Bishop Michael Curry might be best known for delivering the sermon at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. He is currently the presiding bishop and primate of The Episcopal Church, and is the first African American to serve as in that role. Diana Akiyama is currently the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon. She is the first Japanese-American woman to become an Episcopal priest and the first Asian-American woman to become an Episcopal bishop. Geoff Norcross sits down with Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and Bishop Diana Akiyama at St. John the Baptist Parish on the campus of Oregon Episcopal School for a conversation about faith, diversity within the Episcopal Church, and the role of justice in the church.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. Bishop Michael Curry might be best known for delivering the sermon at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding. He is currently the Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church. He is the first African American to serve in that role. Diana Akiyama is currently the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon. She is the first Asian American woman to become an Episcopal Bishop. Geoff Norcross sat down with both of them recently in front of an audience at St John the Baptist Parish on the campus of Oregon Episcopal School. They talked about faith, diversity, and the role of justice in the church.
Geoff Norcross: Let’s dive right in. I’d love to hear from both of you and explore your personal stories a little bit. I’m curious what drew both of you to the priesthood, and to the Episcopal Church particularly? And Bishop Curry, why don’t we start with you?
Michael Curry: Well, my journey to the priesthood had a lot of twists and turns, but it probably is linked to my family. My father was a priest. He grew up Baptist, as did my mother actually. She became Episcipalian. And then when she and my father were dating, she eventually was the one who brought him. But what really convinced him was he went in an Episcopal Church with her. This is in the 1940s, Martin Luther King was still in seminary, this is still early. This was in southern Ohio. Southern Ohio was South. So she went to church with him, and they were probably the only Black folk or people of color in the congregation, I’m guessing.
Anyway, everything was kind of normal. I mean he did say it was a little bit boring and quiet, but uh, that’s us, the Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church welcomes you, but very quietly.
So he’s sitting in church and time came for communion. And in those days, people went up to the altar rail and knelt down, and the priest would come along with the bread, and then they would come along with the wine which was in a common cup, which for a baptist was something new. And he saw this, but then realized, wait a minute, that my mother was up there. And she was a person of color. This is in southern Ohio. And these folks are drinking out of the same cup. And so he was watching to see what would happen when Rosa Parks sipped from that cup. And what he saw was that people took the bread just like normal, and then they took the wine and drank out of the cup, and nobody batted an eye.
And when he would tell that story, he would say “Any church where Black folk and white folk can drink from the same cup in southern Ohio in the late 1940s is a church that knows something about the gospel of Jesus that I want to be a part of.” That’s how we became Episcopalian. And I was born several years later.
But I went to college thinking I was going to law school. I had been a volunteer for Bobby Kennedy’s campaign, so we’re going back in time, and so I sort of fancied a life in government, probably running for political office of some kind. And then midway through seminary, somebody put the actual writings of Dr. King - a book had been published about his theological thought called Search for the Beloved Community. And I read that book and said “Wow.” I knew who King was. Actually, my daddy took me, he was speaking in Rochester I think and we went. I was about five years old I think, and all the other preachers had to get up and preach first, and King was like the last person to speak. And when you’re five years old and a bunch of preachers are talking, that’s time for a nap. So I never heard him speak, I was asleep!
But the long and short of it is I realized that my vocation was to kind of live and proclaim the gospel in a way that actually transforms lives, both personally in our life, socially, and globally. And that led me to the priesthood.
Norcross: Bishop Akiyama, how about you?
Diana Akiyama: I think I’ll start the other way. My grandparents on my father’s side were Buddhist, and my mother’s family was Methodist. And when the Japanese were interned during World War Two, my grandfather was taken along with a number of issei who were suspected of being leaders of the Japanese community. So he was in jail here in Portland. And when my grandmother went to visit him, he told her to get the kids baptized. Now this wasn’t because he suddenly had a spiritual religious experience in prison. He realized that perhaps if she had all the kids baptized, they would reassure Americans that they were American. So she came back and had my father and his siblings all baptized in the Methodist church.
My mother went to nurse’s training at Good Sam here in Portland when it was still part of the Episcopal Diocese here, and that’s when she was exposed to our liturgy and music. And that changed for her entirely her sense of the sacred and the holy, and what it meant to be a Christian. So she changed to the Episcopal Church, and that was the church we were all raised in.
