He wasnâ€™t your typical preacher, but Michio Nagai made the greatest
impact on me of any person who has ministered to a local church of which Iâ
€™ve been a partâ€”and that includes some well-known and widely respected
names in Texas and on both coasts.
Nisei, second generation Japanese, he grew up in Los Angeles, where his
father sold produce to markets back before everything had been paved over.
When the second World War broke out, he and his family joined other
Japanese Americans at Santa Anita Racetrack for internment. War with Japan
aroused irrational fears of Japanese-Americans among many Americans.
People youâ€™d grown up with were suddenly looked upon with suspicion.
Michio and his family were sent to a camp in Colorado, losing their business,
their home and their possessions, virtually overnight.
He was released to attend Abilene Christian College in Texas, where he majored
in Greek and excelled as a gymnast. Returning to California, he studied
Hebrew at Hebrew Union College and married a soft-spoken beauty from Santa
Rosa, Lorraine. The young couple ended up at Pepperdine where Michio
taught in the Religion Department and Lorraine worked in the library. They
had two sons.
Thatâ€™s where I met them. Michio was one of the first to welcome us
when we placed membership at the Vermont Avenue Church of Christ, where
he was an elder. Later, I took his class in Romans and Galatians at Pepperdine.
I still remember the class when he explained Paulâ€™s logic. Drawing a
straight line on the board, he said that Western logic proceeds in a straight line
from point to point. Then he drew a spiral, explaining that Eastern logic spirals
around as it narrows to a point. It was one of those pivotal experiences that
opens a door to reality. Suddenly, I understood something about, not just the
Bible, but cross-cultural relations in my new and diverse home city.
We lived just blocks apart for the next 12 years, and even after we moved, we
drove back to worship at Vermont Avenue. Michio loved children, and he
adopted ours when they were young. Even though we didnâ€™t realize it at
the time, he adopted us, too.
In 1974, he went from being our elder to being our minister, and his sermons
were always challenging, fresh and loving. His kind heart and soft-spoken
manner belied the strength of both his mind and his convictions.
Iâ€™ll never forget one sermon he preached on the Fourth of July. He talked
about his experience as a Japanese-American in World War IIâ€”something he
seldom did. Speaking in his typically calm, dispassionate voice, he described
the anger he felt at the country of his birth. Angry at America and at God, he
discovered that, whatever America might do, God wouldnâ€™t let him go.
He never raised his voice, which must have seemed strange to a mostly
African-American congregation that had been weaned on fire and brimstone.
But most of us appreciated the depth of his teaching, as well as his easy smile
and tender heart.
Ever open to opportunities to do good, he not only opened the church building
for religious release time for a nearby school for children with learning
disabilities. He was there every week when the teachers showed up with their
entire student body in tow, helping those of us who taught to meet the
challenges that inevitably accompanied them.
He taught the weekly Ladies Bible Class and started a program of visits to sites
in the area that many in the church had never seen. He started our annual Film
Fest, which coupled movies on a Christian theme with carefully constructed
study guides for us and visiting congregations.
An avid photographer, he produced a visual record of our eventsâ€”down to
the decorations and teaching materials we produced for our classrooms. He
was a true artist, as was Lorraine, who kept the church building supplied with
stunning weekly flower arrangements in both the full American and the simple
When Michio finally retired to LaVerne, some 30 miles away, the Vermont
Avenue church fell apartâ€”both spiritually and physically. We came to realize
just how much heâ€™d done to hold us together, and how much heâ€™d been
the grownup when we were too ready to become childish over old hurts. He
was purposeful as opposed to reacting, too big for petty divisions. We also
came to see how much time heâ€™d spent picking up trash around the
building, trimming lawns and bushes and keeping the building in repair.
I still have friends from that time at Vermont Avenue, and we still talk with
nostalgic wonder about Michio Nagai. He might not have been your typical
preacher, but he was a man who brought peace and unity and Godâ€™s Spirit
to a place and time of tension and divisiveness.