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…)

A Seminarian’s Experience at Tsubaki Grand Shrine

Elizabeth Nguyen is a third year UU seminarian at Harvard Divinity School. In August 2012 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, Elizabeth reflects on her experiences in Japan.

And the cypress soars up, yes! Of course that divinity would come to earth here.

It’s mid-September and in the living room of my Boston apartment, the afternoon sun makes the books all splayed out before me all pretty and glowing. To call them piles would be generous. Rev. Yamamoto Yukiyasu’s Introduction to Shinto nestles near Howe’s The Larger Faith: A Short History of American Universalism. Bass drifts up from the street, in this new neighborhood, where Washington St. becomes Hyde Park Avenue and I’m hunkered down with words and stories all around. I’m supposed to be studying for my interview with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, immersing myself in history and theology, personal reflection and paperwork. But that’s what’s next. This is about the thing behind me, fanning out so sweet and strange, a recent past now far away: My August in Asia. Three weeks in Vietnam bouncing from South to North and back again, beaches and tiny squids red with chili and bright with lemongrass, the street my father grew up on: a place I’d never imagined I’d visit. And then a miraculous gift: ten days at the Tsubaki Grand Shrine, near Suzuka, Japan. (more…)

Come to Japan With IARF-US

American and European members of the International Association for Religious Freedom and friends have been invited by the IARF- Japanese Chapter to visit them for nine days: October: 11 – 20, 2012.

This will be a return visit following the inspiring visit of 22 of its members to the US in October 2011.

We will visit some of the most important historic and beautiful sites, many internationally renowned: Tokyo, Tsubaki, Ise, Kyoto, Nara, Osaka, Hiroshima, Miyajima.

There will be opportunities to visit IARF member groups and participate in dialogue with leaders and regular members.

The group (UUMA members welcome) will be led by Rev. Richard Kellaway. He has led IARF groups to these destinations in Japan several times. There will be professional guides as well.

Estimated cost: around $3000 USD, land only.   Final cost depends on  the number of participants.  (Japan is expensive an the exchange rate is not favorable)

Registration Deadline: May 15, 2012

For further details and contact Richard Kellaway at


From the Road: Interfaith Rituals

Among the greatest gifts of crossing religious and cultural boundaries is that we come to understand ourselves more clearly. On this trip to Japan I had the opportunity to visit briefly other religious partners: the Konko Church of Izuo (a modern Shinto movement), the Tsubaki Grand Shrine (one of the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan and in the care of the Yamamoto family for 97 generations), Mitsumi-kai (a modern Buddhist movement), and Ittoen (an intentional community based on Gandhian values).

In most of these quick visits we (I was traveling with my wife Phyllis and my assistant Dea Brayden) participated in some religious ritual. This is an appropriate sign of respect. One of these is the “Misogi” ritual at the Tsubaki Grand Shrine. This ancient ritual is a purification ceremony that involves standing in a pool of water outdoors under a waterfall. I am told that every UUA president participates in this ceremony, so the pressure was on. The Tsubaki Grand Shrine is in a beautiful setting on a mountainside, set among majestic cedar trees. The waterfall where the Misogi ceremony is held is on a stream that comes down from the mountains. In early March it is cold. It had rained a lot two days before, so the waterfall was especially large and powerful. And the water, I am told was eight degrees centigrade (or 46° F). At any rate, it is breathtakingly, numbingly, cold.

The other ceremonies we attended were quite a contrast. All of them—Rissho Kosei-Kai, Tsubaki Grand Shrine, Konko Church of Izuo, Mitsumi-kai—were complex and beautiful. The Japanese, whatever their religious preference, value elegance and beauty.

As I reflect on all the ceremonies I attended as the ambassador of our faith, the role of ritual in religion is very much on my mind. An ancient faith has rituals with centuries of tradition. These rituals connect people over time and, with repetition, induce a state of reflection and centering.

Rituals in a heretical faith like ours are a different matter and a huge challenge. Many UUs, and I count myself among these, have a love/hate relationship with religious ritual. On the one hand, we realize the importance of ritual. On the other hand, lots of us grew up with rituals that have a lot of theological baggage we want to leave behind. (I recall being taught that during communion I was literally partaking of the body and blood of Jesus. That disturbing association will never go away, no matter how I intellectually re-frame communion.)

There is a real danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, however. Ritual and ceremony, after all, are an essential part of religion and of life. Just think about how the lighting of a chalice has taken hold in Unitarian Universalism. That simple ritual reminds us of who we are. It helps us enter into a sacred space, a special time. A congregation that regularly strikes a chime to enter into a period of silence has created a ritual that its people anticipate and come to value. In the congregation I served as minister a Christmas Eve service without ending with “Silent Night” while we all lit candles was unthinkable. I witness the deep resonance of singing “Rank by Rank” at the opening of the Service of the Living Tradition at General Assembly.

I think the role of ritual in our faith needs much reflection and much discussion. How do we create and sustain rituals that have depth of meaning and that are authentically ours? I, who have been averse to rituals most of my adult life, am coming to see how important they are. The rituals that have deep meaning are rituals that invite us into a shared time together, that remind us of who we are and what we hold sacred. They are rituals that we create together and that build resonance over time.

