“Will you pray for me?” the elderly woman asked somberly as she grasped my hand and her eyes began to water.
“Of course, what would you like me to pray?” I responded.
“I’m afraid my family wants to stick me into an old folks’ home. They think I can’t take care of myself. I’d rather die than move into one of those horrid places.”
I held her hands and we prayed as we stood together outside on the sidewalk near her apartment amongst the small retirement community.
I was often amazed at how someone would open their hearts to me, a complete stranger out hawking candy, flowers, or trinkets for my church. Usually it was an elderly person who would look beyond the unfavorable media portrayal of me as a brainwashed member of the Unification Church, and see me as a sincere young man that loved God and wanted to help people.
When Reverend Moon first came to America he was saddened to see so many elderly people set aside and forgotten in nursing homes. He shared many stories of how wonderful it was to have his grandparents close by while he was growing up in a small village in North Korea. He has also expressed that ideally households should be made up of three generations.
Although my mother died before my children were born, my dad is still around and in the last twenty years he has never stayed more than a block away from our family. For the last few years he has been living with us. It has often been quite difficult taking care of my dad, but I do believe my family has benefited from his presence. It’s especially rewarding to hear my kids defending their grandfather if I complain about him.
Some of my favorite places to visit when I was fundraising for my church were the apartments above shops in the downtown areas of towns and cities.
“You’re the only person that’s knocked on my door in over a year,” the startled elderly woman told me as I stood outside her apartment above a business in a small city in Iowa.
She invited me inside and asked if I would like some lemonade, and when I said yes, she also brought me some cookies. She then shared with me how much she missed her family members who had left Iowa. I didn’t say much but just listened as she talked about her life. I wasn’t in that tidy, memento-filled apartment very long and can’t even remember the stories she shared, but I still remember her kindness. I’m quite sure that I also brought some joy to the little old lady at the top of that lonely staircase.
Sometimes I could spend weeks never hearing a kind word or any shred of encouragement from anyone, so when it did happen it was immensely memorable.
It was late in the evening when I walked up to the gentleman filling up his car at the gas station. I asked him if he could give a couple of church missionaries, me and my friend Tom, a ride to the next small mid-western town. He said he’d love to and soon we were heading down the highway with this kind man and his wife.
We hadn’t gotten very far when we became aware of the siren and flashing red lights of a police cruiser which overtook us and pulled us over.
“Don’t worry,” the officer told our driver, “we’re just after those boys in back.”
“What did they do? Aren’t they missionaries?”
“Yeah, but they’re with a cult, and we don’t want them in our town,” replied the officer.
“But they’re leaving your town!” the Good Samaritan countered as Tom and I were asked by the officer’s deputy to get out of the car.
The police officer, whose uniform consisted of jeans and the word “Police” spelled in glitter across the front of his T-shirt, patted us hardened criminals down and then arrested us. Much to my surprise our driver hung around even though he was told he could leave. Obviously he wasn’t scared of us because he walked up to us and said, “I can still give you guys a ride if you need it.”
“Thank you so much for that offer,” I replied. “I don’t think we’ll need it because it looks like we’ll be spending the night in the local cross-bar-hotel (jail). You’re a good man. God bless you.”
There are so many stories I’d like to share about the elderly people that have touched my life and inspired me but it would take too long. However, I would like to end with a story which still causes me to chuckle. It’s about a decrepit old man sitting in a wheelchair in a convalescent home…
I was traveling on my own throughout the country selling pictures and living out of a van. I would often make my best sales at convalescent homes because the pictures were safe and durable. Often employees at the facilities would also buy. At one of those homes I had set up pictures in the lobby and many people were admiring them, especially the picture of a Siberian tiger. As my potential customers started to comment and ooh and ah about the tiger, an old man who could barely sit up on his own, and looked as if he didn’t have much longer to live, cried out in his crackly voice, “Why’s everybody talking about me?”
British historian Arnold Toynbee made the following observation after studying the world’s civilizations:
“…a society’s quality and durability can best be measured by the respect and care given its elderly citizens”.
We have much to learn from our elders. Hopefully their wisdom and understanding will not go to waste.
