Once again, I had the honor of writing for Inheritance Magazine's first issue in its new, quarterly print format. This time, I offered a short reflection on how the well-known Filipina domestic worker Mary Jane Veloso serves as an important figure of faith, even for Filipino Americans. The article can be read here: https://inheritancemag.com/stories/seeing-mary-jane
Looking For Answers Together
It’s a special blessing to have so many conversation partners who modeI great humility and openness as we work through these tough questions together. Especially as racial and political tensions grow more hostile, we need to lift up the voices of these sisters and brothers who are committed to reconciliation and healing. Whenever we talk about race, there is no shortage of voices seeking revenge or repression over restoration. But these peacemakers remind us that we’re not alone in struggling toward faithfulness and dreaming of what it might mean for Filipino Americans to find their place(s). They remind me that our challenge includes keeping reconciliation always in sight, staying committed to what God desires even as we tread along painful paths. So to all who’ve been reading and reaching out in the spirit of making peace: thank you for reminding us of what the Goal of this work needs to be (Mt. 5:9).
With this in mind we can return to the question I first raised: Why might Filipino Americans be missing from efforts to affirm the dignity of black lives? One indispensable part of the answer lies in the background of our theology and practice: the legacy of Catholic Social Teaching (CST). Because I expect an immediate, allergic reaction from some reading this, a few brief comments are necessary: First, we must recognize that the vast majority of Filipinos in the Philippines (an estimated 80%) and in the States (almost 65%) identify as Catholic, so our analysis of Filipinos’ place in US racial conflict is lacking if we don’t also consider what shapes Catholic and therefore Filipino ethics.
Second, for some conservative Protestants who might object to studying Catholicism, we need to remember that our beliefs and ethics are never formed in a vacuum. Much of what we’ve inherited is a reaction against Catholicism in the Philippines and in the States. So if we follow the knee-jerk reaction to insist that we focus only on ‘what the Bible says,’ what such-and-such megachurch preacher says, or even ‘what the Spirit is doing,’ we may fail to acknowledge that the Catholic church remains one of the most important influences in Filipino life. For example, the controversy over Manny Pacquiao’s recent comments has a thick context (since he is a born-again former Catholic), and we in the States cannot easily separate ourselves from what Filipinos face back home or abroad.
Third, many Filipinos have suffered- physically, economically, emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, culturally- under the combination of Catholicism with colonialism. This is a grievous thing to God and it should motivate us to think more critically while we continue working urgently. Still, we should be cautious about overgeneralizing about Catholicism or Protestantism as traditions, since they each have diverse expressions and their forms in the Philippines and in the States are quite different. Good and bad things have come from any religious tradition, especially when tied to political power. And of course, Jesus challenges every theology, tradition, party, posture, binary, or emotion. If anything, we need to consider the hostility between our traditions, how we got here in the first place and how we dishonor God through it. One of the biggest obstacles to unity and social progress for Filipino Americans is the inherited division between Christians of various traditions.
From And To The Margins
Because current approaches are not helping Filipino Americans to find our place in race relations, we need a different perspective to shed light into our blind spots. So before explaining the helpfulness of cross-racial solidarity, we can consider the uniqueness of Dr. Bryan Massingale’s perspective that makes him worth listening to. He comes to discussions of race with firsthand knowledge of how racism plays out in a congregation, and he is immersed in the worship life of the church and accountable to its people and leaders. Thus, his approach is distinctly an ecclesial and pastoral one. Nor is this mere theory for Massingale, a black man who regularly faces racial profiling despite serving as a pastor and professor. He writes, “This visceral or ‘gut’ characteristic of justice is seldom reflected in the standard accounts upheld by accepted academic discourse.”  Massingale understands the spiritual and emotional nature of racism and that there is something raw about facing racial issues.
Of course, as an African American within the Catholic Church, Massingale brings a perspective that is marginalized. As a person of color in America, he is also fluent in the dynamics of whiteness, since this is the default standard in the States. (Many Filipino Americans can understand this.) And as a black Catholic theologian, he is a minority among other black theologians who are almost always Protestant. “Black Catholics number only about 8 percent of the U.S. black Christian population and less than 4 percent of the U.S. Catholic population.”  In other words, Massingale writes from being made invisible at least twice, and I believe this makes his voice especially prophetic from the margins. Finally, as he draws from African American writers like W.E.B. DuBois and Protestants like James Cone and Cornel West, his work strikes an accessible, ecumenical tone. He even shows great appreciation for evangelical writers have been leading on racial issues for some time, particularly within churches. It follows that Massingale’s sources would be eclectic since he is writing not only about solidarity but about how it can exist across races.
I am particularly interested in Massingale’s voice as a Filipino American Protestant. In ways paralleling Massingale’s unique challenges, 65% of Filipino Americans are Catholic and only 21% are Protestant, placing me and many of you readers in the minority among fellow Filipino Americans.  But at the same time, Filipino Americans remain a minority among American Protestants. Many polls on American Christianity do not even include Asian or Filipino Americans but only divide American Protestants among whites, blacks, and Hispanics.  One recent poll indicates that among American Christians, all major groups are largely white, with the exception of a few historically black denominations- the Church of God in Christ, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the National Baptist Convention.  In other words, to theologize as a Filipino American Protestant leaves many of us in a double-minority position as well- among Filipino Americans who tend to be Catholic and among fellow Protestants who tend to be white or black. Like Massingale’s approach, or like the work of Latino Protestant theologian Justo Gonzalez, racial issues require us to work ecumenically for the sake of society, the common good, and our Christian witness. Also, because there is no leading voice among Filipino American theologians, I rely on Massingale here as a theologian who can help us to find our place.
Massingale begins his book Racial Justice and the Catholic Church by presenting the need for deeper reflection on race, especially within American Catholic theology. He examines three documents issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) on racism- Discrimination and the Christian Conscience (1958), The National Race Crisis (1968), Brothers and Sisters to Us (1979). His critique is a stinging one because Massingale highlights the ambiguity and weakness in the language of the first two documents, despite the momentous contexts in which they were written- the first after Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) and the second in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement just after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968). He also notes that these statements from the USCCB came very late and only under pressure from Rome. In his view, the Catholic church has been behind on many issues of race, even as they are considered progressive on ecomonic issues. 
And while Brothers and Sisters to Us was far more substantial and strongly-worded than the two previous documents, Massingale laments that even twenty five years after its publication “the promise of Brothers and Sisters to Us is still largely a ‘dream deferred.’”  Perhaps his disappointment is captured best by this statement: “The Catholic perspective offers nothing comparable to either the genre or the amount of literature found in the evangelical tradition. The most notable fact concerning the Catholic theological contribution to racial reconciliation is its absence” (103). 
CST On Filipino Americans And Race
As an Asian American- since Filipino Americans are lumped into this broad category (an idea to which I will return in future posts)- I echo this observation of Brothers and Sisters to Us, despite the marked progress beyond its predecessors. In general, CST seems to perpetuate the myth of Asians as “model minorities” who do not face the material effects of American racism. Consider this excerpt from the section of Brothers and Sisters to Us entitled “Racism is a Fact”:
The continuing existence of racism becomes apparent, however, when we look beneath the surface of our national life: as, for example, in the case of unemployment figures. In the second quarter of 1979, 4.9% of white Americans were unemployed; but for blacks the figure was 11.6%; for Hispanics, 8.3%; and for Native Americans on reservations, as high as 40%. The situation is even more disturbing when one realizes that 35% of black youth, 19.1% of Hispanic youth, and an estimated 60% of Native American youth are unemployed.
In the comparison of whites to blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans, there is no discussion here of Asian Americans even though many of us face severe economic challenges, with Pacific Islanders having “among the highest unemployment rates of all racial and ethnic groups.”  The major CST documents on race from the USCCB do not even mention Asian Americans, and this may raise questions about how the USCCB views us as a racial group.
As a Filipino American, two sections of Brothers and Sisters to Us stand out. The first comes from the section “A Look at the Past”:
Whether it be the tragic past of the Native Americans, the Mexicans, the Puerto Ricans, or the blacks, the story is one of slavery, peonage, economic exploration, brutal repression, and cultural neglect. All have suffered indignity; most have been uprooted, defrauded or dispossessed of their lands; and none have escaped one or another form of collective degradation by a powerful majority. Our history is littered with the debris of broken promises and treaties, as well as lynchings and massacres that almost destroyed the Indians, humiliated the Hispanics, and crushed the blacks.
