Life is a team sport.
Nobody does anything completely on their own. We triumph or we fail in the midst of those who surround us. We are made stronger or weaker by those who share the journey. And those who stand up at the end do so because of the work of many hands coming together as one. Life is a team sport.
In just about two weeks, the baseball season will begin.
In our COVID-19 world, who knows how that will turn out. But three of the four major league sports are about to crank up again after being interrupted by the spread of the coronavirus. Baseball is about to play in a mad dash sprint from beginning to end, shortening their normal 162 game schedule by about 100 games. The NBA and NHL will follow a week later, both trying to close out their seasons and determine a winner. I’m still skeptical how safe or wise it is to play sports during this pandemic, and at the same time grateful to watch the players take the field or step onto the court or take the ice. Our world has become so topsy-turvy in the past few months, that it’s nice to see some semblance of normalcy returning. But to be fair, this will be anything but normal. The herculean effort by players, owners, managers, and support staff to bring us these games is astounding. The NBA is having their entire league enter a bubble of protection with no one allowed in or out until a winner is announced with strict rules and protocols for safety. The NHL is doing something similar, housing all of their players in four hotels in two different cities to finalize the playoffs. And while Major League Baseball is still planning to play in their home towns, the entire structure of play has been realigned so that teams won’t have to travel as far. We’ll see more Dodgers / A’s games than ever before. All of the leagues are playing to empty stadiums with MLB experimenting with simulated crowd noise to make the experience as close to normal as possible. To pull all of this off will take the hidden hands and feet of many people, most of whom won’t have their names engraved on a trophy or listed in the papers but who are essential and important nonetheless.
The truth is any measure of success requires a cast of many who are often unseen.
But important nonetheless. They may not get credit, but they are still essential to helping a person, a team, an organization achieve its goals. And that’s as true in society as it is in sports. We all need somebody. How can we be “somebody?” When I think of the history of our own church, there are key figures you may or may not know who played a pivotal role in keeping our church alive, without whom we wouldn’t have a church today. BMUC is built upon the work of many hundreds of people and not just our parents and grandparents, not just our ministers and youth leaders, but upon a number of allies who have journeyed alongside us in our times of greatest need. Some are known and some are unknown, but all have been like a Cyrus to our church. Who is Cyrus? Cyrus was the king of Persia, an historical figure who ruled the area for about 30 years until 530 BC. He was not a follower of the Hebrew God and was a self-proclaimed pagan, but without him, who knows where any of us would be today?
In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and also to put it in writing:
2 “This is what Cyrus king of Persia says:
“‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. 3 Any of his people among you may go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem, and may their God be with them. 4 And in any locality where survivors may now be living, the people are to provide them with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.’”
5 Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites—everyone whose heart God had moved—prepared to go up and build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem. 6 All their neighbors assisted them with articles of silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with valuable gifts, in addition to all the freewill offerings. 7 Moreover, King Cyrus brought out the articles belonging to the temple of the Lord, which Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and had placed in the temple of his god. 8 Cyrus king of Persia had them brought by Mithredath the treasurer, who counted them out to Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah.
9 This was the inventory:
|10 gold bowls||30|
|matching silver bowls||410|
11 In all, there were 5,400 articles of gold and of silver. Sheshbazzar brought all these along with the exiles when they came up from Babylon to Jerusalem.
Cyrus restored the temple to the people of Jerusalem.
Not only that, but he returned all the items that had been taken from the temple by King Nebuchadnezzar. He hadn’t been converted, he was still a pagan. He wasn’t being patronizing. But he genuinely felt God’s call on his life to do this for the Hebrew people. Nothing short of an edict from the king could have caused this to happen, and without such an edict, it never would have been possible. God was working in the life of Cyrus just as he was working in the life of the Israelites who responded to the declaration to rebuild the temple. We all need allies. We all need people to walk alongside us to make our dreams become a reality. Even a singles tennis player doesn’t stand on the court alone. They have their families alongside them who provided the car rides and the tennis rackets and the endless sleeves of tennis balls so they could play the game. They have their coaches who instructed them, built up their confidence, and trained them how to face an opponent. They have the people who saw value in the sport who supported the schools and the scholarships to take them to a higher level. Even someone like Serena Williams who is a naturally gifted athlete and honed her skills to become one of the greatest players in the world, didn’t make the journey alone. And neither did we.
Our church wouldn’t be here without allies outside the JA community.
