As interviewed by Pat Harden
The Rev. Dr. Fran Toy broke through gender and racial stereotypes to become the first Asian American woman priest in the Episcopal Church. At age 86, Fran has personally experienced and overcome the three “isms” of sexism, racism and ageism, during her distinguished career. Born in the ghetto of Oakland’s Chinatown, Fran set out to follow in her mother’s footsteps as an educator. After graduating from Cal in 1956, Fran taught elementary school in Oakland for 18 years. Then a call to the ministry changed the trajectory of her life.
After attending seminary at Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP) and graduating in 1984, she was ordained a priest the following year. Fran spoke to me about her life experiences as the recent violence against Asian Americans escalated. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Q: What are your thoughts about the recent spate of attacks on Asian Americans?
A: It’s causing long-suppressed memories to resurface, some from childhood and some from adulthood. Even while I was on the staff at CDSP, I experienced racial stereotyping.
As an older, petite female, I am not going to Chinatown to shop alone. My son takes me, and he’s very imposing. I have a good Asian American male friend on Long Island in New York. He says he’s never been fearful before, but he will not go out alone anymore because Asians are being tackled, once their faces and coloring are visible.
My son reminded me that this kind of persecution has been going on for a long time. He recalled the murder of Vincent Chin in Detroit in 1982. Auto workers murdered him thinking he was Japanese, out of their fear that Japanese car makers would overtake American manufacturers.
Q: Will you share an example of how you’ve experienced racism as an Asian American woman?
A: In 1968 I was taking my son for guitar lessons in Montclair. I would do grocery shopping while he was in class, and as I waited in line to make a purchase, someone would step directly in front of me after looking at me dismissively. Either the person sensed that he or she could do so with impunity or that I would not speak up for myself. This happened more than once. I simply wasn’t seen. Disappointingly, history repeated itself 50 years later when the same thing happened in December of 2018.
My daughter and I were on a cruise on the QM2. She wanted to know how many voyages it would require for her to achieve Platinum Status. I went to the Cunard office to inquire. At the office door you were requested to take a number, to sit down and wait your turn. While I was waiting, a white man came, bent over to take a number, looked at me, didn’t take a number and immediately went into the office ahead of me, as if I weren’t there at all. I quickly went in and said, “Excuse me I’ve been waiting, and I have a number.” The woman in charge said very dismissively, “he’ll only be a minute.” I was not seen as a person in this situation. I didn’t sleep well that night, faulting myself for not standing up more in this situation. Then I realized I was just adding to the pain and frustration by being self-critical.
Q: What challenges did you face in becoming the first Asian American woman priest?
I had to be very conscious of cross-cultural issues and never show anger. While I was being interviewed to be ordained as a deacon, I did poorly because of a question about my favorite theologian. When asked, my first thought was to name James H. Cone, an African American, who wrote from his experience of being oppressed. However, I knew I should name a European theologian since that’s what the committee expected. I fudged the answer, and they could tell I was hesitating. The Commission on Ministry informed me that they all agreed I had a call to be ordained, but they would be postponing my ordination until I took more theology. Fortunately, the Bishop came to my rescue, and I was ordained. As an overachiever, I took another course in theology and engaged in sessions of theological reflections with a seminary professor.
Q: Did you face more challenges after being ordained?
While I was working at CDSP (Episcopal seminary), it was challenging. There were days that were very grim. I wish that a certain dean was still alive who made my life miserable, so he could see all this new consciousness and that our presiding bishop is African American. As I sat across the table, this dean would speak to me in a way that he wouldn’t if I were a white male. He was East coast, which is a different culture from California. He did not understand the West coast or this Asian female who was doing her very best at CDSP. One time he was furious with me for allegedly saying that CDSP was racist. I responded that I did say that. As an institution, any institution is racist. There was stunned silence. He couldn’t answer me. He couldn’t say that’s not true.
We’re in a cultural awakening about racism and white privilege. What are your thoughts?
It’s painful, of course. I have been in a series of small group meetings at St. John’s since before the pandemic, and we are reading and reflecting. We are all saying that whatever educational system we have been through, whatever state we’re from, the history that we learned said nothing about racism. White privilege wasn’t a conscious term, not even when I was in seminary.
