Roots and Wings
The Filipino evangelical Church is strong, warm and solidly rooted back home and in Canada. Canada is the richer for it.
Fred Sebastian jokes that when he left his home in Manila two decades ago for balmy Thunder Bay, Ontario, it was to pursue his “involvement in journalism. I was delivering newspapers,” chuckles the pastor, who now heads Church of the Living Hope in Winnipeg. Like many of his Filipino countrymen and women, Sebastian came to Canada to find a new life unavailable back home. But those opportunities weren’t simply limited to employment and education. Sebastian had bigger things on his mind.
Fred Sebastian preaches at Church of
the Living Hope in Winnipeg, where he
serves as pastor.
He went on to work as a dietary aid and a shipper/receiver before pastoring a church full-time, but he credits those early working environments as important training grounds for his ministry in Canada. “I was going from a city of 20 million to one less than 100,000; there was a lot to learn about life here,” he says.
Sebastian’s story is common among Filipinos. He moved to Canada to work and send money back home, and in the process learned about his new country from the ground up.
As a collective, Filipinos have formed an identity in Canada that is relationally focused, eschewing individualism in favour of community. At the same time, Filipino-Canadians have easily integrated into the multicultural framework of this country, all the while maintaining strong connections to their homeland. It’s a balancing act few cultures are able to negotiate with such ease.
Keeping the balance
For one, their community strongly identifies with its roots without sequestering themselves to one end of town. As one pastor told Faith Today, “Filipinos do not tend to cluster like some nationalities have. They don’t make their own ‘neighbourhoods’ in cities – they blend in with the majority of their adopted society.”
While there are pockets of Filipinos throughout Canada – including a congregation of Evangelicals in Yellowknife – Toronto and Vancouver are home to the two largest communities. In total, there are more than half a million Filipinos in Canada, and the majority of them call themselves Christians.
According to a Statistics Canada report in 2007, “Almost all Canadians of Filipino origin belong to a Christian faith.
In 2001, 81 percent said they were Catholic, while 15 percent belonged to either a mainline Protestant denomination or another Christian grouping. In contrast, only a relatively small proportion of the Filipino community, three per cent, reported they had no religious affiliation.”
Though they are, by far, the statistical minority, Filipino Protestants are enthusiastic evangelists. The main focus of their efforts are Filipino Catholics, especially those who grew up with the brand of patriarchal Catholicism prevalent in the Philippines, where priests can even maintain a proprietary use of the Scriptures.
“We have a 55-year-old man in our congregation who moved here [from the Philippines], had attended church much of his life, but had never opened a Bible before,” says pastor Raymond Torres. “Now he is devouring it. God put in our hearts these people when we planted this church. People who are asking what a relationship with Jesus actually means.”
Torres, who divides his time between a full-time dental practice and pastoring Praise Christian Fellowship church in Burnaby, British Columbia, says Acts 2:42 (“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer”) served as a foundational verse at the inception of the church, which currently meets in the gymnasium of a local school.
“When I was raised Catholic, my parents taught me that born-again Christians were fanatics,” says the pastor, who immigrated to Canada with his wife and children when he was 32 years old. His conversion to what he describes as a “living faith” is the background he relies on as he meets others (often recent immigrants to Canada) who have grown and Wings up attending church as a ritual. “When we show our brothers and sisters the truth about what it means to be in an actual relationship with Jesus, it is so exciting.”
While many Filipino Evangelicals left their Catholic roots behind when they came to Canada, it’s fair to say the community as a whole maintains more than just sentimental cultural ties to life back home. Ron de Villa – who does double duty as a pastor at Word Christian Fellowship in Richmond, British Columbia and teaches business administration at Douglas College – says many in his community hold both Canadian and Filipino passports, allowing them to legally vote for presidents, senators and members of congress in their homeland. These close ties to the country continue into sports, politics and even entertainment.
Sadiri ”Joy” Tira: Filipinos can
be characterized as “adaptable,
acceptable and accessible.”
“We still stay connected with Filipinos on the world stage,” concurs Sebastian, citing how members of the congregation get together in restaurants and homes to eat and watch welterweight Filipino boxing phenomenon Manny Pacquiao on pay-per-view. “The following day, I better speak about the fight from the pulpit or I’m not in tune with my people,” laughs the pastor.
Connections to the homeland go deeper than the public sphere, however. Most immigrants from the Philippines also hold strong personal devotion to their roots, often shown through generosity. According to the pastors interviewed by Faith Today, many Filipino Christians divide their tithe between the church they attend in Canada and one in the Philippines. And those same people also support extended family back home.
That type of loyalty also plays a role in a broader context, as Filipinos connect their faith-based networks (here and abroad) to work together for common causes. Benjamin Mapa is the senior pastor of Christ Centered Alliance Church in Toronto. The 48-year-old is one of the founding members of the Filipino Ministerial Fellowship (FMF), a group of 30 pastors spanning a broad cross section of denominations – including Pentecostal, Foursquare, Baptist, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Anglican and Methodist – in the Greater Toronto Area.
Mapa says the pastors address issues such as church hopping, an area of concern to many in the community. But they also work together to promote large prayer and relief events, in one case raising $15,000 by organizing a concert to benefit victims of last fall’s typhoon in the Philippines.
