The Rev. Dr. John Phalen, who died in October, had two doctorates and multiple vocations — priest, Air Force chaplain, executive director of one of Los Angeles’ largest resettlement agencies, college fundraiser, real estate manager, and poet and playwright. Three years as interim priest at St. Gabriel’s Episcopal Church in Monterey Park beginning in 1998 cemented a friendship with the parish and its people that lasted the rest of his life and was commemorated this morning at his well-attended celebration of life at St. Gabriel’s.
The service was lovingly organized by the priest in charge, the Rev. Canon Ada Wong-Nagata, whose own priestly vocation John encouraged. I was along to preach and celebrate. The Rev. Michael K. Fincher, rector of St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church, Long Beach, CA, where John also had deep roots, assisted. It was a bilingual liturgy; longtime lay leader Tony Chu translated my sermon into Mandarin. Matthew Cheung, a civil engineer who lives in San Francisco, grew up at St. Gabriel’s, and was baptized by Fr. John, came south to play the organ and piano (including for April Wong’s beautiful “Ave Maria”). Charles Cheung, Matthew’s dad, and Daniel Chen were acolytes. A delicious lunch and much joyous conversation followed the service.
At the recessional, John’s spouse of 23 years, Sherry, followed the crucifer, carrying his ashes. She and other members of her family were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution in China. Her parents were physicians. She now has an acupuncture practice in southern California. Her daughter, Shan Shan, a dietician at Long Beach Memorial Hospital, to whom John was deeply devoted, was at her mother’s side all morning.
John believed in lifetime continuing education for Christian leaders, especially the ordained orders, so pastors would be fortified to proclaim Jesus Christ’s gospel of hope in difficult times. His poetry and prose, which he sent me regularly, suggested that he grappled periodically with his faith. Going by our epistle this morning, faith won. It was John’s 2022 Christmas poem:
Some may say it’s silly to courage hope
As the evening news echoes the human dark side
But come, search the Silent Night that seems Unholy
Its darkness hiding light of Christmas Star
Shrouded by the human storm clouds of the times
Dare with me this courage that says God is Love
In spite of the human darkness that breaks our hearts
God is Love, you see, no matter what
And it is the Love search that must be made
In the mystery of Creation’s open hand
Journey into the Unholy realms no matter what
Where wise fools search the Silent Night
And courage transforms darkness into Holy Light
That awakens the Christmas Star for us to find
The Love Child to be held in hopeful human hands