Suddenly after I graduated, the Episcopal Church started to unpack those back-packs of privileges white people have. It’s been very painful, but when you consider who wrote the history books, no surprise. It’s time. It’s really been time and it’s past time. Of course, it’s very difficult for some people to give up privilege. But it really is very encouraging for me as a person of color to know that I am in a congregation where there are people who really care about being Christian and living up to the Baptismal Covenant (Book of Common Prayer, pps. 304-305). Every time there is a Baptism, we make promises to respect every person’s dignity as a human being. We redo this every year the first Sunday after the Epiphany when the gospel lesson is about the baptism of Jesus. This happens at every Episcopal Church, not just St. John’s. Renewing our baptismal vows is also part of the Easter Vigil service (BCP, pps. 292-294).
Q: You’ve been a leader for 36 years in the Church, what changes have you seen?
A: When I was ordained female priests were a rarity, but now we have a number of female bishops. The last Saturday of January the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon ordained and consecrated the Episcopal Church’s first female Japanese American Bishop. She came to CDSP and we became close friends. When she was ordained to the priesthood, she gave me the honor and privilege of preaching at her ordination service.
Q: What would you like to change in the Church?
A: The Episcopal Church in the US is very white. I want to learn how to engage more people who look like me at St. John’s. We are a very welcoming place, but somehow or other we still are very white. Where we’re situated in Montclair is part of it.
Dear St. John’s Community,
I can guess that many of you, like me, have been trying to figure out how to show support for our Asian American community in this time of despicable violence and hate. Something popped out at me while listening to NPR the other day. I’d like to share it with you.
Asian Americans Advancing Justice has developed a bystander training video to help people learn what to do when they see a hate crime in progress. The last time I looked, there were lots of openings for this training in April. I like this idea, because it provides an active and constructive way to help combat AAPI hate. Many of the hate-perpetrators are bullies, and research has shown that there is nothing more effective to shut down bullies than a group of well-trained bystanders. Let’s learn about this!
If you would like to participate, here is a link to the sign-ups for the training:
And here is a link to this important organization, if you want to learn more about the amazing work they are doing:
I’m looking forward to talking about my book, “Wrestling with God: Stories of Doubt and Faith,” with the people of St. John’s on April 14. It will be a video chat. I’ll talk a little, and I’ll listen a lot -- because I want to hear how readers are responding to the many varied voices and faith journeys I encountered in the course of putting together “Wrestling with God.”
A fundamentalist Christian has his say in the book. So does a
progressive Muslim. There’s a software engineer who describes himself
as a “happy atheist” and a Buddhist monk who talks about bowing his
way up the California coast from Los Angeles to Ukiah.
And – a special treat for members of St. John’s – Geoff Machin has his
say as well. Geoff and his wife Ann were long time members of St.
John’s before they moved to Canada several years ago.
Geoff told me that, as a fetal and genetic pathologist here in the Bay
Area, he delivered a lot of bad news to prospective parents. He saw
newborn infants with terrible malformations of the heart or the lungs. He
saw babies born without a brain or kidneys.
“The fact is,” Geoff said, “we humans are the products of millions of
years of evolution. We were not created ‘good’ or ‘innocent.’ Like every
other plant and animal on earth, we are deeply competitive, and we
always have been. Warfare rages throughout all of animal and plant life.
Human beings, the whole of biology, groans in competition.”
Christians have been struggling with this Darwinian view of human
nature for a century and a half. How are we to reconcile our Christian
faith with what science tells us is our hopelessly cruel and competitive,
“red in tooth and claw” nature?
Geoff has thought about that. He is a scientist and a realist, but he is also
– in my opinion – a man of great faith. He addresses the challenge head-
“Our job if we are to be Christ-like is to follow his commandment to
love one another and transcend our brutish nature—and recognize the
true magnitude of the task. Could that be God’s wish for the world? That
human beings overcome their Darwinian origins?”
Let’s talk about Geoff – and the other people who tell their stories in my
book – on April 14.
A little about “Wrestling with God.” The book was inspired by my
experience as the religion reporter at the Contra Costa Times. I heard
countless earnest voices on the religion beat -- voices that cried out to be
heard and recorded.
So that’s what I did – I sat down with Americans of widely different
wisdom traditions, recorded their stories and put them together in a
On Receiving the Elements for the First Time During COVID
How my heart jumped within me when I opened my communion kit this morning! There lay a heart-shaped loveliness, accompanied by wine with a beautiful label. How I wished I could’ve been part of the group preparing these blessings for our renewal, regeneration and restoration to the beloved community of Christ, refreshed to go back into our worlds. How I long to be back in community with all of you, face to face, being, doing, and loving. I say to myself, if we can continue patiently waiting for Jesus to come, surely we can also wait for release from this waiting as well. That does sound just about right. Amen.
The way of the Cross
Dear Anne, Steve, Scott and Jon,
I just needed to write an additional note to the 4 of you for putting together the very moving and most powerful stations of the cross service for today.
