What's Tony Thinking

Remembering Teruo Kawata


Our dear friend and mentor, Teri Kawata, died on July 1 in Honolulu. A memorial service will be held today at The Community Church there in Hawaii.

Teri had been my wife, Linda’s, minister at Waiokeola Church in Honolulu. Linda did not grow up in a church-going family. But a middle-school friendship put her in touch with a UCC minister and congregation in Los Angeles, where her Dad was on sabbatical. That led to connecting to nearby Waiokeola Church, in Honolulu, on the family’s return there. And that led to Teri. (Photo is of Teri and Linda when we last visited him in Hawaii in 2020.)

He and I first met when Linda and I were about to be married. He performed the service in Linda’s parents’s home. At that point, I was not thinking about the ministry. But Teri stayed in touch and showed up, it seemed, at important moments of discernment. He encouraged me in my developing sense of call, as it unfolded at Union Seminary and in my early years in pastoral ministry.

He played an important role in our call to Honolulu’s Church of the Crossroads in the 1980’s, as he encouraged Crossroads to seek us out. We moved to Honolulu in 1981. Teri was then the Conference Minister of the Hawaii Conference of the United Church of Christ, and thus my Conference Minister, which in the UCC is sort of our version of a bishop. He was also influential in my call to Plymouth Church in Seattle in 1990.

In these respects, he was an exemplar of his generation, one in which senior church leaders encouraged and connected the next generation. He was very committed to that. Today, it seems — for a host of reasons — to be few who play such a role, and we are poorer for it.

Teri was a man of tremendous dignity. I think that must have had a great deal to do with his family and parents. But perhaps also, as a Japanese American who was interred in World War II, with being an object of prejudice and scorn. Despite that, he refused to be either degraded by other’s prejudice or to become bitter about such experiences. He, on the contrary, exemplified the finest human qualities. He had a sense of gravity.

He was a great preacher. He preached at my ordination/ installation at Tolt Congregational Church in Carnation, Washington, which was my first church. And he preached at my installation at Church of the Crossroads in 1981. When I went on sabbatical from Plymouth in 2001, Teri served as my sabbatical interim for six months, a stretch that included 9/11. As a preacher he was deeply committed to the task of “breaking open the word of God” in the Scriptures. He conveyed the sense of God’s Word as a living word and the two-edged sword cited in the Letter to the Hebrews. His preaching put you in the presence of God, which is where we all want to be, and where we all don’t want to be.

After retirement, he kept up with organizations that meant a lot to him, continued to mentor promising younger leaders, and also kept very current and, to use an overused phrase, on “the cutting edge” in his reading and interests. He often surprised me with some new book or author of which I was, as yet, unaware. I dedicated my 2007 book “What’s Theology Got To Do With It?” to Teri.

Teri, and his wife, Kiku, who pre-deceased him in 2021, were a great blessing to Linda and to me, to our family, and to the church. He believed in the church, in its prophetic witness, and in the church’s need for the best in leadership. Despite an enormous sensitivity to human suffering, Teri held fast to his trust in the faithfulness of God and in the final triumph of God’s mercy.

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