The enduring effects of Spanish Catholic colonization from the time of Ferdinand Magellan and even the subsequent American occupation of the Philippines are not mentioned here, so one can only assume that this is the case because the USCCB does not consider Filipinos or Filipino Americans to be dealing with the negative effects it lists. But just because colonial abuses- whether abuse by priests, American exploitation of Philippine resources, or cultural imperialism- occurred beyond American soil does not mean that Americans, including the American Catholic church, should not acknowledge them. A real “look at the past” would give attention to these. As What Is Happening to Our Beautiful Land says about the Philippines:
There is no denying that in some areas our roads have improved and that electricity is more readily available. But can we say that there is it real progress? Who has benefitted most and who has borne the real costs? The poor are as disadvantaged as ever and the natural world has been grievously wounded. We have stripped it bare, silenced its sounds and banished other creatures, from the community of the living.
From a Filipino American perspective, another aspect of Brothers and Sisters to Us is more significant. In the subsection “The Voice of the Church”, the bishops write:
In our country, one quarter of the Catholics are Spanish speaking. A million blacks make Catholicism one of the largest denominations among black Americans today. Among our nation's original inhabitants, the Native Americans, the Church's presence is increasingly becoming developed and expressed within the cultures of the various Native American tribes.
This is an interesting emphasis in the document, but the bishops stop short of Filipino American concerns. In our solidarity with fellow black Christians, we can understand the USCCB’s support for their one million African American Catholics, though as we will see later they may be overstating the presence of Catholicism in African American life. And surely Catholics from Hispanic and other native American groups deserve for us to hear their voices. However, by the USCCB’s own records, there are more than 2.2 million Filipino Americans in the Catholic Church! Filipino Americans are the largest group of Asian American Catholics by far, and they are the most likely of all racial or ethnic groups to self-identify as Catholic (64.8%), with the exception of foreign-born Hispanics (of whom 66.6% self-identify as Catholic).  If CST and church practice fail to speak to the racial issues faced by Filipino Americans, no one should be surprised if they become disaffected by the church and begin to ask hard questions. To be fair, we can say this of any tradition. This is what motivates Massingale to turn to the concept of solidarity, a resource from a rich tradition which can be reapplied in pursuit of racial justice. But before we can turn to what he calls “cross-racial solidarity,” we should recognize the challenge in understanding what it might mean.
The Wide Embrace of “Solidarity”
Given its usage in common parlance, “solidarity” has taken on assumed meanings, employed in political discourse and on social media following widely-reported tragedies. The term has come a long way since the success of the Lech Walesa and the Catholic Church in Poland more than thirty years ago. Consider some top results of a Google search for “solidarity” among news articles:
1. Rahul Gandhi Expresses Solidarity with Flood Victims 
2. True Solidarity: 'Standing With Paris' Means Securing a Strong Climate Change Agreement 
3. University Feminist And Gay Societies Stand In ‘Solidarity’ With Islamic Society That Hates Gays And Women 
4. Gender Women’s Studies Aims to Promote Campus Solidarity 
This diversity of references to solidarity does not necessarily reflect misunderstanding, although the third usage with ‘Solidarity’ in quotes seems to mock the term. This multiplicity points, rather, to how widely the term is used today, in this case by Indian, British, and American news websites.
The last example above is particularly interesting because the article highlights several aspects of solidarity at once:
Following a Black Student Solidarity rally and the creation of an Illini White Student Union, the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies looked to promote solidarity at the University.
“I think solidarity means you recognize that you can have different positions on a particular topic, but that we find common ground,” said Karen Flynn, associate professor in GWS.
From Dec. 1-3, GWS hosted solidarity hours “in support of students working for racial justice on our campus,” according to the event description.
“Solidarity means people putting themselves out there to support you in some way,” said Terri Barnes, associate professor in GWS. “When you say ‘I support what you stand for or what you’re doing, and I want to go out of my way to show that.’” 
In response to a solidarity rally among black students, several white students have banded together in their own way. We would likely view the actions of these white students negatively, but can this also be considered solidarity? Then, in response to the white students’ reactions, this gender and women’s studies professor points to having common ground despite differences in position, showing solidarity between the work for racial justice and the work of gender and women’s equality, and going out of one’s way to show public support. Even based on this understanding, Filipino Americans do not have solidarity with African Americans in their current pursuit of justice. A public protest on Black Friday barely requires participants to go out of their way. But more seriously, participation in public protest can identify a person with the cause of those protesting, in this case outrage over violent abuses of power. Solidarity carries a social cost for many who would rather not stir the pot or face criticism, whether it be in person or in church or online.
One common criticism aimed at those claiming that #BlackLivesMatter is that it is unfair to draw attention to the suffering of some (and have solidarity with them) if it means leaving others out. There is a defensive, instinctual reaction that has become common among those who are uncomfortable with discussions about race: “But what about ___?!” Usually the person posing this question is neither asking a real question nor concerned with the situation or place they mention. But the tactic is meant to draw attention away from the injustice at hand. It attempts to call into question the selective concern of the person posting the story. For instance if a person of color speaks up about the Laquan McDonald shooting, a defensive person might fire back at their post, “But what about what’s happening in ____?” (Translation: “Why don’t you also care/post about that?” and/or “Your concern and opinion are invalid.”)
The person may further this attack by broadening the scope geographically: “But what about what happened in Ferguson?” “But what about what’s going on in Syria?” “But what about what’s happening in ‘Africa’ (as if Africa were a city or country)?” or even “But what about what’s happening on Mars?” If not this kind of geographical escapism, the defender might deflect to a new issue altogether: “But what about the Syrian refugees?” or “But what about human trafficking?” or even “But what about the Zika virus?” or “But what about singularity?” All these deflections become an infinite regression which in the end helps no one except those who benefit from silence on racial issues. Even worse, racial and socioeconomic divisions are furthered by defensiveness and we settle for unity with those who agree with us rather than solidarity with those who are different. If even showing empathy online can be costly, how much more will it cost us to bring up these concerns- near to God’s heart as they are- in our own churches, especially when our people are glad to feel removed from these situations.
Solidarity Says ‘You’re Welcome’
We must note the significance of solidarity being received (Thanks, Pastor Gerald, for this reminder!). What good would it be if the professor above took actions which were rejected by those she sought to partner with? Can Filipino Americans be said to have solidarity with black people if they do not receive our efforts? It’s not that solidarity must always be known and acknowledged, for we may have solidarity with a person or group and even sacrifice with/for them even if they never know about it or never know us. In age of social media advocacy, crowdfunding, and popular democratic movements this is inarguably true, just as it will always be true of prayer. Not every expression of solidarity can be known, but it can still be solidarity when it receives no response. By forgetting this we not only minimize prayer and others’ sincere efforts, but we unintentionally begin a “suffering contest” which turns attention away from those who need it and towards ourselves while pushing away potential allies. But attempts at solidarity, when they are known, can also be ignored, derailed, or rejected. Likewise, solidarity cannot be demanded of someone or forced on them, but it is received from God and shared across differences.
Here in Chicago, African American and civil rights leaders repeatedly invited people of all backgrounds to join them in seeking justice. While on their own the African American community is very large in our city, the pastors of black churches here encouraged cross-racial support, especially among pastors. In a recent meeting with some of the highest leaders in the Chicago Police Department, black community leaders made sure to acknowledge their supporters from various communities so that city leaders would see it. These same pastors are still leading on these issues and it’s our turn to respond in solidarity. This kind of heart for others is precious in part because it’s becoming so rare these days. While it gets easier for some of us to simply pick-up and leave or “unfollow” tough relationships or communities or issues for easier ones, God is uniquely present in those who are committed to staying in conversation. Solidarity means finding our place at the table and welcoming others to it, and sometimes it also means standing so that others can finally sit.
 Bryan Massingale, Racial Justice and the Catholic Church (Orbis, 2010), 131.
 Ibid, 166.
 “Asian Americans: A Mosaic of Faiths,” Pew Research Center, July 19, 2012, accessed December 5, 2015, http://www.pewforum.org/2012/07/19/asian-americans-a-mosaic-of-faiths-overview/.
