Editor’s Note: This year’s return to an in-person Hutchmoot gathering also allowed our favorite chef/writer John Cal to bless us with his thoughtful essays before each evening meal. What follows is his Saturday night pre-meal address from Hutchmoot ’22. Click here for his opening night essay and here is his Friday night essay.
Sing with me.
Father Abraham had many sons
And many sons had Father Abraham
I am one of them and so are you
So let’s all praise the Lord
Father Abraham had many sons
And many sons had Father Abraham
I am one of them and so are you
So let’s all praise the Lord
I always hated that song…
I thought it was so weird with the arms and the flailing and the kicking. Maybe there is a short time in elementary school when all that flapping about is kind of fun, but by middle school, you’re spending so much time and energy trying to be cool that there isn’t anything left in you to consider Father Abraham let alone any of his sons.
I wasn’t always a Christian. I didn’t grow up one. We didn’t not believe in God in my house, but we didn’t pray before meals, or have the right bumper stickers on our cars. We didn’t go to church, not even on Christmas, and so that added a layer of silliness to the music.
I did grow up going to a private Christian school, one of the non-Christian kids. I had to sing the songs I didn’t believe were true. I had to say the prayers when I didn’t think anyone was listening. I memorized the verses from the ancient Hebrew texts like all the other kids. We had to say them before they excused us to lunch. And just to clarify, I was a pretty good non-Christian kid—never smoked cigarettes behind the gym, was on the honor roll, and was in advanced math. I was the yearbook editor, then the newspaper editor. I was freshman class president and represented my school at the state geography bee two years in a row. The one time I remember swearing at school was in the second grade. It was the F-word, and Miss Nomi turned around, immediately making eye contact. Without another sound from either of us, I walked back into the classroom, quietly put my head down on my desk, and voluntarily skipped the last twenty minutes of recess.
So when I did, on my own, decide to become a Christian in high school, there were all these layers to peel through:
Like in the fifth grade when they asked all the honor roll kids if they wanted to be baptized, but not the kids who were getting regular grades, or like when the other kids pointed out that my dad was a lawyer and that lawyers are liars and that liars go to hell, or like in the eighth grade when I was asked to pray and told I was doing it wrong, that I wasn’t being reverent enough. “I thought we’re supposed to talk to God like he’s our friend,” I remember asking Mrs. Cobalt. “Yes, He is our friend, but not that kind of friend,” she said, “and we don’t talk to Him like that.”
I understand that childhood is easy for almost no one, and still, there’s something unsettling and perverse about a kid feeling like they’re on the outside of Christianity.
When I decided that I wanted to be a Christian, I was fourteen, old enough to have very clear memories of so many firsts. I remember responding to my first altar call, and whether or not it was the Holy Spirit or just peer pressure, it felt like I was sitting on a fire compelling me to stand. I remember the first Bible text I ever studied, the story of Zacchaeus. “Some scholars think the cross was made of sycamore wood,” Pastor Gary said, “and so when Jesus is telling Zacchaeus to come down from the tree, it’s almost like he’s telling us to let go of our burdens and He’ll pick up the cross for us.” I remember the first time I heard contemporary Christian music. It was the green double disced WOW 1999 album with such classics as “Testify to Love” featuring the 4 part harmonies of Avalon (number four on the silver disc), and “The Devil is Bad” by Ska and Swing Revival Band, the W’s (number eight on the green disc).
And it’s a very palpable memory to me the first time I went to church as a Christian, even after all the years at the school with the songs and the memory verses and the prayers, and being at church for school programs or with a friend’s family after a sleepover. There’s something about choosing something for yourself, about setting out on an adventure all on your own.
There was a church in the same denomination as my school less than a five-minute drive away from my house, but I wanted to go to the church on the far side of the island—45 minutes away, where more of my friends went. I thought it prudent to wear my best, and as a 14 year old deciding to go to church for the first time without the supervision or prodding of his parents, it meant the coolest clothes I owned or at least the clothes that I thought were the coolest. It was 1998, the era of garish color-blocked patterns and stainless steel jewelry. That morning I put on my favorite pair of canary yellow chinos and unironically (because I grew up in Hawaii) a teal flower print Hawaiian shirt. I slipped on a coordinating yellow bucket hat, yellow terry cloth flip-flops, and a pair of orange round-framed glasses. I looked awesome.
