What shall we call You?
A sermon for Holy Child Episcopal, Daly City
By Rev. Joyce Parry Moore
In the name of God who knows us,
who struggles with us, and who connects us. Amen.
On Thursday afternoon, I met an A.B. (able bodied seaman) named Dino aboard the MOL Express, a vessel bound for Asia that would visit Oakland again in three months. Dino and his wife, Maria Theresa, are expecting their first baby at the end of August, while he is still at sea.
As we stood in the recreation room after celebrating Mass together, the group of Filipino seafarers laughed and joked with Dino. They assured me they would throw a celebration for him when the happy day arrived.
“How do you feel? “ I asked.
The very young Dino smiled deeply, “Scared,” he admitted. “Excited,” he added.
He told me that they knew Maria was carrying a boy child. “What will you call him?”
“Dino Junior!” the seafarers chimed in.
The eldest man, the boson, or boss man, added what sounded to me like “Dino Sur”.
I thought of the Philippine provinces – Zambuanga del Sur, or Camarines Sur, and I asked, “Dino of the South?”
They roared with laughter. Then the older seafarer made claws with his fingers and growled as he repeated, “Dino SAUR!”
Joining in the joke, I suggested, “How about Dino REX!” “Dino the King!”
What will they call him? In what language will he be named?
I’ve come to understand that most of the names of Filipino seafarers today are inherited from centuries of Spanish occupation, as well as the 19th century decree that changed and catalogued Asian Island names to Spanish ones. Names like Renato, the chief cook whom I visited on Friday, aboard a vessel where the manning agency does not require the company to issue visas. Without a visa to allow him off the ship, our conversation was one of the only ones with an outside person that Renato will have for ten months. He works these long months to pay for the schooling of his two daughters – one beginning college to study as an engineer, and one who soon begins kindergarten, meaning perhaps 16 more years of such work and time away from his family.
Seafarers like Renato and Dino might name their children differently – in my six months as Senior Chaplain at the Seamen’s Church Institute at the Port of Oakland, I’ve heard some interesting methods for choosing baby names. Some babies are named for boxing champions, some for rock stars, still others for flowers, or even after the places where they were conceived. Naming has always been important; it conveys our identity, and our hopes for our children.
The Apostle Peter’s name literally meant “rock” – Petros in Greek, or Kephas in Aramaic; Jesus may have been having a bit of fun, like those on the MOL Express, when he called Peter “Rockie”, upon whom he would build his Church. This after Jesus asks about how he, himself, is viewed: “who do people say, who do you say that I am?” By what identity, what name, is he known? Was he known as John, the Baptiser, the prophet who preached on the margins of the city; or Elijah, who like Jesus stilled the storms, healed the sick, and even raised the dead? Or something someone, more? What name would he be given, and what would be expected, hoped for, from him?
The baby Moses was given not a Hebrew, but an Egyptian name, one that meant, “to draw out”. This is another play on words, as the Pharaoh’s daughter speaks of “drawing him out” of the water, not knowing how Moses would eventually draw the Hebrew people out of slavery into freedom. The Jewish people, like more than 20% of the people of the Philippines, spent years in diaspora, traveling away from their homeland, working in other countries in order to survive. One of the ways that they stayed alive, that they remembered their identity, was through telling stories of their origins.
As we transition this week from one of the Patriarchs – Jacob, then Joseph, now Moses – to another, it is interesting to notice that most of the characters in the opening story of Exodus are women. And the women who are named most specifically are the Midwives, Shifra and Puah. The Talmudic sages taught that the names “Shifra” and “Puah” indicate different roles midwives play. “Shifra” stems from the Hebrew verb to swaddle or to clean a baby, while Puah comes from the Hebrew word to cry out because a midwife tries to calm a new mother’s cries by offering her words of encouragement. Taken more broadly, these names can mean to make things better, and to speak with eloquence, two of the gifts talked about by the Apostle Paul in today’s letter to the Romans. The Exodus text does not clearly indicate whether these Midwives were Hebrew or Egyptian. If they were Egyptian women, perhaps they saw the rightness of the One God, and made the decision to resist the new regime of their government through wise and non-violent means.
