Of Trees and Sweeping

Florence Caplow is a Soto Zen priest in the Suzuki Roshi lineage, and a dharma teacher, field botanist, UU seminarian at Iliff School of Theology, essayist, and editor. She was the recipient of the UUA’s Tsubaki Grand Shrine Scholarship in 2015 and is currently on her visit with the Shrine. Tsubaki Grand Shrine is an ancient Shinto shrine in Suzuka, Japan, and an historic interfaith partner of the UUA. In this essay, Florence reflects on her powerful, moving experiences in Japan.

Day 5 at Tsubaki Grand Shrine (to read about why I’m here, read Entering Another World, my last post). Over the last few days I have been gradually transformed from my usual black-clothed Western self into “staff” at Tsubaki – first a white cotton jacket with the kanji (Chinese characters) for Tsubaki Grand Shrine over my Western clothes, then, yesterday, multi-layered full Shinto robes, all in white, that took a sweet young woman priest, Sakaka-san, about twenty minutes to put on me (today I was on my own, and no one has laughed, so I must have been successful). (more…)

A Seminarian’s Experience at Tsubaki Grand Shrine

Ranwa Hammamy is a UU seminarian & 2015 M.Div candidate at Union Theological Seminary. In September 2014 she was the recipient of the UUA’s Tsubaki Grand Shrine Scholarship. Tsubaki Grand Shrine is an ancient Shinto shrine in Suzuka, Japan, and an historic interfaith partner of the UUA. In this essay, Ranwa reflects on her powerful, moving experiences in Japan.

Sitting in my dorm at Union, I often hear the bells of Riverside Church chime in the morning to announce the 8:00AM hour. I’ve always enjoyed the opportunity to pause and listen to their familiar ring, reminding me that a new day is beginning – new opportunities, learning, and connections await. On days when my time management is lacking, their sound is also a reminder that I should be preparing for class. The Riverside bells have become a welcome piece of my routine, serving roles beyond simply being a marker of time.

Since my return from Japan, these bells have taken on a new function. They remind me of another sacred sound, one that became familiar and welcome in my routine at the Tsubaki Grand Shrine. Every morning for my 10 days at the shrine, I would hear the sound of the taiko drum at 8:25AM, five evenly spaced beats, announcing that it was time for chohai, or morning worship. On most of these mornings, I would be helping clean the inside walkways of the shrine or sweep leaves from the gravel paths of its outside grounds.

This practice of cleaning, of purifying the shrine, took place every day before worship. Its deliberate motions helped me remember each morning that the ground I walked upon was sacred. When the drums sounded at 8:25, I would pause in my cleaning and perform temizu, a purification ritual with water, before entering the main sanctuary for worship. The drum would return later in the service, as the leading priest would beat a specific rhythm towards the end of worship. I asked Ochiai, one the priests at the shrine, what the drum beat meant. He told me it was another form of purification. When I felt its vibrations run through my body, I was inclined to agree. (more…)

Hiroshima: Interfaith Dialogue & Peace

The Heiwa Peace Pilgrimage—a multigenerational, multicultural, interfaith peace exchange program coordinated by All Souls Church Unitarian (Washington D.C.)traveled to Hiroshima, Japan, for ten days to visit with interfaith partners at the Buddhist organization Rissho Kosei-kai.

Excerpted from the most recent All Souls newsletter, minister Rev. Dr. Rob Hardies reflects on the group’s powerful experience of interfaith connection with its hosts and shares observations on the anniversary of Hiroshima Day.

lantern ceremonyI am writing you this letter from the train station in Osaka, Japan, where thirty-seven All Souls pilgrims—ages 12 to 82—are waiting for a train to Kyoto.

This morning as we departed Hiroshima Station, our host families from the Rissho Kosei Kai Dharma Center waved goodbye to us from the platform.

For three days our Buddhist hosts welcomed us into their homes and hearts, engaging us in interfaith dialogue and peace study. We are so grateful for the generosity they showed us, and look forward to reciprocating their hospitality when they visit All Souls in 2015.

In Hiroshima we visited the museum that chronicles the atomic bomb’s devastation, listened to the testimony of survivors, and on the 69th anniversary of the bombing participated in several memorial ceremonies for victims.