Personally, I have been embracing anti-racist work, but significantly today I have been embracing God’s Friday or Good Friday and the special meaning of embracing shared pain and loss. Your service today powerfully combined those aspects of my spiritual focus. You have given me a wonderful gift in your work today.
I hope that you will make the pdf of the program for today available for others who were absent. You have created a powerful teaching that I would like to encourage others to prayerfully embrace. (And I would like to re-embrace it myself over the coming weeks of the coverage of the George Floyd trials and in the coming years of my life.)
In love and gratitude!
The stations bulletin was developed by another church and can be found here.
An inveterate doubter for most of her adult life, award-winning journalist Barbara Falconer Newhall embarks upon a quest to find a way to believe in God in the twenty-first century. The result is Wrestling with God: Stories of Doubt and Faith, which details her years-long search for the Divine in the lives of radically diverse Americans - from a fundamentalist Christian activist to a progressive Muslim leader to a Hindu classical dancer.
In Wrestling with God, Newhall presents the deeply personal stories of a score of Americans encountered on her journey- believers, skeptics, contemplatives, activists. She also reports on the progress of her own rocky spiritual journey and how ultimately she arrives at a place of surrender to the universe's enduring mystery.
Barbara Newhall is a member of St. John's. In her book there is an interview with former St. John's member Geoff Machin. Book orders are print on demand. Please allow two weeks delivery for your Amazon order so order early. For ZOOM link please sign up for our eblasts by sending an email to Jon@stjohnsoakland.org.
Order on Amazon
Have you heard about the “Immersive Van Gogh” exhibit in San Francisco? This west coast premiere of a show seen by over 2 million in Paris, is billed as an “immersive” experience because viewers wander through 300,000 cubic feet of animations, and 60,600 frames of video enhanced by 90,000,000 pixels of light, radically enhancing the details of Van Gogh’s creations. The website goes on to promise that the astonishing scale and breathtaking creativity of the exhibit will allow one to “experience the organic landscapes of Van Gogh’s imagination, and journey through his brilliance and madness.”
I wonder what Van Gogh would think? Does the actual paint and brush stroke no longer matter. Exactly whose madness will we be journeying through? Isn’t art best interpreted from the inside out, not the outside in? Our technology often works from the assumption that understanding and awareness, even meaning, comes at us, rather than emerges from within us. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely want to see this exhibit. I have never experienced 90 million pixels all at once. But I also believe that beauty, inspiration and meaning are spiritual experiences which come from within even if catalyzed from without. If I can’t perceive beauty, no amount of technological bombardment will save me. Perhaps some self-reflection is in order.
I know one thing for sure. We have all had our own immersion experiences this year. The “art” in our stories of faith has come alive in new ways, not because the stories have been enhanced but because we have been immersed in some of the struggles these stories were grounded in. There is the world, but there is also our perception of the world. And our perception has changed because of what arrived at our doorstep this year.
Being in lockdown has allowed us a resonance with the stories of fearful disciples locking their doors to deal with threats of their own. Immersing ourselves in the stories of racial injustice is changing the way we see the narrative of our country and helping us understand the disciples struggle with the empire of Rome. Watching our plans go all to hell, has helped us feel invited into the death and resurrection narratives. This last year has immersed us in our humanity and helped us understand our belief in a God who chose to be immersed in the human struggle.
I like to think that even though, year after year, we repeat our stories and traditions, they have a way of becoming new. This is because as we change, our perception changes. So, I invite you to journey with me and your brothers and sisters through a “brand new” Holy Week. No, we have not pixilated the stories to wow you. Rather, after the year we have been immersed in, our familiar stories will seem like all new episodes, not because the stories have been changed, but because you have.
On behalf of the staff and vestry, I wish you a truly holy week and a joyous Easter!
Dear Members of the St. John's Congregation,
In 2020, St. John's raised more for the Annual Fund than ever before in our history. Fully 127 households gave generously to the Regeneration Campaign to raise a total of over $525,000. Among those giving were 18 first time donors. 50 households increased their giving. It was an amazing accomplishment to exceed our ambitious goal, particularly during very uncertain times.
BRAVO to Nancy Kho and the Stewardship team for a job well done, and for brightening our early pandemic days with poppies, and later, with bread and wine for the Eucharist.