Although that room in Lincoln, California, was filled with around forty men, it was so quiet you could’ve heard a pin drop. I’m not sure I would have heard that pin drop because my heart was beating so loudly. Those men were staring up at me, waiting for me to start singing a song I had written. Boy was I ever nervous!
Minutes before I was introduced to the small crowd, I was sitting in my chair thinking I was going to get sick. What was I thinking? How’d I let myself get into this situation? Then I realized it was all Mrs. Blackwell’s fault.
I first met Mrs. Blackwell when my wife started playing piano at Mt. Olivet Baptist Church, which is a primarily African-American Church in Olivehurst that can trace its roots to 1852. My wife also played at the Chapel at Beale Air Force Base. Now I can’t remember how it happened, but somehow I ended up in the Base chapel choir for their Christmas Cantata. I think they just needed to fill a spot because they never even heard me sing. If they had, perhaps they would’ve realized why I was told many years ago by a Japanese musician friend that I was “tone blind”; I knew he meant “deaf” and I got his not-so-subtle hint.
Anyhow, one day I walked into an office at Beale to update my contractor identification and one of the people working in that office was Mrs. Blackwell from Mt Olivet Baptist. We chatted for a bit, and I told her I had recently joined the choir at the base chapel.
She gave me a mischievous look and said, “I’ll have to keep that in mind.”
Why’d she say that? I thought as I walked out of the office. About a week later I got my answer when I received a phone call.
“Is that Bob?”
“Yes, this is Bob.”
“Bob, this is Mrs. Blackwell from Mt. Olivet.”
“Well hello, Mrs. Blackwell. What can I do for you?”
“Well Bob, I was wondering if you might be able to help us out with our entertainment for our Christmas program.”
“What do you want me to do? Join the choir or something?”
“No. I was hoping you could sing a solo.”
“Sing a solo.”
“Mrs. Blackwell, you know I did join a choir, but I stand way in the back where I can hardly be seen, or heard. I…I… don’t know about singing a solo.”
“Oh don’t worry. You’d be fine. We’d love to have ya.”
“I’ll tell you what. Let me think about it for a few days, and I’ll get back to you.”
“Okay, I’ll be waiting. Bye now.”
Once I hung up the phone my first thought was, how am I going get out of this?
However, that same day I started listening to a recorded sermon by Pastor Kevin Thompson, of the Bay Area Family Church in Hayward, California. In his sermon, Pastor Thompson encouraged his congregation to challenge themselves, to go beyond their comfort zones.
Wow. Singing a solo at Mt. Olivet would certainly put me beyond my comfort zone, I thought. Heck, I might be able to make a lot of people uncomfortable just by hearing me sing!
It just so happened that during this time I was also attending a Bible study organized by Heritage Church in Lincoln, which unlike Olivehurst, is a relatively well-heeled community a little south of where I live. During the study I was so inspired by Romans 1:20 that I wrote a song about it.
Maybe I could sing the song I wrote? That way, no one would know if I was singing it wrong. So I gave Mrs. Blackwell a call and told her that I would sing a solo for their Christmas program.
And that’s exactly what happened. Christmas week arrived and I sang my song at Mt Olivet. The congregation was warm, enthusiastic and supportive. They clapped and sang along and I felt rather proud of myself. But then I wondered if maybe this African-American congregation was just enjoying the novelty of a red-headed white guy singing in their church. And would they have been just as supportive, although confused, if I was up there singing “Row, row, row, your boat”?
Meanwhile, the Bible study in Lincoln had taken a break in December and reconvened in January. The leader of our small group, Tim, asked us to share stories we had about our Christmas and I spoke about writing a song and singing it for a congregation.
“Wow, Bob, that’s great. Do you think you could sing that song and give your testimony in front of our larger group sometime?” asked Tim.
“Uh, yeah, I guess”, I responded, feeling rather surprised he would ask me to share my testimony.
After our meeting, I approached Tim and asked, “Are you sure you want me to give my testimony? You do remember that when I introduced myself to the study group I explained I’m a member of the Unification Church founded by Reverend Moon?”
“Oh, yeah. I guess I forgot.”
As I was later leaving the study room, I glanced behind me and saw Tim speaking with the church’s pastor.
Eventually weeks went by, and I was never approached again about singing that song, so out of curiosity I asked Tim about it.
