Thomas Wing-Fu Chow presents to Bishop John Harvey Taylor banners reading “good shepherd,” “wise teacher,” and “love God and love God’s people.” Chow, a priest from Hong Kong assisting at St. Gabriel’s Church, created the banners, which hung in the church during the Lunar New Year service on Feb. 5. Photo: Janet Kawamoto

A kumquat branch, signifying good luck, decorates the lectern at St. Gabriel’s Church, Monterey Park, for the Feb. 5 Lunar New Year service and celebration. Photo: Janet Kawamoto

[The Episcopal News] Members of the diocesan community gathered Feb. 5 at St. Gabriel’s Episcopal Church in Monterey Park in a “place between laughter and tears” for a joint Lunar New Year celebration.

“This is the first time in three years that we have held this celebration in person” since the Covid-19 pandemic, the Rev. Canon Ada Wong Nagata said when welcoming about 100 guests to the gathering.

“This is supposed to be a happy occasion, but there is no way we can celebrate with full hearts,” she added, referring to the Jan. 21 mass shooting at the nearby Star Ballroom Dance Studio, which claimed 11 lives and injured another ten at a Lunar New Year celebration.

Authorities, who identified the shooter as Huu Can Tran, 72, of Hemet, Calif., say a motive for the shootings is unclear. Tran died later that day of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Bishop John Harvey Taylor called for a moment of silence in memory of the Monterey Park shooting victims and those affected by “all the acts of gun violence in recent weeks and months all over our country.”

Two other shootings occurred in California within the same week. Six people—including a mother and her six-month-old baby—were killed Jan. 16 in Goshen, about 35 miles southeast of Fresno in the state’s Central Valley. Two people have been arrested in connection with the “cartel-style execution” killings.

On Jan. 24, a farmworker in northern California’s Half Moon Bay, killed seven people and injured an eighth. The shooter, identified as Chunli Zhao, 66, was apprehended by authorities, who called it an episode of workplace violence

Bishop John Taylor preaches at the Lunar New Year service; Fennie Chang translates his sermon into Chinese. Photo: Janet Kawamoto

Hope and possibility amid grief and sadness

“It is a blessing for all of us from the larger diocesan community to be with you,” Taylor told the gathering. “As Canon Ada said, this is not the celebration you had planned, so our challenge is to find that place between laughter and tears.”

The Rev. Thomas Ni, associate for Chinese ministry at the Church of Our Saviour in San Gabriel, said the joint trilingual celebration is a tradition among St. Thomas Church in Hacienda Heights, St. Gabriel’s, and the Church of Our Saviour, which all have vibrant Chinese language ministries.

The Rev. Hsin-Fen (Fennie) Chang, vicar of St. Thomas’ Church, served as officiant at the late afternoon prayer service, held in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English. She also translated Taylor’s sermon.

The writer of Ecclesiastes (3:1-15) said there “is a time to hate and a time to kill,” Taylor said. “It doesn’t say God wants us to hate and to kill … (but rather) that God knows that sometimes, there is killing and sometimes there is hatred and we must be prepared for them.”

Taylor recalled the Jan. 29 vigil held at the Church of Our Saviour in support of the Asian American and Pacific Island community in the aftermath of the Monterey Park shooting. “It was a moment that Ecclesiastes anticipated when it said there’s a time to laugh and a time to weep.
The profound mystery is that at last week’s service both things were true.”

A choir from Church of Our Saviour, San Gabriel, sings a hymn celebrating the new year. Photo: Janet Kawamoto

That service included a litany of remembrances of incidents of gun violence in the last decade and, he said, “I’m sorry to say, there were four instances just in our diocese. It was a time to weep.”

Yet, hope and possibility exist even in moments of unspeakable grief and sadness, and that hope births healing miracles, he said.

“Paul said to the Corinthians – we heard it today, that if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. God is making all things new through us. God is making God’s appeal through us.

“We are indispensable to the process. In the shadows of darkness, if the people of God show up in faith, healing miracles begin immediately.

