus’ saving call.

Thank God I have never personally seen extreme violence in the life of the church, though the selfless response of Dr. John Cheng probably saved many lives at Irvine Taiwanese, though he lost his own. For the most part our churches suffer from the actions of minor bullies who use menacing tones of voice or emotional abuse to get their way. Sometimes I think that is the important work of leadership, to stay the hands of bullies, but that takes the courage to speak up when you see wrong, and a thick skin (and/or the protection of God) to withstand the reaction. But it can be done, and with practice, it can be done with love and respect. And the earlier it’s done, the less difficult the correction.

May we be open to living out our faith, with love and respect for the body of Christ which is the church—and all the members of it. And let us pray, fervently and without ceasing, for Christ’s comfort for all who grieve, and for protection for all our most vulnerable neighbors and siblings.

 

Blessings,
Wendy