“How ‘bout you sing your song, but don’t give your testimony?” Tim suggested.
“Okay. I can do that,” I said, thinking, whatever.
And that’s how I ending up standing in front of a bunch of WASPs. And I’m not talking about the insects. I’m talking about White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. I wasn’t quite sure if it was because of my religious affiliation, or because they were just a bunch of white guys, but this crowd wasn’t nearly as supportive as the one at Mt. Olivet. In fact, the difference was, well, black and white.
Come on you guys, loosen up a bit, I wanted to tell them, but I didn’t. Instead, I simply took a deep breath and began singing:
Somebody told me,
Somebody told me that God was dead.
But I didn’t listen to a thing they said,
‘Cause I knew it was just a lie.
I said, oh, won’t you listen,
‘Cause I’m ‘bout to tell you why.
You see, I saw my babies
when they were being born.
And I watched the sun arising
In the early morn,
And I heard a song of a whippoorwill,
Saw flowers growing on a distant hill,
Tried counting all the stars up in an endless sky,
Saw a flock of birds as they flew by.
You know that’s just a few of the reasons why
I say, oh my Lord, you’re everywhere I go.
‘Cause everywhere I look I can see you Lord,
Everywhere I am I can hear you Lord,
And everywhere I am I can feel your love.
You’re in the mountains, way up high,
In the desert dry,
In the country, and the city,
In the ugly and the pretty,
In a forest and a stream,
I say…up….down…and in between.
I say, oh, my Lord, You’re everywhere I go.
‘Cause everywhere I look I can see you Lord.
Everywhere I am I can hear you Lord.
And everywhere I am I can feel your love.
You’re in the black and in the white,
In the day and in the night,
In a servant and in a slave,
In the righteous and in the brave,
In the humble and the meek,
In the strong and in the weak,
I say, oh, my Lord, you’re everywhere I go.
But I’m not a blind man, for I can see.
I know there’s a lot of pain and misery.
And sorrow may be your friend.
But if you can trust in the Lord,
Your heart can mend, and then…
Everywhere you look you’ll see him,
Everywhere you turn you’ll hear him,
That’s because everywhere you go,
You can feel His love, that’s because
He’ll be everywhere you go.
When I finished singing, the room was still rather quiet, and some of those guys looked like they were in shock, at least for a short moment. And I thought, that wasn’t so bad after all! It fact it was quite exhilarating standing there, beyond my comfort zone.
“Chink Rink?” No, that can’t be right. Chink Rink?I’m going to have to take a closer look, I told myself as I stopped my car, turned around and then pulled into the parking lot of the skating rink on the outskirts of Pekin, Illinois (reportedly named after the Chinese city of Pekin, which was the common spelling in the 1800’s). Unfortunately, my eyes were not playing tricks on me because there it was: a sign with the words “Chink Rink” and a caricature of a person dressed in Chinese garb wearing roller skates. And it got worse. I would later find out that the Pekin High School mascot was the “Chinks” and that during their homecoming celebrations they would crown the head Chink and Chinkette. http://www.ccamuseum.org/index.php/en/research/research-1900-1949/128-1981-the-pekin-chinks-high-school-team-becomes-the-pekin-dragons
Fortunately, not too long after my visit, the Chinks were renamed the Dragons, in 1981; but unfortunately, America has a shameful history of mistreatment of Asians, which in some instances continues to this day.
I visited Yuba College, my alma mater, on February 19, 2015, to hear two elderly Japanese-American brothers, Jim and Mori Tanimoto, tell their stories of being forced into internment camps as a result of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066. That order, signed on February 19, 1942, authorized the incarceration of tens of thousands of American citizens of Japanese ancestry.
Ninety-four year old Mori Tanimoto of Yuba City, California, stood at the podium and read an account of his forced relocation to an internment camp in Tule Lake, California. And even though seventy-plus years have passed since Mr. Tanimoto was incarcerated, I could still hear the anger in his voice when he exclaimed, “I had no freedom! I had no justice!”
Both brothers told stories of camp guards roughly removing them from their internment barracks in the middle of the night, and blinding them with bright spotlights when they went outside. As they struggled to see, the sound of loading weapons pierced the night air.