My first job out of college I was a drug and alcohol rehab counselor, and was pretty sure that I was going to become a psychologist, that was kind of my interest. I had a number of experiences as a counselor that made me realize that there was something more about healing that I was interested in, beyond just the physical recovery from addiction. That there was a dimension that was spiritual, and had so much more to do with human wholeness that I wanted to be a part of. So I went back to my home church in Hood River. At the time, I was working in Longview, Washington. And I started meeting with the director of that church, and began to sermon.
So it was an interesting contrast to yours. I wasn’t mobilized necessarily by a political vision. I was very concerned about people who were wounded and felt broken.
Norcross: You both have personal histories that intersect with some of the most shameful moments of our history. And Bishop Akiyama, you mentioned that your grandparents and the boy who would eventually become your father were sent to a Japanese concentration camp. And Bishop Curry, you are descended from enslaved Africans. And I’m wondering how these traumas figure into your decisions to enter the priesthood?
Akiyama: I think a lot of it is hindsight. I don’t think, for me, I had completely internalized and understood the impact of all of that on me at that age.
I will say when I was in seminary, one of the things that a number of my other sansei seminarians and I were able to do, and they were not all in the Episcopal Seminary, they were in other seminaries, but were all sensei, third generation. And we realized that there was a trauma that we were all carrying with us. We’d never been interned, we weren’t born when our parents were in camp, but that we were all carrying a trauma from that experience. And so we started a project for all the Japanese americans in our generation, in the kind of Bay Area, to bring them together, to tell their stories, and to listen to each other and lift them up in a way that allowed people to begin finding their voice, and feeling like they were recovering from something that, for generations, had felt like shame, and some kind of strange embarrassment that could not be talked about.
Norcross: Bishop Akiyama, you were the first Asian American woman to become an Episcopal Bishop in the United States, and Bishop Curry, you’re the first African American to lead the Episcopal Church in America. The church, by this point, has this tradition of welcoming leadership that you don’t normally see. And I’m thinking of the consecration of Gene Robinson as the first openly gay bishop in the church back in 2003. So you’ve been doing this for a while. Where does that openness come from?
Curry: I have a feeling it’s God.
Norcross: It must be said though the same God that some will use to exclude instead of include.
Curry: Yeah, but God has a way of biding his time, see?
You know, in a strange kind of way, I think God has a way of working overtime through people, through institutions, through communities. We who follow Jesus of Nazareth follow somebody who had to struggle. There was struggle. I don’t think the crucifixion was a party. It was struggle. That’s just the nature of human existence. And I think the Episcopal Church, like other churches like it, and like this country, the reality is we got some history, we’ve got some bad history, and we have to face that together. We don’t have to wallow in it. But we must learn from it. Don’t ignore it. If you don’t pay attention to trauma in the past, it’s gonna get you later. It’s gonna get you in unknown, uncertain ways.
And we used to think things like “generational trauma”, that’s a fiction, that’s not really true. Uh-uh, uh-uh. Stuff gets passed. I don’t know whether it’s in utero or not. I have no idea about that. All I know is trauma of the past can get passed on to the future, into the present and future, until you name it and deal with it. If you look at some of the healings of Jesus in the New Testament, he asked the demons “what’s your name?” And when he starts to name them, when he exposes them to the light of day, they begin to lose their power. They may not go away completely, but they begin to lose.
In America, we must face what we have done to Indigenous Americans. America must face what we have done to women. America must face what we have done to LGBTQ folk. America must face what we have done to various peoples of color. Not to beat up on each other, but to face the painful truth, name them, expose them to the light of day. Because when they’re exposed to the light of day, they do lose their power.
And then to learn from that past, and join hands together in all of our diversity to build and construct a new future where what happened to your grandparents never happens again. What happened to my ancestors never happens again. What happened to Matthew Shepard never happens again. What is going on never happens again. That’s how you get it. You don’t get it by just wishing it. You get it by doing that kind of hard work.
