Thursday, July 25, 2013

In Life & In Death, We Belong to God

My grandfather, Satoru Nishita, and my mentor Bert Tom died last week. I sent a text to a Korean American pastor friend of mine saying, “All these old guys are leaving us.” 

This, of course, was not meant to be a theological statement.

This was a statement that was perfectly me: a bit dramatic. I am struggling with the passing of a generation of Asian Americans who faced racism and the assorted foibles of their professions with dignity. The generation of my grandparents, born in the U.S. but imprisoned by its own government for being of Japanese descent during World War II, is a generation that left a profound imprint on my generation and my mother’s generation, and it is slipping away before we get a chance to hear all the stories.

Both of these men were Presbyterian. Bert served as the Associate Executive Presbyter of the Presbytery of San Francisco, among many other functions of ministry. My grandfather was a long-time member of First Presbyterian Church, Berkeley. They were both Asian American. They were both fans of good liquor and great food. And they both taught me by example to be really good at whatever it is I do, make trouble when it is necessary or maybe just fun, and spend time engaging and encouraging young people.

I met Bert a decade ago, after he had retired from officially working in the PC(USA). He kept working in the church up through this year, when he was diagnosed with acute leukemia. It is my understanding that he came through the ministry of the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown – San Francisco and its neighborhood ministry, Cameron House. Those of us who were younger Asian American ministers and seminarians who got to hang out with Bert found he could be blunt, teased us plenty, and was a softie underneath it all. He knew the church inside and out, and I always had the feeling he had seen more than his fair share of the church’s racism and other ridiculous unchristian behaviors, but he had seen the church be faithful, too.

My grandfather was proud of his five daughters and six grandchildren.  He was a well-regarded landscape architect, accepted as a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects in 1989. He was committed to beautiful design and the natural environment. He was proud of his Japanese American identity and loved the music of Nat King Cole. You can read his extensive biography here:

What is not included in his official biography is his argument with an Italian border guard, who asked him, “Are you American?” My grandfather said, “Japanese American.” The guard asked him, exasperated: “Are you Japanese or American?” My grandfather said, “Japanese American.” It does not include how he tried to take some photos on the sly when his plane was hijacked to Cuba (they all came out blurry). What I remember best about him in his later years was how each time I came to visit, he bought too much Japanese food, and encouraged me to eat it all in total disregard of my actual capacity.

In his book, Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral, homiletician and theologian Tom Long distinguishes between Death and death. Death, capital “D” is destructive. It is the ultimate enemy. It is dehumanization (p. 39). Death, lower-case “d” is simply the fact of our human mortality (p. 38). These old guys. While death claimed my grandfather and my mentor, in very different ways their lives taught me to struggle against Death, against powers and principalities, against environmental destruction and racism. They leave us with a legacy of commitment to justice, and a desire that the beauty of the world be revealed.

The poet Janice Mirikitani writes:
Footsteps lead to destiny.
We dance honoring ancestors
who claim our home,
and freedom to pursue our dreams.
Our voices carve a path for justice:
Equal rights for all

Mirikitani poem quoted in Jane Naomi Iwamura’s chapter “Ancestral Returns” in Off the Menu: Asian and Asian North American Women’s Religion & Theology, eds Rita Nakashima Brock, Jung Ha Kim, Kwok Pui-Lan, Seung Ai Yang. Westminster John Knox Press.

Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral, by Thomas Long. Westminster John Knox Press.

My grandfather's obituary was published by the San Francisco Chronicle on July 28th.


  1. Lovely, thoughtful. I grieved the loss of my mentor, too soon after my father. My second dad, boisterous and unapologetic and hilarious and so full of life. Thank God for their lives so well lived. We should all aspire to be as much.

    1. I hadn't heard about the death of your mentor/second dad. I'm so sorry to hear it.

  2. Amen.

    I give thanks for your grandfather and for Bert. I give thanks for all they taught you. I give thanks for their life and love and witness.

    I give thanks that through you, I encountered your grandfather and got to know Bert better.

    Thanks be for our mentors. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thank you for reading. We have many giants who have led the way for us. Complex and beautiful people.