‘Philip, go south’: revisiting my family history in the Chinese church (for the Feast of the Holy Apostle Philip)

‘Philip, go south’: revisiting my family history in the Chinese church (for the Feast of the Holy Apostle Philip) November 27, 2018
my family in my office – photo by me

In the autumn of 1999, our family was in a bit of a lurch. My father is, among other things, a pastor, and in the Chinese evangelical church that we were in, the politics that had followed a major sex scandal that rocked the community to the core had featured the exit of the Cantonese congregation from its infrastructure. The church, strictly speaking, was a Mandarin-speaking one, founded by young Taiwanese Chinese professionals who had studied in the United States and ended up the in the San Francisco Bay Area during the tech boom in Silicon Valley and the scientific research happening at labs in places like Berkeley. One of the previous senior pastors of the church had gotten the idea to start multiple congregations for different Chinese language groups, and my dad was the unpaid pastor of the Cantonese one. He had taken leadership for the entire pastoral staff when the scandal went down – basically, one of the founders’ protégé’s slept with one of my friends’ moms, and it all hit the fan when they re-established themselves as a married couple six hours south of us – and the precondition of his ordination and succession to the senior pastorate was to give up the Cantonese congregation. My dad, feeling like that would be a betrayal of the people he had nurtured for nearly a decade, refused. That precipitated what one of our friends called the ‘one, two, three kick-out plan,’ as the Cantonese congregation was slowly phased out by the church with nowhere to go.

In the midst of preaching during this difficult time, my father had somehow scheduled a sermon on the Holy Apostle Philip meeting the Ethiopian eunuch and evangelizing him. During the exposition, my dad blurted out from the pulpit, The Spirit said to Philip, ‘Philip, go south!‘ My dad’s name is Philip, and he felt an immediate conviction that the Lord was speaking to him, that he was to go south. That was the direction from Hayward to Fremont on the East Bay, and by faith, he prayed to the Lord for a place to meet on Sunday morning. A Mary Kay training centre opened its doors to us, and the rest was history: by January of the next year, we were meeting there as a new church.

Since my Eastern Catholic catechumenate began three years ago and then well into my mystagogy after chrismation, this scene has returned to me whenever the Feast of the Holy Apostle Philip rolls around, signalling the start of the Nativity Fast. I joked on Facebook today that there is something psychoanalytical about my father’s name day starting the Fast and that I’d figure it out, but the truth is that I have been thinking about it for some time. I was received by chrismation into this Kyivan Church of ours, and that means that I was recognizably Christian before that because the baptism I received when I was nine in this very Chinese church that kicked out our Cantonese congregation was valid. When I first became Eastern Catholic, I often gave in to the gaslighting that occurs by those who have been in our church longer that I may have changed in terms of my canonicity but had failed to convert in my mentality. There is a nervousness about acknowledging my Protestant past while working out my salvation in fear and trembling as Orthodox-in-communion-with-Rome, and it required several conversations with trusted friends and advisors in this church to realize that spiritual progress is about integration and that forgetting my past would be a disintegrating act. There is no requirement for me to abandon my personal Christian history. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

As it is, I have been revisiting my Chinese Christian past over the last year of mystagogical work and have tried to integrate it into my spirituality. It led to some startling reflections over the summer about the way that Chinese Christians practice the way of the heart, discerning from feelings the spiritual movements that are occurring in order to sketch out from below the constitution of a supernatural world. For us, that is theology, the attempt to articulate the action of God in the structure of our everyday lives.

As we head into the Nativity Fast, I am reminded that that theological work continues to be the call that I am working out in my life, to theologize the startling ways that words like Philip, go south actually have resonance in supernatural terms that are not superstitious. My intention, then, is to begin tomorrow to blog through the icons that make up my beautiful corner, working from the holy women and men who pray for me before the face of God a series of theological reflections that come from my everyday life and personal history. I am going to leave that journey of reflection open, not knowing what I am going to discover, just as my father before me did not know what going south meant until it unfolded before him as he was working it out. And because of that, I will fast, because this kind of spiritual theology does not happen without prayer and fasting.

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