The Filipino-American Christian Fellowship is one of two dozen official minority ethnic/language groups in the Assemblies of God and the sixth oldest, formed in 1997.
The fellowship group provides a way for Filipino-Americans and recent immigrants from the Philippines to assimilate in the U.S. and network with each other. The group includes 87 congregations and 167 ministers.
But Fellowship President Angelo V. Austria anticipates a time when such a distinct ethnic group no longer is needed — due to the fact that adherents are so integrated into the society as well as the Assemblies of God.
“The majority of Filipinos speak and understand the English language,” says Austria. “Most church services are in English, thus there are more opportunities for us to become a diverse, multiethnic body. Perhaps, one of these days, the Filipino-American Fellowship will go away.”
The congregation Austria pastors, Vertical Church in Reno, Nevada, is a case in point. Around 80 percent of attendees aren’t Filipinos.
Like many in the Fellowship, Austria was born in the Philippines, but has lived most of his life in the U.S. Thus, he understands the importance of culture and traditions from the homeland, but he talks and thinks like someone who has been part of American fabric for decades. Austria, 47, says his children and their peers born in the U.S. are largely unaware of the customs of their overseas ancestors.
Austria immigrated to the U.S. at 13 when his father began working as a card dealer in a Nevada casino. As with most immigrants, the family moved to the States in search of economic betterment. Many Filipinos in recent years have been recruited for careers in medical or educational fields.
Austria has led the Filipino-American Fellowship since 2018. He believes he has accomplished the most pressing priority of helping the geographically dispersed congregations to engage with each other. While many of the churches are along the West Coast, a number also are located in Hawaii, as well as the Eastern seaboard.
His next goals include empowering potential future leaders for ministry by mentoring and helping in the pursuit of credentials; making resources available to church planters; and bridging the gap between generations in areas such as music and ministry methods.
“We have to find a common ground for the younger and older generations so we can work together to advance the kingdom of God,” Austria says.
Recent U.S. Census data shows that over 4.1 million documented Filipino-Americans live in the U.S., making them the third largest Asian subgroup behind Chinese and Indians. California by far has the highest number of Filipino-Americans: over 1.6 million.
Austria isn’t afraid to embark on what many would consider radical ventures. In 2011, he moved the church he pastored to inner-city Reno, the site of not only gambling, but illegal drugs, prostitution, and violent crime. Nevertheless, the church began to revive.
He also participated in a weeklong experiment in 2019, living on the streets of downtown Reno among drug addicts, the mentally ill, and hopeless.
The compassionate lessons learned from that experience helped springboard the church into new outreaches in 2020 related to COVID-19. A ministry to the homeless provides food, clothing, and shelter to locals.
“For those ready for a change and looking for opportunity, we help them get an ID, find a permanent job, teach them how to handle finances, and secure housing,” Austria says. “It’s part of a three-step development process of relief, rehabilitation, and redevelopment.”
Ernesto C. Arellano, vice president of the Filipino-American Fellowship, is grateful that Austria has broadened the reach of the ethnic minority group to include officers beyond the Western U.S.
Arellano is pastor of Jesus Is Lord Fellowship in Toms River, New Jersey. He and his wife, Wilma, initially moved to the area in the early 1990s, so Wilma could make money as a nurse. They planned to return to the Philippines two years later to plant an inner-city church. Instead, they stayed in New Jersey and joined the Assemblies of God.
He started Jesus Is Lord Fellowship in a living room with a dozen Filipinos, many of them single nurses. Typically, those Filipina medical personnel married American men, propelling the church on its continuing climb to become a multiethnic body. Today, only one-third of the congregation is comprised of Filipinos, with two dozen nationalities represented in all.
The diversity at Jesus Is Lord Fellowship also counters the traditional male leadership found in congregations. The church has a woman associate pastor, and five of the seven board members are female.
“In the Philippines, it is common for women to be lead pastors,” Arellano says. “I don’t understand why women have such a hard time finding the same acceptance in the U.S.”
Photo: Ernesto Arellano (left) and Angelo Austria are leaders in the Filipino-American Christian Fellowship.