Activism and Ministry: Rev. Michael Yoshii plans retirement


The Rev. Michael Yoshii will retire at the end of the month after having spent 32 years serving as the Buena Vista United Methodist Church’s pastor.

The 67-year-old spent most of his career at the Alameda, Calif. congregation. Known for his leadership in activism, Yoshii oversaw a historically Japanese American Christian church become more ethnically diverse and advocate for a wide range of social justice issues.

DECADES OF MINISTRY —Rev. Michael Yoshii served more than three decades at the Buena Vista United Methodist Church in Alameda, Calif. photo by Ted A. Niiya

Yoshii told the Nichi Bei Weekly he thought he would be transferred to a different congregation after a few years, and said the church leaders had planned on doing just that. However, his continued involvement in leading various causes kept him a fixture at the church for decades. From standing up for the black community during a police scandal involving racist messages, to working on challenging the detention of immigrants by the federal government, Yoshii found himself busy whenever church leaders asked if he would like to move on.

“It seemed like every couple of years, we were organizing something new. … I can always remember saying, ‘Well I’m working on something right now, if I can finish that up, I’ll be ready to move on,’” Yoshii said in a video interview. “And that happened more than a couple of times. They were supportive of me doing the work that I was doing, saying that, ‘As long as the work you’re doing is vital and meaningful, then there’s no reason to move you to another space.’”

Yoshii’s activism focused both on local and international issues. He helped advocate for Niel Tam, an Asian American administrator at the Alameda Unified School District who was denied advancement due to his race. He also gave LGBTQ organizations opportunities to meet at his church, which led his congregation to discuss becoming a “reconciling” church that is inclusive of LGBTQ people.

Internationally, his work entailed partnering with the Palestinian village of Wadi Foquin, as well as advocating for human rights in the Philippines.

Although he was raised a non-denominational Christian by attending a church in Berkeley, Yoshii said he initially had an aversion to Christianity before he returned to the faith in his mid-20s.

“It’s still something that many people have struggles with Christian institutions. It’s been tied to imperialism and colonialism and kind of the worst aspects of Christian institution has been very oppressive,” Yoshii said.
Yoshii’s activism was first informed by his time as a student at the University of California, Berkeley from 1970 to 1974. He later gained an appreciation of the church’s role in the civil rights movement after he started reading the works of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in seminary.

Darrell Doi joined Buena Vista as a youth leader in 1989 and now serves as the chair of the church’s administrative council. The Sansei church member watched Yoshii as he led the congregation and said it was “amazing” to reflect on all the work he has done.

“He has been … an inspirational leader that has been very in tune with the needs of the community, before we even knew that there were really needs that we needed to address,” Doi said.

Peggy Saika, who joined the church in 1991 with her family, said Yoshii has always had the courage to stand up as an activist. She recounted to the Nichi Bei Weekly how he was once almost arrested during a protest against nuclear weapons at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. Yoshii stepped forward to be arrested during the protest as an act of civil disobedience.

“I remember talking to him afterwards and I said, ‘Hey, why do you think you did that?’ and he said, ‘Because that space was open and I thought it was for me … to step forward.’”

Yoshii, however, said as a pastor, he has focused on issues that reflect the congregation’s wishes.

“In terms of organizing, it’s usually come from people within the congregation who have named things that they feel are important for us to address,” he said. “I’ve tried to be somewhat careful not to impose my desire or perspective into things, but then once we make a decision to move in a certain direction, I’ll give all I can to help with that organizing and fulfillment of vision that people want to bring, moving forward.”

Still, Yoshii’s work has influenced his congregation, as well as many of the interns he mentored. The Rev. Jeanelle Ablola, pastor of Pine United Methodist Church in San Francisco, chose to intern at Buena Vista in 2007 under Yoshii because it was, at the time, the only Asian Pacific Islander reconciling church they knew of.

“I think he’s done a lot to pave the way for us, especially for those of us here in the U.S. There are people in other countries that have been doing liberation theology, but I feel like it’s rare in the API world to really find somebody who is doing that, not just in the academic realm, but on the ground in ministry,” Ablola said.

“I think in general, he’s brought a lot of … justice issues to the forefront in the wider United Methodist Church. He’s been able to bring up topics that some might feel are controversial,” Ablola said.

Yoshii also oversaw the church shift from a predominantly Japanese American church to that of a more ethnically diverse congregation. He said the church recently reassessed its vision statement to reflect its new demographics and its legacy.

“So as I move on, I think that’ll be a challenge for the congregation,” Yoshii said. “What will it mean to be multicultural and embrace the different journeys and stories of the current membership and people who are yet to come, and at the same time anchor ourselves in the Japanese American legacy and history?”

Although his activism is celebrated, Yoshii said he thinks his pastoral work defines his time at Buena Vista.

“I think there’s no question about it, what defines the work is, I’m a pastor at heart,” he said. “Supporting individual members, families, through pastoral situations. I think at the center of ministry always is the passage of life and death, life after death. I take great pride in being able to share meaning with families when people lose a loved one. To me that’s really the heart of ministry. Justice is part of things too, justice making, but I believe that pastoral work is the heart of who we are as pastors and what we do.”

As Yoshii moves on, the Rev. Myrna Bernadel-Huey of First United Methodist Church San Leandro will take over July 1. Both Yoshii and congregation members said the church will be in good hands.

“Our new pastor is a refugee from Haiti, and so she came to this country when she was a child, so she has that lived experience of coming from another place, and she’s married to a Chinese American, so she brings multiculturality, she embodies that,” Yoshii said.

Bernadel-Huey said she makes the transition in the midst of a pandemic where “everything has changed.” She realizes both she and Yoshii are saying goodbye to their congregations at a strange time and said she is preparing to take over at Buena Vista with this reality in mind.

“In our United Methodist system, we are assigned to go to (a) congregation, so it’s not like a system where churches call their own clergy,” she said. “I’m going there with tremendous humility, as well as respect for what I’ve known as their ministry and what I learned of their life as a congregation”

Ablola noted that Yoshii never tired from working and Doi wondered how long he would rest before finding “the next thing.” Yoshii, meanwhile, said he has set his sights on spending time with his family.

“Well, my first commitment is I have a grandson who is 18 months old, 19 months old now. It’s been a blessing in my life, and my family, and just to be able to spend time with him and family is something that I’m looking forward to,” he said.

Yoshii added that his 98-year-old father also lives nearby. Yoshii said his faith and commitment to serving God is as strong as it ever has been, but he hopes to take this opportunity to get some space and rest before thinking of next steps.

“I’m sure there will be things that I’ll be doing, I just don’t know yet,” he said. “And there’s no rush for me either to figure that out.”

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