This week we welcome Dr. Al Tizon to the CAAC blog. Dr. Tizon is Affiliate Associate Professor, Missional & Global Leadership at North Park University. He is executive minister of Serve Globally, the international ministries of the Evangelical Covenant Church. Theological education that equips the whole church to engage in the ministry of the entire gospel throughout the whole world which is integral to his approach to missional and global leadership. An ordained minister of the ECC, Dr. Tizon has served churches and engaged in community development work, church leadership, holistic ministry, advocacy, and urban ministry both in the Philippines and in the United States. He was formerly co-President of Evangelicals for Social Action, an activist think tank that combines holistic ministry, public policy, and scholarship.
This essay is based on a lecture given by Dr. Tizon at a CAAC Colloquium at Princeton Theological Seminary.
I wrote a book a few years ago entitled, Whole & Reconciled: Gospel, Church, and Mission in a Fractured World (Baker Academic, 2018). Every book is part autobiography, but in works such as W&R, the life of the author is more implicit. Even as I wrote the book, the way in which my life story has shaped my missiology was not readily apparent even to me. What parts of my journey—life markers—have informed the missional commitments I expressed W&R?
A Life in Narrative
I am the third of five children born to Filipino parents. My mother was from the Ilocano region, my father from the Pampanga region, so they spoke different languages. But Tagalog was the common language they both understood and was the language mostly used in my household. (Within the Philippines itself a microcosm of globalization exists with over 182 known dialects, representing many cultures).
My family immigrated to the United States when I was two-years old, because of my father’s work with the Philippine government. The driving force behind my family’s move to the U.S. was socio-economic prosperity. For millions of Filipinos, the grand indicator of making it was (and is) to have made it to “the promised land” of the United States of America.
My father was a commercial attaché for the Philippine government, which I understood growing up as the person responsible to show hospitality to Filipino VIPs visiting a U.S. city to which my father was assigned at any given time. I thought all the parties being hosted in our home were just my parents’ friends getting together. But, in reality, our visitors were dignitaries from the homeland—senators, journalists, actors, and so on.
For whatever reason, my father was transferred from consulate to consulate every few years. So, before I finished elementary school, we had lived in LA, Seattle (twice), Honolulu, and NYC.
When I was 12 years old, my father resigned from the consulate. We moved from the Bronx, NY to Umatilla, OR (with a population of 750 people), where my mother was one of two medical doctors in the region. The jump from urban to rural was an exercise in cross-cultural skills training of the starkest kind. In fact, for all the crossing cultures I’ve done in my life, I still look to that experience from urban New York to rural eastern Oregon as the biggest leap I ever took.
It was while living in Umatilla that I remember us one-by-one turning in our green cards and becoming U.S. citizens. This indicated success in life. We had made it to the promised land and possesed a piece of paper to prove it.
I was 13 years old when I became a U.S. citizen.
Besides the normal growing pains of any North American, children of immigrant families also have an extra set of issues related to having to negotiate between two cultures. We would begin each day in a Filipino household, and then go off to an American school. The dominant North American culture often made me feel like the Filipino culture that defined our household was strange and worthy of mocking—eating with a spoon and fork or sometimes with our hands, parents with accents, the smell of fried fish in the house, the Filipino decor of our house, etc.—all these things reminded us that we were a strange people living in a strange land.
The biggest issue that was unique to us, at least as we compared ourselves to our friends at school, was that we had a third parent whom we called Lola, which means “grandmother” in Tagalog. My siblings and I certainly regarded her as our second mother, because she was the one who took care of us while my parents worked outside the home. She loved us like a mother, and we loved her as a mother. But my parents had a different view. She was what Filipino culture called a “katulong,” literally translated “the Help,” yes, like the movie. And like the movie, Lola suffered many indignities, mostly emotional abuse, while working 24/7 for the family with no pay but the “privilege” of living in the United States. The difference between our view and our parents’ view of Lola was profound and daily. The majority of the clashes with our parents had to do with Lola.
