[Episcopal News Service] The Church of Our Savior in San Gabriel, California, will host a public Lunar New Year celebration Feb. 11 with a special Eucharist reflecting its congregation’s Chinese heritage.
“[The Lunar New Year celebration] is an opportunity to bring awareness and also an opportunity to connect people to the church with so many new immigrants coming into our communities, especially from mainland China,” the Rev. Thomas Ni, associate for Chinese ministry for the Church of Our Savior, told Episcopal News Service.
The Lunar New Year is the beginning of the new year based on the lunisolar calendar. It falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice. This year, it falls on Feb. 10, marking the start of the year 4721 on the Chinese calendar. Lunar New Year is widely celebrated in China, South Korea, Vietnam and other countries with significant Chinese populations. In China, the Lunar New Year is known as the Spring Festival; in South Korea, it’s known as Seollal; in Vietnam, it’s known as Tết.
Family-oriented celebrations last for 15 days and include various traditions, such as giving red envelopes with money to children, serving a whole fish at dinner, cleaning homes in the days leading up to Lunar New Year’s Eve and decorating doorways with red banners bearing auspicious phrases. In China, Lunar New Year celebrations conclude with the Lantern Festival on the 15th day. During the festival, people light lanterns and carry them around their neighborhoods as a symbol of driving out darkness and bringing hope in the coming year.
Each new year is named after an animal in an established order following the Chinese zodiac and repeated every 12 years: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. 2024 is the Year of the Dragon. Unlike the Western zodiac, the animals of the Chinese zodiac are unaffiliated with constellations, and not all Lunar New Year celebrants observe the Chinese zodiac.
“Your year gives you some attributes, the same as when you look at the horoscope,” the Rev. Pamela Tang, The Episcopal Church’s interim missioner for Asiamerica Ministries and a deacon at the Church of the Holy Trinity in New York City, told ENS. “You can look at your Chinese zodiac and say, ‘OK, this is who I am, and it explains my strengths and weaknesses.’”
Ni told ENS that teaching and learning about Lunar New Year has been beneficial for both Chinese-speaking and English-speaking congregants. Ni also serves as executive director of the Li Tim-Oi Center, which is housed at the Church of Our Savior. Named for the Rev. Florence Li Tim-Oi, the center has been providing lay leadership training for Chinese ministry since its inception in 2014.
Li Tim-Oi, a native of Hong Kong, became the first woman ordained a priest in the Anglican Communion on Jan. 25, 1944. The Episcopal Church celebrates her feast day on Jan. 24. This year’s Lunar New Year celebration at Church of Our Savior will honor the 80th anniversary of Li Tim-Oi’s ordination with a panel discussion on women in ministry on Feb. 10 in the church’s sanctuary. Panelists will include the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, The Episcopal Church’s 26th and first female presiding bishop; the Rev. Fennie Chang, vicar of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Hacienda Heights, California; the Rev. Melissa McCarthy, canon to the ordinary of the Diocese of Los Angeles; and the Rev. Mary Tororeiy, vicar of St. Paul’s Episcopal and Shepherd of the Desert Lutheran churches in Barstow, California. The Rev. Susan Russell, canon for engagement across difference in the Diocese of Los Angeles and a part-time member of the pastoral and preaching staff at All Saints Church in Pasadena, will serve as the moderator.
“I think the celebration, especially the panel discussion, will deepen understanding about the ordination and ministry of people of color,” Ni told ENS.
The Church of Our Savior will also feature an art exhibit featuring paintings depicting women in the Bible by James He Qi, artist-in-residence at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena and distinguished visiting professor at the Art Institute of Renmin University of China in Beijing.
The Church of Our Savior’s congregation averages between 125 and 150 parishioners for Sunday worship services, at least 50 of whom are of Chinese descent. Worship services are available in both English and Mandarin.
The Church of Our Savior doesn’t host Lunar New Year celebrations every year. Instead, it rotates celebrations with two other Los Angeles-area parishes with Chinese congregations: St. Gabriel’s Episcopal Church in Monterey Park and St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Hacienda Heights.
This year’s celebration will include live music featuring Chinese instruments and a traditional lion dance. In a lion dance, performers dress in lion costumes and dance to mimic a lion’s movements. Each costume is controlled by two performers — one performer controls the head’s movements while the other controls the rear end. Volunteers will also walk the parish hall in a large dragon costume during Eucharist in honor of the Year of the Dragon. The altar guild will play a Chinese gong throughout the liturgy.
“I see celebrating the Lunar New Year as a wonderful, outward and visible sign of the breadth, depth, and hope of our church as we get more multicultural and less homogeneous; that the Holy Spirit is at work in our church; and that there are wonderful things happening that we can embrace and celebrate going forward,” said the Rev. Jeff Thornberg, rector of the Church of Our Savior. “I think it’s a wonderful opportunity to focus on our unity and our future together.”
A year ago, a mass shooting occurred during a Lunar New Year’s Eve celebration in Monterey Park, killing 11 people and injuring nine others. The shooting occurred down the street from St. Gabriel’s Episcopal Church, a parish that holds worship services in Cantonese, Mandarin and English. No one affiliated with the Church of Our Savior was directly harmed, but some parishioners knew the victims.
“Last year’s Lunar New Year celebrations were darkened by that event, but this year we’re going to have a wonderful celebration that isn’t darkened by the violence that happened last year,” said Hannah Riley, associate for congregational life for the Church of Our Savior.
Although the perpetrator was Asian and the motive remains unknown, the shooting has exacerbated ongoing fears of violence against Asian Americans, who’ve experienced an uptick in hate crimes, xenophobia and racial discrimination in the United States since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020.
“It’s been a big challenge for the Chinese community,” Ni said. “[At the Church of Our Savior] we try to comfort the people. We give them the love of God and educate the public.”
Ni said that the Li Tim-Oi Center hosted a leadership training class on social justice, racial inequality and community building in response to the increased discrimination against Asian people in recent years. The center also produced eight short videos on those topics that have been distributed among Chinese parishioners in Mandarin through WeChat, a Chinese social media platform. The videos will soon be available in English as well.
Tang also said that sharing cultures helps build understanding among communities, citing the story of St. Brigid of Kildare tending a perpetual flame that was sacred to the community in pre-Christian Ireland.
“We need to incorporate cultures into Christianity because we can embrace people who know who they are,” she said. “It’s in the places where the missionaries embraced the local cultures where Christianity flourished.”
-Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service. She can be reached at email@example.com.