People of the Light

Food can trigger fond memories.

Growing up, my dad’s cooking was fun to eat.  My mom was the master chef of the house, so eating my dad’s food was special because it didn’t happen often – usually on weekends when he was home from work.  He would cook different stuff from my mom, so each meal of his was an adventure.  One of his staples was shoyu weenies.  He would fry up a package of sliced wieners in a skillet with some soy sauce and it would taste delicious!  My dad made a little fried rice to go with it using leftovers from the day before. He would sprinkle a little of this and a little of that (I never knew that this and that was) to make it a perfect side dish and I wondered where in the world my dad would come up with such an idea like this!   Literally decades later, I was listening to NPR and heard a story about food in the internment camps during WWII and they mentioned shoyu weenies! With fish and fresh meat not available in the camps, my dad’s family and other’s like his often had to make do with whatever they were given – often hot dogs, spam, and other processed food.  Somehow, they used these products in ways that resembled the foods they loved.  Shoyu weenies, Weenie Royale, and spam musubi all came from the foods they had available, and now he’s passed them on to me.  

Spam Musubi – a favorite faux sushi inspired from camp life

The phrase “making lemons into lemonade” comes to mind.

These people who were imprisoned and had everything stripped away from them still found ways to not just endure but thrive.  They found ways to make sake, to create art, and build beautiful dressers out of discarded fruit boxes.  When my grandfather passed away, we found the side of an old orange crate in his bedroom and wondered why in the world he would have this.  But when we turned it over, there was a beautiful carving of a fish flying out of the water.  I remember when we found it and wondering how none of us knew about this side of him.  It was inspiring.  It would have been easy for them to embrace what the Japanese call shigata-ga-nai, a sense of acceptance with resignation; but instead they turned their circumstance into an opportunity to show the worldthat despite the indignation and humiliation they endured, they could rise above it and wouldn’t let this define them.  Many Japanese Christian pastors encouraged their congregations to do more than simply suffer in silence, but to show the true heart of Christianity.  Rev. Hideo Hashimoto of the Fresno Japanese Methodist Church told his congregation in a sermon he gave on May 10, 1942 – “In the camps, cooperation will not only be highly desirable, it will be the absolute minimal requirement, even to eat and sleep. This is a great opportunity to prove that Christianity works and the Christian spirit alone works. If it doesn’t work in the Centers, it will not work anywhere. For that very reason, Christians are on trial. This is the testing of our faith.” Rev. John Yamazaki of the Japanese Episcopal Church in Los Angeles shared in his Easter message that year, “In a sense, this is our Calvary, and we must be willing to say: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” We must also try, with Him, to say: “Into Thy hands I commit my spirit.” But that is not all. As Jesus the Christ had His resurrection from the dark tomb, so may it be with us. We shall have our Easter and be triumphant.”

Still hard to believe that my grandfather did this fish sculpting out of the back of an orange crate!

It is in that Christian spirit of love and inspiration we share our reading this morning.

In the Bible, light is symbolic of Christ and appears over and over throughout Scripture.  We are called to be the “people of the light” (Luke 16:8) and Jesus himself said, “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).  And it is this light that we are to share. 

14“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. 15Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven…” – Mattthew 5:14-16

We are called to be the people of the light.

In EVERY circumstance.  No matter how difficult or how daunting, no matter how strenuous or tough, we are the light of the world.  But it can be hard to be the light, to be one of those who can turn the other cheek, to forgive not seven times but seventy-seven times.  But THIS is the kind of people God wants us to be.  When we are wronged, when we are hurt, when we are threatened, we are tempted to react in kind, to give an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but Jesus tells us we need to rise above that.  That we need to “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”  We see examples of this all throughout the Bible.  Joseph, the guy with the Technicolor dreamcoat, was sold into slavery by his own brothers and yet his faithfulness to God, his ability to be a light in the darkness, convinced Pharaoh to make him his right-hand man and in turn save his family and the people of God.  Daniel and his friends were taken forcibly by King Nebuchadnezzar to serve in the royal courts and were told they must eat the food and wine they were given.  But this would violate God’s call on their lives, so Daniel chose instead to follow God.  Daniel’s example to be the light in a time of darkness eventually convinced the King that the God Daniel followed was indeed the “God of gods and the Lord of kings” (Daniel 2:47).  So many of these stories reflect the Japanese-American experience during the war that we are taught even in captivity, even under the rule of strangers, even when persecuted in our own land, Christians are called upon to be the people of light – to stand out amongst the crowd, not as a way of bringing glory to themselves, but by bringing glory to God by our actions. 