 Albert L. Winesman, “Race and Religion: The Protestant-Catholic Divide,” August 7, 2004, accessed December 5, 2015, http://www.gallup.com/poll/12718/race-religion-protestantcatholic-divide.aspx.
 Michael Lipka, “The Most and Least Racially Diverse U.S. Religious Groups,” July 27, 2015, accessed December 5, 2015, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/07/27/the-most-and-least-racially-diverse-u-s-religious-groups/.
 Massingale, 54.
 Ibid, 70.
 Ibid, 103.
 Dr. Tung Thanh Nguyen, “Not Your Model Minority: The Reality of the Asian American and Pacific Islander Community,” Huffington Post, November 9, 2015, accessed November 25, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-tung-thanh-nguyen/not-your-model-minority-t_b_8513548.html.
 Mark Gray, Mary Gautier, and Thomas Gaunt, SJ, “Cultural Diversity in the Catholic Church in the United States,” Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, June 2014, accessed December 5, 2015, http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/cultural-diversity/upload/cultural-diversity-cara-report-phase-1.pdf.
 “Rahul Gandhi Expresses Solidarity with Flood Victims,” The Economic Times, December 8, 2015, accessed December 5, 2015, http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/rahul-gandhi-expresses-solidarity-with-flood-victims/articleshow/50092269.cms.
 Dena Adler, “True Solidarity: 'Standing With Paris' Means Securing a Strong Climate Change Agreement,” Huffington Post, December 7, 2015, accessed December, 5, 2015,
 Liam Deacon, University Feminist And Gay Societies Stand In ‘Solidarity’ With Islamic Society That Hates Gays And Women,” Breitbart, December 7, 2105, accessed December 5, 2015, http://www.breitbart.com/london/2015/12/07/university-feminist-and-gay-societies-stand-in-solidarity-with-gay-and-women-hating-islamic-society/.
[14,15] Christin Watkins, “Gender Women’s Studies Aims to Promote Campus Solidarity,” Daily Illini, December 7, 2015, accessed December 5, 2015, http://www.dailyillini.com/article/2015/12/gender-women-studies-aims-to-promote-campus-solidarity.
Alone In A Crowd
A few days before a judge forced Chicago city officials to release the video of Laquan McDonald’s death, Mayor Rahm Emanuel called a meeting with several African American community leaders, including many pastors, seeking their help to keep the city calm. Even though Mayor Emanuel claimed he had not yet seen the video, he knew it had the potential to cause a citywide uproar. The footage, taken from a police car’s dashboard camera in October 2014, captures Officer Jason Van Dyke arriving on scene and quickly shooting the 17-year old McDonald sixteen times, even though McDonald appears to pose no threat to Van Dyke or his fellow officers. Van Dyke begins shooting even as McDonald is seen walking away, and the bullets keep hitting McDonald while he lays on the ground defenseless.
Despite the mayor’s pleas for calm, African American clergy and politicians led a major protest which shut down Chicago’s Michigan Avenue on Black Friday. As Dr. Reggie Williams from McCormick Theological Seminary commented, “I don't think he [Emanuel] understands that a lot of Chicago clergy, especially on the south side, don't mind it when people protest injustice.” Many pastors and activists continue to call for resignations of city officials involved, with a recent prayer gathering leading to the immediate, forced resignation of the police superintendent the next morning. Outrage continues not only over the video, but also over the mayor’s apparent attempts to hide it for the sake of his re-election, over the slowness of the State’s Attorney to bring murder charges against Van Dyke, and against an ongoing culture of corruption and racism within the Chicago Police Department.
The anger in our city is part of the growing national- and now international- outrage over the deaths of black people at the hands of white police officers. As the “Black Lives Matter” movement continues drawing attention to systemic racism, many defensive whites resist this focus by insisting that “All Lives Matter” or even that “Blue Lives Matter” (a claim that police are now marginalized by media depictions of them as racist). The tense history of white racism against blacks is resurfacing and reshaping political debate, especially in online spaces. But where does this leave more than 73 million Americans who are neither black nor white?
In this series of posts, we explore the concept of solidarity from one such perspective, that of Filipino Americans and their churches. I claim that Filipino Americans as a group do not stand in solidarity with African Americans, and that we can deepen our understanding of American racial divisions in general by studying this relationship. [Note: It’s necessary for me, to the extent that I can, to acknowledge where I stand socially- as one Filipino American among many Filipinos and Americans. And I do this as any writer does but it may be more obvious in my case as for other people of color.]
Further, even though solidarity is a virtue embraced by Western people of all or no faiths, it has been most developed by Catholic Social Thought (CST), a body of ethical teachings which has been generally unhelpful in addressing the current racial conflicts. I agree with Dr. Bryan Massingale on this, and I present his understanding of “cross-racial solidarity” in order to draw out its potential to call Filipino Americans into solidarity with African Americans. I also hope that this might offer a model for solidarity among other racial groups even though my focus here is on Filipino Americans and our place in U.S. race relations. Finally, because it goes beyond this blog to address the many discourses of race and racial reconciliation, my discussion is specific to relations among Christians of various backgrounds as a entry into solidarity, given that because the majority of Filipinos, blacks, whites, and Hispanics in the U.S. identify as Christians.
With that said, let us return to the earlier question: if Hispanic and Asian Americans have a place in the tensions between whites and blacks, then on whose side should we be? Under the leadership of Jesus “Chuy” Garcia (Mayor Emanuel’s opponent in the last election who barely lost by runoff), a few of Chicago’s Hispanic leaders have recently spoken out. But the public demonstrations are still comprised primarily of African Americans. This is noteworthy since Chicago is almost 29% Hispanic and 33% black. Solidarity between the two groups would undoubtedly be significant religiously and politically. So what's getting in the way?
Likewise, I have seen only a handful of Asian Americans at these growing demonstrations around the city, despite the many large events in the area organized among Asian American churches. Certain Korean American and Chinese American ministry networks easily gather hundreds or thousands of church members- including students, young adults, and even academics- for their conferences here in Chicago. This is possible for them because many individual churches in their networks have several hundreds or more than a thousand members. And despite the strong religious networks among Filipinos in the Chicago area organizing for “pro-life” work, I have found myself the only Filipino American pastor participating in the recent demonstrations. Dr. Tim Tseng, a postcolonial historian and Chinese American pastor, once told me that Filipino Americans are the most likely of all Asian Americans to join protests. If this is true, then where have they been lately, and why aren't we hearing of their involvement in other cities? So far, there is very little scholarship answering these questions from a theological perspective (specifically asking where the church is), so this is an urgent conversation and it will need to remain open for some time.
This is far more important than it appears. While Asian Americans make up only 5.5% of Chicago, they number more than 18 million nationally and are the fastest growing segment of the United States. They are estimated to number more than 40 million by the year 2050, making up more than 9% of country by then. So as these protests continue to grow across the country, we see potential for collective action. But at the same time, racial and religious divisions still haunt us, even among Christians with similar theologies and near identical doctrinal statements. If we are going to seize our opportunity to support needed systemic change, we must acknowledge and understand these divisions in hopes of overcoming them.
 Fran Spielman and Maudlyne Ihejirika, “Emanuel Calls Laquan McDonald Shooting ‘Hideous,’ Urges Peaceful Protest,” Chicago Sun-Times, November 23, 2015, accessed December 5, 2015, http://chicago.suntimes.com/news/7/71/1125338/emanuel-laquan-mcdonald-shooting-video.
 Kim Jansen, “Michigan Avenue Black Friday Protests Cost Stores 25-50 Percent of Sales,” Chicago Tribune, November 30, 2015, accessed December 5, 2015, http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-black-friday-mag-mile-fallout-1201-biz-20151130-story.html.
 Elizabeth Matthews, “Religious Leaders Hold Peaceful Demonstration,” Fox 32 News, November 30, 2015, accessed December 5, 2015, http://www.fox32chicago.com/news/local/54940770-story.
 Jonah Newman, “Chicago Police Misconduct Payouts Topped $50 Million in 2014,”, Chicago Reporter, February 25, 2015, accessed December 5, 2015, http://chicagoreporter.com/chicago-police-misconduct-payouts-topped-50-million-in-2014/.
