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.
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