Reflections on the AANHPI Retreat

April 2023 | Austin, Texas | By Maria Weber

As I headed to SeaTac on the morning of April 26th, I braced myself for that familiar flutter of nervousness, the nervousness of someone who has always felt ill-at-ease in social situations, never knowing if I’ll fit in, find people to speak with, or be accepted for the quiet person I am. In place of the nervousness, however, I felt the unfamiliar flutter of… anticipation. After all, I would be in the company of nearly 40 people who shared two parts of my identity as a person of Asian descent, and as an Episcopalian. These two intersections, I have observed, form a small and loving community, and it was into this welcome that I emerged as soon as we stepped off the plane in Austin.

As six of the retreat attendees were arriving at roughly the same time from three different cities, we were able to share rides to our hotel. I rode with an Anglican priest, the Rev. Mark Nam, who was on a study trip across the U.S. from his home diocese of Bristol, UK. “We worked in Bristol for five years,” I told Mark. “And our dear friend’s daughter now works for the Diocese of Bristol, in their communications department.” “I will be working with Ellie!” Mark exclaimed. Coincidence #1. I began chatting with our other passenger, the Rev. Kyrie Kim, who had mentioned that she was currently living in New York (and who looked familiar). As she described her work for the Diocese of New York, focusing on the Metropolitan Japanese Ministries (MJM), we found ourselves studying each other closely; my father, who had been an Episcopal priest until his death in 1986, had been one of the founders of MJM. “Oh!” Kyrie exclaimed. “I was at your mother’s funeral last year!” And suddenly I realized why she looked familiar. Coincidence #2.

As I reconnected with the three others attending from the Diocese of Olympia – Adrienne, Katya and Vinh (I was later to meet Tina, who is a seminarian studying at Seminary of the Southwest, but is from Seattle), we all headed to our host church, St. Mathew’s, to meet the rest of the group and officially begin the retreat. Sitting together as we began our evening worship, I wondered what other connections and coincidences existed in the precious bodies that surrounded me, as my soul opened to let the Holy Spirit in. Afterwards, we would describe our backgrounds – seminarians, ordained priests, bishops, immigrants, Koreans, Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, Indians, Tonganese, lay people, bi-racials, LGBQT+. Some of us were in our 20s. Some of us were in our 70s. Diversity under the AANHPI Episcopal umbrella was real. And yet, there was something so familiar and so comfortable about this group – it was that spirit of welcome and acceptance that is a rare and beautiful embrace.

Defining a singular Episcopal reality for an ethnic group as diverse as the one assembled in Austin is simply not possible, nor was it the goal of this retreat. However, the invitation by our facilitator – the Rev. Dr. Kyungja Oh – to ‘set down your burdens and rest’ opened the group up to thoughtful, insightful and sometimes raw conversations about the role AANHPI Episcopalians have had and should continue to play in shaping the mission of the church and how it serves all of its members. Stories were shared and acknowledged about ‘being the quietest one at the table’ – whether that was at school, in church meetings, in the workplace, or in social situations – as a cultural trait that many of us have inherited and cannot and should not have to change. Is there a way to allow this ‘quiet minority’ to raise its voice? Do you really have to be LOUD to be heard? Is there not grace to be found in the ability to listen, absorb, and act with faith? Are there ways for the ‘quiet voices’ to find their ways into communication that feels safe for them?

True to my own form, I was not a voice that stood up and expressed itself in front of the whole group, but I was able to share in the break-out sessions, particularly about how it felt when we spoke about ‘white privilege’ in light of the fact that I – along with five or six others – am a bi-racial who is part white. And I listened with keen interest to what everyone else had to say. I heard bishops talking about how the church is not dying, it is changing, and how, now more than ever, ethnic minority people are needed to take on leadership roles in the church, and how they should not be afraid to ‘shake things up’. I heard lay people express frustration at the exclusionary language contained within the liturgy. I heard people who are exhausted at having to explain their perspective as a minority within a greater whole that says it wants to transform, but keeps doing what it has always done – raising the question: What is the point? I saw a retired priest look around the room, sigh, and say “Thank you. After all of these years, I have finally found my home. I didn’t know you were out there. YOU are my home.”

The Rev. Dr. Oh left us with these simple but profound words. “A community where there is no diversity is not community, it is a club. Community happens when there is someone present who you wish wasn’t. We are formed in community, and those who make us uncomfortable teach us something – we cannot isolate ourselves. It is OUR decision how we come out of isolation and into community.”

Before disbanding and going our separate ways, we as a group returned our attention to Jesus’ message and story of hope and love, a love that, more often than not, went to the fringes of society to serve and heal. I have heard this message and story a thousand times before in my lifetime, but this time, I heard the words with fresh ears. This time, I found myself asking “Maria, how are you going to come out of isolation and claim yourself as a part of God’s community?”

2 responses to “Reflections on the AANHPI Retreat”

  1. Maria, thank you for this reflection. You didn’t just tell me about the event, you took me to it. And then you took me inside of your experience and perspective.

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