 Anna Brown, “U.S. Hispanic and Asian Populations Growing but for Different Reasons,” Pew Research Center, June 6, 2014, accesed December 5, 2015, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/06/26/u-s-hispanic-and-asian-populations-growing-but-for-different-reasons/.
 Here, I will use the terms “black” and “African American” interchangeably unless a distinction needs to be made when referring to blacks from Africa or the Caribbean, as many writers in race and critical race studies do. In the same way, I use “Hispanic” to refer to groups that are often called “Latino/a” because most US Census publications do the same. Also, while I use the term “Filipino American” (instead of “Pilipino American” or “US Filipino” which are in my view not substantially different), I do not hyphenate between Filipino and American.
 Fran Spielman and Patrick Judge, “Garcia Wants Alvarez to Quit; State's Attorney's Political Base in Jeopardy,” Chicago Sun-Times, November 30, 2015, accessed December 5, 2015, http://chicago.suntimes.com/news/7/71/1139920/anita-alvarez-losing-hispanic-political-base.
 U.S. Census Bureau, State and County QuickFacts, revised December 2, 2015, accessed December 5, 2015, http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/17/1714000.html.
 Elizabeth M. Hoeffel, Sonya Rastogi, Myoung Ouk Kim, & Hasan Shahid, “The Asian Population 2010,” U.S. Census Briefs, March 2012, accessed December 5, 2015, http://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-11.pdf.
 “Asian American Populations,” CDC Minority Health, July 2, 2013, accessed December 5, 2015, http://www.cdc.gov/minorityhealth/populations/REMP/asian.html.
NOW IS THE TIME TO MOURN
After watching the Chicago Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup for the third time in six years, my #OneGoal for the day was to head downtown and celebrate with friends, just as I had after their last two championships. Lebron had also lost (the Warriors won) and my wife and I had just announced that we’re expecting a boy this October. It was a week full of celebration.
But after seeing the news of the Charleston murders the other night, I couldn’t rest well. The last two days have actually been more painful than I expected. And I’m not even black. With the same heaviness and sadness that accompanied the news of Typhoon Haiyan’s destruction in the Philippines, I could barely sleep when I began to pray for the Emanuel AME Church. “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep,” right? I could only try to imagine what those sisters and brothers went through, sitting in their weekly Bible study/prayer meeting as is the custom in many of our churches, welcoming a guest who would be their killer. And I was even more heartbroken when our own church leaders began to express serious fears of attending Wednesday night prayer meeting. I began to consider (though not for the first time), “What would happen if this shooter had done this in the church where I serve? What would I need?” And a friend reminded me that much more needs to be mourned than what happened within the church.
Let me say right away that I don’t claim to contribute anything new to the current national debate on race in America. I have only served a few black people in my leadership role and I am still learning from mentors and friends within black churches who teach me about the challenges they face everyday. Their voices have been formative for me, especially in light of recent events. So I defer to the experts like my mentor/friend Dr. Reggie Williams for analysis of the issues involved in this specific anti-black terror attack. But I am a Christian pastor in America who is also a Filipino, and I believe that it’s time for Filipinos or other immigrant communities to take more responsibility in affirming that #BlackLivesMatter.
FILIPINOS: THE “BLACKS OF ASIA”
It’s often said that Filipinos are the “blacks of Asia.” (Because of the phrase, I’ll use the term “black” throughout this post.) I can’t remember when I first heard this term, but I was old enough to understand what it meant. My Chinese and Korean friends often said it to me, but only later did I understand its significance. We Filipinos are the blacks of Asia because we’re darker-skinned than many other Asians. Connected to this darkness and proximity to what DuBois called the “color line,” we’re poor or even “ghetto.” Among Asians, we’re also the entertainers -- singers, musicians, dancers, actors, master imitators, karaoke superstars, etc. We’re the lovers of basketball and boxing, often connected to street gangs, and the most likely Asians to be part of hip hop culture. This contrast between Filipinos and other Asians is especially seen in North America where we live near each other and these differences can be pointed out.
When we were called this in the 90’s, it wasn’t bad to a “black Asian.” In fact, I wore it like a badge of honor, in the same way Eddie Huang’s Taiwanese American character in "Fresh Off the Boat" identifies with his favorite rappers and emulates NBA players like Shaq. It was a good thing for Filipino Americans because it meant acceptance and street credibility, often after being teased for years by white kids as a nerd, “chink,” or asexual martial arts expert. So, many other Filipino American boys wanted to be the Fresh Prince, the outsider who made it cool. And we celebrated the Black Eyed Peas and the Neptunes because Filipinos were among them. Later came the "Rush Hour" movies putting black and Asian together. And after them came the Jabbawockeez -- with Shaq wanting to be one of us (and not in the way of Wu-Tang Clan’s orientalism)!
It may be different now, but pop culture and media seemed to present only two identifiable options for many Asian Americans back then: black or white, like in the Michael Jackson song. So if whiteness and its benefits were denied to many of us and we learned that we were “other,” blackness gained appeal. For Filipino Americans, the appeal was even greater: we could finally combine our Asian-ness with a certain level of honorary blackness. Recently, I met a small group of black female scholars and the first questions they asked me were 1) if I was Filipino and 2) if I knew how to break dance. Of course, I answered “Yes,” then, “Kinda, but I ended up a DJ.” We laughed about it and one of them said, “See, Filipinos are just like black people!” In a strange way, we understood each other and our bond actually opened up conversation about slavery in the United States and colonialism in the Philippines.
But the term “blacks of Asia” is problematic for so many reasons. Coming from many East Asians and most Asian Americans, it’s not a compliment. As a kid, I didn’t understand that this also meant East Asians looked down on Filipinos, just like many whites look down on black people. I would later learn that many Asian girls’ parents would never accept us as Filipinos, and we were often discouraged from dating white girls for the same reason. The term “blacks of Asia” is also somewhat of a misnomer because Filipinos, like many ethnic groups, come in all shades and colors. And there are many other Asian people whose skin is as dark or darker. Again, related to where they’re from, their homelands may even be poorer than the Philippines. So like Filipinos they are scattered throughout the world in search of opportunity, but often doing jobs that Filipinos can avoid. And Asia is obviously a VERY diverse place, accounting for up to 60% of the world’s population, so it’s difficult to claim that any group are “its blacks.”
Most importantly, the term is unhelpful because it’s based on stereotypes about black people which are then applied to Filipinos. It reduces both peoples to a color and what is associated with that color, denying them their full humanity. To use this term erases Filipino uniqueness, making it a function of stereotyped blackness in America. But the experiences of black people in the United States can’t be reduced so simply. They’re connected to a specific, tragic history of systemic, structural, and lasting oppression. Filipino Americans, despite all that we might share with black people, cannot claim this same story. We have our own challenges, but they cannot be compared with what black people continue to endure here.
Consider this: many Filipinos in the U.S. regularly negotiate several identities -- 1) being accepted by whites as part of the Asian model-minority, 2) being accepted by black people as “honorarily black,” 3) being accepted by Latinos as having Spanish colonial roots, or even 4) being accepted by Asian Americans based on physical features and cultural commonalities. But the black person in the U.S., by virtue of their place in the dominant narrative, does not have these options. Carefully understood, the term “blacks of Asia” implies disdain for blacks from both whites and fellow Asians, and the Spanish colonial story is a slightly different but still white anti-black disdain. So while Filipino Americans can choose to benefit at times by identifying as “blacks of Asia,” the black person in America cannot return the favor or receive the same benefit. They remain the black person in America, categorized by whiteness as its opposite.
Black lives matter to God and they must matter to all God’s people. This is reality, but we refuse to acknowledge it. This is a simple, clear statement calling for action. But we as Filipino American Christians have yet to undertake our responsibility, despite all that we may gain from our black sisters and brothers. We have experiences enabling us to see what many white Christians cannot see and we have some ability to speak up for black people. We have an opportunity before us to “stand in the gap”, and we must not let fear keep us silent. Dietrich Bonhoeffer supposedly said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
Lord, forgive us.
Unfortunately, much of the dehumanization of black people in America is still perpetuated within many of our own immigrant churches. We must wake up to our own racist colonial inheritance so that it can be acknowledged, examined, lamented, fought against, and healed. In our churches -- and more tellingly, in our homes -- how do we value or devalue blackness? Why are so many Filipino parents deathly afraid of their children marrying black people, though we’re happy to be friends with them and quick to point out when white people reject us? When was the last time we intentionally addressed racism in our pulpits, Bible studies, and prayer meetings, even though we affirm that we care about what matters to God? How have we welcomed black Christians and churches into our fellowship or invited their voices into our worship services? In our churches and leadership, what attitudes toward black people are we perpetuating? And related to these, perhaps as a litmus, how are dark-skinned people either marginalized or empowered in our churches?
