College dean becomes Tenrikyo Church minister

NEW PATH — Rev. Koji Uesugi, in front of his church sanctuary, recently took over as both a minister and as dean of student services at one of the largest community colleges in the country. courtesy of Rev. Koji Uesugi

WEST COVINA, Calif. – The Rev. Koji Uesugi, a fourth-generation Tenrikyo faith follower who previously had misgivings about succeeding his late father — the Rev. Takeo Uesugi — became the head minister last year at a Tenrikyo church in West Covina, as well as having a leadership role at the Tenrikyo Mission Headquarters in America in Los Angeles.

“I feel blessed for this opportunity and hope to do what I can to be of service to others,” the Rev. Uesugi, a third-generation minister, stated in an e-mail. “It has been about a year since becoming head minister and I am still feeling my way in my new role.”

Uesugi admitted struggling for many years about whether to become head minister, although there was a desire by his parents and an expectation by church leaders that he would one day succeed his father.

The Rev. Takeo Uesugi, an internationally renowned Japanese landscape architect, professor emeritus at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and Tenrikyo Church minister, passed away Jan. 26, 2016 after a bout with cancer. He was 75.

During his father’s illness, Koji Uesugi made a “resolution to further my spiritual growth and eventually made the decision to take over as head minister for our church,” revealed Uesugi, who was born in Japan and came to the United States as a toddler.

After the Rev. Takeo Uesugi’s passing, youngest son Keiji took the helm of his father’s landscape architecture business, while eldest son Koji was installed as the second head minister of the Tenrikyo Pacific Valley Church in West Covina on Sept. 30, 2017.

Original Japanese Faith
According to Uesugi, Tenrikyo is an “original” Japanese faith manifested in 1838 through its foundress Oyasama (Miki Nakayama), who for 50-plus years introduced the teachings of Tenrikyo by writing the “Ofudesaki” (Tip of the Writing Brush), introduced the sacred songs, and performed countless acts of salvation. The religion today has about two million followers worldwide, he said.

The basic teaching of Tenrikyo is that “God the Parent is the Creator and Sustainer of all life in the universe,” Uesugi noted. “When we refer to God the Parent, it is the same God revered and worshipped by Jews, Christians, Muslims and others. Therefore, we are all brothers and sisters … We are taught that God created human beings so that we may live with joy here on earth, and by witnessing our joy, God the Parent is filled with joy. The Parent-to-child relationship that we as human beings have with God is a key part of our faith.”

Tenrikyo teachings also emphasize that “we borrow our physical bodies from God the Parent during our lifetime,” he continued. “When our physical time on earth concludes, we return our bodies to God, and our souls are reborn in another body.”

Just as Japanese Buddhists honor their ancestors during Obon, Tenrikyo members memorialize their predecessors in several ways, Uesugi explained. “One of the three shrines located in the altar of every church is called the memorial shrine and is dedicated to family and church members who have passed away for rebirth.”

Engage in Salvation Work
Uesugi, who resides in Chino Hills, Calif., is still settling into his new position. “The most important responsibility for every head minister is to … lead the monthly service for our respective churches,” he explained. “There are also daily services that are performed at the church to thank God and pray for the well being of people around the world.”

In addition, head ministers are expected to engage in salvation work by administering the sazuke, a healing prayer, to those suffering physical and/or mental illnesses, he stated.

Becoming a head minister does not require a degree in theology or divinity, Uesugi said. However, individuals who serve as head ministers must attend the Spiritual Development Course (one month in the U.S. or three months in the holy city of Tenri, in Japan’s Nara Prefecture), receive the sazuke (divine grant), and complete a month-long minister’s qualification course in Tenri.

Southern California is home to approximately 22 of the 60 Tenrikyo churches in the continental U.S. and Canada, and there are 63 fellowships and mission centers throughout North America, the minister added.

Dean of Student Services
Around the time he took over the church, Uesugi also was appointed the dean of Student Services at Mount San Antonio College in the city of Walnut, Calif. The school is one of the largest one-campus community colleges in the country, with approximately 60,000 students. Uesugi works under vice president of Student Services Audrey Yamagata-Noji.

Uesugi has responsibilities over student government, student clubs, Student Life Center activities and student discipline. He also oversees programs that serve low-income, first-generation college students and single parents receiving county cash aid. Moreover, a committee he co-chairs supports students with basic needs such as housing and food.

Uesugi, a graduate of the University of California, Davis with a degree in English and an Asian American studies minor, earned two master’s degrees — in education from Claremont Graduate University and American studies from California State University, Fullerton. He earned his educational doctorate degree from the University of California, Los Angeles, and is the father of two young daughters.

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