2016-17 Balázs Scholar
What was it like for you growing up in the Philippines and why did you decide to become a religious leader?
The Philippines is a deceivingly small country. Growing up there, it is pretty easy to get lost in the larger narratives or forced to choose between vying powers in the global context. For most of the 20th century, we were a neocolony of the United States until the Senate decided to reject the US Bases in 1991. This was five years after our famous bloodless EDSA Uprising of 1986. These were two events that opened my eyes to questioning everything I knew about my country, my identity, and my morality. I went on a non-linear experience-junkie sort of mode of living for decades. I knew that if I had to find answers to my questions, they would not be held in books and existing sensibilities.
I had always felt like an oddball anyway. My family couldn’t understand me, my Catholic school was on the verge of expelling me as a rule-breaker, my university couldn’t pin me down to one academic track and my involvement in social justice imperiled my academics. I was involved in six student organizations and was an officer in three of them. After graduation, my jobs had been short gigs as I would easily grow tired of routines. Then I went to New York in 2002 and lived there until 2004. There I learned about Unitarians when I lived with a Filipina who was married to a Unitarian Universalist seminarian from Harvard Divinity School. When I went back home to the Philippines, only a year after did I learn that there had been UUs in my country since 1955. I decided to attend a UU fellowship and learned to ask questions freely. Being able to do that makes a lot of difference! Even now, I try to honor that by facing the questions I have, even within the UU faith, and bringing them out there and testing our democratic space within the church.
Every time we confront questions, we turn back from our own fears, masks, and reexamine our myths and narratives. This is how I know truths are connected: Revelation in one place unmasks lies in another place. For instance, the Philippines as a global partner to the United States had been so downplayed. And that is an injustice. It blinds people from the periphery to privilege the center. The Philippines is larger than the United Kingdom with a people more well-traveled than the British or people from the USA in terms of overseas mileage per capita. Filipinos are the most understated global influencers while 10 million of us are heavily dispersed in more than 150 countries working mostly in the healthcare and hospitality industries. One percent of the US population is Filipino. Aside from this we are the major supplier of personnel in sea vessels plying global routes for global companies. Filipinos are even credited for repairing Obamacare as many of the healthcare companies outsourced their systems to Manila offices. Filipinos have been historical voyagers since ancient times as far back as 3000 BC. From Madagascar in the West to beyond the Far East towards Latin America, riding in ships carrying families, they were welcomed migrants among friendly islands. We are used to the strange and foreign. And this has brought us a knack for making community. I bring this culture in my religious leadership. Power from the center is self-limiting and blinding without those in the periphery. Helping people understand this is my mission.
Can you tell us a little about the work you have done outside of Starr King?
I have served three presidential appointees as a strategic consultant and about thirty NGOs in volunteer or paid capacities as I struggled to learn what my question really is. I have been involved in supporting and leading mass actions towards better legislation, like the Anti-Sexual Harassment Law of the 1990s, the Anti-Violence Against Women and Children Act, the Reproductive Health Law, and the Migrant Workers Act, among others such as those pertaining to land reform and labor laws. I also worked in think tanks in my early adult life.
Eventually, I entered the corporate world to jolt myself out of my idolatry for heroism and saw the lives educated Filipinos live in search of financial stability. This has been such an eye-opener for me. I wondered if the spirit of self-awareness, development, and reflection could transcend the asceticism that I thought was conducive or even required for spiritual work. And the answer is yes, wherever a person is, so long as they learn the value of learning from others, opening to dissent, and learning how to use conversations as resources, they will find God! This is why even the most evil person can be touched to help them remember their humanity by just a conversation.
Conversations are the most basic units of right relationship. It is not policy, culture, or the Ten Commandments. It is awareness of conversation, verbal and non-verbal. I worked as a trainer and a project manager for four years building teams for top global clients like Google and Microsoft, among others, and I found that parity in conversation is the building block of right relationships. There is a saying in my country, ang sakit ng kalingkingan ay sakit ng buong katawan, what ache there is in the pinkie is a pain for the whole body. Yet people miss that we are one body of the human race and still use conversation as a race or competition of egos. My sense of communal living in the Philippines tells me that ideas belong to community, it is community that gives birth to ideas through people who could not have come to them if they were not involved in a community conversation. We are constantly in conversation whether we like it or not. So now I’ve begun writing a book with Anne Principe, an author published by the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), and we call our book Divign Conversations, a take-off from Divign Thinking, a framework Anne had developed years back.
How did you find this opportunity to study at Starr King and what was it like to join the community as the Balázs Scholar?