The ongoing history of racism is not only played out in our families and Filipino/immigrant churches, but our response to it is absolutely connected to the future of the United States. As Christians, it should be unacceptable to us that our own sisters and brothers who bear God’s image are treated as if their lives don’t matter, and we cannot ignore them as they cry out. In this season, we cannot be faithful to God without affirming that #BlackLivesMatter and acting to let this be true, “on earth as it is in Heaven.”
TAKING IT PERSONALLY, PASTORALLY
How will we do this? To start, we need to take it personally that #BlackLivesMatter. Part of our challenge as immigrants is that we often give ourselves a pass and sidestep our responsibility in the discussion around race. After all, because it’s generally a black/white conversation, we feel exempted. We make it an excuse that our own communities and families back home need our help, and because of this we don’t get involved in the plight of black people here in the U.S. But Jesus is clear in his call to love neighbor and enemy. “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?”
Sometimes, we do worse: we love to celebrate the good news of grace when it benefits us, but we blame black people for their own problems, totally ignoring history when it serves our purpose. I hear this often in churches (only in passing, of course): we affirm with Manny Pacquiao that God alone could have taken us “from nothing into something,” but when it comes to blacks or any struggling group, they’re simply holding themselves back and they should learn from us how to work and move up. This is unacceptable, a total rejection of grace and the ethic it calls for.
In the famous words of Jesus at the end of Matthew’s gospel, we need to see that Jesus takes personally what is done to the marginalized and needy. So often, we read this in light of ourselves, in terms of what we can do and whether we are sheep or goats, faithful or guilty. But we must also learn to read and hear Jesus’ words with a focus on what he’s saying: what is done for the marginalized is done to him (“you did it to me”) and what is not done for them is not done to him (“you did not do it to me”). If it’s personal for Jesus, how can it not be personal to us? Remembering this reshapes our ethics in light of Christology: we have a responsibility to love and speak and act on behalf of others as a responsibility to Jesus himself. This is the only way I can account for this stirring in my heart -- as a Christian and fellow servant of the church, the victims of this anti-black terror are my family.
SEEING OURSELVES IN 'OTHERS’
One of the most important things we must remember about Bonhoeffer was that he himself was German and not Jewish. And yet his legacy is often invoked, but seldom on behalf of people different from the one invoking it. Bonhoeffer is well-known for standing up against Hitler’s regime, but we often forget that he could have survived and gone somewhat unharmed by the Nazis if he wanted to. After all, he was comfortable, educated, well-connected, talented, and very mobile. If not for his friendships with Jewish people and his family ties with Christians from Jewish backgrounds, he could have held onto the nationalistic theology that characterized his early career and the majority of German pastors at the time.
But through his year spent in New York, learning from black leaders and serving at the Abyssinian Street Baptist Church during the Harlem Renaissance, Bonhoeffer had his blind spots exposed and he became a true Christian. He would later see that the treatment of Jews in Germany paralleled the treatment of blacks he saw in much of the United States (see Dr. Reggie Williams’ Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus). And for him, grace was costly. And so he spoke up.
We don’t need to be black to affirm that #BlackLivesMatter. In fact, it’s even more important for us as non-blacks to embrace this. But if we who’ve been called the “blacks of Asia” cannot affirm that black lives matter, our own churches will soon exclude both the marginalized and Christ himself. We might survive or even “succeed” by staying out of the fray in these tense times, but we cannot pretend that this is faithfulness to God. Now is the time for Filipino and immigrant churches to listen to our black family and repent of our complicity. It is our turn to speak up and act on behalf of our sisters and brothers, and even to pay the cost for committing to Christ in them.
First, thank you for the overwhelming responses to what I wrote last month before the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight. Perhaps unlike the fight itself, it has been exciting to see so many people sharing and reposting what I wrote, and I believe this points to a shared desire among many of us to see God’s work among us celebrated. A shout-out goes to my friends who thought seriously about what I said and gave feedback from their own Filipino American experiences. And finally, a special thanks to the many friends in church/ministry leadership and academic theology who weighed in as well. Thank you for partnering with me, welcoming my ideas, and continuing to open doors for what might be a Filipino American Theology. Maraming salamat for accepting the invitation! (Yes, Taglish.)
A DEVELOPING DIRECTION?
Besides Manny’s loss (which will be the subject of a future post), the last few weeks have seen a few important developments in Filipino American life that deserve mention here, since they help us to understand some of the context around the development of our own theological voice:
1. The Filipino School (San Diego, CA) is now open. GMA News reported on May 12, “San Diego, a historical destination for Filipino migrants, opened the first Filipino school in the United States on Monday, endeavoring to reconnect more than 150,000 Filipino-American children to their heritage.” Notice the school’s purpose: to reconnect one of the largest Filipino American populations to its Filipino roots. Implied here is that a disconnect exists between Filipino Americans and their heritage. Obviously, this might apply differently to each of us, but the reality of some kind of disconnect stands, even if just a geographical one. The school’s mission statement is even more interesting: “To build and uplift the Filipino Nation through education.” The school’s founders, including businessman/philanthropist Tony Olaes, see Filipinos as a nation, a unique people tied to the Philippines regardless of where in diaspora they land.
Clearly the school’s mission also grows out of Olaes’ own cultural journey as a second generation Filipino American. In an interview with the Asian Journal, Olaes shares about growing up detached from his Filipino roots, seeing the Philippines as “dirty, diseased, and dangerous”- a colonial view of the Philippines sadly common among many Filipino Americans. But all this changed for Olaes when his uncle introduced him to the work of Gawad Kalinga (GK) and he matured in his understanding, calling himself a “born-again Filipino.”
Of course, I hope The Filipino School finds success. What remains to be seen is whether the model can or will be replicated throughout the US or even Canada. Also, one might wonder whether Filipino American congregations, like many Chinese American and Korean American communities, will mobilize their resources to provide this service for many second or third generation parents who want their own children to know and appreciate Filipino culture and not simply become “Americans”. The attitudes of young Filipino American church leaders toward their own cultural roots will have a dramatic effect on the future of Filipino American churches and their theology.
2. The Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) announced plans to open a national museum in Stockton, California. Like The Filipino School in San Diego, this is another initiative to honor the experiences of many first generation immigrants from the Philippines, even though this group came to the States in the 1920’s, many as agricultural workers rather than after 1965 as professionals. What’s noteworthy in this project is the dedication of space to remembering the struggles faced by early Filipino American immigrants, including the bombing of Stockton’s own Filipino American center in January of 1930. Remembering tragedy as part of our Filipino American history helps us to keep our expectations realistic. And perhaps this hope for acceptance is even greater among Filipino and Filipino American Christians in the West who expect, on the basis of faith, to be treated as equals by those who lead our churches, denominations, and seminaries. After all, are we not brothers and sisters? Unfortunately, reality shows otherwise. Filipino American history is a relatively new field, so we have yet to see the publication of a thorough history of Filipino American Christianity, especially from the first generation of Filipino American pastors and leaders. Hopefully our conversations here can contribute to such work.
3. NYC (and NJ) hosted the first-ever Filipino Restaurant Week. Many of us remember when Andrew Zimmern of the TV show Bizarre Foods predicted that Filipino cuisine would be the “next big thing.” Well, if Zimmern was prophetic and the current hype is real, we may see a rise in the number and reputation of Filipino-inspired restaurants. Co-sponsored by the Philippine Consulate General in NYC, thirteen restaurants are participating in the first official, culinary celebration of Filipino food. Though I'm by no means a true foodie, what I appreciate about many Filipino American food writers like my friends at Filipino Kitchen is their commitment to sharing Filipino American culture through the whole dining-related experience. This commitment helps us to move beyond simply entertaining (as I argued in my previous post), because this goes beyond seeking acceptance from the majority culture. Filipino Kitchen is an example of tying food and culture together positively and thoughtfully, navigating through questions of ethnic identity around a meal. I invite Filipino American Christians to engage in deeper and more critical theological reflection like this around our own meals, especially because food and meals are spiritually important, even sacramental, for us.