One experience stands out for me. At Honkawa School—where All Souls has had a relationship for over 65 years—we offered flowers and 1000 origami cranes at an altar for the 400 children who were incinerated in their classrooms at 8:15 am on August 6, 1945. As we remembered the dead and listened to a chorus of current Honkawa students singing songs of peace, I couldn’t help but think of other children. Children huddled in shelters in Gaza, waiting for the bombs to stop falling. Children languishing in limbo on the US-Mexico border.

When will we learn that all the peoples of the earth are one?

We and our friends from Hiroshima agreed that the shared history of violence and reconciliation between our two peoples places on our shoulders a responsibility to build peace—not only for ourselves, but for all the peoples of the world.

I can tell you this: those of us who witnessed Hiroshima will return to the States ever-more committed to this great cause.

Related Trip Coverage

Hiroshima: Reflections on Reconciliation & Friendship

The Heiwa Peace Pilgrimage delegation began its journey on August 1st and will be visiting with their interfaith partners in Japan for ten days. This guest blog post was composed jointly by three youth pilgrims from All Souls Church Unitarian (Washington, D.C.): Vicky Nier, Aheri Stanford-Asiyo, and James Ploeser. 

“Obama will say, ‘I’m sorry.’ This I hope. I hope…”

These were the words of a Hiroshima resident who approached a member of our group last night. On the eve of the 69th anniversary, his greatest wish was for the US government to finally issue an apology for the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. His English was better than our Japanese, so with the assistance of a smartphone — but without any hint of animosity towards us as Americans — he expressed his opinion with the same warmth and kindness that has repeatedly humbled our group of pilgrims. Motivated by love for humanity rather than a desire for vengeance, all he wanted was an apology.

Sadly, at the top levels of our government no such words have been spoken, no such forgiveness asked. Even so, the people of Hiroshima and of Japan have greeted us with a nearly inexplicable hospitality. Our RKK hosts have outdone themselves at every opportunity to extend offers of friendship and love, demonstrating to us in a most powerful way the capacity — and the responsibility — of everyday people to sow and nurture the seeds of reconciliation.

Our day began fittingly, under a steady downpour making our way to join over 45,000 others in Hiroshima Peace Park for the annual commemoration. Grade school children offered wishes for peace. The Japanese prime minister offered condolences and renewed calls for the elimination of nuclear weapons. Gray and black birds flew overhead, disappearing into the trees that surrounded the rows of endless white folding chairs.

Afterwards, we returned to the Hiroshima Dharma Center of the RKK.

We exchanged gifts. We bonded. We made memories. We opened our hearts to one another in friendship. Although at our luncheon tables we spoke little of politics or of the deplorable events of 69 years ago, every word, every bow, every smile, was an offering of peace.

Later in the night the Pilgrims not staying with host families returned to Ground Zero to participate in the floating of lanterns down the river in downtown Hiroshima. The prayers of the Heiwa Peace delegates included:

“May every flower touched by tragedy grow back as beautifully as Hiroshima.”
“May no child, no family, ever face such horror again.”
“May we all live together in peace one day.”
“May all those who suffered here find comfort; may we the living work for an enduring peace”

It’s been moving and powerful and exciting and exhausting and wonderful. Though we cannot pretend to apologize for an entire nation, our work here is sprouting new opportunities for reconciliation and friendship. We are humbled, and grateful to have shared this momentous, beautiful and tragic day with the wonderful people of Hiroshima.


Peacemaking in Partnership


The Heiwa Peace Pilgrimage delegation began its journey on August 1st and will be visiting with their interfaith partners in Japan for ten days. This guest blog post was composed by the All Souls Church Unitarian (Washington, D.C.) Pilgrimage Organizing Team. 

In collaboration with Japanese partners, we at All Souls Church, Unitarian in DC have undertaken an exciting project—Heiwa Peace Pilgrimage—a multigenerational, multicultural, interfaith peace exchange program.

Our congregation has a long history of working for social justice and fighting against oppression. The ties between All Souls and Japan began in 1947 following the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when the children of All Souls and the students of Honkawa Elementary School (in Hiroshima) responded to the inhumanity of weapons of mass destruction through the beauty of children’s artistic expression. These works reverberate still as evidence of an often-hidden but timeless truth — that hope can triumph over despair.

