Okage Sama De: I Am What I Am Because of You


For me my faith, ethnicity, and history have always been inextricably intertwined. I grew up in a historically Japanese American United Methodist Church with a long history in California. From a young age I was nurtured by this community, that surrounded me with faith, tradition, and love.

We are deeply shaped by our history. My mother, my grandma, and my great grandma were all Christian. My great grandma immigrated to Japan in the early 1900s and must have converted to Christianity in her early days in America. Our family worked in agriculture in California’s Central Valley and later my great-grandfather was an auto mechanic. My grandmother, born in Sacramento and raised in Oakland, was the second eldest of seven children. Back then, there were segregated swimming pools –a local school to make a special exception for Japanese American students to pass a required swimming test for graduation.
My grandma had just graduated from high school before the start of World War II. Along with the rest of the Japanese American community on the West Coast, our family was incarcerated by the federal government for much of the war. There were no trials, just wartime hysteria and racism. My family was given a week to get rid of their belongings and pack what they could carry, without any knowledge of where they would be taken. For the first months they lived in a horse stall at Tanforan Race Track. For the remaining years, they were imprisoned in the Utah desert at a place called Topaz.
The Japanese American church, established prior to the war, was with the community throughout these years. I know that my grandma’s faith helped her get through those hard times and the struggle to rebuild her life after the war. Oftentimes, families stored their belongings in their church or temple building before they left. If they were lucky, the buildings were not looted during the years they were gone.
When it came time for her to have a family, my grandma raised my mom in the Japanese American church. Every week she would go to Sunday School and on the weekends she played basketball for the church team. Times were hard then too, my grandpa worked as a house painter, a sole proprietor in a seasonal business. There were neighborhoods where Japanese Americans and other people of color couldn’t buy a home. In high school, my mom was wrongly accused of plagiarism multiple times. In college, her counselor told her she could never reach her dream of becoming a lawyer.
But my mom also came of age during a time of great change, particularly in our hometown of Berkeley, California. The Civil Rights, Black Power, and Third World movements swept communities and inspired people of color to take pride in our history and fight for political empowerment. Community organizing in the San Francisco Bay Area gave birth to the term Asian American, a symbol of solidarity and new political identity. My mom’s generation began to ask about what happened during the war, since most families never talked about what happened. After legal battles and a grassroots movement, our community received an apology and reparations from the federal government in the 1980s.
I share this Asian American history because the people who lived it were the people who taught me about faith. It is because of their unconditional love that I made my own decision to be Christian. And it is because of this story that I believe so deeply in God’s call to service and social justice. As we celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, this story reminds me that we must continue to fight for justice for those who are outsiders: for LGBT rights in the church, for civil rights for those being racially profiled, for fair immigration laws. As we stand upon the shoulders of giants, let us hear our call to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.
Please join us at the Church of the Village during the month of May as we celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Each week we will recognize and incorporate practices from the rich and varied cultures of the Asia-Pacific Region within our worship. Our recognition will culminate on June 2nd with a grand celebration in worship.