New minister finds parking spot in San Francisco

Rev. Melissa Opel by Mari Haworth

Rev. Melissa Opel by Mari Haworth

Although only a week into her new job, the Rev. Melissa Opel was busy acclimating to her position at the Buddhist Church of San Francisco. As expected of any minister at a church, she manages the sermons and services expected of her, but what most people might not realize is everything else she has to manage as the resident minister who just moved in last month from two states away.

“E-mails, so many e-mails,” she told the Nichi Bei News on her work thus far on a Thursday morning after walking her dogs and having some coffee. She also had a memorial service to perform later that day.

The church, the oldest Jodo Shinshu Buddhist church in the mainland United States, had been without a resident minister for two and-a-half years. Opel moved down from Spokane, Wash. to fill the post after completing her kyoshi certification last year in Berkeley, Calif. The move from Eastern Washington to San Francisco has been an “overwhelming” experience to Opel, but “in a good way,” she said.

“Spokane is on the border of Idaho. So it’s not a very diverse area. … And so, coming to San Francisco was really refreshing to get to see just different people and different thoughts and just even like on this block how many different types of religions are seen here,” she said. “But then like, trying to get used to the traffic, there’s a lot of traffic. The driving is very different. People are very fast and slam on the brakes. So just trying to get used to that sort of aspect of city living. I told a friend I’ll never complain about the Washington DMV again. That was an intense experience. Not looking forward to going back. And I’ll never complain about parking again.”

In short, she said moving to San Francisco was “90 percent enjoyable, 10 percent terrifying.”

Initially, Opel had planned to stay in Spokane where she had lived and worked for more than a decade. She did not even plan to become a full-time minister. First moving inland from the suburbs of Auburn, Wash. to attend Eastern Washington University, Opel worked a decade at Auntie’s Bookstore as a manager and head book buyer before changing careers to work as a portfolio manager for a financial firm.

Raised Catholic, she left the church at 18 and attended an Evangelical church, which she left after meeting her wife and coming out. Spending a decade drifting between atheism and agnosticism, she eventually joined the Spokane Buddhist Temple after someone told her she sounded “like a Buddhist.”

“When I first went to the temple, when we started chanting, it just touched something inside that made me want to keep coming back,” she said. “And the more I came back, and the more people helped guide me through the teachings and understandings, the more I understood that, that was the right place for me,” she said.

At the same time, the Buddhist temple had also lost its minister and only had one minister’s assistant. Opel, wishing to help in any way she could, started working on getting ordained, but planned to only become a minister’s assistant. However, after traveling to Kyoto in 2019 to get her tokudo certification to be ordained, she was touched by the experience and wanted to pursue the ministry full-time.

Spokane, however, was not a big enough church to support a full-time minister. Meanwhile, the Buddhist Churches of America Bishop Marvin Harada approached Opel about San Francisco’s vacancy.

Getting her kyoshi certificate was one of the preliminary steps to her potentially moving to San Francisco. However, her certification was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Following the special kyoshi certification held in the United States last year, the first time in Jodo Shinshu’s history allowing the training to take place outside the mother temple in Kyoto, Opel said she began talks with the San Francisco church to become its minister and was finally assigned in March of this year to start June 1.

“Every temple is very different. Spokane is … a very convert heavy temple,” Opel said. “There’s not a lot of lifetime members. … So coming here, it’s completely different. There’s family history that stretches back to 1898, some of the first families here. So that alone is incredibly different … It’s wonderful too to get to have that history and that depth of understanding.”

The temple congregation itself was excited to have Opel join them.

“We are so glad that she made it here,” Arlene Kimata, the temple’s board president, said. “We had been … trying to figure out what are her goals, what are our goals, what kind of match we have, and it just seemed like, all the way through the conversation, it was a really good opportunity for us.”

While the two and-a-half years without a resident minister was difficult for the temple, Kimata added that they were fortunate to manage with a team of six minister’s assistants and their temple board, along with Rev. Henry Adams, the supervising minister from the San Mateo Buddhist Temple.

“I hope she’s not overwhelmed. We’re trying to stay in touch with her and give her the support she needs,” Kimata added. “There’s a lot to learn, managing a temple. … because, in addition to the religious aspect, no matter what, the resident minister has to get involved with some aspect of administration, in conjunction with the board. So a lot of overlapping roles and trying to figure out what needs to get done.”

For Opel, she said she is looking to see what the San Francisco congregation needs.

“I want to make sure that I’m not kind of setting myself in stone of what I think this temple needs as a minister,” Opel said.

“I’d rather be very moldable to what the community needs and what the temple needs. For me, Jodo Shinshu changed my life in such a positive way,” she said. “It’s brought me such comfort and peace and acceptance about what this life is, and I just want other people to experience that same peace. I want them to have what’s here, what Jodo Shinshu has to offer. I hope that, as a community, we can do that together.”

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