S.F. Japanese American churches welcome new faces during the pandemic

Each year, clergy members shift across the United States. San Francisco’s Japantown is no different as retirements, promotions and transfers have brought change among its religious leaders serving the Japanese American community.

Rev. Debra Low-Skinner. photo by Joseph Kei Nagai

Among the members of the Japanese American Religious Federation, the biggest change was Rev. Debra Low-Skinner stepping down as president of the interfaith Japantown organization. Low-Skinner, who was vicar of the Christ Episcopal Church Sei Ko Kai, stepped down from both her own congregation and JARF to serve as canon to the ordinary of the Diocese of California.

“I’m basically the assistant to the bishop in helping provide administration, oversight and pastoral care of the diocese,” Low-Skinner told the Nichi Bei Weekly in a phone interview.

While Low-Skinner became the permanent vicar of the church in 2018 after being appointed as a temporary priest in 2015, she said the recent promotion was “one of those sorts of promotions that you don’t turn down.” She assumed the new position at the start of June to help administer the 75 congregations in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“My congregation said how pleased they are that someone from a Sei Ko Kai has been deemed worthy enough to be called the canon to the ordinary. So, for them they’re rather thrilled about the whole thing,” she said.

Low-Skinner said she appreciated leading the Japanese American congregation founded more than 125 years ago. She said the congregation of 65, although small, is healthy and “a family.” Low-Skinner, who is of Chinese descent, enjoyed being able to speak to her Asian congregation as one Asian person to another. Low-Skinner’s leadership among Asian American religious groups came to the forefront in recent months as anti-Asian hate grew more prevalent during the pandemic.

“I was one of the featured speakers that gave testimony at a national Episcopal rally on March 27,” Low-Skinner said. “There were some 300 people registered at least on that particular rally, so it has given me a — maybe an entrée versus a platform — to be able to say things that people might not have realized about.”

Low-Skinner’s departure also means she will vacate her position as president of JARF. Retired Rev. Gary Barbaree of the United Methodist Church took over for the departing priest, and will serve out the remainder of her term through the end of this year.

“Rev. Low-Skinner, working closely with JARF Secretary Joanne Tolosa and Treasurer Grace Suzuki, led a strong and effective leadership team for JARF. In addition to maintaining the friendship ties among historic Japanese American congregations in San Francisco, the team engaged with advocates for improving conditions of homeless, for unifying against Asian hate, support for LGBTQI communities, and solidarity with other Black Indigenous People of Color activists,” Barbaree told the Nichi Bei Weekly in an e-mail.

In addition to Low-Skinner’s departure, two new clergy members from Japan have come to lead Japantown’s churches.

Rev. Soryu Suezawa­. courtesy of Rev. Soryu Suezawa

Rev. Soryu Suezawa took over the Hokkeshu Buddhist Temple from Rev. Joryu Nishida during the pandemic last February. Suezawa arrived from Neyagawa in Osaka Prefecture, where his family runs the Myoenji Temple.

Suezawa told the Nichi Bei Weekly he expressed his interest to take over the temple after visiting Nishida and the temple in 2018.

“(Rev. Nishida) showed me around at the time and I thought — while I had to deal with a language barrier — I could manage to live here. I wanted to gain a different experience in a new environment,” Suezawa told the Nichi Bei Weekly in an interview conducted in Japanese.

Since arriving during the pandemic, Suezawa said the biggest obstacle for him has been living alone in the United States. Since the pandemic has closed the temple to in-person services, the priest conducts home visits for two or three families among its 80 or so members.

Rev. Joel Miller. courtesy of Rev. Joel Miller.

Rev. Joel Miller of the Seventh-day Adventist Church will also look after the Mountain View Central and San Francisco Japanese Seventh-day Adventist churches once Rev. Filipe Ferreira leaves for Red Bluff, Calif. in Northern California at the end of June.

Miller, who is of mixed Japanese descent, was raised in Tanba, Japan, in the countryside north of Kyoto. He previously came to the United States to attend seminary school at the Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tenn., before returning to Japan to minister in Okinawa for three-and-a-half years. He was then asked to serve as an associate pastor when he returned to the United States to pursue his masters in theology.

“It’s up to what the church and the conference decide. If they want me to become the senior pastor or if they want to get a different senior pastor,” Miller said. “It’s still up in the air.”

In addition to Suezawa and Miller, Rev. Henry Adams of the San Mateo Buddhist Temple has been installed as supervising minister for the Buddhist Church of San Francisco after long-time Resident Minister Rev. Ronald Kobata retired last year.

These transitions take place amid a global pandemic, and many of the clergy members reflected on the change in routines as they established a new normal. Miller said the pandemic has made it difficult to get to know his congregation since he arrived in October 2019. At the same time, he noted his congregation of 300 in Mountain View and 70 in San Francisco, worked to adapt and try new things.

“I think because of the pandemic, we’ve been able to do some things that we wanted to, but we never got to do. We tried things like nature school … where, instead of having a traditional church service in a church, we just went to a park, and we just took a walk in nature and try to enjoy God’s creation,” Miller said.

Miller added the church has started live streaming sermons.

While Suezawa is not offering any online services currently, he said his predecessor had also conducted classes on the Buddhist practice of sutra copying via Zoom.

Meanwhile, Low-Skinner said she was initially concerned about conducting online sermons for the majority elderly congregation, but soon found out her congregation was capable of adapting as they had in years past to the hardships befalling the community.

“At first I thought, ‘Oh, they’re never gonna get this,’ because they’re not happy with technology, but they picked it up!” she said. “I’ve lost maybe one or two people, … but I keep sending them the bulletin with the weekly Bible readings and make sure that they’re still in the loop and call them up and ask how they’re doing.

“Everybody has had to pivot, right? It’s no different in the church.”

 

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