Norcross: Well, the last couple of years have certainly exposed and intensified a lot of fault lines in America, especially when it comes to equity, civil rights and the treatment of communities of color by the police. So what do you see as the role of the church in an era of Black Lives Matter?
Curry: How much time you got?
Norcross: How can the Episcopal Church move the conversation on that?
Curry: You can move the conversation again in local communities. And I don’t wanna speak for here, I’ll let the bishop do that.
Let me say it theologically first. God so loved the world that he gave his only son Jesus, which is to say God, came here. He didn’t say “I’m gonna have to sit back and watch.” God got in the midst of the fray, in the midst of the mess. That’s what Christmas is about. It’s about getting in the midst of it and trying to help to redeem it by sharing the values in the life that we hope can transform. And so the church and church folk must be involved in civic discourse, in the work of communities that actually seek to make justice real.
We have to be involved from the perspective of our values, and the values that we share, not just as Christian people, but there are values that we share in this country. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. Among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I know Thomas Jefferson was a hypocrite. He didn’t live up to that. But the words are true. And those values we share in this country. So let’s make those values tangible reality, living reality, for everybody.
And the way you do that is you got to get in the midst of the fray and and so you got to participate in the body politic, got to participate in the economic debates and structures. I know that’s gonna get us in trouble sometimes. But that’s alright. Jesus didn’t get crucified because he wasn’t in trouble. Last time I checked, we were supposed to be following him.
Now, I’m not talking about being ridiculous, but I am saying we’ve got to be involved in the life of the world, and in the life of our communities. And what that looks like will differ. Involved in ways that seek justice, but justice from the perspective of love. A friend of mine once said “justice must be done, but justice by itself is not enough.” The goal of everything we must do must ultimately be the reconciliation that brings us together across all of our differences, across all of our variety, so that we helped to create what looks like God’s beloved community on earth.
Norcross: Well, Bishop Akiyama, I’d like to ask you about a very specific way in which the Church here in Oregon tried to get involved, but ran into a hurdle and that’s in Brookings. St Timothy’s Episcopal Church sued the city earlier this year. The church says the city is interfering with its faith by limiting the number of meals that they can give to people who are experiencing homelessness, which is a major problem here in Oregon. So how do you balance that mandate to serve the needy with constraints of laws, laws of men, in places like this?
Akiyama: In the situation in Brookings, what we realized was that the neighbors were becoming more and more upset by the feeding ministry that was taking place on the church grounds, and complained to the city. And the city then began to rearrange city ordinances to figure out a way to limit the way in which we could feed the homeless. So there was no law in place. It was suddenly some work that was being done on the part of the city council to limit our ability to serve the needy. And that was the reason for the lawsuit, to protect our religious freedom to exercise the ministry as we feel called to do so.
Norcross: What kind of an outcome do you want to see?
Curry: That we can continue feeding people six days a week as we have been doing for years.
Norcross: How do you feel about the fact that you have to provide this social safety net at all? Isn’t this a failing of our government?
Akiyama: The Church is called to help those in need. The Church is called to offer a critical voice, to inquire into why it is that systems are producing so many more vulnerable people that many of our churches are already feeling overtaxed with the feeding that they’re doing, the crisis is so enormous. So yes, there is, there is definitely a need to speak to the systems and the way in which they are or are not actually helping people in need. Our first priority, however, is to serve those in need, and to be there on the front line, and to help those who need food today, need a shower, need medical attention, need a place to sleep.
Norcross: The church is eager to confront some hard truths about its own history. And in 2006, your general convention adopted resolutions, including studying the church’s own complicity in the slave trade, and even supporting legislation for reparations for slavery. I’d like to ask you Bishop Curry, how’s that going?
Curry: Well, we’re moving forward. But we’re moving forward in the way of love. Because that’s what this is about. This is about how do we learn how to love each other so much that we work and labor to create a humane and just society for all of us? We met at our general convention in July, and at that general convention, the convention approved further extension of that work, and made a commitment to form a coalition on racial justice and equity to be a permanent entity of the Church, and actually to be the source that will guide the expenditure of funds that will actually produce that kind of justice and reconciliation work across the board. It’s not just Black and white, but Indigenous, Asian American, LGBTQ folks, whoever, anybody who’s been displaced because of our sinful selfishness, not just in the church, but in society. And so the church made a commitment, didn’t nail it down specifically to the dollar amounts, but a commitment that this would transcend just our every three year convention meeting.
