The late Ron Takaki, Him Mark Lai, and other influencers

Posted on the ISAAC blog on June 4, 2009 []

The passing of several important scholars in this past year has given me occasion to pause and reflect. Robert Handy, an American Baptist church historian, and Kosuke Koyama, theologian and advocate for Asian contextualized theology, passed away earlier this year. Both were strong influences for me while I was at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Dr. Handy encouraged me to enter the Ph.D. program in history of Christianity when I was uncertain of my scholarly abilities. Dr. Koyama served on my dissertation committee and encouraged me to enter the academy. I’m grateful for both of these men because they showed me that one could be both a scholar and church leader.

Three important historians passed away recently as well. I did not know John Hope Franklin (January 2, 1915 – March 25, 2009) or Ron Takaki (April 12, 1939- May 26, 2009) personally. I’ve corresponded with Him Mark Lai (Nov. 1, 1925- May 21, 2009) on a few occasions. These three historians profoundly shaped my thinking about race and multi-culturalism in America. Through them, I  learned not only about the hidden histories of African Americans and Asian Americans, but also how to reframe American history through the perspectives and experiences of racialized peoples. Him Mark Lai’s grassroots approach to Chinese American history linked colleges to local ethnic communities and challenged the elitism of university education. Takaki’s Strangers from a Different Shore, his much acclaimed  history of Asian Americans, demonstrated that the racial landscape of American history was always diverse – even before the landmark 1965 Immigration Act that allowed Asians to immigrant on an equal basis as European immigrants.

Furthermore, Takaki and other Civil Rights Era historians (they used to be called revisionist historians) also began to ask why ethnic and racial diversity were not reflected in American histories and popular culture.  The first book by Takaki that I read was Iron Cages, a sophisticated analysis of the ideology of white supremacy and the practice of white privilege in 19th century American culture. Before it became common to employ Edward Said’s Orientalism as a theoretical tool for analyzing Euro-American texts, Takaki demonstrated that paying close attention to historical documents can yield powerful critical interpretations of the use of privilege and power to create racial differences and hierarchies. Today, Soong-chan Rah’s scathing criticism of Western, white privilege in American evangelicalism [see his The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity (InterVarsity, 2009)] will not make many white evangelicals happy, but that critique rests on the solid work of historians like Franklin, Takaki, and Lai [as well as some sociologists who see it operating in multi-racial settings today. See my review of Brad Christerson, Korie L. Edwards, and Michael O. Emerson, Against All Odds: The Struggle for Racial Integration in Religious Organizations (New York: New York University Press, 2005) 185 pp. ISBN: 0814722245 at:]

Their passing comes at a critical time for Asian American Christians – especially evangelicals. Our most thoughtful Asian American evangelical leaders don’t really know what to do with these historians from the Civil Rights Era. Asian American evangelicals tend not to think about their ethnic identities or public issues affecting Asian Americans – the very issues that Civil Rights Era historians focused on. Acting as if the model minority myth is reality, many embrace individualism, consumerism, and materialism (the other aspects of Western Cultural captivity that Rah critiques). Even those who are passionate about missions or social justice leap-frog the Asian American experience. Further complicating the Civil Rights narratives  is an increasing scholarly recognition that racial identities are more fluid, transnational, and complex than they were understood to be a generation ago. All this, along with the reality of multi-racial marriages, a growing number of hapachildren, greater Asian American social mobility, and a general embrace of racial non-recognition and globalization have challenged the the anti-discriminatory vision of Civil Rights Era historians. Is it any wonder that many of our Asian American evangelical leaders have a difficult time bridging past and present?

