Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Rev. Dr. Neal Presa

Welcome to the blog series celebrating the 2015 Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, inspired by the "Our New Day Begun" series celebrating Black History Month by the Rev. Tawnya Denise Anderson. This month, you will read profiles of Asian Pacific American Presbyterian leaders, spanning many generations and ethnicities. Check back throughout May for more profiles!

A look at other posts:

Presbyterians Celebrating Asian Pacific American Heritage Month
The Rev. Charlene Han Powell
The Rev. Phil Tom
The Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow
The Rev. Yena Hwang
The Rev. Joann Haejong Lee
The Rev. Shawn Kang
The Rev. Jim Huang

The Rev. Neal D. Presa, Ph.D. serves as Associate Pastor at Village Community Presbyterian Church, Rancho Santa Fe, CA and as Extraordinary Associate Professor of Practical Theology, North-West University, Potschefstroom, South Africa. He is the immediate Past Moderator of the 220th General Assembly (2012) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Are you a “cradle Presbyterian,” or did you come to the tradition later in life?

I was baptized in the Roman Catholic tradition, grew up in the United Church of Christ, introduced to Christ by two Baptist ministers, and became Presbyterian/Reformed in the mid '90s. Through pastoral and ecumenical work, and doctoral studies, my knowledge and appreciation of the various Reformed traditions, Eastern Orthodox families, Anglican and Methodist liturgies and polities, non-denominational and Pentecostal traditions were deepened.

What do you most appreciate about this tradition?

What I appreciate about the Presbyterian/Reformed traditions is at the core and circumference of who we are, what we believe, and how we do what we believe are premised on covenant - God's covenant with us, our covenant with God, and our covenant with one another. We don't live it out perfectly as demonstrated by the various divisions for the last 500 years in the Reformed faith. But those divisions do not negate God's covenant promises to us in Jesus Christ as sealed and assured by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Our sacramental life as expressed in baptism and the Eucharist is anchored on the covenant. Our confessions are premised on covenant. Even our polity, in its essence and in practice, are shaped and informed by covenant.  

What about it do you think needs to be changed or addressed?

For over 500 years, the predominant voices in the Presbyterian/Reformed traditions have been those of our sisters and brothers of European descent: continental Europe and then the trans-Atlantic Scottish/English Puritans and Congregationalists.  With that comes an ineluctable sense of privilege and power in theological, cultural, and political epistemology, and the expression and practice thereof.  On the eve of the quincentenary of the Protestant Reformation, we have an opportunity to truly reform the church in such a way where the "priesthood of all believers" is not a mere favorite mnemonic device, but a lived reality; that sovereignty of God is not a mere phrase placed in one's statement of faith but is truly lived out that God is in control, and that because God is in control, God cares not about human power, but about how God's power in Christ is used to uplift the hungry, the downtrodden, the poor, the sick, the orphan and widow - those without power.

How do you think your perspective as an Asian Pacific American can enrich the denomination?

As a Pacific Islander, Asian American (I can claim all those being born in Guam, both of my parents being Filipino), we do differentiate between eating, dining, and feasting. Eating is just the function of putting food in your mouth. Dining is eating but with niceties, rules, and protocol, but not real, deep relating to one another. In so many ways, the Book of Order and Robert's Rules of Order have become the placemats of our dining together.  Feasting is what we do in my wider family.  Neighbors bring food and enjoy the feast, whether you are a blood relative or not. In Guam, it's understood already that you are family because of the water. In the Christian faith, water is thicker than blood! My cultural and ethnic identity enriches the denomination because of feasting as both belief and act, and the feasting occurs within the context of community, and in the beauty of God's creation.  You can't get more comprehensive than that!

What led you to pursue ordination as a Teaching Elder?

I thought I was headed to law school as a political science and history double major at UC Davis. Almost everyone in the political science department at the senior luncheon was headed to law school or PhD studies in political science. Not me. It was a sermon I heard at Whitworth's (when it was Whitworth College) Institute for Ministry on the text, "The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few."  That was the Holy Spirit moment, when the Spirit impressed upon me the question, "Why do you want to go to law school?" It was a "Come to Jesus" moment because at the heart of the matter was about the law degree, the legal profession. It was about power. It was also about cultural expectation. As a Filipino son and grandson, the expectation is one must be a lawyer, doctor, or engineer.  Teaching elder/pastor in the Roman Catholic side of my father's family translated to "celibate priest."  It took an act of the Holy Spirit to steer me from law school to the ordained ministry, the work of the Holy Spirit to help my family see the gift of ministry as vocation, and the sustaining work of the Holy Spirit through and through. 

Describe your current call. What is your role? What is the racial/ethnic composition of the place you serve?

I have dual calls.  The Village Church is a 1100-member congregation in one of the most affluent zip codes in America. Our members and the community context are entrepreneurs, business leaders, physicians, attorneys, finance managers, and they love Jesus Christ deeply. Worship and mission are central to Village Church, and the ability to be a part of significant kingdom impact in north county San Diego and around the world is pretty awesome. My role as Associate Pastor for Family and Connecting Ministries is to provide strategic and pastoral leadership for our preschool (150 kids), children's, youth and young adults, older adults, family small groups ministries, and new member initiatives; that translates to supervising a staff team of 24, plus three interns and administering a budget of $1.1 million.  It's working alongside my other staff colleagues, lay leaders, and the numerous families.  On any given day, I interact with nearly 200 people, in a given week, about 400-500, sharing the love of God, nurturing faith.  The congregation is 97% Anglo as is the community of Rancho Santa Fe. 

In addition to my service at the Village Church, I'm on a three-year appointment with the North-West University in Potschefstroom, South Africa as a distance researcher and student advisor in the capacity as Extraordinary Associate Professor of Practical Theology ('extraordinary' is the term used by some African, Australian and European schools to differentiate from 'ordinary' or residential faculty; the equivalent in the American setting would be 'adjunct' but it sounds pretty cool!). My call with the university is primarily to publish works in the area of Reformed theology, and when needed, to provide academic guidance to masters and doctoral students in their thesis proposals and writing.

The dual appointments at the Village Church and at the North-West University are in line with my sense of call from the beginning to be concurrently engaged in the congregation, academy, and ecumenical contexts, as it was when I was in New Jersey. There's never a dull moment. And to be a part of formation and ministry in the daily rhythms of a local congregation with a broad reach in local and global contexts plus the opportunity to still write and actively publish and serve in councils of the church - I have the best of all worlds. For that, I'm deeply grateful.

How do you think our denomination can best benefit/be enriched by the perspectives of Asian Pacific American Presbyterians?

Pacific Islander Asian American Presbyterians have a rich story and faith journeys that enrich the predominant Anglo culture that is and has been the PC(USA).  We have lived on the "edge" so to speak. I've been ecumenical all my life. Living in the tension of being Roman Catholic and UCC as a child, and then adding to that being Presbyterian/Reformed, and everything else -- there's no anxiety here when it comes to embodying multiple identities, living with ambiguity, embracing difference.  That's what we offer -- a humble but confident faith, ever learning and growing, and not anxious in the midst of it all.

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