Maybe you feel it coming, a slip-up, the not belonging, someone saying something awful to the kid who doesn’t quite fit in. And the trouble is, the way we fit in in church, and in circles of church people, is different than the ways we do or do not fit in everywhere else. If you grew up in it, it’s just normal. You learned with time and through osmosis, through little learned proddings. And even within the language of the culture of Christianity, there are so many sects, so many tribes with different dialects. It can make us distinct, but it can also separate us. It’s both blessing and baggage.
I didn’t know it at the time but the church where I decided to attend was the sort of tribe that exclusively used the organ and the piano for singing, even used the little placard with interchangeable numbers to indicate which hymns would be sung, not an overhead projector for indication or lyrics. It was the kind of church that sang all of the stanzas in each hymn. There was never a one, three, and four announcement. We all raised our hymnals together in unspoken choreography. You could identify those who had been in the tribe for more generations, because they could close their hymnal and quietly begin putting them away in the back of the pew in front of them before the hymn was even over, having memorized all the words and all the prescribed appropriate emotions.
There’s a story in our ancient scriptures of a man who had two sons. Both he and his wife believed they were too old to have children. In fact, when the Lord appeared to him and told him his wife would get pregnant, she laughed at God. “Why did you laugh?” God asked. “Is anything too hard for me?” The wife tried to walk it back, “I didn’t laugh,” she lied because she was afraid. That’s how so many lies start, to God, to others, to ourselves, because we’re afraid of what might happen.
In her fear, the wife took her handmaid, an African slave woman, and asked her husband to lay with her. The handmaid had a son. Then years later, just like God promised, the man’s wife also had a son—two sons from two different women, but when the man’s wife saw her handmaid’s son making fun of her son, she turned to her husband and said, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son. He is not going to share in the inheritance.” So often it happens this way, someone hurts us and our instinct is to hurt them back, to hurt someone, anyone back, when we know the way to redemption is to turn the other cheek, to go the extra mile, to give to the one who asks, to love one another.
I arrived at church too early that day. I didn’t know what time any of it started, and in the days before texting and the internet, I didn’t know a good way for me to find out. The doors to the sanctuary were locked. The youth room was empty. There were a few people milling about the grounds doing I’m not sure what, but not knowing what to do I just took a seat in the courtyard on a little stone wall in my coolest outfit, feeling silly and alone, like I had gotten it wrong. Across the way were two older men, in their sixties or seventies maybe, sitting on two folding chairs by the entrance of the courtyard. “You visiting today?” one of the men asked. “Youth group doesn’t start for thirty minutes,” the other one said. “You can come sit by us,” the first continued. “You don’t have to wait by yourself.”
I wonder if we just treated each other with dignity and kindness and love, real love without conditions, I wonder if the other things would slowly begin to work themselves out.John Cal
I don’t remember much of what we talked about. I think they asked me about my parents, what high school I went to, and if I knew any of the other kids in the youth group. But it helped me be less afraid—to not be alone. We sat there for the next half hour, keeping each other company, and against our better judgment, contrary to all our fears of what might happen, we discovered that maybe we could belong to each other.
Author and scientist Michael McHargue defines creativity as nothing more than the ability to make unexpected connections, to take two things that seemingly don’t belong and make them relate to each other in ways that other people may not see. You begin to see it when you start to look closer at the stories of creation—the unexpected—stories that just don’t make any sense, like when a Samaritan saves the Jewish man beaten by the side of the road, or when the widow’s tiny offering is the one that is most treasured. Like when the vineyard workers, who only toiled a short time, get the full blessing from the master, or when a baby was sent to save the whole world.
You also see the pain that is caused when we choose to stifle the creativity of redemption, like when Hagar was cast out when Sarah didn’t want their sons to share in the blessing.