“I thought we were facing a firing squad and we were all going to be killed”, said Jim Tanimoto. Thankfully nobody was murdered, and it appeared the Camp Commander was just trying to scare them.
Eventually, The U.S. Government recruited many American-born Japanese to form the 442 Regimental Unit. These soldiers fought bravely on the European continent. The 442 combat team received eight Presidential Unit Citations and became the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in the history of American warfare. Despite these accomplishments, when the war ended and New York City held a massive parade to welcome home the troops, the Japanese-American soldiers were made to march last in the parade.
As the war drew to an end, internment centers began to close and Japanese-Americans tried to return to their old ways of life. But for many, their homes and businesses were no longer there. And in many cases they were not welcomed back.
Austin Amson, the managing-secretary of the Salinas Vegetable-Growers and Shippers Association proclaimed in a 1942 issue of the Saturday Day Evening Post, referring to the interned American citizens of Japanese descent, “…we don’t want them back.”
Fortunately not everyone in America shared those negative sentiments. While the war was still raging, aboard the naval destroyer the USS New Mexico, a young Marine was ordered, “Hit him where he’s injured and don’t let him sleep!”
“But I couldn’t do it,” my dad recently told me when he was recollecting his experience of guarding a Japanese kamikaze pilot who survived a suicide attack against the ship.
“I ended up spoon-feeding the guy because he was so injured. At first he wouldn’t eat what I was trying to feed him. Maybe he thought I was trying to poison him. To show it wasn’t poisonous, I ate it too.”
After the war was over, and my dad eventually settled in the Yuba/Sutter region of California, he became close friends with Frank Itano, a Japanese-American who had spent years in an internment camp.
With the exception of my dad complaining about Chinese food because “they don’t cook their vegetables”, or his racial-profiling of Asians who would pull up to his fruit stand in Wheatland, to ask directions to the Thunder Valley Casino (and he would tell them how to get there, even before they asked), for the most part, he really didn’t have too much prejudice against Asians, or anybody else, as far as I could tell.
He always did have a soft spot for the underdog. I guess that’s why he was willing to marry my mother, even though she had tuberculosis. Or why he gave up fur-trapping when a fox had chewed off its leg to free itself. Or why he was always giving produce away to those less fortunate than himself.
Apart from Michael, a Chinese-American who helped me keep the bench warm for the Marysville High School sophomore baseball team, I never really knew any Asians while growing up. However, since I was so shy and quiet, it wasn’t just Asians I didn’t associate with. It was anybody. But that began to change when I eventually moved to Las Vegas to attend college.
Man, I don’t know if I want to live with those Chinese people, I told myself as I left the apartment I had just checked out near the University of Nevada Las Vegas campus. I need a place to stay, but that place smelled a bit funny. It must’ve been that squid or octopus, or whatever that was they were eatin.’ Maybe I’ll have better luck at the next apartment that’s looking for a roommate.
I walked down the stairs, and started to walk away, then suddenly stopped. What’s wrong with you? You shouldn’t be like that! You didn’t even give those people a chance. I turned around, walked back to the apartment and knocked on the door. “I’ll take the room,” I quietly offered, as the unfamiliar cooking smells wafted past me and into the desert air.
“Lots of people came for room, but only you took, how come?” My new roommate asked me after I had moved into the apartment.
“I don’t know. Maybe I was hoping you could teach me how to cook some of that Chinese food I smelled,” I responded.
“That’s not good.”
“I’m terrible cook. My girlfriend was cooking for me. I can’t teach you.” He answered back thinking I was serious.
“Don’t worry, I’m just joking. I can take care of myself. In fact I’m a pretty decent cook. Maybe I can teach you.”
“Instead of cooking, could you help me with English?”
“Yeah, I could do that,” I replied.
As I got to know Li better I learned that his father had been a famous General in China, but when the Communists seized power, he fled to Taiwan with his family.
“Our escape was very dangerous. There were posters everywhere offering a reward for my Father’s capture,” he told me.
Li shared about his life as a young boy growing up relatively privileged in China and how his family lost everything during the Cultural Revolution.
“Many people died. At least we lived,” Li recalled somberly.
Li spent very little time at the apartment since he was working on his PhD in Physics and also taught at the university. Our English lessons primarily consisted of me explaining American slang and what swear words meant.