From having our own school to establishing our own museum to celebrating our cuisine, where are all these developments taking us? Will the carving out of our own cultural spaces lead Filipino Americans to find greater acceptance from the majority, or are we reclaiming these American spaces to affirm ourselves and one another as fellow Filipinos as an “in-house” project? Is the second option necessary to the first? Whatever the situation, we as Filipino Americans face a great opportunity to come into our own as both Filipino and American. And because so many Filipino Americans still identify as Christian, our own theology will be part of charting this course.
A TRANSNATIONAL FAITH
Alongside these cultural developments, Christianity remains formative in Filipino American life. Consider these other happenings in recent days:
1. UFC fighter Mark Munoz fought his last fight in Manila. Though he never became a champion anywhere near Manny Pacquiao’s level, Filipino American MMA fighter Mark Munoz finally retired from a long career by returning to the Philippines to fight his final bout at the Mall of Asia Arena (yes, the Mall of Asia also has an arena, in addition to an ice skating rink, IMAX theater, and bowling alley). But Munoz wasn’t born in the Philippines. Born on a US Navy base in Japan to Filipino parents, Munoz grew up in California and became an All-American NCAA wrestling champion before joining the UFC. After 16 fights, Munoz wanted to finish his UFC career in the Philippines as a homecoming, even for a Filipino American. Thankfully, he won.
Often called the nicest guy in the UFC, Munoz decided to hang up his gloves and give more time to his family as his children grow older. Munoz is also a committed, outspoken Christian with a reputation for integrating his faith into his coaching of younger fighters, leadership of his anti-bullying foundation, and soon, his post-retirement mission to mentor young Filipinos in the Philippines. Munoz, like Manny Pacquiao, points us to the transnational complexity of Filipino American identity and faith.
So after lengthy debate over the terms Filipino and Filipino American, Manny and Mark may be showing us the limits of these terms and the need to simply adopt something like Joaquin Jay Gonzalez’ use of transnational kasamahan (see my previous post). The overlap between what constitutes Filipino versus Filipino American is complex, and the same is true of the overlap among Filipino Christianities in Canada, Western Europe, Australia, and perhaps even Hong Kong and the Middle East. But Filipino Christians in all these places- like Manny and Mark- can be said to identify with each other in kasamahan, and Christianity remains a strong factor in the connection among Filipinos in these places. Filipino American Theology calls for recognition of this “both and” mentality, changing the way we view ethnic identity and its relationship to faith.
2. Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, Archbishop of Manila, has been named President of Caritas Internationalis. The first Asian to hold the position, Tagle is also closely connected to Pope Francis (Tagle has even been called the "Asian Francis"). For some Protestants reading this, it may come as a surprise to find this mentioned here, but with so many Filipinos and Filipino Americans identifying as Catholic we must include these developments in discussions of our theology even among Protestants and Evangelicals. Pope Francis is not only loved by many Catholics and Evangelicals, but with Tagle now leading the Catholic church's social arm, his actions might prove influential to Filipino American Christianity because Catholic/Protestant differences are not as great in the US as they are in the Philippines.
Even though real, legitimate differences will remain between Christians of various traditions, the next generation is more open than its predecessors to some kind of ecumenism in a Filipino American Theology, especially when the "Catholic vs. Protestant" hostility is exposed as a vestige of colonialism pitting Filipinos against one another in unchristian ways, even within families. As we work towards a Filipino American Theology, we should recognize that Filipino American Christians have more in common than previously acknowledged, not only with each other but also with believers from other marginalized communities in the States and overseas.
3. The SBC announced their “20/20 Vision” to plant 100 new Filipino churches throughout North America. In an effort to reach the 4 million Filipinos living in the US (by their own SBC estimate), the largest Protestant denomination in the US has announced a plan to plant twenty Filipino churches each year over the next five years. This is the most ambitious, publicized effort by a denomination seeking to reach Filipino Americans and Filipino Canadians, and it comes in response to the SBC’s Filipino Fellowship. I appreciate that the SBC’s executive leadership recognizes Filipino Americans as an important group, and I look forward to seeing how their plans develop.
Having my own roots in the churches planted by American Baptist (ABC, not SBC) missionaries who came to the Philippines in the early 20th century, I am fairly acquainted with the heritage of Filipino Baptists in North America. My father actually planted the First Filipino Baptist Church in Toronto (the first in all of Canada), and I was fortunate to speak to a surprisingly large contingent of the Filipino Southern Baptist Association of Metro New York and New Jersey last year. Because of the SBC’s size (16.2 million members)- more than double the size of the second largest Protestant denomination in the States- this is definitely a community that stands to contribute to a Filipino American Theology if the SBC is serious about planting and resourcing these churches. I know that some of my readers might be in the SBC, and I would love to hear your perspective on these developments.
Two questions immediately come to mind, however: First, are American denominations besides the SBC interested in reaching or serving Filipinos? Why or why not? If not through traditional denominations, are Filipino Americans on the radars of parachurch ministries, church planting networks, or leadership conferences? Second, is the SBC or any other group really open to supporting the development of a Filipino American Theology?
A GROWING CONVERSATION: FAITH (Filipinos Allied In Theology) ON FACEBOOK
You might notice that this post is filled more with questions than answers, and this is intentional because I continue to call for responses from others whose voices are needed in this conversation. When US Latino/a theology first developed, its authors coined a term which overlaps well with kasamahan and may be truer to the Spirit’s work among Filipino American churches. They call this teologia en conjunto, “the process whereby a group of theologians gathers in order to do theology jointly. Hence, the 'product' ultimately belongs to the community and not to any one individual scholar” (Espin and Diaz, From the Heart of Our People, 263).
It isn’t surprising that aspects of Latino/a theology resonate with Filipino Americans since we share a common “heritage”, but teologia en conjunto is an important commitment to highlight because it reminds us that God’s work in a Filipino American Theology will come from his people in the churches, even if leaders or scholars give it voice. This also means that God’s movement among any specific ethnic group cannot be fully appreciated in isolation, however unique it might be. Further, Filipino American Christians have much in common with Filipino Canadian Christians (and I acknowledge this as a Canadian-born Filipino American) or even Filipino Christians in Europe and elsewhere. And whatever becomes of a Filipino American Theology is not just for Filipinos but for anyone interested in supporting or learning from what God is doing among us.
THEREFORE, because together we’ve identified a growing need for continued conversation and mutual support, I am starting a new Facebook page called FAITH (Filipinos Allied In Theology) which I hope can serve as a safe and positive space for this project. Consider this an extension of my first invitation, not only to theologize but to be welcomed at the table and share in what God is doing. "Anak, you eat!"
My wife and I were sitting in a small Cuban sandwich shop last month when the pre-fight news conference for Mayweather-Pacquiao was showing on the restaurant TV. What has been hailed by sports fans as the “fight of the century” had a press conference whose rhetoric matched the expectations of the fight. So of course, several of us in the restaurant dropped what we were doing to listen closely as the restaurant owner turned up the TV’s volume. And that’s when Manny- as has become his custom nowadays- stepped to the podium and began to preach:
“I want to let the people know that there is God who can raise someone from nothing into something. And that's me. That's me. I came from nothing into something. And I owe everything to God who gave me this blessing.”
Manny went on to say a few other things, but it finally hit me that this is his message. The live press conference gave Manny the chance to say whatever he wanted to say without the usual prompting from an interviewer, and this is what he wants the people to know.
By now, fans have listened to Manny in dozens of pre- and post-fight interviews, in documentaries about his life (on HBO, Showtime, Fox, ESPN, etc.), in commercials for all sorts of products, and we’ve laughed and suffered through his karaoke performances on Jimmy Kimmel Live. But on his own and without editing, Manny wants to share this good news: God can raise up nothing into something. This is the gospel according to Manny Pacquiao and he is relentless in preaching it.
