On the eve of Christmas celebrations, I long to be back home and enjoy the festivities of the Philippines’ long Christmas fiesta. I remember Simbang Gabi— the nine days before Christmas when I’d wake up every day at the crack of dawn to be in church for early morning services.
I remember the chilly nights when we partake of native treats of rice and coconut cakes cooked in bamboo poles, and hot arroz caldo (chicken and rice porridge) served with steaming rich cocoa. I remember making the colorful parol (a Filipino Christmas lantern) and proudly hanging it right outside our window as a sign of light and hope for the coming new year. I remember our fancy Noche Buena family meal at midnight on Christmas eve— a prelude to opening our gifts. I remember the excitement of going to the UM Youth Fellowship’s annual Christmas Institute (a week-long youth camp held between Christmas and New Year’s Day in every annual conference). This season brings joyful memories of home.
Like Christmas, our church reminds me of home too. I was baptized at Tangos UMC, in a small fishing town called Navotas, right on the outskirts of Manila. It seems like a coincidence that I was appointed to this local church after my ordination— my first assignment after seminary. On my first Sunday, I remember bringing that dusty baptismal ledger up on the pulpit to show the congregation that I was baptized in their local church, and told them how blessed I felt that I have come full circle as we celebrated the Eucharist that day. I was welcomed into the Body of Christ through baptism at this local church, and twenty-four years later, was given the opportunity to serve them as pastor. I believe this was not coincidental. In this spiritual mystery, God is saying, “You were welcomed here as a child and now you are welcomed as my servant— as their pastor. The UMC is your home.”
Being a connectional church, The United Methodist Church (UMC) is like a home away from home. Growing up United Methodist in the Philippines has afforded me the safety and sanctuary of every UMC congregation when I travel, especially when I’m lost. Before the age of GPS devices and smartphones, I just ask for the local UMC congregation, even in the remotest barrios, and they’ve always provided me hospitality and the directions I need to get back on the road. All I had to say was “I’m a UMC pastor from the Philippines Annual Conference” and they’d offer me a place to stay. Indeed, The United Methodist Church is my home.
As Christmas eve draws near, I am thousands of miles away from home. In foggy San Francisco, I would cross the Golden Gate Bridge and cast a longing glance at the Pacific Ocean knowing that home is just on the other side of this vast expanse. As Christmas eve draws near, I also find myself so far removed from my other home— The United Methodist Church.
As a child who answered the call to ministry in 5th grade, but also realized at that tender age that I’ve been given the gift of a queer identity, I don’t feel so much at home in The UMC anymore. I would walk the streets of the Castro (our famed LGBTQ district in San Francisco)— and feel my church’s warm embrace giving way to rejection and abandonment. I’m “incompatible” they say. On Christmas eve I feel homeless, home-sick, and lonely.
The bigotry and hate reflected in homophobic language inscribed in our UMC Book of Discipline seems like an immovable force that has driven so many of us into a diaspora— a great exodus into the wilderness— leaving our spiritual home behind. Many more, like me, remain in our glass closets. But in this moment of seeming hopelessness, I remember my old parol, my Christmas lantern of hope. Like the star of Bethlehem, it is my guide to get home in The UMC. In the midst of clergy trials and discrimination against my LGBTQ family, I see my parol lifted high from a distance. That parol is you, the reconciling movement— United Methodists and congregations whose prophetic stance for real Biblical Obedience brightly shine in the darkest nights with glittering rainbow colors giving me hope, and calling me home.
I pray for that one lovely Christmas morning when The UMC finally opens a gift God has given at the first Christmas— gracious acceptance and affirmation of all people. Like many, I want to be home for Christmas— if not in the Philippines, at least in my spiritual home.
When can I truly come home to you, my United Methodist Church?
Originally posted on The Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN) blog, a growing movement of United Methodist individuals, congregations, campus ministries, and other groups working for the full participation of all people in the United Methodist Church.
Israel I. Alvaran is an ordained Elder in the Philippines Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. He has served in various ministry settings as pastor, youth minister and faculty at a UMC university and seminary in the Philippines. A long-time activist, Israel worked as Person-in-Mission of the UMC General Board of Global Ministries for the Manila Episcopal Area, focusing on advocacy for low-wage workers. Israel lives in San Francisco, CA and is immersed in the life of his community. He is currently on the executive board of the Jobs with Justice chapter in the SF Bay Area. Israel has a Masters of Divinity degree and a Masters of Theology degree from Union Theological Seminary in the Philippines. With a dissertation focused on faith-rooted organizing, he received his Doctor of Ministry degree from Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, CA in 2010 as a recipient of the UMC Crusade Scholarship.