Moses writes in Genesis that Abraham gave Hagar some food and a container of water and sent her away with their son, his own son, and she wandered aimlessly in the wilderness of Beersheba. When the water was gone, she put their son in the shade and sat down at a distance, alone. “I don’t want to watch my son die,” she said, as she started to cry.
“But God heard the boy crying,” Moses continues, “and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, “Hagar, what’s wrong? Do not be afraid! God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Go to him and comfort him, for I will make a great nation from his descendants.” God showed Hagar a well full of water. Seems like such a small thing to us when we can just turn on a tap, but that’s how privilege works, in the words of Ani Defranco, “like fish in the water who do not know they are wet.”
Hagar fills her water container and gives her and Abraham’s son a drink. The boy lived, and Ishmael grew up to become a skillful archer. He settled in the wilderness of Paran. He married a woman from Egypt, his mother’s homeland. Beyond that, our ancient texts don’t say much about what happened to Ishmael, but I want to believe that our scriptures are true, that God keeps his promises, that He too made Ishmael the father of a great nation.
As it got closer to 9:30, and more kids started showing up, my two morning companions turned to me and said, “Looks like youth group is going to start soon. You better head in.”
It was the Manoa-Japanese Seventh-Day Adventist church that I first attended when I started going to church, where many of the members who grew up in Hawaii or elsewhere in the U.S. were interned in concentration camps under executive order 9066, signed by Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, who also established Social Security and a National Minimum Wage. Roosevelt was the first to take action against employment discrimination, moves at the time that had a huge impact on the lives of African Americans, Catholics, and Jews — I guess even the best of us can sometimes make mistakes. Colonel Karl Bendetsen said of the ordeal, “I am determined that if they have one drop of Japanese blood in them, they must go to camp.” More than 100,000 Japanese women, children, and men were imprisoned, men so very much like Mr. Tamanaha and Mr. Fukutani, who lived through a time when people kept telling them that they didn’t belong.
Maybe someone told you once that you didn’t belong. Maybe you’ve felt like you were sent out into the desert. It’s easy to keep passing this pain on, to retaliate with more and more bitterness. Stephi Wagner, MSW, once said, “Pain travels through families until someone is ready to feel it.”
“You staying for potluck?” they said to me as I got up and began heading to the youth room. “Yeah,” I said, waving back at them as I got up to join the rest of my friends.
After youth group, after the singing of hymns, after the sermon, after the parts of church that I used to believe were the most important, I walked back into the courtyard and was confronted with six large tables covered in creativity, six tables that to the naked eye were covered in things that didn’t belong together, but were connected through the beauty of community.
Like Helen Uechi’s Chawanmushi, or Linn Madsen’s Manju. John Obata would always bring a big green salad. Mrs. Tamashiro would bring her homemade granola bars, and Ree Hiatt, who was the secretary to the head of the Dole Plantation, would always bring a huge bowl of pineapple.
It’s easy enough to have an idea of what church looks like, what community looks like, what our lives look like when we picture it in our imaginations. If we got to choose these things—the perfect home, the perfect spouse, the perfect family, if you got to design the perfect meal, very few of us would put Jell-O salad next to green bean casserole, next to Cool Ranch Doritos, next to leftover chili, next to a bundt cake, next to a bucket of KFC.
But then people show up at a table together, real people. Breathing and full of entirely irritating flaws—sometimes irritating because they’re the opposite of yours, sometimes irritating because they’re flaws you share. I can start to resent the imperfections in the system unless I remember that I am people too.
I wonder if we just treated each other with dignity and kindness and love, real love—without conditions, I wonder if the other things would slowly begin to work themselves out. Maybe I’m naive. Maybe that’s too simple, but it was enough that day for John Tamanaha and Saichi Fukutani to treat the scared little boy in the yellow bucket hat with a little bit of kindness, to help me find the water.
I hope you’ve experienced some of that belonging at Hutchmoot. Sometimes it can feel like the rest of the world is a vast empty desert, and there’s so much water here. Sometimes it’s easy to give up when you feel like you’re alone, but I believe that our God is the sort of God who keeps His promises, who blessed Father Abraham and his many sons, and many sons had Father Abraham. I am one of them, and so are you. So let’s all praise the Lord.