This isn’t gonna be the usual budget thing. We are going to make a serious financial commitment of the resources of the Episcopal Church over time to do this work. I retire in two years. This work must continue. If it stops, we have failed. I’m so proud of this church. Not in a prideful, sinful way. I’m proud of a church that, yeah, we’ve got some history. Yeah, Episcopalians were slaveholders in the 18th and 19th century. But doggone it, we’re not gonna get stuck there. We’re gonna do what we can to change this land so that all children are children of God, and treated that way.
Norcross: We got some questions from students here on the campus of Oregon Episcopal School, and uh, they are notable for their directness. So I’m gonna read one for you, word for word. “Are you considering reparations for LGBTQ community members who have been harmed over the years?”
Curry: We haven’t had that specific discussion, but I’m sure we’re headed that way. We’re already conceptually working on that, it’s just a question of how that unfolds in time specifically.
Norcross: Well, this gets at a bigger question, which is how the young people who are members of the church are pushing you in a way that you’re more established members aren’t? There’s this interesting schism that sometimes opens up between generations about what they value and what they want you to do. So how are the young people pushing you in your church? What do they want you to do?
Curry: You know, I have to say, it’s really both. It’s really not just the young people. The people who were voting in that general convention had gray hair like me. It is actually both. Which I think is a sign that we’re wrapping our arms around the message of Jesus in that way. When the Episcopal Church made the decision to ordain and consecrate Bishop Gene Robinson, that was ahead of the social curve. American society wasn’t there in terms of LGBTQ rights and that kind of thing, the church actually stepped ahead of the social curve, and paid a price for it. I was bishop of a Southern Diocese then, trust me, there was a price paid for it. People held back money. And LGBTQ folks were, in many places, in many contexts, had to be quiet and hang low. I can’t tell you how many times parents of LGBTQ folk and folk themselves would whisper in my ear “thank you, don’t give up.” But they had to whisper it. They don’t have to do that anymore in North Carolina.
Akiyama: I would also add that many of the so-called gray hairs in the Episcopal Church leadership were the young people who were pushing the establishment in their day. And I think that, in many ways, the young people today speak to that part that is still alive for much of the older leadership in the church. And so we not only welcome it, we recognize that burning passion for change and for justice, and welcome them into our conversation, into our midst.
Norcross: Another student wants to know, Bishop Akiyama, what you’re doing about losing many members year by year? And we’re having this conversation in Oregon, which is one of the most unchurched states in the country. How do you turn that around?
Akiyama: Well, it’s not about a membership drive. And that’s kind of a joke, but it’s also serious, because that’s just not who we are as the Episcopal Church. We’re not going out and wrangling people to come into church. Where the shift is happening is, again, serving those in need. For many, many decades, the Episcopal Church was more turned inward, and looking more at who we were and sustaining ourselves as a body. Now, we’re turning outward. As my bishop said to me when I was a priest in Hawaii, I’m not worried about butts in pews. I’m worried about spiritual maturity and development, and service in the community. What are your relationships in the community and how are you deepening the faith of the people? The rest will follow. But to be hand wringing over how many people are coming in through the door I think is a waste of energy. It’s not what we’re called to be into.
Norcross: Let’s talk about the pandemic. It upset everybody’s apple cart, but there were many stories in the Church of Zoom services and no communion and no choir. But I’m curious about this question, and I’ve been asking this of many people in many walks of life and in many industries, what’s changed forever? And from your perspective, Bishop Curry, what is transformed that is not going to go back because of this experience?
Curry: Well, ultimately we don’t know yet, because we’re in the middle of it. We really are. I do think that one thing that may have changed, I hope it has anyway, let me say it that way, is that from the experience of Zoom and the experience of having to reach Episcopalians, people who were in church in a different way beyond if you will the red doors of our church, beyond the buildings, beyond the physical realities. I think that may have a transformative effect on how we view how we are Church.