So what should  church leaders, theological educators, scholars, business and non-profit leaders do? Shall we repress the past as leaders in China appear determined to do on this 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Protests? Shall we ignore history and move on because the past is not directly relevant to our ministry, research, business, career, or causes? Or shall we continue to remind this generation and our children of the sins of human history such as the Holocaust, the Nanking massacre, the Japanese American concentration camps, Jim and Jane Crow, etc.? Leaders today are entrusted with the souls and the aspirations of the next generation. It is easy to write off the voices of the past as irrelevant for this generation and the future. But the responsible leader in Asian American settings will attend to the lessons of Lai, Takaki, and Koyama.

– Tim Tseng

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May 31, 2009
Ronald Takaki, a Scholar on Ethnicity, Dies at 70

Ronald Takaki, who made it his life’s work to rewrite American history to include Asian-Americans and other ethnic groups excluded from traditional accounts and who helped start the first doctoral program in ethnic studies in the United States, died Tuesday in his home in Berkeley, Calif. He was 70.

The cause was suicide, said his son Troy. He battled multiple sclerosis for years. “He struggled, and then he gave up,” his son said.

Mr. Takaki, whose Japanese grandfather immigrated to Hawaii in the 19th century and worked on a sugarcane plantation, became a leading scholar of ethnicity and multiculturalism in works that challenged ethnic stereotypes and chronicled struggles of non-European immigrants.

His works like “A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America” (1993) became seminal texts in emerging fields that he helped institutionalize by establishing a doctoral program in ethnic studies in 1984 at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught for 30 years.

Don T. Nakanishi, the director of the Asian American Studies Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, told the Berkeley Web site: “Ron Takaki elevated and popularized the study of America’s multiracial past and present like no other scholar, and in doing so had an indelible impact on a generation of students and researchers across the nation and world.”

Ronald Toshiyuki Takaki was born in Honolulu and, in his youth, spent most of his time surfing. On the beach, he was known as Ten-Toes Takaki for his hang-ten style.

He found his vocation while earning a bachelor’s degree in history at the College of Wooster in Ohio. While in Ohio he married Carol Rankin, who survives him. Besides his son Troy, of Los Angeles, he is also survived by another son, Todd, of El Cerrito, Calif.; a daughter, Dana Takaki of Chester, Conn.; a brother, Michael Young of Thousand Oaks, Calif.; a sister, Janet Wong of Chatsworth, Calif.; and seven grandchildren.

He continued his education at Berkeley, where he earned a master’s degree in 1962 and a doctorate in history in 1967. He was deeply influenced by the Free Speech movement at the university and by the civil rights struggles in the South. “I was born intellectually and politically in Berkeley in the ’60s,” he told The San Francisco Chronicle in 2003.

He wrote a dissertation on slavery in the United States and returned to the subject in his first book, published in 1971, “A Pro-Slavery Crusade: The Agitation to Reopen the African Slave Trade.”

At U.C.L.A., Mr. Takaki taught the university’s first black-history course, created in response to the Watts riots. When a student asked what revolutionary tools he would be teaching, Mr. Takaki said: “We’re going to strengthen our critical thinking and our writing skills. These can be revolutionary tools if we make them so.”

In 1971 he became the first full-time teacher in Berkeley’s new ethnic studies department, where he taught a highly influential survey course that took a comparative approach in describing racism as experienced by different ethnic groups in the United States. In addition to helping establish the graduate program in ethnic studies, he helped put in place the requirement that all undergraduates take a course intended to broaden their understanding of racial and ethnic diversity. He retired in 2003.

His many books include “Iron Cages: Race and Culture in 19th-Century America” (1979), “Strangers From a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans” (1989), “Democracy and Race: Asian Americans and World War II” (1995) and “Double Victory: A Multicultural History of America in World War II” (2000).

* * *

May 22, 2009

UCLA Asian American Studies Center
Him Mark Lai: Dean of Chinese American History, Passes (1925-2009)

Him Mark Lai, the internationally noted scholar, writer, and “Dean of Chinese American History” was born on November 1, 1925 in San Francisco’s Chinatown.  His ten books, more than 100 essays, and research in English and Chinese on all aspects of Chinese American life are published and cited in the U.S., the Americas, China, Southeast Asia, and Australia.

