Michael Yasutake 19202001
Episcopal priest and former Episcopal Church Publishing Company board member S. Michael Yasutake died Dec. 29, 2001, following a massive stroke (ECPC publishes The Witness). A tireless advocate for social and economic justice and especially for the rights of political prisoners in the U.S. Yasutake founded and directed the Interfaith Prisoners of Conscience Project in Evanston, Ill.
Born into a Japanese-American family in 1920, Yasutake experienced imprisonment firsthand when his family was sent to internment camps during World War II. After a year and a half, he and his sister, Mitsuye Yamada, were released when they were accepted into the University of Cincinnati, but his ordeal was not over.
"When we left camp, there were two questions they enquired about," says Yamada, a current ECPC board member. "One, are you willing to forswear allegiance to the emperor of Japan? And two, are you willing to bear arms to defend your country? He said, I never swore allegiance to the emperor of Japan to begin with, so I dont think its necessary to forswear it, and no, I will not bear arms because Im a pacifist."
The following year, Yasutake received a visit from the FBI, who told him his responses were "suspicious" and they wanted to give him an opportunity to recant. Yasutake refused, and the FBI forced the university to expel him.
"He said he would stand by his word, because loyalty to your country doesnt mean you have to go out and shoot people," Yamada says. "He was a young man and very much alone, with no organizations to back him up. A lot of people would have succumbed."
Yasutake continued his studies elsewhere and, in 1950, became the first Japanese American to be ordained an Episcopal priest in the midwest. In Chicago, he worked with the civil rights movement while serving in parish and diocesan ministry, and then as director of counseling at the YMCA Community College.
Yasutake became aware of issues facing political prisoners in 1980 after Carmen Valentin, a counselor on his staff, was arrested, convicted of sedition and sentenced to 98 years in prison for her involvement with the Puerto Rican Independence Movement. When he discovered that people who are imprisoned for acting on their political convictions face longer sentences and harsher treatment than other prisoners, Yasutake embarked on a quest to raise awareness of their plight, especially within the church.
"He would track down bishops at General Convention to get them to present a resolution about Mumia Abu-Jamal that nobody wanted to touch," Yamada says. "He wanted the church to take some responsibility. He was very persistent he was like a pit bull! when he wanted to call peoples attention to things like Carmens situation. Mike worked with such fervor trying to move the church to support his work because he felt by lack of action the church became complicit with the government in its persecution against people of color who oppose the governments policies, dissidents and political prisoners."
In recent years, Yasutake supported local resistance to U.S. military bases on Okinawa and Vieques, and joined his voice with those of others protesting the "war on terrorism." (See "The War Fever in the Superpower U.S.," <http://www.thewitness.org/agw/yasutake.103101.html>.)
Yasutake continually stressed the need for the church to maintain its own identity.
"The church has to stand on its own feet and examine its role in society," he said during a 1994 interview with The Witness. "It has to ask many hard questions of the government." Marianne Arbogast
C. Nozomi Ikutas sermon celebrating Yasutakes life and ministry can be found at <www.thewitness.org/agw/yasutake.012302.html>.