LET'S CELEBRATE this marvelous generosity that puts us in a strong financial position to build upon last year's successes, which were many:
To note, 2020 was a year for launching a number of initiatives, critical for our growth. With the hiring of Jon Owens, our new Director of Congregational Development, we saw the creation of a new website, a new/improved presence in a variety of social media, and a host of new adult formation offerings, via zoom. We also were able to respond nimbly to the pandemic with a popular zoom church service, increased outreach to families in need through the VISION program, and a Drive-Through Nativity that brightened the holidays for our parish and the greater community. We also introduced "Gifts from God," a spiritual formation program for young children and their families that we conducted on zoom. And we can't overlook the many improvements that not only upgraded the St. John's campus but also made it safer. All of these efforts were built upon the generosity of this congregation. We couldn't have done them without you.
This year, with a sound financial underpinning provided by last fall's stewardship campaign, we are in a strong position to build upon last year's successes, to "regenerate," as we plan for a re-opening in what will be a somewhat changed world. As we continue to strive for growth and meaning in that world, St. John's is blessed with many options thanks to you. We look forward to sharing the exciting journey with you.
by Patricia Harden
Leadership of the world’s great religions has long been exclusively male. For literally thousands of years. From the Pope to the Ayatollahs and the Dali Lama, men head the world’s major religions. But to quote one of Bob Dylan’s most popular songs from 1964, “The times, they are a-changin.” Albeit slowly.
Women’s History Month (every March) provides us with an opportunity to celebrate the contributions and achievements of women leaders. Our American Episcopal Church has much to celebrate. We were among the early denominations to ordain women for the priesthood, with our first woman bishop ordained in 1989. The journey of women in Church leadership culminated with the election of the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori as the first female Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the US in 2006.
Long before these modern “firsts,” pioneering Episcopal women played a seminal role in the long journey of humanity toward creating a better, more just and compassionate world. The book, Holy Women, Holy Men, published by the Episcopal Church celebrates 700+ pages worth of Saints. Among them, are the stories of many noteworthy, even iconic women, who from ancient times through today have impacted their communities—and shaped the course of history. Here are excerpts from this book saluting three brave women, all saints in our Church, whose accomplishments and life work made a lasting difference.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton 1815-1902 Women’s Rights Pioneer
She and four other women organized the first Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, New York, July 19–20, 1848. The event set her political and religious agenda for the next 50 years.
Although Elizabeth blamed male clergy for women’s oppression, she attended Trinity Episcopal Church in Seneca Falls, with her friend Amelia Bloomer. As a dissenting prophet, Elizabeth preached hundreds of homilies and political speeches in pulpits throughout the nation. Wherever she visited, she was experienced as a holy presence and a liberator. She never lost her sense of humor despite years of contending with opposition, even from friends. In a note to Susan B. Anthony, she said: “Do not feel depressed, my dear friend, what is good in us is immortal, and if the sore trials we have endured are sifting out pride and selfishness, we shall not have suffered in vain.”
Vida Dutton Scudder, 1861-1954 Teacher and Social Activist
Her love of scholarship was matched by her social conscience and deep spirituality. As a young woman, Scudder founded the College Settlements Association, joined the Society of Christian Socialists, and began her lifelong association with the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross in 1889, a community living in the world and devoted to intercessory prayer.
In 1911, Scudder founded the Episcopal Church Socialist League, and formally joined the Socialist party. Her support of the Lawrence, Massachusetts, textile workers’ strike in 1912 drew a great deal of criticism and threatened her teaching position at Wellesley College. Though she initially supported World War I, she joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation in 1923, and by the 1930s was a firm pacifist.
Throughout her life Scudder’s primary relationships and support network were women. After retirement, she authored 16 books on religious and political subjects, combining her intense activism with an equally vibrant spirituality. “
Adelaide Case: 1887 – 1948 First Full Professor at Episcopal Theological School
Adelaide Case received her undergraduate education at Bryn Mawr and her graduate degrees from Columbia University. By the time she completed her doctorate a position had been created for her on the faculty of the Teachers’ College at Columbia and she quickly rose to the status of full professor and head of the department of religious education. In 1941, while her professional accomplishments were at their height, the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was able to convince her to leave her distinguished and comfortable position at Columbia and join the faculty as Professor of Christian Education. Although other women had taught occasional courses in the seminaries of the church, Adelaide Case was the first to take her place as a full-time faculty member at the rank of Professor.
Case believed that the point of practicing the Christian faith was to make a difference in the world. As an advocate for peace, she believed that Christianity had a special vocation to call people into transformed, reconciled relationships for the sake of the wholeness of the human family.
