The Seattle Times front page had my friend and fellow history partner Dr. Joe Castleberry alongside a vintage photo. He’s making waves in American Conservative circles for his Pro-Immigration stance and his love of Hispanic America. For the political spin read the Sunday article. For the historical background on the vintage photo he’s in front of, read below.
Why are there Filipinos in that picture?
This extremely giant wall image is Northwest University’s first student body picture found in their prayer room at the Kirkland campus. The brown men you can spot are Filipinos from Ilocano speaking regions of the Philippines, which is typical of the American “Manong” diaspora. In 1934 Northwest’s school was in the Roosevelt (Hollywood) neighborhood of Seattle in what is now Cavalry Assembly alongside I-5. This was very far from the confines of Chinatown where Filipino Americans were segregated to, and in a Seattle where racial covenants denied them residency. They were the first People of Color at the school and were part of it’s forming foundation.
The nature of the school’s ethnic immigrant composition is important because it defied the institutional racism and violent bigotry of the era. It shows a school founded by immigrants, of people who did not look the same, but were bound together by radical convictions in their new Christian faith. At the same time Christianity is a reason why this dynamic Filipino American history is so little known, because Filipinos are normally seen as Catholic.
One larger reason why Filipino immigrants were connected and admitted to the school is because of Pacific Northwest labor industries. Census evidence I’ve found shows that all of these early Filipino students came to the United States as migrant laborers. They worked the same jobs as Norwegian immigrant workers in the Northwest. Pentecostalism grew amongst Norwegians, and the school’s first President Henry H. Ness was also a Norwegian immigrant. Evidence at FANHS National Archives shows Filipinos & Norwegians as fellow loggers and lumber mill laborers in the local region. Additionally, many Filipinos worked in the fishing and cannery industry with Swedes and Norwegians. As the fervor of Christian revivalism grew among these European immigrants, it carried along to their fellow co-workers in Asian immigrants as well.
Maybe six years ago I was walking the school halls and noticed an image of Filipinos peppered into the student body picture of Northwest University. I thought it would have been impossible to figure out who they were. As I dug into better research a couple years ago, I found the story of NU’s Filipino students to be amazing considering their freedom and how they were later celebrated in their denomination. Since then, I’ve brought audiences with me through the past about connections between the Manong Generation, Seattle’s Chinatown, and the Assemblies of God (AG). I’m glad to share some of the finer points again.
The American experience of Filipinos in Seattle and their Pentecostal revivalism in the United States is unrecognized in Asian American history studies and remembered by only a few Christian Missions historians. I try to observe this history from it’s own context of the early 20th century – not by modern political or social conceptions of religion from today. Unexpectedly, I had to stop many religious assumptions from myself, and others before the important historical discoveries found were introduced to different conferences. Two of the larger figures I’ve discussed and found were men named: Rodrigo (Rudy) C. Esperanza and E.C. Lagmay.
Rudy Esperanza’s work, and his fellow Filipinos at Northwest University in Seattle, were remarkable for several reasons:
1. Pre-Civil Rights Multicultural Ideals- Intercultural Leadership: Earlier revival movements of the 20th century were extremely multicultural and inter-racial. The Azusa Street Revival, from which the AG stems from, was begun by African American William J. Seymour. In the same strain, Northwest University was an AG school founded by immigrants that fostered an empowering mixed race student body in Seattle’s Roosevelt neighborhood with radical approaches to diversity based on their Christian faith. This occurred during a time of segregation and hostility towards people of color and foreigners in the 1930’s & 1940’s. Multicultural cooperation and engagement was meaningful.
The school’s multicultural approach required students be members of different world clubs, or “Missionary Bands”, that represented different regions of the globe. The Filipino students were part of the Islands of the Sea Band, not just as members, but as the primary leaders.
Additional records found show that Rudy Esperanza was also the Commencement Speaker at the 1938 Northwest Graduation ceremony. These honors, racial harmony and evangelistic efforts would set a precedent for school culture and begin enterprises regionally and globally.
Northwest University students also had contemporaries in the University of Washington’s pensionado students who were writing and supporting similar Christian ideals with a global tangent. The Filipino Christian Student Movement had an article featuring some of their ideals:
“They abhor race prejudice. They hate war. They want justice and international friendship. Here is what they [the Filipino Protestant Youth Movement] say:
“We believe in the Christian interpretation of internationalism. All men of all nations and races are equal in the sight of God who is the common Father of mankind. We shall strive to make universal brotherhood a living reality. Therefore we shall oppose all attempts to settle international difference on any basis except justice, reason, and friendly understanding.”
(Mauro Baradi, February 1930, FCSM Bulletin.)
Whether the Christian Filipino leaders of NU and UW partnered in Chinatown for social support and spiritual enlightenment together is not known and maybe unlikely since the two groups represented two different classes: elite and peasantry. Also, divisions between different denominations was extremely sectarian. Divisive religious interpretations and competition between Christians was previously more active in the United States.
“I was caught in the depression, and began to drift… in Chinatown.” – Rudy Esperanza
2. New Contexts for Chinatown: A common narrative in American history is that Chinatowns were generally a bastion of vice, dance halls, gambling and bars that many from the Manong generation were bound in. In contrast to this, several missions were begun by Rudy Esperanza’s friends and the AG Hollywood Temple (Cavalry) within Seattle’s Chinatown International District area. This is new evidence that there was a present and active alternative for Filipinos from the 1930’s-1950’s that served the area in many ways.
