The stories of Asian Americans have, unfortunately, been neglected or outright ignored in Baptist histories.
This is regrettable, especially so in the case of one extremely notable Asian American leader, Jitsuo Morikawa, once dubbed by Tony Campolo as “the most dynamic and brilliant leader that American Baptists have had.”
Campolo was right.
Morikawa was the most significant shaper of American Baptist social ethics since Walter Rauschenbusch and the father of a Baptist environmentalism called “eco-justice,” which understood issues of ecology and justice to be interrelated and inseparable.
Born to Buddhist parents in British Columbia, Canada, Morikawa (1912-1987) became a Christian at age 16 and ordained to the gospel ministry in 1937 at a Baptist church in Pasadena, California.
He attended and graduated from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary with the hope to be a missionary, but white supremacy stood in the way as his Japanese ancestry proved to be a barrier to service.
Morikawa went on to pastor three Japanese-American Baptist congregations in the Los Angeles area.
His time in the pulpit was limited though, as he and his wife, Hazel, were rounded up and forced into an internment camp in Arizona for two years alongside nearly 18,000 other Japanese Americans.
With World War II still raging in 1943, the historic First Baptist Church of Chicago, a predominantly white congregation, courageously called Morikawa as pastor. Thirteen years later, he left the pulpit to begin a 20-year journey as an executive with American Baptist Churches USA.
As director of the denomination’s evangelism department, Morikawa offered American Baptists a new model for evangelism.
His “new evangelism” signaled a more social action-oriented trajectory that largely put aside the traditional door-to-door faith-sharing tactics. This holistic evangelism viewed salvation to be both individual and social – inclusive of the entire world, political and economic structures too.
“We have obscured the gospel, distorted the gospel by assuming that evangelism was primarily and fundamentally winning souls to Christ and saving them from eternal perdition,” Morikawa said. “We have missed out on the larger horizon of the redemption of the cosmos, the restoration of God’s universe.”
“Evangelism is primarily the activity of God, transforming this world, renewing this world, sustaining this world, persons, society, institutions, families, corporations and social structures,” he explained.
Morikawa’s holistic evangelism project received push back.
Some American Baptists politely labeled him a Universalist; others called him a heretic.
Southern Baptist leaders like Herschel Hobbs wanted to keep the attention off Jim Crow and the civil rights struggle and instead focused on debates around baptism and biblical inspiration.
Morikawa decried this rejection of justice issues.
“We need to be delivered out of preoccupation with the church and bring Baptists into a relevant engagement with Christian service in the world,” he told the top leaders of North American Baptist denominations at the final gathering of the five-year evangelism campaign, Baptist Jubilee Advance, in 1964.
Armed with this “new evangelism,” Morikawa steered American Baptists toward a fresh understanding of what being the “church in the world” looked like in the 20th century.
He led American Baptist Home Mission Societies to launch a strategic three-year focus on how the denomination could help achieve both ecological wholeness and social justice.
With “eco-justice” as a priority – a term coined by his colleagues – a Morikawa-led task force urged American Baptists to reorient their priorities to create a “just and ecologically whole world, for God sent Jesus that we might have life, and have it abundantly.”
The destructive theology of God-given dominion needed to be discarded, and repentance was needed for the consumerism-driven sins that had produced so much environmental degradation, he emphasized.
In addition to educational initiatives to raise awareness about eco-justice concerns, Morikawa and his colleagues called on American Baptist institutions to develop standards, goals and guidelines for its programs to ensure ecologically responsible practices.
The formation of alliances with corporations and nonprofit organizations to effect change was also encouraged, as well as public support for policy and legislative remedies.
Morikawa’s strategic effort on behalf of eco-justice did achieve some successes within American Baptist life as denominational entities adopted eco-justice practices, such as ethical investing and making church facilities more multipurpose and energy efficient, and also offered educational opportunities, such as retreats and prioritized public policy advocacy.
Eco-justice was also emphasized in international missions programs through initiatives to restore ecological balance in countries like Haiti and Nicaragua.
As we celebrate Earth Day 2021 amid a global pandemic and with a climate crisis upon us, we should look to the example of this often-neglected Japanese-American Baptist hero for wisdom and inspiration.
During his life, Jitsuo Morikawa modeled for Baptists the importance of living an active faith or “evangelistic lifestyle” that readily recognized the social nature of sin and affirmed the Christian calling to pursue social justice and ecological wholeness.
To echo Morikawa, may we be delivered from our preoccupations that distract us from Christian service in the world. And may we make our words meaningful through concrete action.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week for Earth Day 2021 (April 22). The other articles in the series are:
How Integration Unveils God’s Relational Character | Helle Liht
How Earth Day Aligns with Jewish Values | Leib Kaminsky
This Earth Day, a Sermon for the Birds | Jessica McDougald
Communications director for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, where he is editor of fellowship! magazine and the CBFblog. Weaver is a member of the Commission on Creation Care of the Baptist World Alliance.