Sermon for Feast Day for Florence Li Tim-Oi
A Sermon by Guest Preacher Heidi J. Kim for St. John’s the Evangelist Episcopal Church, Saint Paul, Minnesota
Racial Healing and Reconciliation Eucharist, January 7, 2022
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, oh Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
I was truly humbled to be asked to be with you today to share some reflections on the Rev. Florence Li Tim-Oi, the first woman ordained to the priesthood in the Anglican Communion. Some of you may be familiar with her story, and many of you may not. She’s a bit of a personal hero for me for a number of reasons that I’d be grateful to share with you.
Li Tim-Oi was ordained to the priesthood on January 25, 1944 by Bishop Ronald Hall of Hong Kong for her priestly ministry in Macao during world war II. She had been ordained as a deacon in 1941, and was placed in charge of an Anglican congregation in Macao that served refugees fleeing China. She was the full-time clergy leader of this congregation, performing baptisms, marriages, and funerals, providing pastoral care, and ministering to people who were living in desperation during this time of war. She was not authorized to celebrate the Eucharist, and a priest had to travel from Hong Kong to do this.
When the Japanese occupied Hong Kong and parts of China, it became impossible for priests to travel to neutral Macao, and Bishop Hall made the decision to ordain her as a priest. His letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury is very revealing of his thinking at the time.
I have three Chinese priests in Hong Kong but they cannot now get permission to go to Macao. Her work has been remarkably successful. My judgment is that it is only exceptional women who can do this kind of work. But we are going to have such exceptional women in China and such exceptional need. Moreover, working as a minister in charge of a congregation, Deaconess Li has developed as a man-pastor develops and has none of that frustrated fussiness that is noticeable in women who having the pastoral charisma are denied full exercise in the ministry of the church.
There’s just so much in that quotation. Exceptional women can do this work. Does that imply that the standard for men to engage priestly ministry is that they only need to be average? Barely competent? What does it mean to develop as a man-pastor develops? And what the heck is frustrated fussiness?
Most historical accounts of this event attribute Bishop Hall’s decision to ordain Li Tim-Oi not because he was an advocate for women’s ordination, but because her ministry was needed in an extraordinarily difficult time in a place where she had already demonstrated that she was engaging in a holy and priestly ministry. And Mother Tim-Oi was indeed holy, priestly, and extraordinary.
I read an account where she described her daily life during this time, and the impact it had on her.
I was working long hours, and I got to bed very late. Sometimes there would be midnight emergencies, when people would knock on the door and get me up. I would start work again at six o’clock. One day the doctor tested my chest. ‘If you carry on working like this,’ he said, ‘you will die very soon.’ But how could I stop? I didn’t sleep enough. I felt my heart pounding all the time, yet with so much to do I felt sure God would not let me die. I didn’t fear death, even though death was all around me.
If you are or know an essential worker, you may, like me, be taken aback by the similarity between Mother Tim-Oi’s experience and our current times. It was the extraordinary crisis of war that led a very practical bishop to make the decision to ordain her, because the needs of God’s people were greater than the need for the church to maintain the status quo. What are we called to create in our own moment of crisis?
My mother was a refugee during the Korean war, and miraculously managed to come to the United States as an international student when she received a P.E.O. scholarship. Through a series of even more miracles she landed at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where she received her M.Div as an international student. Think about that – in the mid 1950s, a Korean woman international student goes to the U.S. to study, and ends up at Union studying with the likes of Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr.
She met my father in New York, where he was also studying as an international student, and they married, had my oldest brother Bill, and then moved back to Korea for a few years. They decided to permanently immigrate to the U.S. in 1964, seeking greater political and economic stability. My father was a dentist, and we landed in Muscatine, IA in 1970. I’ve traveled to Muscatine several times since I’ve moved MN, and it is still a place that holds a strong pull on my heart. It was in Muscatine that I learned about the kindness of neighbors, as well as the racism and misogyny that still persist among well-meaning Christians.
At some point, my mother was feeling a strong call to ordained ministry, and she approached a local Protestant pastor. He had never heard of Union Theological Seminary, and said to her, “how dare you! What could an Oriental woman possibly offer to God’s people?” I believe he used other derogatory terms in that conversation with her, and from that time on, we did not go to church. For most of my life, I felt a strong connection to God, and could feel what I later understood to be the Holy Spirit inviting me to live faithfully, even as I was certain that all churches were sexist, racist, homophobic, and anti-immigrant.
It was only as an adult that I heard this story from my mother, and only when I accepted a job with The Episcopal Church. She told me to look out for church people, who would be on their best behavior in church, and use that as a “free pass” to behave badly everywhere else. My mother’s experience of discernment for ordination was about as bad as it could be. Mother Tim-Oi’s process was forged in crisis and war. And unfortunately, when I speak to other Asian women in discernment for ordained ministry, it seems that in 2022, their experiences often resemble what my mother experienced back in the 1970s.
Two years into the COVID pandemic, I think that many of us have a very real sense of what Mother Tim-Oi’s ministry was like – the exhaustion, the relentlessness of need, the quickly shifting crises of a new emergency every day. I am grateful that she felt called to serve, and that she served as faithfully as she did. She is a hero to many who know her story, and yet, her faithful example can present real challenges to other Asian womens’ ministries.
Bishop Hall recognized Mother Tim-Oi as an exceptional woman, and declared that only exceptional women can do this work. I think that mindset still permeates our church to this day. The stereotype of quiet Asian women who will be obedient, sacrifice their needs for others, and faithfully serve in horrendous conditions without complaint is one that still informs how both the church and the world see Asian women. In the contemporary context, that dangerous stereotype, combined with the ways in which Asian women’s bodies are sexualized and commodified, has led to things like the tragic shootings in Atlanta in 2021 that specifically targeted Asian women.
In this context of both racism and misogyny with a particularly dangerous twist, I am always amazed and moved when Asian women are ordained in any church, including The Episcopal Church. I have wept at the ordinations/consecrations of my Asian women friends, in honor of their steadfast faith, and their vocational call to serve, like Li Tim-Oi, God’s people in their times of need.
I know that you are exhausted. I know that you are anxious about COVID, about racial injustice, hunger, poverty, and all of the crises facing us in our time. As a colleague of mine said recently, “I don’t know anyone who is hinged right now.” For all who suffer invisibility and oppression in the imperfection of human creation, I see you, even if I do so in the context of my own imperfection.
Moreover, God sees you. God loves you in this time of exhaustion and anxiety. And I want to leave you today with this question. What opportunities do we have in our own moment of crisis that might allow us to hold up another saint like Florence Li Tim-Oi? How will our humanity and need for connection and right relationship with one another help us to move beyond our stereotypes, assumptions, and expectations to allow something new, revolutionary, and holy to emerge?