Lai was a member of Amerasia Journal’s editorial board for more than 30 years and a contributing writer.  Among his works published by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press are: A History Reclaimed: An Annotated Bibliography of Chinese Language Materials on the Chinese of America (1986); in 2000 Amerasia Journal published his autobiographical essay: “Musings of a Chinese American Historian.”

With the writer Ruthanne Lum McCunn, historian Judy Yung, and editor Russell C. Leong serving as the co-editors, the UCLA Asian American Center Press will be publishing his autobiography in 2009-2010.

* * *

Him Mark Lai was born in San Francisco Chinatown to immigrant parents from Nam Hoi District, Guangzhou, and attended local schools including Francisco Junior High, Nam Kue Chinese School, and was graduated from U.C. Berkeley in 1947 with a degree in mechanical engineering and until his retirement worked for Bechtel Corporation.

In late 1949, he began volunteering for Chung Sai Yat Po, the first daily paper to support the People’s Republic of China, and became a member of organizations active in persuading students to return to China to serve the new government.  He also joined the Chinese American Democratic Youth League, more familiarly known as Mun Ching, where he met Laura Jung, a new immigrant, whom he married in 1953.

According to Ruthanne Lum McCunn:

“Lai joined the Chinese Historical Society of America soon after its founding in 1963.  These events, together with contemporaneous changes in the status of minorities spurred by the Civil Rights movement, led Lai towards developing a Chinese American identity, and in 1967, he accepted a proposal by Maurice Chuck, editor of the bilingual East/West, the Chinese American Weekly to write a series of articles on Chinese American history.  This marked the beginning of Lai’s career in reclaiming the Chinese/American experience-a fortuitous confluence of his passion for history and his deep commitment to his bicultural heritage and democratic principles.

His East/West articles – revised and annotated-became the cornerstone for the classic A History of the Chinese in California, A Syllabus, co-edited with Thomas W. Chin and Philip P. Choy, as well as the basis for the first Chinese American history course in the United States, which Lai team taught with Choy at San Francisco State College in Fall 1969 and which resulted in another classic Outlines: History of the Chinese in America.  Lai’s first scholarly essay, “A Historical Survey of Organizations of the Left Among the Chinese in America,” published in the Fall 1972 issue of theBulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars – together with subsequent revisions-remains a standard reference.  So do Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island 1910-1940, co-authored/translated with Genny Lim and Judy Yung; Lai’s “Chinese on the Continental U.S.” in theHarvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups; his From Overseas Chinese to Chinese American: a History of the Development of Chinese during the Twentieth Century (in Chinese) and articles in the Encyclopedia of Chinese Overseas and Huaquiao Huaren baike quanshu [Encyclopedia of Chinese and people of Chinese descent overseas];  his studies of Chinese newspapers and schools, district associations, and communities in the Pearl River Delta.”

Indeed, almost every researcher or scholar who has studied Chinese Americans during the past forty years is indebted to Him Mark Lai’s pioneering and lifelong work based on primary Chinese-language sources.  According to editor Russell C. Leong, “Him Mark Lai gave Chinese Americans a voice in history because he listened to ordinary people both in America and China and trained himself to read what they felt and thought–in the Chinese language. His legacy challenges us to listen, to think, and to feel more deeply–to untangle, to clarify, and to refine the historical and political record of our lives here.”

The UCLA Asian American Studies Center is also grateful for Him Mark Lai’s support of the work of others as a long-standing member of the editorial committees of Amerasia Journal and of Chinese America: History & Perspectives, the two leading scholarly journals which have collectively published the most materials on Asian Americans and Chinese Americans during the past four decades.