It’s easy to forget how much we rely on the goodwill of others, but there have always been people who stepped up when others would not. There have always been people who felt God calling them to serve our community despite the prejudice of the society around us. And because of those people our churches exist today. Mrs. Wilson of the Congregational Church in San Francisco who welcomed the early Japanese immigrants who would one day form the heart of the Japanese Gospel Society or Fukuin-Kai. Dr. Otis Gibson, the superintendent of the Chinese Methodist Mission who saw potential in one of those students, Kanichi Miyama who would one day become the first ordained Japanese Methodist minister. And of course, Dr. Frank Herron Smith. Our sanctuary was named in honor of this great man of faith who sacrificed so much on behalf of the Japanese immigrants and the Japanese-American people. He helped to inspire the Japanese churches toward self-sufficiency. Until then, every Japanese church relied at least in part on the conference to keep afloat financially, but Dr. Smith appealed to the people not out of duty but out of Christian love to take this challenge on and within his first six years as superintendent helped to make six of those churches completely independent. He also encouraged the congregations to grow in their connection with the Methodist church and by 1940, these fledgling missionary churches had become their own Conference. And when the war started and the Japanese were forced into the internment camps, Dr. Smith went from camp to camp, preaching, visiting the sick, and doing whatever was necessary to bring comfort to these people he felt such an affinity for. Outside of the camps, he helped to maintain the churches, arranged to rent the parsonages, and managed the church funds. He was also an advocate for the Japanese people when they had no voice. He was so strong in his advocacy that many named him “the white Jap” as an insult to his standing up for our people. He greatly influenced a number of our most influential and passionate ministers including Rev. Lloyd Wake, Rev. Dr. Lester Suzuki, and Bishop Roy Sano. Rev. Suzuki once wrote, “[Smith] had sized up the Japanese population in the United States and he figured that there was a need for five hundred trained Nisei ministers and workers to take care of this population. To me it was a real ringing challenge. Even when he came to the local churches, he mentioned the same thing to our official boards and at our local church administrative meetings. I heard him repeat this several times. That’s what got me. I wasn’t a baptized Christian then but became one very soon after that.” That’s the kind of influence people like Dr. Smith had. He may not have been of Japanese ancestry, but he stood with us nonetheless.
Which got me thinking, how can we be an ally in this time of racial unrest?
How can we stand alongside the Black community as they strive for racial equality of opportunity? How can we be a supporter beyond placing a banner on the entryway of our church? How can we make a difference today? I reached out to our own District Superintendent, Rev. Staci Current and together with Rev. Sadie Stone we discussed it. While I realize it isn’t the job or the responsibility of the Black community to tell us what we need to do, I also am aware of the history of inadvertently imposing our own cultural values on another group of people. The early missionaries, with the best of intentions, went out among indigenous people and forced upon them a Western European way of living and being, in their minds “correcting” their lifestyle into something more “appropriate.” Many of those cultures are now realizing they lost a part of themselves when they accepted the missionaries’ help and are trying to reclaim it. We certainly don’t want to do the same in this moment. We want to walk alongside our brothers and sisters, not tell them where to go. First, they suggested doing some soul-searching and serious introspection, asking ourselves to look deeper into the ways we inadvertently perpetuate systemic racism. How do we unconscious support racist ideologies through our language, our perceptions, and our own unwillingness to learn the truth? How welcoming are we to people who don’t necessarily act or do things the way we do them?
Before we can reach out, we must search within.
We need to challenge ourselves regularly, to hold a mirror up in front of us and take a good look so that we are part of the solution and not part of the problem. We need to regularly engage through discussions, reading, and making ourselves informed while keeping an open mind that despite our best intentions we may be contributing to the problem and then doing something about it. During this time of introspection, I know most of us are hungering to do something concrete. Something we can point to and know that we made a difference. Over the next month, I’m going to challenge our Council of Ministries to do just that – to put our money where our mouth is and do something concrete to support the Black community in their time of need as others came to our aid in our time of need. I’m going to encourage them to offer a scholarship or contribute to a scholarship that helps the African-American community or to donate to a local Black-owned business or to help a primarily Black church in our neighborhood. Maybe we will do all three. In the meantime, I’m going to challenge each of you to support a Black-owned business in your local community (personally, I’m definitely going to frequent one of my favorites – James and the Giant Cupcake!). Frequent those places during this next month. Over tip when you can. Make the extra effort to shop there and be supportive. Walk alongside our neighbors in their time of need as others did for us our whole lives.
There is a tendency to demonize those that aren’t “one of us.”
But we can’t achieve our goals without the help of those outside of ourselves. God created us for community for a reason. We are meant to uplift one another. We are meant to support one another. We are meant to journey alongside one another. And that means being an ally to those in need and being willing to accept help when we are in trouble. As much as we think we can do it alone, we really can’t. It takes not only strong movement within our community, but outside of our community as well. When those athletes return to the field and you watch your first game in what seems like years, just remember that it took the work of hundreds if not thousands of people behind the scenes to make it happen. In the movement right now for racial justice, it will take thousands if not millions of people to make it happen. Let us be among those people. The iron is hot, the time to do something is now. Make a difference.
 From my own thesis on the subject Context in Connection.
 Lester Eisaburo Suzuki in his autobiographical recounting of his Christian faith in Nisei Christian Journey: It’s Promise and Fulfillment, Volume III: Nisei Pastors, (Nisei Christian Oral History Project), 81.