I think very often we have been stuck in our buildings. We’ve done outreach and we’ve done service, but often it’s still in the building. We’ve done worship, but often it’s still in the building. COVID forced to think differently, and to actually take worship, so to speak, into the cybernetic streets. To take prayer out into the streets, if you will. And while I know that that won’t last everywhere the same way, I think, I hope, that we will not leave behind the congregation we have met online. And I rush back to the buildings, I want to be back. But wait a minute, we met some new people out there. We met a spiritual hunger out there. We met folks who want to pray out there, and they may never darken the doors of our church. But why shouldn’t we pastor them right where they are? Why shouldn’t we join and worship them right where they are? Bible, study, prayer, whatever it is, right where they are?
I know that that’s difficult. But we’ve learned some of the skills. When the pandemic first started and we were all going online, I remember going on to do morning prayer with some churches, I would fish around and wouldn’t tell them who, I would just sort of fish around. I remember it was really tragic in many cases. The camera was looking at the ceiling, and you could hear a voice from somewhere else talking. But the longer the pandemic went on, we figured “oh, the camera is supposed to look at the person who’s talking.” We did figure it out. We learned something! Unmute yourself! Do not scratch your nose on the camera! And you know, I don’t think we’re gonna unlearn that. I think we’ve learned something, and if we’ll stop and say wait a minute, what have we learned, and then build on that, we may find out what will last the long haul. That’s a long way of answering your question.
Norcross: Bishop Akiyama, do you have anything you want to add to that?
Akiyama: It’s funny, so many compare the Episcopal Church to so many other Protestant churches, we’re probably the ones who are the most in the past, adamant about never having a TV in the nave. The pandemic changed that.
Norcross: What was that about not wanting TV in the nave?
Akiyama: It changes the liturgical atmosphere to have a screen in there, as opposed to being there and reading from the book.
Norcross: And that’s different now.
Akiyama: Everyone has a screen in the sanctuary.
I would also say that I think there’s a danger in the ways we become comfortable with virtual participation. The thing that concerns me is the way in which we may try to make virtual participation actually a substitute for the longing that we feel, and that there’s no substitute for being together in person, and understanding what we mean to each other in person. That can never be replaced. So my hope is that we don’t move into a frame of mind where we believe that somehow being in a virtual reality replaces fully and wholly what it means to be in person in worship together.
Norcross: But still, as I mentioned earlier, Oregon is one of the most unchurched parts of the country. The attendance rates are lower here than just about everywhere. Why do you think that is? What’s going on here?
Akiyama: “Don’t tell me what to do.” Rugged individualists. That pretty much sums it up. We want to think for ourselves, we don’t want anyone to be the boss of us, and want to figure it out on our own. Yet, we long for community. It isn’t to say that being unchurched means there’s a bunch of people who are happily hermits. There is a longing for community. And the way in which the church provides community, builds community, helps people understand what it means to be in community, will make the difference as to whether people actually want to join us or not.
Norcross: Bishop Curry, the Church came out with a survey called Jesus in America earlier this year. And the big finding is people have no problem with Jesus as a spiritual figure. They have a problem with “The Church” as a problematic vehicle for teaching Christian values. So what do you take away from that?
Curry: Well actually, I take away some real hope. We actually never done this before, to really get a survey and find out what the American population - and to spend the money, I mean we were able to get the church rate, but spend the money to get professionals who do this work to actually give us a snapshot of the American population, a scientific survey. And that’s what that was.
The remarkable discovery was that 84% of the American population across religious traditions, across backgrounds, said that Jesus of Nazareth is a spiritual person worth paying attention to. That’s stunning. That I didn’t anticipate ahead of time. That’s stunning. Jesus gets respect. That’s the good news.
But there’s more news not necessarily fit to print. But there’s more news. When you start asking about Christians, around race, around environmental concern, around a cluster of issues, a cluster of concerns, that number percentage approving of Christians and behavior drops below 50% consistently, and goes as low as 30%. So there is a gap. And that gap between Jesus and his followers is the gap that we must attend to.
And that’s where what Bishop Akiyama was just talking about a couple of minutes ago is actually true. The more people see Christians actually acting like Christians, the more people see Christians actually serving and doing stuff that actually helps other people, the more they see that, the more they see us looking like Jesus, the more commendable this faith is, even in contexts where people aren’t inclined towards faith. The more we care about people, and not just ourselves, and not just our survival as a church, the more people will pay attention. Maybe this Jesus actually does have something to do with these people who are named after him and called Christians.