-Russell C. Leong
Editor, Amerasia Journal, UCLA

* * *

Union Mourns Professor Emeritus Kosuke Koyama, Intercultural Theologian

The Rev. Dr. Kosuke Koyama, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Professor Emeritus of Ecumenical Studies, died on March 25, 2009, at BayState Hospital in Springfield, Massachusetts, after a long battle with esophageal cancer. He was 79. The immediate cause of death was pneumonia, said his son, Mark.

During the 16 years he taught at Union Theological Seminary, Koyama made a name for himself as an important figure in the development of global Christianity.

He was an early proponent of multiculturalism and religious pluralism, long before those terms came into common parlance. He taught courses in Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism – and showed students how these faiths could inform Christian commitment.

“I feel a mission to teach about different religious traditions,” Koyama said. “I think it’s the Christian thing to do.”

Chris Herlinger, a 1993 Union MA graduate whose work with the humanitarian agency Church World Service has taken him to numerous predominately Muslim countries, said Professor Koyama was “way ahead of the curve in having students look beyond the limits of our own faith borders.

“A full decade before 9/11 and its aftermath, Professor Koyama was almost alone at Union in alerting us to the realities of religious pluralism in the world. I’m not sure everybody fully understood or appreciated that at the time, but I think we do now.”

Kosuke Koyama, known as “Ko” to his friends, was born in Tokyo on December 10, 1929, at a time when Japan was already active against Manchuria and China. He survived the bombings, violence, and destruction of the war years, and later wrote that he was baptized “not so much from an awareness of my personal sinfulness as from the immediate experience of the destruction of my country by war.

“The minister who baptized me told me that the God of the Bible is concerned about the wellbeing of all nations, even including Japan and America,” he wrote. “To hear this at the same time that we were being bombed by America was quite startling. This was my first ecumenical lesson.”

Koyama graduated from Tokyo Union Theological Seminary in 1952. He then chose to pursue his theological studies in the United States. At Drew Theological School he earned the Bachelor of Divinity degree cum laude in 1954, and at Princeton Theological Seminary he completed the Th.M. and Th.D. in 1959. (He would later refer to his nascent thinking at Drew and Princeton as his “New Jersey theology.”)

Upon graduating from Princeton with a dissertation on Luther’s interpretation of the Psalms, Koyama was sent by the United Church of Christ in Japan (Kyodan) as a missionary to the Church of Christ in Thailand. As Dale T. Irvin wrote in his introduction to The Agitated Mind of God: The Theology of Kōsuke Koyama (a festschrift presented to Koyama on the occasion of his retirement from Union), in Thailand Koyama “found himself exploring a theology that began not with Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, or Karl Barth, but with the needs of farmers among whom he worked. Out of this commitment to being a neighbor to the northern Thai farmers was born the ‘waterbuffalo theology’ that would permanently enter the name of Koyama in the register of twentieth century contextual theologies.”

In 1968 Koyama moved to Singapore to take up the position of dean of the South East Asia Graduate School of Theology (SEAGST), which had come into being two years earlier − an outcome of a historic theological education consultation held in Bangkok in 1956. At this conference, Koyama later wrote, “We consciously began the process of decolonization of theology. The selfhood of the Asian church became a subject of serious discussion.”

At SEAGST, “All of the professors were people of two cultures (‘fork and chopsticks’). We explored together the nature and limits of cultural accommodation of the Gospel not from the North Atlantic theological perspective but from the contexts of diverse local cultures in Asia.”

In 1974 Koyama was appointed Senior Lecturer in Phenomenology of Religion at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. It was there that he received a phone call from the Rev. Dr. Donald W. Shriver, Jr., then Union’s president, inviting him to become Professor of Ecumenics and World Christianity. The first Asian appointed to the faculty at the Seminary, Koyama began teaching there in February 1980. He was later installed as the first incumbent of the newly established John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Chair in Ecumenics and World Christianity.