Its Meaning for Filipino American Theology
Of all the TV specials capturing Pacquiao’s faith, none of them do so like the documentary Manny. In it director Ryan Moore lets the boxer-turned-preacher tell much of the story in his own words, in many ways as a religious testimony. Liam Neeson also narrates, but only occasionally. Reflecting on Pacquiao’s rise from a life of poverty into international stardom, Manny testifies to God raising the fighter “from nothing into something.” Likewise his wife Jinkee, his trainer Freddie, and his promoter Bob Arum add their own perspectives on Manny’s newfound sense of divine purpose. And in the few conversations I had with Ryan Moore, even he testifies to being inspired by Manny’s faith during the five years it took to make the film. What I appreciate most about Moore’s documentary is that he allows the Christian faith which is central to Manny’s life to take prominence in the film. Manny Pacquiao’s experience of God has so transformed him that he never misses an opportunity to share it, and he can no longer be understood apart from his Christian faith.
But while many writers have mentioned the strength and centrality of Manny Pacquiao’s faith, none have discussed its significance for Filipino American Christians. My goal in this essay is to examine the gospel according to Manny Pacquiao as an expression of popular faith in order to reflect on its resonance with Filipino Americans and its implications for Filipino American Christianity. With more than 3.4 million Filipinos now living in the United States and the vast majority (89%) identifying as Christian, the ideas presented here are relevant not only to Filipino Christians and Filipino American churches. But this is a perspective on God’s work that must be embraced by Christian leaders and theologians in general, especially at a time when many aging US denominations lament their shrinking numbers and bloggers make broad claims about what is supposedly happening among American Christians. Most of all, I hope as a pastor/theologian to uncover the foundations of what might be called “Filipino American Theology”, critical reflection on the practice of Filipino American Christianity.
MANNY AND THE FILIPINO AMERICAN GOSPEL
Is Manny Pacquiao a Filipino American?
First we need to ask whether Manny can rightly be considered a Filipino American. Isn’t he actually a Filipino? To many readers this may seem inconsequential, but to those of us from other countries the differences are real. In the case of the Philippines, if we consider the continuing influence of American culture and power in the Filipino psyche, we can affirm with postcolonial theologian Eleazer Fernandez that every Filipino is also American in some sense.
I argue that Manny Pacquiao is in fact a Filipino American despite his Philippine citizenship (and now his political position as Philippine congressman). At a basic level he is a Filipino American because he is of Filipino descent but now living and working in the USA. As sociologist Jay Joaquin Gonzalez writes, to be a Filipino American is to have “two homes, two hearts.” Literally, Manny Pacquiao lives between the Philippines and the USA, taking up residence and working in both countries. His presence in the American media has grown to such great heights that he might even be considered a Filipino American in the truest sense. Locating Manny’s identity uncovers some of the challenges around Filipino American identity itself. We quickly find that being Filipino American is neither a question of birth nor legal status but of one’s ability to negotiate between both Filipino and American identities.
"Filipino American" is such a fluid category that even if Manny self-identifies as Filipino, he can still be considered a Filipino American. Just like many immigrants in my parents’ generation, Filipinos living in the US for decades may have gained American citizenship, education, assets, and dollars, but they are reminded every day that they are Filipino and not American as the mainstream understands it. So when asked the common and rudely-worded question “What are you?” most Filipino Americans will choose to say that they are Filipino, regardless of their birth or legal status, because the Filipino history and community give unique shape, language, and meaning to their way of life. And yet, for similar reasons a person of Filipino descent might also claim the opposite if the situation requires, that they are truly American. Filipino American is a broad, flexible category open to a wide range of uses.
Like most Filipinos, Manny came to the US in search of opportunity to develop his skills, work, and support his loved ones struggling back home. And as Filipino Americans often do, he uses his success to bring his loved ones with him wherever he goes. This is perhaps what separates Filipino Americans from Filipinos most- the opportunities afforded in the States may allow the family unit to stay together, unlike in the Philippines where families are almost apart economically. Of course, Manny’s wealth allows him to do what others can only dream of: while first generation Filipino Americans had to pool their resources together in community organizations to build schools, hospitals, and churches in their Philippine hometowns, Manny is able to do this by himself. Like any Filipino who has “made it” in the States, his fresh memories of poverty compel him to generosity, even to a fault. Even though Manny has much more money and influence than other Filipino Americans, he uses them in ways that are often similar.
Manny Pacquiao as a Filipino American Christian
In these and other ways, Manny is a Filipino American and his Christian faith is tied to the realities of Filipino Americans life: concern for the needs of family, burden for the Philippine poor, and gratitude for the opportunity to work and share blessings with others. But his conversion from Filipino Catholicism to American megachurch Evangelicalism have only solidified his faith as Filipino American. Manny’s pastor, Jeric Soriano, comes from a multi-site church called New Life Christian Center, founded and led by an American missionary couple from Florida. Those who know the Philippines and understand church growth can recognize that the presence of an American-style megachurch in Alabang is not too different from the growth of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, IL. Unlike most of the impoverished Philippines, Alabang has a country club that would impress even most Americans. It is a highly Americanized mini-city, filled with the presence of multinational corporations and the amenities- and churches- that follow them, a common occurrence in global cities nowadays. And just as religious practice is always informed by context, Manny’s conversion was not simply to “Christianity” or even Evangelicalism, but to a specific way of following Jesus.
Churches like Alabang’s New Life Christian Center do not simply attract Filipinos because they offer a more “biblical” or relatable approach to knowing God. American megachurch Evangelicalism appeals to Filipino Americans in a way that illustrates the colonial mindset: White is right, and bigger is better. Because of this, many Filipino Americans leave behind their inherited Catholicism or small ethnic churches to embrace this whiter and bigger brand of Christianity. A church filled with Filipino American people and problems can be too painful a reminder of Philippine poverty and therefore a source of great shame to the Filipino American colonial mind. One might be better off socially by assimilating and gaining white approval instead of remaining in Filipino American congregations struggling to survive. And when this happens, conversion is hardly liberation. Though we cannot speak to the specifics of Manny’s church membership, his newfound faith and message prove to be very American, both in substance and in style. With this in mind, the gospel according to Manny Pacquiao presents us with the good and bad news about Filipino American Christianity.
TOWARDS A FILIPINO AMERICAN THEOLOGY
The Filipino American Body As Good
One of the strongest, natural links between the Filipino and Filipino American is the body. First generation immigrants come to the US in their Filipino bodies, moving from the majority into marginalization. Through Spanish colonization and subsequent Japanese and American occupations, the Filipino body has long been subject to Western standards of goodness. Much has been said by other authors about the objectification and commodification of Filipino bodies, not only historically but even now throughout the world. For example, sociologist Anna Guevarra has argued that Catholic mariology is a strong force motivating Filipinas to leave their homelands for Europe, East Asia, the Middle East, and even the USA; like the sacrificial, Blessed Virgin, Filipinas are actually encouraged by the Philippine government to leave their families and live as OFW’s (Overseas Foreign Workers, i.e., nannies, maids, or worse) in order to send money back to the Philippines. The Philippine economy now relies on these remittances for 10% of its GDP, but the cost to families is immeasurable. In effect, these women are hearing that they are more valuable as cheap labor than as daughters, wives, and mothers in the homeland. Like other oppressed peoples, Filipinos in the US inherited the colonial desire to be light-skinned like the Spanish, going to great lengths to avoid sunlight and giving birth to a lucrative skin whitening industry. Mestizos and mestizas (Filipinos with Caucasian blood) are still considered more desirable as partners than average Filipinos.
Upon arrival in the US, the negative view of the Filipino body continued, but this time with men. Yen Le Espiritu describes the 1920’s in this way: “Viewed by racist growers as ideally suited for ‘stoop labor,’ Filipino farm workers remained in high demand until the Great Depression, following the ripening fruit and vegetables as they developed specialized roles in western agriculture.” Eleazer Fernandez adds, “Being small in physical stature, their Euro-American employers thought that they would not suffer from back pain, even if they had to stoop from morning till sunset; they seemed naturally suited, therefore, for the planting and harvesting.” The Filipino American body was one to be used but not appreciated.
Presenting the Filipino American body positively, Manny Pacquiao preaches and embodies good news. He showcases the Filipino American body as a gift and instrument of power, inspiring Filipino Americans to believe that they too can compete with Americans. In this way, Manny is like Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, or Jeremy Lin. And his message to Filipino Americans is that God is present in their bodies. Some of us may be small, but we are strong, strengthened by God even if we can’t quite do what Manny does. For the Filipino American youngster with eczema who fails to make the basketball team again or the tired Lola (grandmother) working through diabetes and pain as a low-paid caregiver because her dollars make her rich in Philippine pesos, this is a message of empowerment. A Filipino American Theology needs to speak to bodily concerns, to affirm and protect what is good not only in creation but in God’s creation of us.