Cross-posted from Beyond Belief

From the Road: Kamaichi and Sendai

The visual parallels between the atomic bomb blast in Hiroshima and the tsunami that hit Japan’s northeast coast a year ago are eerie. In Hiroshima we saw once more the famous photographs of Hiroshima before and after the bomb. In Kamaichi and Sendai the signs of breathtaking devastation are everywhere. While the photographs are stunning, they did not prepare me for the experience of driving through the affected areas. I recall a similar feeling while touring New Orleans’ Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina.

We pass acre upon acre of house foundations. Once in a while a building, badly damaged, stands. The work of clearing debris continues methodically. Enormous piles of collected crushed debris dot the area. The physical healing has only begun. It is going to take years.The emotional wounds are less obvious, but just as real. They, too, are going to take years and years to heal. We attended three memorial services commemorating the passing of a year. Two services were held at the Dharma centers (what we would call a church) of the Rissho Kosei-kai in Kamaichi and Sendai. These ceremonies included a solemn procession in which people who had lost loved ones brought plates of a favorite item of the person who died. There were favorite foods like fruit or sake. One of them included even included two bags of Starbucks coffee!

We heard poignant stories of survival and search for a missing person. Many people, of course, simply disappeared: they washed out to sea as the waters receded.

The third memorial service was organized by the youth of the Sendai Dharma Center and was held outdoors. It many ways it was more emotional, as the ceremony was held in the middle of a huge area that had been leveled.

The special fund we created for tsunami relief has had impact far beyond the actual monetary value. In these villages RKK used donated money to buy vehicles to assist in the rescue and relocation efforts. Just as important, our donations were tangible evidence that they were not alone, that friends in a far off country cared. The gratitude expressed was overwhelming. I wish you could see their faces. I felt a deep pride and gratitude to all UUs were were so generous.

We are part of the healing. I believe our reaching out is more healing in the long term than the important financial help we gave.

We UUs and Buddhists share the conviction that we are all connected to one another. That sounds so abstract. In northeast Japan, our connections are very real. They are person to person and faith to faith.

Cross-posted from Beyond Belief


The First Visits with UUA Partners in Japan

UUA President Rev. Peter Morales is in the midst of a week-long visit with interfaith partners in Japan.  On Sunday, Rev.  Morales attended the worship service at the historic Universalist church in Tokyo: Dojin Church.  Members of the Tokyo Unitarian Fellowship (a largely ex-pat group) met with him there as well.

After lunch, Rev. Morales visited Rissho Kosei-kai (RKK) headquarters in Tokyo and joined its leaders for dinner. RKK is a six-million member, lay-Buddhist organization.

On Monday morning, Rev. Morales delivered a congratulatory speech during the RKK annual “Founding Day” event.

From Tokyo, Rev. Morales traveled to Kyoto to visit with other interfaith partners, including Mitsumi-kai, a recent member of the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF). See previous blogposts about the visits here.

A photo album from the visits that have happened so far is available:

UUA President visits interfaith partners in Japan

From the Road: Preparing for Japan

From March 3 – 12, 2012 Rev. Peter Morales, UUA President, will travel to Japan to visit with a number of historic interfaith partners. The visit will also provide Rev. Morales with an opportunity to extend congratulatory greetings to Rissho Kosei-kai during its annual “Founding Day.”

The event will begin at approximately 6:3opm Eastern Time on Sunday, March 4th. And, Rev. Morales’s speech will begin at approximately 8:30pm. Tune in for a live broadcast of his speech; a recording of the speech will also be available following the event.

I write this as I prepare to leave on a 10 day trip to Japan for ceremonies commemorating Rissho Kosei-kai Founding Day and the one-year anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan on March 11, 2011.

The Great Sacred Hall at Rissho Kosei-Kei.

Rissho Kosei-kei is a liberal Buddhist organization with 6 million members in Japan. We have a long and enduring relationship with this group, beginning with the Rev. Dana Greeley, first president of the UUA, whose passionate work for peace and civil rights became the foundation for this interfaith partnership. Last year, RKK President-designateRev. Kosho Niwano addressed our General Assembly in Charlotte, NC. In a few days, I will return the favor. Portions of this celebration will be simulcast and the greetings I will bring on behalf of all Unitarian Universalists will be posted on the UUA web site shortly thereafter.

Rt. Rev. Mitsuo Miyake, Chief Priest of the Konko Church of Izuo, with devastation from the earthquake and tsunami.

Later during this trip, I will be visiting some of the most impacted areas in the Sendai region from last year’s earthquake and tsunami. UUs have held the Japanese people in their thoughts and prayers as they struggle to rebuild their lives and homes. To date, UUs have also contributed over $500,000 to relief efforts. I will bring a symbol of that financial support as well as your continued good wishes.

While I will share my experiences here, more information about the Japan itinerary can be found on our Faith Without Borders blog.

Cross-posted from Beyond Belief.