From the chapel of Berkeley Methodist United Church where I had served

We must be the people of the light.

And it doesn’t matter which side of the fence we stand on, this is the call God pours into us.  Some of the most amazing and heart-warming stories I have heard over the years have been ABOUT the people on the other side of the barbed wire fences, who stood alongside their Japanese-American brothers and sisters and did whatever they could to help them.  People who saw there was a grave injustice being done and decided to do something about it.  One of those people was Dr. Frank Herron Smith. He was the superintendent of the Pacific Japanese Provisional Conference of the Methodist church at the time of the war.  When I interviewed Rev. Lloyd Wake for my master’s thesis he shared with me Dr. Smith was a great influence on him.  That he, “not only preached about justice and love, but he lived it.”  Dr. Smith was said to have shishi no koe – the voice of a lion – and he used that voice to speak on behalf of the Japanese people at every turn; writing letters, standing up at conferences, and giving a voice to a people who had no voice.  During the war, he tirelessly went from church to church, coordinating the efforts of volunteer missionaries who helped turn many of the churches into storage facilities so that families wouldn’t have to get rid of all of their belongings.  He would manage the various properties, maintain the parsonages, and when insurance companies decided to drop their coverage of the churches, Dr. Smith mortgaged his own home to help cover the costs.  He was unkindly called “the white Jap” because of his passion and love for the Japanese-Americans under his care, but to those who knew him, they called him “Smith-san,” an honorific for one who gave so much.  Bishop Sano, the first Japanese-American bishop in the Methodist Church, shared this story about Dr. Smith.  He said, “…Dr. Smith made the rounds visiting us in the camps. He wore himself out. One of the hallowed places in the spread of this nation is a hotel and a bus station…I have visited in Cheyenne, WY. He slept in the lounge of the hotel on a chair because “there was no room for him in the inn.” Next morning, he walked across the street to board a Greyhound bus… When the janitor came early the next morning to clean up the bus station, he found Dr. Smith on the floor. He had suffered a stroke… No matter how much hysteria and hate I experience, it was memories like this that saved my soul.”  These are the kind of stories that bring the light of Christ to us and serve as an example of what it means to be a Christian. 

No Cheese Nips allowed! But then…yes?

My dad was very young when he, my grandparents, my uncle and aunt went to the camps.

But he was old enough to remember what life was like there and I know those experiences have added to the person he is today.  I know he grew up having his ethnicity thrown in his face as if it were something he should be ashamed of.  And despite the fact that my dad owned nothing but American cars until I was in high school – I mean we drove a huge Buick century that was built like a tank and got about three miles to the gallon.  Despite the fact that he served in the United States Navy, despite the fact that his best friends were of all different ethnicities including a bald white man that we knew of as Uncle Dan, he was still called “jap” and “nip” by people who didn’t know him.  You know how I found out that those were racist words?  We were in the store when I was little and instead of getting the Cheez-Its that we normally buy, I picked up a box of Cheese Nips because I was curious if they tasted any different.  They looked the same.  So I brought the box over to my dad, and he told me to put them back.  He said we would never buy those because of what that word meant.  So I put them back.  Instead we bought Cheez-Its and Tid Bits and Nacho Cheese Doritos, but never Cheese Nips.  And then one day, Cassie, the girls, and I went to visit my parents, and sitting on the kitchen counter was a big ol’ tub of Cheese Nips.  The kind you get at Costco.  I looked at my mom and said, “What is going on here?  I thought Dad said never to buy these things.”  And she just shrugged her shoulders and said, “Well, I guess he’s over it.”  And it gives me hope that all wounds can be healed no matter how deep.  That God is working in all of us to make us one people.  But it still takes people like you and me who remember what has happened in the past and prevent it from happening tomorrow.  It takes people like you and me to be a light unto the darkness that we may point toward the God that created us and show the world what it means to be a Christian.  I pray we have the strength of those who lived through life in the camps.  I pray that we have the gaman, the fortitude, to endure as they have.  And I pray that we never forget the lessons of those days, that we can become beacons in the community for love and justice and that in the spirit of those who are our inspirations, that we do all we can to honor their past by living a life of honor in the present. 

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