The last article that my late journalist brother Alex Tizon wrote before his untimely death in 2017 was about Lola. It was entitled “My Family Slave,” which was the cover article of the June 2017 issue of The Atlantic. I’m convinced that my commitment to the poor, oppressed, and marginalized in the world is fueled, not only by my understanding of the gospel, but also by my desire to advocate for the many “Lolas” in the world.
I realized at an early age that America was not the land of equal opportunity. Our father was quite clear, especially with his sons, that we needed to work doubly, triply hard if we wanted to succeed here in the land of the giants, and he didn’t just mean in stature. “Americans” (read: Euro or Anglo-Americans) will always be bigger than you in every way,” my dad would say more than once, “If they put in one hour of work, you must put in two or even three. If your classmates get As in class, you must get an A-pluses. And so it goes.
America is a land of opportunity, but for non-whites, we have to work much harder to take advantage of those opportunities. But even then, no promises. Be content as far up as you go, but don’t be too disappointed when you don’t make it all the way to the top. What my father was describing is what has become known among us Asian-Americans as the bamboo ceiling.
On a related note, when I began to learn the mixed history of Filipinos and Americans, including the Filipino-American War in the early 20th century, I went through an intense period of anger, realizing that part of the story of America becoming “a land of opportunity” was to take advantage of others—indigenous communities, slaves from Africa, and people from faraway lands like the Philippines. More on this in a bit.
In 1979, I became a Christian in dramatic fashion. After about four years of intense drug use and other self-destructive behaviors, due in part in response to family chaos that eventually resulted in the divorce of our parents, I turned to God to save me from myself. God saw fit to hear my cry, for which I am eternally grateful. My conversion was reflective of how many other suburban youths came to faith in Christ.
In 1981, I married this cute girl from Oregon named Janice, whom I met and began dating in high school shortly after I came to faith. We have been married for 40 years now and raised four Asian-White children. They’re all married now, and we have five grandchildren and one on the way.
It was while in grad school in 1985 that I was smitten with a sense of God’s mission. It occurred in part as a result of a multi-punch combination of books that included Ronald J. Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, Gustavo Gutierrez’ A Theology of Liberation, and John Perkins’ Let Justice Roll Down. But it was a travel course called, “Contemporary Issues in Missiology: Latin American Practicum,” that knocked me out.
Each morning began in the classroom, but after lunch, the class resumed via observation and/or engagement in hands-on ministry with, for, and among the poor. This daily schedule over a period of three weeks in the countries of Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Costa Rica exposed me to the blessings of the intercultural experience, the unromantic reality of poverty, and the joy of service—in a word, mission—on both the theoretical and practical levels.
In 1989—four years after my experience in Central America and a master’s in leadership and ministry—Janice and I and our then-two children moved to the Philippines as a missionary family with a small, very conservative, very white, Seattle-based mission sending agency. I credit God for developing in me a love for my own people back in the Philippines. Though my parents would have never said it this directly, the unwritten message I received from them in retrospect was to forget the homeland, to be glad we left it.
We worked among and with the poor in two squatter communities in Metro-Manila, and then four years later, we moved to Zambales province to work with families adversely affected by a massive volcanic eruption for another five years. We engaged in community rebuilding and development. Janice worked with street kids. In addition to the community development ministry, I was also part of the leadership of a church-plant in a garbage dump community in Olongapo City, Zambales.
As I mentioned, our four children are now married. Our oldest daughter married a Guatemalan-American man. They have three children whom we call “Guatapinos.” Our son married an African-American woman from south Philadelphia. This marriage sadly is coming to an end after six years. They have one Asian-white-black son. Our second daughter married an Anglo-American from Los Angeles. They have one son and another on the way. Our youngest daughter married a young man from Crete during COVID last year. His mother is Dutch Afrikaan from South Africa. Our kids and grandkids all live in the mulit-ethnic milieu of the San Francisco Bay Area. My family is in of itself developing into a picture of multi-ethnicity.