“Ours is the constant work of reconciliation – at vigils, at funerals, at new year celebrations and indeed even at weddings,” Taylor said. “We come together across difference and our differences are no match for the unity created in us by virtue of the one thing we are there to celebrate and mourn.”

Unfortunately, “it doesn’t last very long,’ he added. “We experience these moments of unification across difference but then we return to our everyday lives. We fall into the trap of forgetting our unity and focusing on our differences. But we have been forged in love like the strongest metal in God’s workshop.”

Ada Nagata, center left, and the congregation applaud Phoebe Pao, center right, widow of Benjamin Pao, founding vicar and rector of St. Gabriel’s Church. Photo: Janet Kawamoto

He compared moments of connection – like the smile of a child or grandchild, or making a new friend, or gathering to celebrate or to mourn together, as “an echo of the moment of our creation … of the moment when God said, ‘let there be light,’ and made us.”

Being created by God in love translates to being created for love and the pouring out of oneself in love and “whenever there is an act of violence or hatred, when someone is sick or lost or lonely, the healing work begins whenever we reach out to someone in need.

“The human miracles begin whenever people come together to mourn or celebrate and then make plans for a better world,” Taylor said. “It might be plans for a better family life. It might be plans for a happier church. It might be plans to be nicer to annoying strangers. It might be plans not to get into the line for eight items when you have nine items.

Clergy of the diocese attending the Lunar New Year service converse with Bishop Taylor. From left are: Thomas Ni, Wingfu Chow, Jeff Thornberg, Keith Yamamoto, John Phelan, Fennie Chang, Melissa McCarthy, Ada Nagata, Katherine Feng and Taylor. Photo: Janet Kawamoto

“Jesus say you are the light of the world. He didn’t say I am the light of the world – make me the center of everything. Without one another, without our common worship, fellowship and service, without breaking bread at the altar, without breaking bread at dinner, without the work of the Church of Christ, in our time the shadow of darkness will fall over more and more lonely doorways.

“Today is a day to laugh and to weep. Our mourning is transformed by our faith and the hope for a better day.”

Several church choirs performed and cellist Jenna Jia, violinist Alex Zhong and pianist Janice Lee, youth members of the St. Thomas’s instrumental worship team, performed “The Prayer.”

Musical entertainment continued after the service at a buffet-style meal in the church hall, which is dedicated to the memory of the Rev. Benjamin Pao, founding rector of St. Gabriel’s, whose widow, Phoebe Pao, attended the service. Clergy leaders in attendance included the Rev. Canon Melissa McCarthy, canon to the ordinary; the Very Rev. Keith Yamamoto, dean of Deanery Six and rector of St. Mark’s Church, Upland; the Rev. Jeffrey Thornberg, rector of Church of Our Saviour; the Rev. John Phalen, a senior priest of the diocese who has often served at St. Gabriel’s altar; the Rev. Thomas Wing-fu Chow, a priest from Hong Kong who is assisting at St. Gabriel’s this month; and the Rev. Katherine Feng, who was ordained to the priesthood last month.

Bishop Taylor joins singers from St. Gabriel’s Church in an impromptu singalong at the dinner reception after the service. Photo: Janet Kawamoto

Gigi and Wayne Choo performed “Medley of Joy,” a piano and harmonica duet that included Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and the hymn “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” sparking applause and a singalong.

Gigi Choo, Pao’s niece, recalled being “baptized, and married here, and now in my 29th year of marriage.” Celebrating, even in challenging times, is important, she said.

“There is sadness, but we have hope,” she said. “We thank God for his blessings because in God we are able to receive joy, and hope, and peace and love.”

Another duet, “Over and Over,” sung by Tony Chu and Joe Chan, also galvanized handclapping and an enthusiastic impromptu singalong.

Chu, a member of St. Gabriel’s for four decades, said the celebration brought “mixed feelings. There is sorrow, but you have to still feel the blessings and try to be happy, There is just too much gun violence in the world.”