Editor’s note – Post updated on January 3, 2023, to include the video interview of Bishop Rapanut edited by Rev. David Valera. The text of the article was originally written by Kristen Caldwell in November and is based, in part, on the included interview.
For Bishop Carlo A. Rapanut, November 4 is spiritually significant for several reasons.
On Nov. 4, 1978, he was traveling by bus to Baguio City in the northern Philippines with his mom and little brother when a truck carrying huge bamboo poles crashed into their bus.
The bamboo poles pierced through the window, causing scratches and scars that Rapanut still sees on his face. In a moment of quick thinking, his mother lifted Rapanut’s brother from her lap before the bamboo rods pierced through her stomach. She was rushed to the hospital. She was clinically dead, but there was a doctor who said her heart was beating and knew the woman had the will to live.
In telling this story, Rapanut notes that his father wasn’t with them on this bus. But he said that in this moment of watching the love of his life fight for her life, his father prayed and turned toward Christ.
“That was the turning point for our family,” he said. “I wouldn’t be here talking today if not for Nov. 4, 1978.” His parents went on to live 40 more beautiful years together.
And on Nov. 4, 2022, Rapanut was elected a bishop in the Western Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church on the 13th ballot just before lunch. As the delegates moved from ballot 3 to ballot 13 on Friday morning, the excitement was building, and then he couldn’t really believe it was happening when he heard the words “there’s been an election” and his name was called.
“There was something in me that said it might signal another chapter,” Rapanut said. “I’m just so excited to step into this role.”
Beginning Jan. 1, 2023, Rapanut will begin his assignment as bishop for the Desert Southwest Conference. But that’s the next chapter.
His story begins growing up in the Philippines as the son of a bi-vocational pastor and community organizer and a mother who served in leadership roles within each of his father’s churches.
Rapanut was discerning his call to ministry when he met his friend and fellow United Methodist pastor Rev. Mark Galang at a youth fellowship event in 1996. They were classmates in seminary, became roommates, and then Galang started dating Rapanut’s cousin, whom he later married.
Galang said Rapanut, who has taken up long-distance running as a spiritual practice, has always been a “step ahead” in so many literal and spiritual ways.
“He’s my kuya,” Galang said, which means “big brother” in Tagalog.
Rapanut was ordained in the Philippines in 2006, and he now becomes the first Filipino American bishop to serve in the U.S. and the first U.S. bishop to have been ordained in a central conference. He doesn’t take lightly this responsibility – that he stands on the shoulders of ancestors who were colonized and with people that are now de-colonizing themselves.
“I am a Filipino American. I am an immigrant,” Rapanut said. “I was born, raised and heard my call to ministry and ordained in the Philippine central conference. I pray that the church, The United Methodist Church in the United States, will give me the space to lead from my authentic self and not force me to think white, to act white and to just be ‘business as usual.’”
He may also be the first bishop elected to have served in the Alaska Conference of The UMC. After moving from the Philippines, Rapanut and his wife Radie arrived in Chugiak, Alaska, where he served a church for six years before becoming the Alaska Conference Superintendent and Director of Connectional Ministries.
“Alaska will always have a special place in my heart,” he said. “The Alaska Conference helped raise me to be the leader I am right now.”
Galang said in all the positions his cousin (through marriage) has held, in all the leadership roles Rapanut has taken on while also being a father to two children, a husband, an avid runner and more, he has been grounded in his life and ministry – even through the episcopal discernment process.
Whether people want to admit it or not, the discernment process is a political one. Galang served as Rapanut’s “support person” and was allowed to be in the room with him as ballots were issued and votes were cast and as his friend inched closer to that two-thirds vote threshold needed to become a bishop.
“I would check in with him, and he would say he was grounded,” Galang said. “I’m hoping he remains grounded when he does this work.”
Rapanut believes he can help the role of bishop evolve into what God is calling it to be at this point in the life of the church.
“I’m a very relational person. Even in situations where I clearly have the positional authority in the room, I want to collaborate with people,” he said. “I lead in a circle, for I know I’m not the only expert in the room. Sometimes I’m not even the expert in the room.”
There will be disappointments and difficult decisions to come, but the decisions he makes will be “seasoned” by the input of those with whom he collaborates.
As The United Methodist Church grapples with its future – declining membership, disaffiliation and possible fracturing – Rapanut said he will lean into his culture to help guide his ministry, and others, through some of the potential trials and tribulations.
When someone passes away, the community holds a wake or a season of grieving, Rapanut said. They sit together, reconnect and build ties. Some of that work will be necessary as the church says goodbye to those who don’t feel they can be connected to this denomination any longer. He said he’ll call upon his relational gifts to help move that process along.
“We’re going to need a season of healing. We’re going to need a season where we come together to re-connect to build broken relationships,” Rapanut said. “We need to bless each other on our way and allow each other to grow apart from one another. There’s a ministry of absence so that we might allow ourselves to discover who we are. And maybe, just maybe, down the road, we might come back together in a new form of a relationship.”