What or who influenced your current understanding of faith? What early experiences influenced your spiritual behaviors? Do you hope to pass these experiences on?
Krista Tippett, New York Times bestselling author, National Humanities Medalist, and curator and host of On Being--a weekly national public radio show--often begins her interviews with this question: What was your religious or spiritual background of your childhood? Guests from a myriad of backgrounds launch into a conversation about the religious and spiritual aspects of life, about what it means to be human, how is it that we want to live, and who we will be to each other.
What's your spiritual story?
I have found those to be good questions as I reflect on my own understanding of faith and what experiences have formed me and my own spiritual behaviors. Growing up as a pastor’s kid, or “PK”, I had no shortage of experiences that formed me. What better way to learn what the United States was all about than growing up as an immigrant in small-town Iowa? When I would get looks after sharing that my dad was the pastor of the Methodist church in town, I would launch into my script likening it to being a military kid--moving around every few years.
As a 1.5 generation Filipina American--a designation social scientists use for those who immigrate to a new country before their teenage years--I was presented with a different set of experiences and opportunities to explain who I was and how I presented myself to others. Living in southern California and Seattle when I was older was also formative as it didn’t place me as the other. I was no longer in the minority as a Filipina American.
Newly married and having just served several years as missionaries teaching and providing health care in Papua New Guinea (where my sister and I were born), our parents packed up our family and immigrated to the United States in the early 1980s. Dad finished his Bachelor of Divinity at Union Theological Seminary in the Philippines, and was accepted into an MA and PhD program in Fuller Theological’s Intercultural Studies program. His dissertation addressed the relationship of Christian faith to social responsibility in the Philippine context, focusing on different Christian responses to the (then) current Philippine crisis of economic poverty, political and government corruption, cultural and moral breakdown, and spiritual bankruptcy. Mom’s first nursing job out of school was as a community nurse, a role she continues today in public health as she serves those with limited access to health resources and care.
I share this because when I think about legacy of faith, I think about how faith, culture, and justice are inextricably linked for me. I think about my parents and the millions of other Filipinos (as of April 2019, the statistic was 2.3m) who left home to pursue better opportunities with the hope to return back to the Philippines--opportunities that allowed them to both seek better opportunities for the families they were creating, while financially supporting the immediate and extended families they left behind. I think about the people who have stayed with us as they were passing through town, the countless families my parents helped as they shared their own immigration journeys and learnings, the many meals where we set extra places at the table for whoever was joining us, the impromptu pantry raid from college students who wanted to visit and snack.
Between so many moves and a “family” consisting of blood relations and extended family in the form of aunties and uncles we made along the way, home is what we made it. And home was always where everyone was welcome.
Phrases like “liberation theology” and “missiological praxis” were commonly heard in our house. But before I could articulate any sort of theological understandings of those phrases--of Love, God, Spirit--I already knew deeply in my bones that the God I heard about in church and home, and the faith my parents demonstrated, was a God of love and inclusion and hospitality.
Even when my family experienced xenophobia shrouded in backhanded complements or racist comments from immigration officers or law enforcement, the posture was always grace and the view of the long arc of God’s justice on the horizon. How could God be anything but love that if that’s what was modeled in our home? It modeled anexpectation of how we were to conduct ourselves everywhere esle.
As an adult with a family of my own, it’s not uncommon that you will find a hodgepodge of folks seated around our dinner table--likely folks whodidn’t have a place to go for the holidays. Or we might host an impromptu meetup to process after something like Executive Order 13769 (the “Muslim Ban”) was signed. Or a sit-in at the governor’s mansion demanding expansion of medicaid.
I write this as mom continues 6-day work weeks because public health workers are essential workers. I write this as I receive regular reflections from Dad, dialoguing with the headlines of the day from his livingroom in Guam.
I recently found a PDF of Dad’s dissertation. In his closing, he posits that liberation is beyond ideology. It must be practiced.
I became a deaconess in The United Methodist Church because I believe that I am called to a lifetime vocation of ministries of love, justice, and service. What will my legacy of faith be for my child? For the generations after? I reflect on the mandates set before me, modeled by Jesus’ life and ministry: Alleviate suffering; Eradicate causes of injustice and all that robs life of dignity and worth; Facilitate the development of full human potential; and Share in building global community through the church universal.
Is there a historical legacy?
It was a legacy of faith carried forward by the unintended founder of Methodism, John Wesley. In the 1700s, Wesley's commitment to addressing contemporary issues of his day (which happen to also be contemporary issues of our day): debtors prison, human rights, voting rights, abolition of slavery, hoarding wealth, creation care, rights of the poor, women's rights, pluralism, are concerns we continue to grapple with. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, inequities have for some been revealed, and others, confirmed. Activists around the world today, 300 years later, show up demanding justice for these very same things.
If I am able to answer “yes” to all the mandates set before me, and am engaging the issues of the day, then I believe I have answered the question: What does the Lord require?
Sophia Agtarap is a deaconess in The United Methodist Church–a lay order whose call is to engage the world through a full-time vocation in ministries of love, justice, and service. She also serves as the Director of Communications at Vanderbilt Divinity School and loves exploring the inter-connectedness of food and community, and the ways that we can love and serve neighbor through those intersections.