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  • Mitchell Young

Colorful People Stand Up for One Another

young woman in traditional outfit holding sign that reads "I am not a virus" in English, Spanish, and kanji.
"I am not a virus." Natasha Young for PAAM Sunday Pastoral Prayer

Aloha Kākou, Hawaii Conference friends and family, from Mitchell Young, your prodigal son living on the big island of North America. I occasionally refer to Montebello Plymouth Congregational where I have served as pastor for the past 15 years as the Eastern most congregation of the Hawaii Conference because about half of our congregation is either originally from Hawaii or has ties to Hawaii. About half of the pastors in the history of this church were also from Hawaii.

Here in Los Angeles, I don't think most of us Asian Americans are directly experiencing the level of racism that AAPI communities in other parts of the country are experiencing. In our predominately Hispanic neighborhood, we live with questions like "Where are you from?" or "What nationality are you?" not from the racist ignorance of friendly strangers, but because in our area, many Asian faces are from elsewhere and the friends asking these questions are themselves also from other countries, many themselves not US citizens (yet).

However, early in the pandemic some people in my congregation have felt hostile glares from others while they were in public. So potential anti-Asian sentiment is in their consciousness. And of course locally, with the vandalism attack on our friends' temple, Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles, it is too close to home.

Since last year, I have been participating in a weekly Conversation on Race hosted by our Southern California Nevada Conference. Out of the relationships we had developed in our group, I felt it was time for our historically Japanese American congregation to recognize Black History Month. I was thrilled to have one of our Conversation facilitators, Cheryl Farrell from Morningside UCC in Inglewood, accept our invitation to serve as preacher for the first Sunday of February.

I had also hoped to exchange greetings from other churches and pastors celebrating BHM. I made some Black History Month video greetings to some of our black pastors and local UCC churches, especially the historically Black UCC churches. I invited them to send their mutual greetings to our historically Japanese American church.

One particularly encouraging response came from Rev. Wendell Miller, senior pastor of Lincoln Memorial Congregational UCC in which he said “I just about laughed out of my seat” when I showed my Hawaii birth certificate to prove my connection with Black history through classmate (although from different schools) Barrack Obama being born in the same maternity hospital just two weeks apart. Rev. Miller went on to affirm “your recognition of black heritage and our recognition of Asian Pacific American heritage, Hispanic and Latinx heritage, and the heritages of many others, means the fabric of America will forever be textured and colorful and vibrant, just as it should be.” I was so excited to share his encouraging greeting with our congregation in Montebello as part of one of our BHM worship services.

The second part to this story comes a few weeks later after I had watched a couple hours of online news about the shooting tragedy in Atlanta killing 8 persons, 6 of whom were Asian women, feeling quite discouraged. Then upon opening my email, I found a message from Pastor Wendell Miller “checking in” with me with concern for our Asian American brothers and sisters: “Even if no one you know has experienced physical harm, psychological and emotional scars that result from anxiety and fear may exist. For the safety and protection of your community, my church and I will pray.” I wept uncontrollably upon reading this prayerful and caring gesture from sisters and brothers in South Los Angeles.

Then the very next day, I received another message from Rev. Ashley Hiestand of Mount Hollywood UCC” “I am holding you and your congregation in my prayers, as I can only imagine the pain of this week” made all the more poignant because Mount Hollywood UCC has had a proud history of helping sister church Hollywood Independent UCC, known then as Japanese Independent Church of Hollywood, by holding and caring for their church property while the bulk of their membership was forcibly removed from the West Coast during World War II.

I read both of these messages of support to our Montebello congregation the very next Sunday. (I wonder if it was good for my congregation to receive these messages via our online worship service because I imagine myself turning into a weepy mess again if I were to read these messages to them in-person.)

When we grow up in Hawaii, we rarely thought of Asian Americans as people of color, perhaps because we were the majority, but now more than ever, we have been challenged to recognize that when any people of any color suffer, we all suffer. It is time for us to become allies with all who seek justice over privilege. As much as we currently live in an anxious time for many in our Asian Pacific community, those heart-felt treasured messages of support remind us that we are not alone.

Perhaps the final thing for me to mention is that in our Conversation on Race, I mentioned that I would be thrilled to hear of ANY white church inviting an Asian American or Pacific Islander to be guest preacher on Pacific Islander and Asian American Ministries (PAAM) Sunday; it could be just me, but I have never heard of that happening, even though our UCC denomination had encouraged celebration of PAAM Sunday since General Synod in 1991. (It felt like the lectionary-based resources I had created for PAAM Sunday in four different years had virtually been ignored by the bulk of the UCC even though these were available free through our national UCC website at ways. Here I am saying this 30 years later in 2021. Rev. Lee Yates, one of our facilitators immediately declared: “Let’s change that!” With Pastor Lee’s help and the willingness of our local PAAM pastors and preachers, this year, at least 17 Southern California Nevada UCC churches welcomed AAPI preachers into their (virtual) pulpits for PAAM Sunday—and those are only the ones I know about! Thanks be to God for the support of loving sisters and brothers and others!

(An excerpt of this article was originally published in the May 2021 issue of The Friend.)


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