St. John’s is excited to announce the upcoming publication of Those Seven References: A Study of the References to "Homosexuality" in the Bible and Their Impact on the Queer Community of Faith by The Rev. John F. Dwyer, one of our Associate Clergy and husband of Minister of Music Ben Riggs. Those Seven References will be released on March 17, 2021, under the Morehouse imprint of Church Publishing, the official publishing house of The Episcopal Church.
1. What inspired you to write Those Seven References?
Initially, my reasoning was to understand these scriptural passages in a clearer way. As my research continued those reasons morphed into providing myself, and others, with language to interpret and understand these scriptures in ways meant by the original authors of the text; to show that how they have been interpreted inaccurately and continue to be mis-used by those understandings, can be countered with a deeper and more clarifying perception of the texts.
2. Who do you hope will read your book?
I hope people who have had these texts inappropriately hurled at them because of who they are as a person, and have as a result left church or communities of faith, will learn that God's love of them is true and pure and strong. I also hope that they will find that there are loving communities of faithful people with hearts open and (post-pandemic) arms outstretched to hug them in welcome. I believe this work can open minds and the hearts of those who have not delved deeply into these texts but have simply believed what they have been told from misguided preachers.
3. What surprised you the most while researching and writing Those Seven References?
I was surprised by the inter-connectivity of these passages, orally created and then written thousands of years apart from each other. The concept that resonates through the multiple ages these passages focus on the importance of respect for individuals, for love of that individual person no matter their heritage or upbringing and is the foundation of God's love for all of us.
4. Why do you think this book remains relevant for today’s readers?
In the headlines this week, one of the world's largest Christian sects, the one based in Rome, has again proved the necessity for this kind of work to exist. Although there have been enormous strides toward equality for the queer community in recent years, there have also been regressive local legislative actions seeking to limit those national steps toward equality. The type of education from this type of study is imperative to counter those regressive steps.
JOHN F. DWYER is an Episcopal priest who has served the church in both seminary and parish settings, and had legal and corporate work experiences prior to being ordained. Throughout his life, he searched for ways to witness to and express the all-inclusive love of God, particularly as a married gay man.
“John Dwyer masterfully navigates the reader through a biblical journey of re-discover…. This is a must-read not only for the LGBTQIA+ community but also for anyone who seeks to be an ally in the building of the Beloved Community.” —The Rt. Rev. Deon K. Johnson, Eleventh Bishop of Missouri
Find out more about Those Seven References and where you can purchase:
Barnes & Noble
By Kellor Smith, Youth and Families
Weather. Never has it been more critical because we must meet outside, and we can’t do that unless the weather cooperates! We found a perfect weather date last week, and the youth met outside for the first time in months. I ordered pizza and we all wore our masks. The one year of loneliness and isolation is huge for all, but especially our youth. Being with their peers is so important. They are trying to figure out who they are, and they are all worried about reentering the busy life of being a teen. An in-person setting is so helpful as they share their experiences and thoughts about where their lives are headed.
The youth, grade 6-12, have 5 to 8 Zoom classes a day, plus home work groups and Zoom small groups with their teachers. They must show up to each Zoom class and sign in. Some are allowed to choose if they want to have their cameras on or off, and over 2/3 of them do not turn on their cameras, reinforcing feelings of loneliness and isolation for youth of all ages.
As a few shared,
“I feel like I am alone in school. My brain tells me that I am the only one who is in this class. I begin to feel depressed again.”
“When the teacher calls on someone who does not have their camera on, they often do not answer which just reinforcing my depressing thought that I am alone.”
“I need conversations, sharing of ideas and to see their faces to keep my focus and interest.”
“I often feel like becoming a little black Zoom box, too.”
As all the youth nodded their heads in agreement, I saw their eyes fill with relief as they realized they are not the only ones who feel the loneliness of Zoom school.
A few made a new club - Students Who Won’t Turn Off Their Zoom Cameras!
We talked how they could envision God in the empty black boxes. God is with us everywhere even in the zoom classes black box.
With all the other events (or lack of events) this year that are making it hard for our youth to manage their sense of self-worth and their feelings of loneliness, we need to continue to check in with our kids of all ages. Play a game, watch a movie or eat a meal together –just a few ways to provide opportunities to listen to and talk with them. They might even share with you how lonely they are today. They might not, as teens will be teens, but they will know that you are trying.
They crave familiar traditions. They were so happy to have pizza and red vines, our traditional meal (with fruit and carrots added sometimes!) and just BE with each other.
“I am so happy sitting here among friends, doing normal stuff. Maybe I am ready to reenter the busy world.”
But only if they have red vines to share!
The Mouse is the long-running news source for St. John's. With decades of history, our blog now features the same great news about what's happening at St. John's with a more frequent publication cycle.