Approximately half of the FMF’s members are bi-vocational, merging their work as engineers, doctors, warehouse workers and business people with pastoral service in a local church.
This busy networking style of evangelism and church leadership fits well with the strong emphasis on relationships and fellowship in the community, say many of the pastors, who seem to have a bottomless well of energy and enthusiasm to lend to their roles.
“We practise faith in the marketplace,” says Mapa.“Gone are the days when we preach on Sunday and then stay home to pray. We are no longer to stay in our cocoon. We now have to fly.”
The collective unity of pastors meeting and praying with one another has been so effective that the group started the Association of Filipino Pastors in Canada (AFPC), a similar nationwide initiative, in 2009.
A diaspora with a mission
Dr. Sadiri “Joy” Tira is the international co-ordinator for the Filipino International Network (FIN), which he describes as “a catalytic movement of Christians committed to motivate and mobilize Filipinos globally to partner for worldwide mission.”
A mission team from Church of the Living Hope gathers before leaving on a
short-term mission trip to Tijuana, Mexico.
Perhaps more than anyone in Canada, Tira has studied the roots and subsequent effects of the Filipino diaspora. The pastor – who immigrated to Canada in 1981 and planted one of the country’s first evangelical Filipino churches in Edmonton – points out that there are nearly eight million Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) worldwide. It is such a substantial force that the government of the Philippines acknowledges that the funds those workers send back home (to the tune of $14.4 billion USD in 2007 alone) keep their economy afloat.
“These funds not only support the Philippine economy, but also supplement the financial activity of the Philippine
Church,” says Tira. “In recent years, many Filipino diaspora congregations have initiated focused missions activities and church planting initiatives in the homeland. The financial contributions of the Filipino diaspora congregations vary from scholarship funds for Bible school students, church planting movements, construction and reconstruction of church facilities, and funding of orphanages.”
Evangelical fervour for their first culture doesn’t overshadow their significant roles in other countries, however.
Tira says Filipinos can be characterized as “adaptable, acceptable and accessible” people who are ministering in the world’s mega-cities, in small towns on the Canadian Prairies and in the North, in myriad cross-cultural ministries, on cruise ships and oil tankers and, perhaps most noticeably in Canada, in vocations that primarily employ women. “There is a unique social aspect to the Filipino woman’s role in Canadian evangelism,” says Tira, noting that many OFWs in Canada are women under the age of 35 who are service workers, nurses and caregivers. “They have a vital role in fulfilling the Great Commission. These women have privileged access to the homes of unchurched people and families, and they are active witnesses of Christ in their spheres of influence.”
Rosemarie Garcia, a financial analyst for the City of Toronto and a pastor at Jesus Reigns International Inc.
Church, says a big part of her ministry is helping Filipino women reach out in their workplaces. “They sometimes experience prejudice when they are not given the option of practising their chosen profession here,” she says, noting that one woman in her congregation works as a lab technician, even though she is a certified pediatrician in the Philippines. “I keep emphasizing that they need to be the hands, eyes and feet of the Lord here – where they are – not necessarily in the profession they had back home.”
Communication between generations
While there doesn’t seem to be one big issue that divides young and old, there are subtle cultural shifts between the way things are done back home and the way the emerging generation sees the world. The main difference cited between first generation Canadians and successive generations is the way the groups view authority. Those born in the Philippines have an ingrained deference to their elders, while Canadian-born Filipinos are more likely to develop their own opinions and openly question the status quo. “The younger generation in Canada is being taught to be more expressive,” says Sebastian. “They learn to ask ‘Why?’ which can sometimes be considered disrespectful to those who aren’t used to that.”
Twenty-one-year-old University of Manitoba microbiology student, JP Adiong, says those his age want to talk through things more than their parents do. “If an older person has something to say, they often keep it to themselves.
They avoid confrontation,” he notes. “They’re not as expressive as the younger generation...and there is a gap of interaction between the two. The youth are rarely involved in events with the older people.”
Tira says the full effect of a gap between second and third generation Filipino Canadians is still to come, since influxes of Filipino immigrants didn’t start in Canada until the 1960s. “The fact is that most ethnic Filipino churches are just beginning to work with this issue,” he told Faith Today. “While the first generation Filipino-Canadians are linguistically adaptable (most services are held in English even in first generation churches), and are culturally adaptable, the succeeding generations of Filipinos do present some challenges to the ethnic Filipino-Canadian churches. Styles in decision-making are markedly different, so this affects church management, and there are shifts in communication style.”
If they don’t eat, they don’t meet
Yet, one thing is for certain. Whatever the topic, however it is expressed, it will most certainly be discussed over a table full of food. Hospitality is one of the biggest hallmarks of the Filipino community and it is unanimous among pastors that part of Sunday worship is sharing a meal at church after every service and at almost every other event. “If a Filipino pastor is gaining weight, it’s a sure sign that he’s doing his job,” says Torres. “If a congregation is looking for a new building, the first question is ‘Is there a kitchen?’ No kitchen? No church,” laughs Napa.
Jeff Dewsbury is a freelance writer in Langley, British Columbia.
Originally published in Faith Today, January/February 2010.
Used with permission. Copyright © 2010 Christianity.ca.