Norcross: But there are a couple of other things that are at work here, and that is the gathering Evangelical movement in America of people who agree with everything you say, but want to have a direct relationship with their creator and with their Christ, and may not want to have anything to do with the two of you. They want a direct line to who they consider to be their God.
Curry: The Bible says you can’t love the God you can’t see if you do not love your brother and sister who you can see. That includes your LGBTQ brother and sister. Go ahead, I interrupted you, I’m sorry.
Norcross: There’s also this broader erosion of trust in our institutions in America: the Church, but also our governments, our schools, on down the line. So how do you get around that?
Curry: I don’t worry about that. I think Bishop Akiyama was actually right. The issue is community. We fall into a trap when we keep trying to push the Church into being a religious institution, and that’s the main way we are identified. No, the Church is people who have decided they’re going to try to love like Jesus, and try to live like Jesus, even though we won’t always do it right. But we’re gonna keep trying.
Norcross: Another question from a student: what is the church doing about systemic issues around racism?
Akiyama: This diocese has a group called the Engaging Racial Justice Working Group. There’s also a Truth and Reconciliation group that is spending a lot of time thinking about what it is we need to do within this diocese to engage racial justice, which isn’t just about relationships across differences. It’s about looking at our history. So what is the history of Oregon around race? And how has that shaped us as a people?
Norcross: It’s not good.
Akiyama: No, it’s not. It’s not. But really living into that, and being honest about the ways in which racism, white supremacy, has shaped the landscape of this state. And naming it. And finding a way forward after having done that so that we can not repeat the mistakes of the past, and move forward in a different, more life giving way.
Norcross: We’ve got a few more minutes, and I’d like to ask you both a good way of thinking about your role in this moment, and the way forward. I’m curious what gives you hope in this moment? And what gives you hope for the role of the Church in some of these very difficult and intractable issues that we have been talking about today? Bishop Akiyama, I’d like to start with you.
Akiyama: What gives me hope is actually the chaos. That there are openings and possibilities for us to do things that we probably could have done 20 years ago, but would not have done because we were too comfortable. I’m quite confident in saying that 20 years ago, the Church would not have elected someone like me to be a bishop. And the opportunity that comes out of the changes, along with the chaos, has made that possible. And we are looking at, in this diocese, an opportunity to do very innovative, creative things, maybe because we have never really felt like we were part of the establishment of the political power system of the state of Oregon. So we have a lot of latitude to move and seek to serve others, as Jesus calls us to do.
One of the things that was so exciting for me when I began my work here was coming to meet all the clergy and lay leaders in this diocese, and getting so inspired and excited by how talented they are, how creative, how innovative, how much energy they have. It really doesn’t matter how old anyone is, their spirit and excitement about what the Church can be and do for this state and into the future is a fire, and it’s exciting.
Norcross: Bishop Curry, final word? What gives you hope in this moment?
Curry: You know what ultimately gives me hope? God is not finished with us yet. And I actually believe that. And I believe that about this country and this world, that God has not given up on this world, and he’s not given up on this country. And God has not given up on this old church of ours. We have difficult days ahead. I’m not just talking about this church. I mean this country. I love this country. I don’t love everything that’s done. But this is my home. And I love it not in a blind patriotism, but I really do believe that a democratic republic has the best possibility of creating a truly diverse community that is actually a community. It has the best possibility, I believe, of creating a context where human rights can flourish. Totalitarianism has never done that. Fascism has never done that.
But the very democracy that could make that possible, and has made it possible in the past, is in jeopardy. But I’m hopeful, because I’m convinced that if people of goodwill across the political persuasions- and I’m here to tell you, Episcopalians are all over the map politically. I know, I get their emails, trust me, I’m telling you, they’re all over. People of goodwill come in all stripes and types. And if people of goodwill will mobilize, we’re not gonna let this democracy tank. We are going to make e pluribus unum, from many, one, real, until this country is a country where there is really liberty and justice for all.
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