At Union Koyama had a profound effect on both his students and colleagues. “To say that Kosuke Koyama made his imprint on ecumenical church meetings, in unnumbered intercultural theological dialogues, and in intense classroom discussions at Union and around the world, is to forge an understatement,” Dr. Shriver wrote about Koyama’s years at the Seminary. “In his quiet, persistent way of speaking and writing, humor which cloaked his seriousness, fidelity to Gospel teaching, and readiness to listen long before he crafted another of his eloquent metaphors, he was an exemplary educator and Christian witness to all who knew him.”

And New York had a profound effect on Koyama. There he encountered Jews and African Americans for the first time, an experience that forced him to respond theologically to “the fact of enormous violence suffered by these two peoples.” He sensed, he said, “that my identity would be directly threatened if I did not come to terms with the twofold encounter… The experience of blacks and Jews challenged the heart of the Christian faith as I understood it at that time.”

Throughout his life Koyama went from encounter to encounter, hammering each into a contextual theological endeavor. He beat swords into plowshares, evoking King Zedekiah – “his eyes torn out, and taken into exile.” He wrote about a theology of the cross “in which love, becoming completely vulnerable to violence, conquers violence.” He carried on a deep theological dialogue with Buddhism, studied Judaism and Islam, and again and again returned to reflect upon the encounter between East and West.

When he stepped down as Professor Emeritus in 1996, he said he didn’t like the word “retire” and preferred, instead, to think of himself as “reappearing” through “new empowerment from the Holy Ghost.” He continued his encountering and endeavoring to the end.

In a final tribute, to Koyama, his former student Dale Irvin, now President of New York Theological Seminary, offered this remembrance:

“Koyama once remarked to me that one reason he enjoyed reading a particular work by Thomas Merton was that he could pick it up and begin reading anywhere, in any direction, and the book still made sense to him. Koyama found in Merton’s work a profound circularity in which beginning and end met in a cosmological rather than eschatological way.

“The logic was not linear and progressive, but circular and unfolding. Perhaps the same can be said of the life of Kosuke Koyama. It remains an unfolding event, circulating from the global to the local and back to the global dimensions, dancing between the cosmological and the eschatological dimensions of religious life, yet doing so with a certain agitation as he seeks to follow the God who spoke from the Mountain.

“Koyama is with that God now, and with the Christ he so passionately followed in his life,” Irvin concluded. “I am sure they are dancing together.”

Kosuke Koyama is survived by his wife of 50 years, Lois Koyama, and his children: James, who lives in Honolulu; Elizabeth, who lives in Moscow; and Mark, who lives in Western Massachusetts. He is also survived by his five grandchildren: Matthew, Isabel, Sophie, Amos and Silas.

Read President Emeritus Donald W. Shriver’s tribute to Prof. Koyama.

* * *
Union Mourns Robert T. Handy, Church Historian
Henry Sloane Coffin Professor Emeritus of Church History at Union Theological Seminary

The Rev. Dr. Robert T. Handy, Henry Sloane Coffin Professor Emeritus of Church History at Union Theological Seminary, died at Crane’s Mill Retirement Community in West Caldwell, New Jersey, on January 8. He was 90 years old.

During the 36 years he taught at the Seminary, Handy made a name for himself as an impressive scholar of American church history, an exceptional teacher, and a gifted administrator.

“From the very first I knew him to be one of a cluster of faculty who could be counted on always to put the good of the school above their own good,” said former UTS president Donald W. Shriver, Jr.  As a member of Union’s presidential search committee, Handy in 1975 had helped to bring Shriver to Union.  Shriver in turn appointed Handy dean of the faculty in 1976, a post Handy held for two years.

“By the end of those two years, he felt obliged to return to full time teaching of church history,” Shriver reminisced recently in an email, “but by then he had restored many fractured relationships among faculty, administration, students and board.

“Bob was a born reconciler,” Shriver continued.  “He brought to academic work the skills and commitments of a Baptist pastor as well as the training of a disciplined scholar.  His is a combination rare in the halls of academe, rare among human beings, too.”

