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Andy Lippman: Spiritually Speaking: Where Do I Begin?

Where do I begin to tell the story of the Rev. Greg Kimura?
— His father was born behind barbed wire in a Japanese internment camp in Minidoka, Idaho.
— He grew up in Alaska and his ministry included flying — via mail planes — to give communion to people in far-flung villages.
— He was president of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.
— He was a member of the Ventura County Rescue team — while ministering in Ojai.
— And finally, he’s recently been named rector of St. James Episcopal Church, at 1325 Monterey Rd. in South Pasadena.
I sat on a wood pew interviewing Kimura last week and twice he paused and said, “I’ve probably gone on too long.”
But the narrative kept getting more fascinating, and I realized this column was practically writing itself.
Kimura’s great-grandparents came to Anchorage around 1916, when it could be described as a “tent city” in some respects.
When World War II broke out, the Kimuras, who had a home and several businesses, were taken shortly after Pearl Harbor was attacked in December 1941. They were first transported to an assembly center in the Washington State Fairgrounds and then to Idaho, where they remained from mid-1942 to the end of the war.
While they were there, Kimura’s grandfather and grandmother wanted to marry. They were nominally Buddhist, Kimura recalled, and offered the minister an envelope with money the grandfather had earned from picking sugar beets in the camp.
The pastor refused to take the money.
“Out of gratitude for his kindness, my grandparents agreed to find a church when they got back,” Kimura said. “The joke in our family is that they became Christian out of a Buddhist sense of obligation.”
When they returned home, the family found that both their home and their businesses had been vandalized, and the church became kind of a sanctuary to them, Kimura said.
His grandfather designed the stained-glass windows for the church. Coincidentally, the grandson is now the head of a church with windows which have been famously done by the internationally known stained glass designers Judson Studios.
Kimura’s father is Japanese American and his mother is ethnically Swiss. They met at the University of Wisconsin.
I’ve talked to other priests and ministers who gave me a “moment” when they realized they had a calling. The lean, chisel-faced Kimura said there was no simple answer to why he had become a priest.
“There was no St. Paul moment. It was more of a process,” he said.
He was 24 years old when he finished divinity school. Too young to be ordained as a priest, he went to work for a year at the Anchorage Daily News.
“It was wonderful,” he recalled. “One of the most fun jobs I ever had.”
To make a living, Kimura had to be bi-vocational, so in addition to being a priest, he taught classes at the University of Alaska. He always knew he wanted to back to college so he got into Cambridge University in England where he studied from 1999 to 2002, and got his doctorate in 2005 after he returned to Alaska.
“Because I was the youngest, I was always the guy who got tapped to do funerals and weddings out in the Yukon, which I loved. It was an eye-opening experience” Kimura said.
He recalled one Christmas when he went out on a mail plane. He was supposed to visit three villages, but the weather was so bad that he was stuck in the village for three days until the mail plane could fly him home.
Along with being in the ministry, he served on the State Humanities Council, which, during his tenure, established an early learning initiative and operated an exchange program between native villages and urban areas.
It just so happened that a headhunter was looking for someone to lead the Japanese American National Museum in L.A., and a friend tipped him off to the opportunity. He interviewed and got the job. His wife, who was born in Huntington Hospital, just up the street from South Pasadena, was delighted to come back to California.
He led the museum from 2011 to 2016, and after taking a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he realized that blockbuster exhibits were a sure way to lure people.
And so he spearheaded three major blockbusters while he was at the museum.
“We designed the exhibit so that as you exited, you went right into the area showing the Japanese internment,” Kimura said. “People asked why was I doing that. The whole purpose was to draw people in and then learn about this tragedy.
Kimura added: “For me, it was to get people in and expose them to the Japanese American story and look at this as our museum and showcase the heritage and the culture.”
One exhibit involved the Brooklyn and L.A. Dodgers and the team’s role in advancing civil rights. Another exhibit centered on Japanese tattoos, and that exhibit ended up going on the road and has just finished its tour. The biggest hit was the 40th birthday celebration of “Hello Kitty,” which opened in late 2014.
“It was mind-blowing,” he recalled. “In a four-day period, we had 50,000 people come through the door. For the first time, we had Hollywood showing up.
He hadn’t given up on his original calling. Kimura told me that he knew that “that’s what I was built for”, and he still preached about once a month.
So, he talked to the bishop and was told there was an opening at a church in Ojai. The family loved the town, and he was selected for the job.
While he was there, Kimura served as a volunteer with the Upper Ojai Search and Rescue team. He had grown up hiking and climbing, but it still took him three tries to get on probation with the team.
“I’d been doing trail running and trail ultramarathons, so I was in really good shape,” he said. “I had to brush up on my rope and climbing skills, but overall it was fun.”
Kimura said that the results of such searches often produced unpleasant results. His presence, in addition to helping with the search, also was comforting for the team.
He came close to missing a Sunday service just once while being out with the rescue team.
“We were rescuing a hunter and I ended up getting back after being up all night,” he recalled. “I did three services, and then went home and took a nice, long nap.”
While he was there, he grew a Spanish-language program and also what he called “Laundry Love,” which is a service where people contributed money or their own washer and dryers to those less fortunate.
From there, he became canon vice dean at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco where he was in a more administrative role. In the Bay Area, Kimura served as an executive pastor and oversaw clergy, finance and business operations, as well as music.
Kimura called the music program at St. James “amazing” and marveled that it “is just really thriving.”
Kimura knows there are physical things about St. James and facilities that need fixing, and he’s still figuring out what else needs to be fixed or innovated.
Like religious leaders in most mainline churches, he worries about long-term church attendance. However, he did note that St. James has a larger youth group than the one he left at Grace Cathedral. He attributed the numbers to the longstanding family tradition at St. James. Much of the congregation grew up going to St. James, and they would later send their children to preschool there.
“The challenges have been accelerated by COVID,” he said. “People are out of the habit of going to church. One of our biggest roles now is helping individuals and families with the crisis of loneliness, especially youngsters and older people who don’t connect with the community the way they did before.
“People for too long have expected people just to show up, and we are going to have to go where people are,” he said.

The Rev. Gregory Kimura, with his family at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, adopted an administrative role at the Bay Area congregation and served as canon vice dean. – Photos courtesy the Rev. Gregory Kimura
The Rev Gregory Kimura enjoys the outdoors with his son Julian wife Joy and daughter Lily who will be attending South Pasadena High next year

First published in the May 10 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.

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