Growing up in Hood River, Ore., Diana Akiyama returned home late last year after becoming the first Asian American woman bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon.
Originally born on the coast, Akiyama’s family moved inland to a Japanese American community when she was a child. She rode her bike in the valley, spent summers picking cucumbers and attended the local Episcopal church every Sunday with her parents and three sisters.
“Over the years, I think my sense of grounding in my faith continued to grow because I never really had an experience that caused me to want to separate myself from the church,” Akiyama told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “Certainly my memory of my mother on Sundays helped because whenever she came home from church she was filled with so much joy and peace.”
Akiyama described her mother’s connection to her faith to be at her center, like a guiding star, while her father’s connection was complicated.
“You see, my father’s parents were Buddhist, and after the FBI came and took my grandfather away to a jail in Portland, he told my grandmother to get the kids baptized,” Akiyama said.
During World War II, as a result of President Franklin Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066 — which led to the mass incarceration of some 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry in concentration camps — Akiyama’s father’s family was incarcerated solely on the basis of their Japanese ancestry.
As a means of survival, Akiyama’s grandfather wanted the family to be Christian to appear more American.
When Akiyama’s family moved to Hood River, her mom, who grew up Methodist, found an Episcopal church for the family to attend on the weekends, laying the groundwork for Akiyama’s future in ordained ministry.
In 1989, the Rt. Rev. Akiyama became the first Japanese American woman to be ordained into Episcopal priesthood.
Her first job after being ordained landed her at Stanford University, where she served as the associate dean of the chapel. During that time, Akiyama helped form a group called the Sansei Legacy Project with other Sansei ministers from Methodist and Baptist denominations.
Feeling the weight of their parents and grandparents’ Japanese American incarceration experience, the group offered Sansei a space to listen to each others’ stories of personal and inherited trauma.
“For me, the important part of it was around healing and thinking about the role that my faith and church could play in helping individuals find a sense of wholeness and being in a community that witnessed without judgement,” Akiyama said.
From a young age, Akiyama knew what it felt like to be the “other,” to be judged and treated unfairly.
In contrast to the more idyllic moments of her childhood, Akiyama remembers the racially charged encounters she experienced in elementary school, where white boys yelled racial epithets toward her on the playground and a friend excluded her from attending a birthday party for being of Japanese descent.
As the current Episcopal bishop of Oregon, Akiyama feels the position affords her a place and voice to lift up others who are marginalized.
Now for the first time in her life, the Episcopal church is talking about combating white supremacy.
“So … how do we talk about it as the air we breathe, the water we are swimming in, the system that we are all a part of,” said Akiyama. “How do we proceed to take steps to heal, restore, reconcile and get to a new place?”