Handy’s students and colleagues have long since acknowledged him as a leading historian of American church history.  His work on church and state, on religious liberty, on nineteenth-century attempts to establish a “Christian America,” and his labor with fellow Union professors David W. Lotz and Richard A. Norris, Jr., in revising and updating Williston Walker’s standard, A History of the Christian Church, produced books that are still in use and considered classics.  Among his great contributions to the Seminary was A History of Union Theological Seminary in New York, published in 1987 as part of Union’s sesquicentennial celebration.

Handy’s tenure at Union as a member of both the faculty and the administration gave him particular insight into the critical issues affecting the Seminary during his time.  He also successfully illuminated events of other eras of Union’s past, particularly the troubled times of the Charles A. Briggs trial in the late nineteenth century.  An exacting and tireless researcher, Handy spent countless hours in the Seminary’s archives, fact-checking details and building on the work of earlier scholars of Union’s history, among them former Union president Henry Sloane Coffin and faculty members G.L. Prentiss and Charles R. Gillett.  The result was a readable and entertaining history, both objective and accurate, yet tempered by Handy’s respect and affection for the sons and daughters of Union Seminary.

Robert Handy was born on June 30, 1918 in Rockville, Connecticut and attended Brown University, where he majored in European history and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1940.  He earned his Bachelor of Divinity (later upgraded to a Master of Divinity) at Colgate-Rochester Divinity School in 1943.  He was ordained a Baptist minister in May of that year.

At the time, Handy was still looking for a way to combine his two interests, history and the church, into one vocation.  “A congregation in Illinois,” he later wrote, “which I then served as minister for two years, enabled me to take some courses at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago ‘to fill some gaps.’

“At first I had no plans to earn a further degree,” he continued, “but a wise dean advised me to put whatever work I did on a doctoral program anyway…  Then, during an interim of nearly two years while I was serving as an Army chaplain, I concluded that my attraction to both ministry and historical scholarship could come together in the role of church historian.”

After leaving the Army, Handy returned to Chicago Divinity School, where he completed his doctorate in 1949.  The following year he was invited to join the faculty of Union Theological Seminary for a three-year term, “primarily to assist John T. McNeil and Paul Tillich in their foundational surveys of church history and the history of Christian thought, but also to teach courses in the modern and American periods.

“Little did I know that the three years would stretch into twelve times that number to the time of retirement,” he later marveled.  Handy’s full reflections on his career were published in Religious Studies Review in April 1993.  He taught at Union from 1950 to 1986, retiring as Henry Sloane Coffin Professor of Church History.

In 1989, Handy’s colleagues and former students published a festschrift in his honor, Altered Landscapes: Christianity in America 1935-1985.  While not a conventional festschrift because the contributors were not all former students of his, nor were they all professional historians, the volume celebrated  the man all the contributors considered their mentor.

“Every one of them… knows his or her indebtedness to the lifelong scholarly career of Robert Handy,” wrote the book’s editors in the preface.  They went on to praise “his strict adherence to the technical canons of historical inquiry, his sensitivity to the practical needs of Christian people, his signal labors on behalf of a sophisticated understanding of American church history, and his appreciation for the conceptual ties of history with many other disciplines.”

Teacher, author, colleague, friend, spiritual helper – Handy was all these and more.  “We know that as a historian he loves the truth of history,” the editors concluded.  “He loves as well the people who make history.  Indeed, among those scholars whom we know, we know of none who better joins the love of truth to the truth of love.”

Peggy Shriver, wife of the president emeritus, had this to say: “Once a student of Bob Handy, always a student of Bob Handy!  He cared for them, nurtured them, was solicitous of their careers and lives, and was always ready to be helpful and encouraging.

“Although I was never his student,” she went on, “I sometimes turned to him in my position as Assistant General Secretary of the National Council of Churches.  So I know how kindly and helpful he could be.  I also know how important he was to my husband during those early years of leading the seminary through some difficult times.”

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