Manny’s Gospel, Good News For “Nothing”
Let's return now to Manny’s message, “I want to let the people know that there is God who can raise someone from nothing into something. And that's me. That's me. I came from nothing…” As a Christian, I understand what Manny is saying here, but this has a deeper meaning when I listen as a Filipino American. Like Jesus in Luke 5:31, Manny’s message may not be heard by everyone because his gospel is good news for those who are “nothing”, the nobodies among us. To those who feel like they are something, Manny’s words are not gospel but nicety. Just as Latin American Liberation Theology was addressing not the atheist or nonbeliever, but the non-person disrespected and marginalized by society, Manny Pacquiao is directly addressing his fellow Filipinos who continue to struggle for recognition as human beings.
As he often testifies, Manny grew up without his father and had to learn to make money to support his younger siblings. His family was too poor to send him to school, so he learned to fish and, eventually, to fight. He left home at fourteen to train as a boxer, fighting during the day and sleeping on Manila’s streets at night, lying about his age and weight to qualify for fights. But we must not forget, like many migrant Filipinos (even to the US), Manny endured this out of necessity. The more we hear him preach, the more we understand that for him, sin is that which divides families and it is played out in the cycles of poverty, ignorance, and a lack of opportunity. Sociologist Stephen Cherry also heard this while researching among Filipino Americans. “The key issues that concern us most are about life and things that affect the family- these are not things that just affect people here in the States.”
When sin is understood this way, Manny’s burden for the Philippines makes sense. To him, the poverty he endured was in part caused by political corruption, and this corruption continues because of spiritual and moral darkness. So through the combination of sharing the good news and working in government, Manny hopes to combat the patronage which has plagued the Philippines and broken the lives of the poor for generations. This is why he believes that God is called him to be a congressman, not because he needs the money. Surely he knows that his family life, net worth, and boxing might be better if he weren’t a congressman. And if one day he runs for president, we can understand why, despite his lack of credentials. His family suffered firsthand the effects of social sin, and this is what leaves many Filipinos feeling like “nothing.”
Several years ago when I first started pastoring, I accompanied a man to the DMV so he could pass his road test and obtain a license. He was a new immigrant from the Philippines who had arrived with his wife and two teenage children. He didn’t have a car so I lent him mine, but before his test began he asked if we could pray. First, I prayed; I don’t remember exactly what I said. But then he prayed in a way that I will never forget, saying simply, “Dear God, please help me to pass my test so that I can get a job and help my family. Amen.” This is a perspective that Filipino Americans can contribute to discussions of theology and ministry in a time when critics are quick to point out what little difference Christian faith makes in the daily lives of many church members. And in an age of globalization, the close ties Filipino Americans keep with relatives and friends in diaspora can help US churches see into the blind spots of their ministries. For the “nothing” and nobodies, the physical and the spiritual are tied together and God’s presence is acknowledged in the realities of everyday life. This is why Manny prays before almost every training session, fight, and interview.
Salvation is Going from Nothing into Something
This is the part of Manny’s gospel that comes out clearest. Having met God in a dream, speaking to him as only a Father could, Manny finally understood that God’s love makes him “something” or somebody. If Manny understands sin as that which destroys the family, it makes sense that his understanding of salvation is accompanied by a strong experience of being adopted as a son- by Freddie, by the Philippines, and ultimately by God. So this idea of being raised “from nothing into something” is full of meaning when Manny says it, because it not only includes salvation from poverty but from broken relationships. And for Manny, the content of that “something” is found in the Bible. The more he studies the Bible, the more he has come to know the forgiveness and transformation that God gives to his children. And because he studies his Bible with the disciplined ethic of a prizefighter, even Pastor Rick Warren has called Manny “a Bible-quoting maniac." Through this radical change, Manny also reveals the hunger among many Filipino American Christians for a theology that is biblically-serious.
One of the issues in Manny’s gospel is that he “owes everything to God.” To those familiar with the famous Filipino utang na loob (inner debt), this can pose serious problems, turning religion into superstition. Whether he intends to repay God for all those blessings is not clear, but Filipino American theologians have to understand the fine line between gratitude and debt. Perhaps the biggest issue in Manny’s gospel is one that is not his fault: the gospel according to Manny Pacquiao can easily become the gospel of Manny Pacquiao in which Manny and his rags-to-riches story leave a stronger impression on listeners than the God who has blessed Manny so richly. As with any celebrity preacher, only time can tell who truly captures their listeners' hearts, the One who raises nothings into something or the something who seems like they can do anything. I don't believe that Manny is trying to “preach himself”, but for so many listeners having and feeling like “nothing,” Manny is a tangible something, easier to embrace than God. This shows us that a Filipino American Theology must offer a rich vision of transformation, especially to those who desperately need it.
THE GREAT OPPORTUNITY BEFORE US
Manny doesn’t just show the world that God makes all things possible, even for Filipinos. Ironically, Manny Pacquiao also shows us the limits of our acceptance within the broader American public. To many American observers, Manny is more entertaining than impressive and inspiring, and by no means is he prophetic. In the eyes of the American public, he belongs in a group with other Filipino American entertainers like Bruno Mars, Jessica Sanchez, Charice Pempengco, and the Jabbawockeez. It can be tempting to look at Manny and think that Filipino Americans have now made it. We can also see that many entertainers who have found acceptance in mainstream American society will often need to downplay their ethnic identity in order to be accepted, and regardless they continue to be seen as entertainers, not artists. As entertainers, these Filipino Americans are applauded and even admired, but as quickly as they are celebrated they are forgotten once their entertainment value is gone. We may have a powerful presence on stage and on reality competition TV shows, but Filipino Americans remain divided and therefore silent in public conversations during elections and on issues like immigration policy reform, for example. We have an opportunity now to speak in a stronger, louder voice.
Why is the Filipino American church important this discussion? Beyond entertainment, Filipinos around the world now constitute what one author calls an “empire of care,” a crucial workforce of medical professionals including doctors, nurses, therapists, and caregivers, a population whose importance is only growing as the baby boomer generation ages. Stephen Cherry asks, “If Filipinos were to disappear for a day, the healthcare industry in the United States alone would be drastically impacted, and this is but one area of the American economy to which Filipinos like Mexicans, silently and without recognition make major contributions.”
Not only is the Filipino American community an untapped sociopolitical force, but the strong sense of kasamahan (belonging) that makes them such a desired “care force” is much more present in Filipino American churches than their jobs allow. Filipino American churches offer an ecclesiology that resists the disintegrating forces of individualism and alienation affecting many American families. In the last several years, this has been the resounding testimony of the dozens of non-Filipinos who join our churches; they have found among Filipino Americans the closeness of family that brings the good news to life. With so many Filipino Americans identifying as Christians, I believe the Christian community presents the greatest opportunity for Filipino Americans to be raised “from nothing into something,” both theologically and politically.
So now, a pastoral invitation: The best response to Manny Pacquiao’s gospel is not for us to let cultural pride fuel our ever higher ambitions. Perhaps the greatest opportunity before us is to finally move beyond what I call our “shows of solidarity” in which we entertain through cultural performance and convince ourselves afterwards that we stand together. In so many churches, Filipino Americans breath life and energy into dying ministries, but we leave the theology and decision-making to others. Despite our large and growing presence in US churches, we have yet to identify the many gifts our culture brings. This is our time to stand up and be counted even though many megachurches, denominations, seminaries, and Christian media outlets are slow to understand how immigration has been changing the face of US Christianity. I believe the time is now here for Filipino American Christians to be more than tokens or a church’s entertainment. This is our time to recognize that we are important to God’s work in the world.
And just as we can rally around Manny’s story of God’s victory over adversity- in many ways also our story- surely Filipino American Christians can gather around the table in the spirit of what Justo Gonzalez called a “new ecumenism.” This is our opportunity to rally around our true Champion and give voice to the good news embodied in our own families and churches. This is our time to finally rise up and “let the people know” how God has blessed us in such special ways. So I invite you to respond- especially you leaders and theologians (lay or academic) among us- and to join in this conversation to discern what God is doing among us.
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:9-10, ESV).