Jeanelle Ablola, PSR Seminarian
Jeanelle Ablola is a second-year M.Div. student at Pacific School of Religion, currently serving as an intern at Buena Vista United Methodist Church in Alameda, CA. She was interviewed by Rev. Deborah Lee in the Fall of 2008.
Q. Describe the community and context out of which you come to PSR.
I am a second Generation Filipino American born and raised in San Diego.
My parents came in 1971-1972. I grew up in a Filipino community near National City, which may soon turn in to an “official” Filipino town. I grew up eating Filipino food, and surrounded by Filipino culture. There was a little about Filipino history, but not that much. The schools I attended from elementary through high school were 40-50% Filipino. The rest of the school was Latino and Black. There were hardly any whites.
Q. What was your faith and church background?
Unlike many of my Filipino friends, my family was not Catholic, and my dad was not in U.S. Navy. My dad and a few other people founded the Filpino American United Methodist Ministry back in the mid-80’s, which began by meeting in rented-out churches. The ministry eventually merged with a dying church in the early ‘90s and that is the conservative, predominantly Filipino American, United Methodist Church in San Diego which is my home church. In my college years, I did go through a few years where I was involved in non-denominational evangelical Christianity because I was looking for something else. I did not respect Filipino practices and forms of religiosity, but was involved in both churches.
Q. How do you see your identity?
I always thought of myself as a Filipino, even though we had Filipinos hating on each other, hating on the FOB Filipinos. I am recently trying to own an Asian American identity – or are we Pacific Islander? There is a big separation from what I thought was Asian American, which I associated with the Japanese and Chinese. In my mind, Japanese were occupiers, and Chinese were the elite. The “Asian American” population, as I saw it then, lived in the “nice” areas of San Diego. I have a growing respect for my ancestral roots.
Q. Describe what drew you or pushed you into seminary?
I had two pastors who were alumni of PSR in the ‘60s, Carmen Utzurrum Pak and Harry Pak. Ever since I was in undergraduate school, they would come up to me all the time and ask, “Have you given any more thought to seminary?” At one point they convinced me to attend the UMC Exploration of Ministry national event in 2002. There were over a thousand people there. I think out of the thousand, there were probably only ten people of color. The only other people of color there were the conference waiters and servers. I remember people making racial comments about the servers. I remember thinking, “If this is what pastors-to-be are like, I don’t want to be a pastor.” So instead I became a graphic designer.
Q. Then what?
After working in the corporate world, I really hated it. I just couldn’t do it. I felt stuck. Then I went to tell the Paks, “I’m ready to go to seminary.” I realized, from my experience at Exploration, that I can either leave it the church alone and let them do their white thing, or join and change it from the inside.
Q. Is there a model of ministry that really draws you?
The Paks have been inspirational. Even though they were not Filipino, it made a big difference that they were Asian American. Seeing them as retired elders that are vocal and not afraid to complain and get angry at things in the wider church—about the ordination of gays, or pro-war people who would disown their own church. I could relate to them. They were human beings, not high and “holy” like I thought pastors had to be. They were my first face-to-face contact with ordained pastors who were prophetic.
Q. What influenced your choice to come to PSR?
PSR being in the Bay Area, PANA, and CLGS.
Q. What impression did you have of PANA before you got here?
I wondered if PANA was mostly for immigrants, and didn’t know how I would fit in as an Asian American. I went to the PANA Open House the first week of school and signed my name on the sign-in sheet. I got a personal email from you after that. I thought wow, there must not be too many of us, to get a personal email. Then I started going to events on the extra-judicial killings in the Philippines. Knowing that my fellow student Jeffrey [Acido, a Filipino from Hawai’i and PANA staff member] was involved drew me in; I knew it was a safe space.
Q. You have gotten involved in several PANA programs during your first twelve months here at PSR. Is there a highlight that stands out to you?
Taking the PANA intersession course taught by visiting lecturer, Professor Eleazar Fernandez. I had never encountered a Filipino American theologian who talked about diaspora in the Filipino context, and the faith aspect. It answered a lot of questions for me, such as where self-hate comes from. I have a lot more respect for Filipino religiosity now. It was great to have a Filipino theologian, because [other] Asian American stuff (readings, dialogue, etc.) at PSR, I found, does not reflect the Filipino experience.
Q. What has been a challenge for you here in seminary at PSR?
Where I grew up and previously studied, my race was never really an issue to me. I feel more like a minority here. I have to deal with it more. It’s been a struggle to be in predominantly white environment, but empowering in some ways. Some people have told me that maybe it’s because I don’t live on campus. But I don’t think it’s as simple as that. PANA’s been a place of resilience and voice for me, giving me a safe space to just be and say what I want, giving me space to learn, eat good food, and reflect about my own identity and purpose in ministry. There are times when I feel like breaking down and I go to PANA to refuel and remind myself that I can get through anything. And I need to. It’s hard to articulate what it’s like to be Asian American. We often get overlooked in the race dialogue (even by fellow people of color), but I guess that’s the “model minority” aspect of it. It isn’t easy.
Q. What is your vision and plan so far? What are you being drawn to while you are here in seminary?
Someday I want to do a PhD. Maybe on the Filipino American second generation—theology and culture. I want to be able to join the ranks of Asian Americans in theology/ministry and help others looking to connect. Meeting other strong Asian American women at PANAAWTM helped to push that ambition.
There has not been work done yet connecting Filipinos and Filipino Americans doing theology. If the Bible is the story of people trying to find their own identity, seminary for me is a place to try to figure out who I am, figure out my gifts, what’s underneath. It’s a different kind of space. It’s different from the Filipino activist space which is often angry, yelling about oppression, looking and going back home to the pre-Spanish Philippines. But there was no space for internal work, space for people to look within themselves, for self discovery. I need a faith-based place. It’s more hopeful, forgiving. I need a sense of hope and comfort. Martin Luther King Jr. in “Strength to Love” says, “Be as tender as a dove and as wise as a serpent.” The faith community gives me space to do that. I can be a person who can hold my convictions and stand strong, and want to build relationships. There is a balance.