ALAMEDA -- Every Sunday, the Rev. Michael Yoshii worships with his congregation inside Buena Vista United Methodist Church, but the manifestation of his faith can be found outside its walls among those struggling for equality and dignity.

Affordable housing, racial equality, and the rights of immigrants and the poor are just some of the causes Yoshii has championed, his activism taking him from picket lines and school board meetings to Washington, D.C., and the West Bank.

"There's no dividing line between justice-making and spirituality," Yoshii said on a recent morning as he sat inside his church, a stained-glass window behind him a rainbow of colors. "For me, both are intertwined and both are personal."

Rev. Michael Yoshii talks about his work at the Buena Vista United Methodist Church in Alameda, Calif. on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013. Yoshii, the son of
Rev. Michael Yoshii talks about his work at the Buena Vista United Methodist Church in Alameda, Calif. on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013. Yoshii, the son of former Japanese American internees, took over as senior pastor of the mainly Japanese American church about 20 years ago. (Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group)

Born in Berkeley and raised in El Cerrito, Yoshii celebrated his 61st birthday Aug. 10. But this year, the date held extra significance for him: It was the 25th anniversary of both his ministry and of Congress passing the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which granted reparations to Japanese-Americans who had been sent to internment camps during World War II.

The campaign to secure the legislation was a milestone on his spiritual journey, Yoshii said.

His father, who was from Oakland, was interned in Utah. His mother was from Fresno and was interned in Arkansas.

"My family did not talk a lot about the camps when I was growing up," said Yoshii, a Sansei, or third-generation Japanese-American. "I only learned about what happened little by little."


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His parents' stoicism was partly cultural, he said. But Yoshii also believes his parents were traumatized by what they experienced.

"How could you go through that and not be?" Yoshii said. "Even if you did not talk about it, it's still there. So what do you do? You can't heal unless you acknowledge it."

Yoshii was a recent graduate of UC Berkeley and was doing advocacy work for immigrants when the movement began to seek redress for the approximately 110,000 people who were interned.

"At that time, I was giving a lot of thought to my own life and what I was doing," Yoshii said. "I was wrestling with what it meant to be a Japanese-American and my place in this world."

In the summer of 1981, Yoshii testified in San Francisco before the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Congress had set up the commission to examine what took place and explore ways of reversing the wrongdoing.

Yoshii testified about the psychological effects of the camps.

"For me, it was a spiritual experience," said Yoshii, who lives on Bay Farm Island in Alameda with his wife, Suzanne. "Something moved within me during that testimony. It was a spiritual catharsis. It felt like my life made a difference."

Raised in an independent Christian church, Yoshii explored Buddhism as he looked for spiritual answers and a way to connect with his ancestral roots. He was also intrigued by Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam, and its devotional music.

But in the end, Yoshii returned to Christianity and enrolled at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. He received his master of divinity degree in 1986.

Yoshii initially split his time with a congregation in Berkeley before he took over full time at the church on Buena Vista Avenue in Alameda. The church, which began in 1898, has about 250 members.

As an activist, Yoshii pushed leaders of the Alameda Unified School District to increase diversity among their employees, and he campaigned for affordable housing, especially in the city's West End after the Alameda Naval Air Station closed.

"The social peace Alameda enjoys and perhaps even takes for granted today in large measure is attributable to hard-won efforts that the Rev. Michael Yoshii directly led or was drafted into in the 1990s," Councilman Tony Daysog said.

Among the spinoff results of Yoshii's activism was the 1994 election of Al DeWitt, the council's first African-American, Daysog said.

This year, Yoshii visited Washington, D.C., to lobby on behalf of the Friends of Wadi Foquin, a Palestinian town near Bethlehem where the residents are facing land confiscation and other hardships. He has visited the West Bank four times.

Yoshii said he did not expect to minister at the Alameda church for a quarter-century.

"I expected to be here a couple of years," he said. "But as I stayed, there was always something I was working on or that I needed to finish. It always seems to circle back here and to this church."

Contact Peter Hegarty at 510-748-1654. Follow him at Twitter.com/Peter_Hegarty.

REV. Michael Yoshii
Age: 61
Hometown: Alameda
Claim to fame: A lifelong commitment to social justice
Quote: "There's no dividing line between justice-making and spirituality. For me, both are intertwined and both are personal."
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