“What’s shit mean?” Li asked one Sunday morning.
As I proceeded to define one of America’s favorite old swear words, he wrinkled his nose and looked bewildered.
“That doesn’t make sense.” Li remarked.
“Sometimes, when I explain something to my students they say: “You’re shitting me. I’m not doing that to them.”
I chuckled softly as we went on to the next word.
“Why do some people say to me, ‘Don’t be a pussy?’ They don’t want me to be a cat?”
As I began to explain the difference between the feline pet and a part of a woman’s anatomy, I realized that living in this apartment was going to be very interesting. And although teaching a foreigner about swear words may be of dubious merit I was happy to be helping my new Asian friend. However, never in my wildest dreams could I have believed that in less than a year’s time I would be standing in a rundown bar in Seattle, Washington defending a Korean religious leader.
“Joe. Do you want me to punch this f…ing Communist Moonie in the face?” the burly redneck shouted as he cocked back his arm and shouted to the bartender.
“Why you out begging for that Chinese guy from Hawaii?” the scholar slurred.
Since this was the first bar I had ever walked into while fundraising for the Unification Church I was not expecting such a negative and uninformed response.
“You must have us confused with someone else,” I countered. “We hate Communism and Reverend Moon’s from Korea.”
“I don’t give a damn where he’s from. Those gooks are all the same. Get the hell out of here!” the inebriated bar patron shouted as he stood up and another man joined him.
I turned around and quickly headed for the door. As I opened the door, someone pushed me from behind and I tripped on the threshold. Luckily my flower bucket cushioned my fall as I fell onto the cement outside, but most of my flowers were ruined. As I brushed myself off and started to gather up the flowers, I began to doubt if I could continue.
Is it always going to be this tough? Why do people hate us so? I wondered. It just doesn’t make any sense.
I would later realize that much of the negative attitude towards my newly found religion was not simply because we were the new religious kid on the block, but because of the anti-Asian attitude of many Americans.
The racist encounter I experienced inside that bar in Seattle would occur again and again, hundreds if not thousands of times, in various forms, as I continued to work for the Unification Church throughout the years. Even Spider-man joined in the racist mania.
A young man invited me into his home to look at some pictures I was selling and told me to make myself comfortable. I sat down on a couch and when he excused himself for a moment to use the bathroom, I picked up a Spider-man comic book lying on a coffee table and started to read it.
In an obvious spoof of the “God Bless America Festival” held by Reverend Moon at Yankee Stadium to honor America’s 1976 bicentennial anniversary, Spider-man was called upon to save the easily-duped young people of New York when they were held for ransom by the notorious Reverend Egg Foo Yung and his henchmen: 3X Moo Shu Pak, Number 1 son Egg Drop Stoop and Won Ton Dupe. http://www.marvunapp.com/Appendix5/reveggfooyung.htm
Is it unreasonable to assume that if a comic book had vilified someone like, say, Argentina born Luis Palau and portrayed the evangelist as Reverend Em pu nada and his henchmen as Chorizo Sausage Plate and Tortilla Dupe there would have been an outcry? I think not.
As the presentation at Yuba College drew to an end, the current Executive Dean for Yuba College’s Sutter County Center, Walter Masuda, spoke about how his grandparents were forced to live in an undesirable area of San Francisco because of their Japanese heritage.
I may not have been forced to live in an undesirable area of a city, but when Masuda spoke about the tribulations of his grandparents, I thought back to when I was living in New Zealand and a neighbor put his home of over twenty years, up for sale because the “Moonies” had moved in next door.
My neighbor confided in me that he changed his mind after I gave him a bottle of whiskey which a supplier had given me when I was managing a seafood business. Since I didn’t drink, I asked my neighbor if he wanted it.
His eyes lit up as he said, “Yeah, I’d love it. Good on ya.”
Funny how the simple gestures of spoon-feeding your enemy, renting a room or giving away whiskey, can help break down prejudices.
When my dad told me those stories of what it was like to be a Marine aboard the USS New Mexico, he also informed me he had a bottle of Crown Royal whiskey someone had given him months ago for his ninetieth birthday. Since he didn’t want it, he wondered what he should do with it.
“Maybe I should send it to 250 Hudson St., Suite 1002 in New York City,” I commented.