PSR distinguished alums making change in the world

Richard Lindsay

At a gala reception on January 26, 2011 during the Earl Lectures, the PSR Alumni/ae Council honored distinguished representatives of PSR’s outstanding body of alumni/ae. The following are brief profiles of each of these distinguished alumni, which include a heroic chaplain from the Greatest Generation, the head of a Protestant denomination in the UK, a leading thinker in progressive Christianity, and a tireless community organizer and advocate for the marginalized in society.

George Aki (MA 1940): On May 6, 1942, two days before his graduation from PSR, George Aki and his wife Misaki were interned at the Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno, along with more than 6,000 other Japanese Americans. Aki is a third-generation Japanese American and native of Livingston, CA whose grandfather had come to this country in the early 1900’s.

Aki was devastated at this betrayal from his home country, and seemingly, this betrayal from God. “The moment I found myself behind barbed wire confinement at the Tanforan Assembly Center,” Aki said, “my faith in America died, my faith in God died, and I died.”

His faith in God and his sense of calling from God were renewed by two acts of kindness. A friend from seminary who was in the Army delivered his diploma to Aki in the detention camp and informed him PSR had graduated him in absentia. A few weeks later, a committee of church pastors from the East Bay came to the detention center to examine and ordain Aki and another candidate as Congregational ministers. “Through my ordination,” Aki said, “I made a pledge to serve Christ’s church and the people of the church. After my ordination I was not afraid of anything. I didn’t even think about death anymore. I’ve been that way ever since.”

Aki served in ministry in 3 different internment camps, including Tanforan in San Bruno, Camp Topaz in Utah, and Camp Jerome in Arkansas. He then volunteered to serve as the chaplain of the Asian-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which saw combat in Italy, France, and Germany, and was the most decorated unit in US military history. Frequently, it was Aki in his role as chaplain who stood up to military brass when Japanese-American recruits were being mistreated. “I was there to seek the welfare of our men and I went after anyone who abused them,” Aki said. “I was young and I sure had a lot of guts at the time!”  
   
Upon returning from the War, Aki served as pastor to several Japanese Congregational churches, and then became the first Asian-American minister at the Congregational Church of San Luis Obispo, where he served until retirement in 1978. Aki, now 96, lives in Claremont, California. 

Aki has considered it his lifelong personal mission to do what he could to honor the men of World War II, especially the Japanese-American soldiers who died in Europe, far from home and loved ones, for a country that had treated them with such disrespect.

He has also felt compelled to fight the racism and prejudice that caused the internment of Japanese-American citizens—one of the most shameful chapters in American history.

Aki said, “When I wonder why the evacuation happened, I believe that I must get at the root of that evil and work against it. You can’t overturn what Congress says but the root of it is prejudice and fear. That’s why I volunteered as a chaplain to protect or at least try to protect the men who have no power, and to fight prejudice all along the way.” *    

Roberta Rominger (MDiv 1982): Roberta Rominger's first call to ministry was to Tombstone, AZ Community Congregational Church, just down the street from the OK Corral. She’d been there for less than six months when a minister from her home church in California who had gone to England on sabbatical came back excited about possibilities for ministry in the UK. Her minister friend said she should hand in her resignation immediately and go to England to work with the United Reformed Church (URC), a denomination formed through unions of English Presbyterians, and English, Welsh and Scottish Congregationalists.  

“I laughed at the idea,” Rominger said. “But the idea wouldn’t go away, it wouldn’t go away. Over and over again it kept coming back.” Finally she decided to apply to a ministry exchange program between the UCC and the URC. In 1985, Rominger received a call to a congregation in Woking, suburban London. “Even on the airplane, it was like, ‘Oh God you’ve got to go with me because this is really scary.’ And then the vivid awareness when I landed and met the people there that, ‘Hello, God was there waiting for me to catch up.’ It really has been a very strong sense that that’s where I’m meant to be.”

From there, she began a remarkable journey that led in 2008 to her appointment as general secretary of the URC, the first woman and the first American to hold that position. She serves as the denomination’s main executive, alongside two moderators of the General Assembly (also both women at this time). The position seems fitting for a PSR alumna in a country where Congregationalists that refused to join the Church of England were known as “non-conformists.”

“When you think of the Mayflower,” Rominger says, “those were the ones who came here to America and ours were the ones who stayed in England and got persecuted and martyred and thrown in prison. For years there was systematic, institutionalized prejudice against them, they couldn’t even go to the major universities. They stuck to their beliefs, and they did it for conscience. So there’s real backbone in this church.”
PSR’s influence on Rominger’s life started even before she came to seminary, growing up at Foothills Congregational Church in Los Altos. “When our minister would go on vacation we had folk from the PSR faculty come and lead worship,” Rominger said.

One of the first courses she took in seminary was taught by former PSR president Davie Napier, “Genesis in Preaching,” a course that she described as “fantastic.” “I did as much biblical study as I could pack in because of the way the people here make the bible come alive. What an experience – everything I could get including the summer sessions in Greek and Hebrew.” Other faculty that influenced her were Wayne Rood, Doug Adams, Karen Lebacqz, and Wilhelm Wuellner.