Stewards of the historic artwork exchanged over 60 years ago, the Hiroshima Children’s Drawings Committee formed at All Souls in 2005. Its mission was to restore and preserve the original portfolio of drawings, as well as to use the drawings, and the story behind them, as a powerful example of peace and reconciliation. In recent years we’ve received visits from Japanese survivors of the bombings (hibakusha), sent a delegation to Honkawa Elementary School to mount an exhibition of the drawings, and assisted in the release of an independent documentary film, Pictures from a Hiroshima Schoolyard.

Though housed at All Souls in DC, this project belongs to our whole faith tradition. The UUA International Office sponsored a screening of the film at General Assembly in 2013, and generous support from the UUA Funding Panel was instrumental in making the 2010 Exhibition in Hiroshima a reality. (more…)

All Souls Unitarian Church (Washington, DC) premiers amazing film

In 1996, a box was uncovered at the home of a parishioner of All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington D.C. In that box were nearly 50 colorful drawings made by children as thanks for gifts received from the church fifty years earlier.

Not many people in the church knew the story behind these pictures, they only knew they were made by school children in Japan after World War II.

The story behind the film ‘Pictures from a Hiroshima School Yard’ is inspiring – it reminds us that hope and peace are within reach.  And, that a deep and heartfelt response by one church to a suffering community can lead to amazing things.  Come and see the film on Friday, November 15, 2013 at All Souls Church.
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A Seminarian’s Experience at Tsubaki Grand Shrine

Sarah E. Gillespie is a UU seminarian & 2014 M.Div candidate at Andover Newton Theological School. In July 2013 she was the recipient of the UUA’s Tsubaki Grand Shrine Scholarship. Tsubaki Grand Shrine is an ancient Shinto shrine in Suzuka, Japan, and an historic interfaith partner of the UUA. In this essay, Sarah reflects on her experiences in Japan.

TGS2013-1It doesn’t surprise me that my favorite characters to write in Japanese calligraphy turned out to be “thank you” and “kami.” On my very first day at the Tsubaki Grand Shrine, I found myself staring across my desk at a woman writing elegantly and effortlessly with a handmade brush and jet-black ink. I watched her work intensely until she looked up and noticed my staring. Lucky for me she spoke English well and told me that she was writing the names and prayers of visitors who purchase shrine tokens. I had a bad case of jet lag, culture shock, and an upset stomach, but I was captivated by her and her art in that moment and wanted to learn more.

Eventually this lovely woman, Yumiko, took time to teach me the method for writing Japanese calligraphy. I learned about eight or ten words total during my lessons with her but in my practice I kept coming back to “thank you” and “kami.” These are the words that best describe my time at the shrine. I felt grateful for the experiences which, in turn, helped me listen deeper to my spiritual center. (more…)

Hiroshima Day 2013

Memorial lanterns in observance of Hiroshima Day. (CC image courtesy of Flickr user pni)

Today (August 6, 2013) is Hiroshima Day! As we observe the 68th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, individuals and congregations alike are invited to view our available interfaith and Unitarian Universalist (UU) resources.

Perhaps one of the most inspiring stories to come out of this difficult time is the story of the Hiroshima Children’s Drawings:

Shortly after the bombing in Hiroshima in 1945, Rev. A. Powell Davies of the All Souls Church, Unitarian in Washington, D.C., gave a famous sermon called “Lest the Living Forget.” In it, he encouraged his congregation to send supplies to the victims of the bombing.


After sending school supplies to the Honkawa school in Hiroshima, the church received 45 hand drawn pictures by the children of the city. Distinct from other images depicting the events of Hiroshima, these images were hopeful, inviting children of all ages to envision a different future of peace, reconciliation and open dialogue.

Learn more about the story of the Hiroshima Children’s Drawings, and check out our online resources!

Japan Earthquake: Two Years Later

Guji Yamamoto of the Tsubaki Grand Shrine conducts a memorial ceremony at the site of a Tsubaki member's demolished home.
Guji Yamamoto of the Tsubaki Grand Shrine conducts a memorial ceremony at the site of a Tsubaki member’s demolished home. June 2011.

Today is the second anniversary of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011.

The massive destruction and loss of human life was compounded by the threat of radiation from four damaged nuclear reactors. Two years later, reconstruction is still uncertain in many areas hit by the disaster because of the dangerous radiation levels. Unitarian Universalists gave very generously to a joint UUA-UUSC emergency relief account, eventually donating over $560,000, of which the UUA granted half to historic faith partners in Japan carrying out relief and UUSC granted to Japanese social organization focusing with women and immigrant workers. (more…)