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A reflection on AAPI Episcopal experience

Attendees at this year's AAPI Leadership Retreat in Portland, OR. PHOTO COURTESY PAUL RAJAN
The Rev. Dr. Paul Rajan
Attendees at this year's AAPI Leadership Retreat in Portland, OR. PHOTO COURTESY PAUL RAJAN

I am Father Paul Rajan, originally from south India, but I have served as a missionary priest among the Pacific Island communities in New Zealand for a long time. So, I included myself in the AAPI list. How did the AAPI community get to this place and phase in history to celebrate this month?

May 7 and May 10 are two significant dates in the history of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders: The first Japanese immigrants arrived in the United States on May 7, 1843, and the first transcontinental railroad in the United States was completed, with significant contributions from Chinese pioneers, on May 10, 1869. In 1979, Congress passed a joint resolution directing the President to issue a proclamation designating the week of May 4-10, 1979 as Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week. This practice was repeated annually until 1990, when Congress amended the resolution to expand the observance to the entire month of May. [Source: Library of Congress.]

This annual observance is a time to recognize and honor the contributions, achievements, and cultural heritage of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in various sectors and our Church. AAPI Heritage Month provides an opportunity for reflection, education, and appreciation of the contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders that enrich the American experience.

As I write this reflection of my experience in the United States and in the Episcopal Church, I am excited to report on the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Leadership Retreat. This retreat, which was started last year in Austin, TX and continued this year in Portland, OR, is a significant gathering for AAPI leaders within the Episcopal Church. Last year, we met at St Matthew's Episcopal Church in Austin, TX, and were hosted by the Diocese of Texas. This year, we met at the St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral Church in Portland, OR, and the Episcopal Diocese of Western Oregon hosted it. These retreats, sponsored by Asian Episcopal Ministries, Trinity Church Wall Street, and the Diocese of New York, provide a platform for AAPI leaders to share their experiences, discuss important issues, and celebrate their contributions to the Church. Bishop Alan Shin took the lead in organizing these events, along with the local Bishops of the respective dioceses. The Rt. Rev. Diana Akiyama, Bishop of Western Oregon, celebrated the Holy Eucharist at the inaugural service, and I had the privilege of celebrating at the closing Eucharist.

We had an average of 45 attendees during both years, representing a rich tapestry of AAPI cultures. Among us were individuals from diverse backgrounds, including Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Hawaiian, Pacific Islanders, Philippians, Chinese, and Indian. This diverse representation is a testament to the unity and strength of our AAPI community.

The Rev. Dr. KyungJa “KJ” Oh, the first ordained priest from the AAPI community, a retired Chaplain, Vicar, Rector, and Seminary Faculty, was the guest speaker for the last two years of the AAPI Leadership Retreat. KJ retired in June, 2022, after having served as Director of Formation and Contextual Learning at Bexley Seabury for eight years. Dr. KJ guided us through the themes of the retreat, which were "Renewed in the Spirit" last year and "The Gifts We Bring: Resilience from Living In-Between" this year. These themes were carefully chosen to address the unique challenges and experiences of AAPI leaders in the Episcopal Church, and they sparked meaningful discussions and reflections among the participants:

  • What gifts do we bring, not despite, but because we are Asian and Pacific Islander Americans?
  • What resilience and strength have we already found from living in the in-between?

Our AAPI community, despite the challenges of living in a cultural “in-between,” has demonstrated remarkable resilience and strength. This strength, born out of our unique experiences and cultural heritage, is a source of inspiration and empowerment for all of us. One participant said, “While living here and ministering here, our needs are outweighed by the local needs.” This is the kind of sacrifice I have made so far.

While introducing each other, we had an “intro bingo” game in which we asked, “How many of you do not use shoes at home?” and 98% said they do not use them. Our stories are our stories, and we own them. They are rich and painful, which has taught us to live a life of sacrifice and love. We are committed to those cultural values.

I think there was a time when most of these nations received the gospel from Western missionaries, and now it is the time for us to serve as missionaries to the West. One other participant said, “God loves us as the brown people that we are,” and I wish to add to this, “We are an option when there is no other option.” So, we need to wait for the Lord to use us, and He uses us in His time and in His ways to fulfill His mission.

Let me end with these verses, which talk about the purpose of our life in the new land of America, where we are “in-between” cultures, and the purpose of our life, the promise of God to fulfill this missional purpose. Matthew 28:18-20: “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’”

The Rev. Dr. Paul Rajan is Vicar of the Church of the Good Shepherd, Wantage.