“It’s just a huge privilege to be here to be recognized, because PSR has such distinguished alumni, and to be counted in that number is awesome,” Rominger says. “In addition to that the gift of PSR enabling me to come and immerse myself here for this little time [during the Earl Lectures], has been really good. The spirit of PSR is still alive and well— recognizably cutting edge, inclusive, and that’s what I experienced as a student, but it’s different issues today.”    

Fred Plumer (MDiv 1984): In addition to his distinguished alumni award from PSR, Fred Plumer has received some glowing testimonies from important people—such as this one from Bishop John Shelby Spong: “If anyone can save progressive Christianity, it’s Fred Plumer;” and from PSR’s professor of church history Randi Walker, a former colleague in ministry: “Fred is the sanest person I know.”
   
Plumer is president of ProgressiveChristianity.org, a network of churches, pastors, and scholars working to create community and resources for new expressions of Christianity. Plumer says, “I give progressive schools like PSR and projects like the Jesus Seminar credit for helping us to deconstruct the Jesus story. We needed that so we could be free to reconstruct the story.” The organization Plumer heads (which until recently was known as The Center for Progressive Christianity, founded in 1994) has become an online organization with staff around the country. The Web site has become the “Center’s” work, with over a thousand articles and hundreds of books reviews, and a repository of essays by writers like Spong and Marcus Borg. “If somebody was really looking for information about what was going on in Christian scholarship, there’s no Web site that would give you more information, more options, more book suggestions, study guides, curricula for children and adults, and small groups,” Plumer says.    
    
Plumer came to his work with ProgressiveChristianity.org after twenty years as pastor of the Irvine United Congregational Church in Orange County. His education at PSR and call to ministry took place at midlife, after a career in the corporate world. “Most of the things that were celebrated [at the PSR distinguished alumni/ae reception] were things that happened after I was 40 years old,” Plumer says, “I see that as when my life really began to have purpose.”
 
In 1989 under his leadership Irvine United Congregational Church agreed to host a Reconstructionist Jewish Synagogue. The congregations shared space, operating expenses, teaching forums, mission outreach projects, special services, and meals for more than 15 years. In 2000, with the synagogue's approval, a mosque joined this dynamic mix of religious traditions sharing space and ideas. Plumer has also been involved in the Open and Affirming movement for full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) members of the UCC. He was the executive producer of a video and workbook on the Open and Affirming process, “A Journey of Faith,” which has been used in five countries and in thousands of churches in several denominations.

Despite his busy schedule of travel, speaking, and leading workshops, he tries to find time for a spirituality-based approach to faith. “Jesus came to help us along a path where we could experience an ‘awake-ness’ to our connection with each other and with God, rather than as a sacrifice where if you believe this, you get to go to some happy-happy place when you die.”

Describing what the Southern California native calls his “beach boy theology,” Plumer says, “The metaphor I use is that we feel this warmth on our back, and so we have a choice, we can turn around and relax, and let that warmth fill us—and you lose all of your individualism, and you become part of that light; or if you don’t turn around and you keep your back to that light, you have a shadow. I think that’s what Jesus was trying to tell us. ‘Why do you worry about your possessions, why can’t you be awake? I’m here to help you see the things you don’t see, to hear the things you don’t hear.’”
     
John Vaughn (MDiv 1985): John Vaughn’s most important educational experiences at PSR did not take place on Holy Hill, but on the tough streets of the Tenderloin District in San Francisco. Vaughn was part of a revolutionary field education program at PSR in the mid-80’s called the Network Center for Urban Ministry, in which students spent a year of their seminary education taking their classes, working, and practicing pastoral care on-site at ministry centers in the city. “My internship was at Hamilton United Methodist Church. I preached once a month, I had pastoral care duties. I also served as a staff person to a youth center that was housed out of the church,” Vaughn says. PSR professors like Archie Smith, Roy Sano, and Robert McAfee Brown would come into the city and teach courses at the students’ field education sites. “I was on campus to sleep and do my homework,” Vaughn says, laughing, “but most of the time I was in the city. It was a very intentionally integrated academic and field ed. experience.”

The experience with the Network Center led Vaughn, ordained in the American Baptist Churches, into a remarkable ministry of community organizing, capacity building, and advocacy outside the bounds of traditional denominational settings. Vaughn currently serves as executive vice president of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City. He has also worked with two public foundations—as executive director of the Peace Development Fund in Amherst, MA and as program director of the Twenty-First Century Foundation. At the Twenty-First Century Foundation, he led the organization’s response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and created a program focusing on the health, education, and well-being of black men and boys. He has served as a senior minister for education and social justice at Riverside Church and as executive director of East Harlem Interfaith, Inc., a community development organization.

Vaughn credits PSR’s innovative program of contextual education for leading him into this unconventional ministry. “The Network Center engaged me academically in a way that made what I was studying come alive,” Vaughn said. “It gave me this sense of energy and focus.” Vaughn continues, “I also credit the Network Center with helping me understand that I actually had a call to ministry. It wasn’t so clear to me when I entered seminary. But it helped me and others to see that it was a call that was going to look a little bit different, and it wasn’t going to be the traditional call.”

* Information and quotes for the profile on George Aki came from his family, and from Nisei Christian Journey volume III, published by the Nisei Oral History Project, used with permission.