In 2014, I was referred by a friend, Carol Cook, from UU San Mateo to Arliss Ungar and we had a Skype. She introduced me to Arliss as someone interested in studying at Starr King, but Arliss made it clear the Balázs Scholarship was only for Transylvanians. And so I saw it only as an acquaintance-building call. At the time, I had just finished three one-week intensives at Meadville Lombard Theological School specifically tailored for ministers of non-US parts of the world. At one point, (former President of the UUA) Peter Morales and Lee Barker, President of Meadville were our teachers. I was grateful for it, but I wanted to experience another type of seminary, despite that it was the year that Starr King was proceeding with caution on improving its systems. It was a year in which I did ten speaking engagements in the US, including one at UU Shelter Rock in New York where I led a worship service with about 100 attendees from all over the world, and pulpits in All Souls New York (twice), Tulsa, Columbine, Denver, Clairemont, San Mateo, and the UUA General Assembly International Service in Providence, RI. I was in the Philippines at the time of my call with Arliss, but I had just finished six weeks in India for my job as Project Manager building on the merger between Microsoft and Nokia.
After speaking with Arliss, it didn’t seem feasible for me at all to find myself at Starr King. It didn’t seem like I impressed her and I remember feeling that I was too tired to even try. I had already forgotten about all that when, two years later, I volunteered as an aid worker doing disaster relief in Nepal one year after the earthquake struck, when I knew help would have dwindled. Only a few days into work, my whole body revolting from what I had done to it, and questioning my vanities about what my mom would constantly call a Messianic Complex, an email arrived. It was Arliss who said I am being invited to be the Balázs Scholar. After a few exchanges of clarification on the conditions of this offer, I said yes.
What is your most meaningful or memorable experience(s) at Starr King?
I think on top of this list would be the People of Color chapel that we did together with my schoolmates and with Rev. Sofia Betancourt doing the benediction. I was privileged to have worked on this particular feat of bringing together some of the finest leaders of any race or ethnicity into one worship collaboration. Celina De Leon, Philipos Ghaly, Ifakoya “Dragon” Eshutolu, Anthony N. Johnson, D Pei Wu, Sonsiris Tamayo, Ebony Janice, and E.N. Hill are gigantic spirits! I was grateful for the support of Deb Hansen, Terra Collier-Young, Lauren Hotchkiss, and Edie Klyce. The chapel was packed too! And the petition letter that rekindled the conversation for more visibility for ancestors of people of color in Starr King was unanimously signed in the most well-attended student body meeting of the year. I think it became a point of unity. It was more of a unity statement than a petition, to tell you the truth. So I don’t’ agree that it could have been “less adversarial”, in the first place it was not positioning Rosemary (President Rosemary Bray McNatt) as counter-revolutionary, but as a leader with lots of important things on her plate. We didn’t expect anything from Rosemary but allyship. And we were not disappointed.
One of the most lasting impressions I have of my white allies is that they are doing the good work of breaking their backs for what is the work before them. I had never seen a group of kinder souls than the Balázs Committee! They saw to it that they supported me in every way needed, whether it be mailing a book to me when I was away, cleaning the apartment by hand after I moved out, or scheduling a confusing number of speaking engagements, and without drama. I was truly humbled by the show of humility and service. That was such a religious experience to witness!
How do you hope to use your Starr King education moving forward?
I was happy with my decision to attend Starr King. It didn’t fall short of its promise of being a counter-oppressive educational experience in a faith-based tradition. I think my job is to make sure that what happened within the academic setting will flow into my own counter-oppressive encounters with the world at large. Already, I feel much better equipped in clarifying my own questions about the interactions I have with different UUs. Especially helpful I think was that the support from faculty was not less than stellar. I mean, Sofia Betancourt was my adviser and we were so real to one another in those sessions, not knowing she was going to be the first woman president of the UUA. Dr. Gabriella Lettini is highly respected in the Graduate Theological Union (GTU), no matter what role she has, and I was so honored to have her incredibly engaged in my experience knowing what an accomplished scholar she is! My work in the UU church of the Philippines is as an international delegate. And it is important for historical continuity that my work continues to engage with the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU) and the UUA while I’m doing my ministry in Manila for the Bicutan Congregation and expanding into Campus Ministry. This all has no professional fees, by the way. Sometimes I don’t know if the world will end when I get paid!
And this is why the work of justice for People of Color continues as well. I am already writing the book. I remember Paul Rasor and I met in the Netherlands in July 2016 and I briefly spoke about my ideas which he highly encouraged. I think despite all the challenges of maintaining a day job above all, I am heartened by the support I get from many places in the world. I have been invited to be in three online cohorts. One I’ve been in since 2014, and the others are new. I think people reaching out to a Filipino UU who is Westernized enough to bridge two cultures is promising. It didn’t have to be me, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to be of service.
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