Northwest’s Filipino students were the navigators and gatekeepers to Seattle’s Chinatown for the AG. Part of the radical aspect for Christians was to directly engage sinners and sinful practices just like Jesus did through present and relevant action. Pioneer Square and Chinatown were overt areas of crime and vice that the AG denomination sought to penetrate. This was not achievable for Chinatown unless Filipinos led the way. Again, this is an early example of respect, equality , and empowerment where People of Color like Rudy Esperanza turned ideas and leadership into action within a majority white environment.
“God gave him [Rudy] a love and burden for his own people in Seattle. With the encouragement of some Christian friends, he opened a Mission Hall where many Filipinos found Christ.” – Trinidad E. Seleky
This counter response to urban crime and poverty was embodied in several locales. The Filipino Full Gospel Mission [601 King St] was an outreach ministry for NU students to reach a global audience and teach children in Sunday schools. The Weller Street Mission [651 Weller St] provided a daily night service and open place of Sunday worship in Chinatown. Weller was also known as the Oriental Mission and was run by several of the Northwest Filipino students until 1949. Finally, the Filipino Christian House [1216 Weller St] was a collaborative home that served as a safe haven for Filipinos wishing to rest or escape from the social problems of Chinatown. The house was owned by a Swedish immigrant woman from Cavalry Assembly on paper, but run by Filipinos in real life. (It was illegal for non-white Alien immigrants to own land in Washington State until 1941 when Filipino Pio DeCano challenged the Supreme Court.) In comparison, the Filipino Christian House served the same vision as similar organizations like the YMCA and the Salvation Army where the focus was on serving disenfranchised communities and giving a shelter for those seeking God.
3. National & Global Coordination, The Mur-Muray Movement: AG Filipinos work was not isolated, limited or unique. A wider-scale effort grew from Seattle and also the Bay Area where AG students Rudy Esperanza and E.C. Lagmay agreed to coordinate evangelist movements between the Philippines, the West Coast and across the United States. In American history there have been several revival movements that radically changed the social landscape: The Great Awakenings. This uncovered history marks the beginning of an ethnic awakening of what I will call The Mur-Muray Movement. (Mur-Muray is an Ilocano phrase loosely meaning “trying to wake up”.) Arguably, a revival movement in the United States founded by multicultural leaders, a deterministic social gospel, and individual emphasis on experiencing the Spirit, provided a different kind of freedom and independence from entrenched powers and colonial frameworks.
Typically missions work is seen as rich countries going to poorer countries. NU’s Rudy Esperanza was also the founder of the Philippines General Counsel AG Church and grew the Asia Pacific Theological Seminary School in Baguio City. He coordinated with E.C. Lagmay who became the President of the American Filipino AG church on the Central Coast of California. They brought missions to evangelize back to white Americans and Filipinos in the United States instead. Although most Filipino Americans were confined to the West Coast or urban areas, the Filipino Evangelistic Team had recorded work with thousands of people as far as Kansas and Oklahoma. Esperanza’s son Danny continued his own ministry work mostly in Delano, CA.
The Mur-Muray Movement in the U.S. helped facilitate the larger charismatic “Born Again” movement ocurring in Asia and the Philippines of today. The Philippines AG Church celebrated their 75th anniversary in 2015 (see video below). The Philippines AG views very specifically that their church was not found by typical missionaries, but created by Filipinos as an indigenous autonomous group. Evidence from APTS Archives in Baguio show Esperanza denounced independent American church activities within the Philippines and demanded all foreign actions be approved by him and coordinated by his administration. I surmise that some racial animosity and nationalism did come into play by the 1950’s and 1960’s. Letters retrieved from the Springfield Archives shows that Lagmay also was at odds with American mission limits on his activities by 1970’s.
The Relevance of Understanding this History: Expanding this work from a historical viewpoint is necessary as the earliest experience of Filipino Americans with Pentecostal Christianity in America is not fully recognized. It also shows how Filipinos were present in different spiritual movements. Others may claim that their missions work with modern Filipino Americans is a new effort, while evidence shows the underpinnings and presence for intercultural faith engagement come from an earlier revival period. Further, a religious understanding for the attraction and differences of pentecostal or charismatic faith is not articulated for Filipino Americans. Pentecostal history has a multicultural, egalitarian, and decentralized founding from earlier Awakenings and revivals. These spiritual events had a direct influence on other social changes like: labor movement reform, social justice efforts, racial equality, public health, and even feminist awakenings. More events of Christian history and the involvement of Filipinos creates a unique transformation shaped by American revivalism that continues.
The AG is one of the largest Pentecostal denominations in the U.S. and the world; it is the sixth largest denomination worldwide in wider Christianity. Knowing this, inspecting the history of how Filipinos were involved at their advent, it becomes a necessity in asking how and why spiritual growth is occurring. Today, the Filipino-American Convention of the AG is one of the oldest ethnic churches from within the denomination. The AG celebrated their Centennial celebration (AG 100) in 2014 with attendees from around the world including Filipino American delegates and the indigenous delegates from the Philippines AG Church. Evangelical, pentecostal and charismatic practices are expanding within the United States especially in the form of multi-ethnic partnerships; the Philippines estimates some 15% practitioners of Pentecostalism or Charismatic faith. This number is growing there. Additionally, Charismatic growth in Filipino Catholics is seen as a corrollary response to Pentecostalism.
A large and vibrant Filipino student presence did not continue following World War II. As a result Northwest University experienced a giant gap in the 20th century in diversity. However, with the Pro-Immigrant sentiments of Northwest University’s current president Dr. Castleberry, there is definitely a welcoming and affirming desire for diversity in the 21st century. Cheers to Northwest for having a leader that is reflecting the immigrant roots of the school and universal brotherhood.
Copyright © Devin Israel Cabanilla