Their resistance to oppression reminds me of another name, one that means, “Heart”; the name “Corazon”. How perfect that the courageous heart of Maria Corazon Aquino led the People’s Power Revolution in the 1980’s, something that not only toppled the dictatorship of “Pharaoh” Ferdinand Marcos, but also earned Corazon the title of first woman President of Philippines, and “Time Magazine Woman of the Year”, in 1986. Like Shifra and Puah, Corazon connected people together, and helped them to resist unjust and violent laws, and managed together to change the future for their children. Like these Midwives, President Corazon Aquino knew that struggle –Makibaka –must not happen alone, but that together they could overcome oppression and keep hope alive.
Perhaps today, all over the world, if we could begin to see our current economic crisis as an opportunity to come together, to realize that there actually is enough for everyone, if we broaden our story to include the needs of everyone in society, as well as our individual goals, together, we could find a way out. How can we, as people of faith, begin to change the story?
The story of the Exodus out of slavery, out of Egypt, is one of the most central narratives of hope for the Judao-Christian people. It begins with a formula not unlike other familiar folk tales – the hero born of humble roots, and raised by a family not his own; the baby saved from execution, like Snow White, by the compassion of someone close to the throne. And the Exodus story begins with women – from the margins of power, and from different cultures – working together, making connections and forming an alliance that overcomes the evil of the Pharaoh.
After the Midwives “birth” the resistance, the mother of Moses hides her baby, and then places him in a vessel, and sets him afloat; his sister, whose name we later learn as Miriam, shepherds the baby to the daughter of Pharaoh, who has compassion – another of the gifts of the Spirit. Miriam helps Pharaoh’s daughter make the connection back to Joshebed, and this baby – who draws out the Hope of Freedom– creates a bridge between the Hebrew and Egyptian women. Upon this network the liberation of the Hebrew peoples is built.
As a feminist/womanist, I’ve read many essays and books about how women make ethical decisions in community, by making connections. According to studies by sociologists, and research by theologians, women consider and make right decisions by connecting with others. They find their integrity in community. I have seen this value at work among some of the seafarers aboard cargo vessels, places where rank and hierarchy try to define the identity of each seafarer, where calling someone by name can be an act of resistance.
On rare occasions when the officers are in fact women, I have seen these women make decisions by talking with other crew about what needed to be done, and how they would accomplish it as a team. I have also seen Filipino seafarers working in close community, making decisions together that benefit the entire group, and not just individuals. For them, the Church, perhaps, is not built upon a solitary Rock, but upon a collection of many different rocks, standing together. This variety of cultures is reflected in the folk tales from the Philippines as well.
In a Creation story from the Philippines, we find the sea and the sky, and a bird – a Kite – flying between them, with no place to land. In the struggle, the many hundreds of islands are born, and from the struggle on the islands a couple is drawn together, and from their struggle, many, many children are born. These children eventually become the variety of peoples on the islands, with their various gifts and callings. Like the Tribes of Israel, the People – Tao — are scattered. What brings them together?
Hope – Pagasa – and faith brings the seafarers together to worship over a mess hall table at the Port. They come together from many countries and cultures and religions – Philippines, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, Indonesia, Myanmar; Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Buddhist, Muslim. They gather to tell stories, to laugh, sometimes to cry, to break bread and to give thanks. They welcome me every day; and I welcome you.
Come to the Seamen’s Church Institute at the Port of Oakland. Come and be a part of this network, this fabric of God’s People, working to keep the hope of families and the world economy alive. Come and tell your story, and hear the names of the oiler, the fitter, the Chief Mate, the Mess Man. Come and draw them out, help to make things better, encourage them with your voice – bring whatever gifts the Spirit has given you. Make the connection with the world that comes to our shores every day, and connect their stories to your story. Whatever your name, you will become part of the Family. You will be called, Friend.
The Rev. Joyce Parry Moore is a Senior Chaplain at the Seamen’s Church Institute at the Port of Oakland, Oakland California.