Noe Valley Voice September 2005

An Ideal Match: Nobu Hanaoka and Bethany Church

By Laura McHale Holland

On July 1, Rev. Nobu Hanaoka became the new pastor of Bethany United Methodist Church, which is located at the corner of Clipper and Sanchez streets. He replaces interim pastor Dr. David Ourisman, who took the reins from Karen Oliveto a year ago. She made headlines when she officiated same-sex marriage ceremonies during San Francisco's gay marriage venture of 2004 and is now assistant dean at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley.

"Bethany is well-known throughout the nation as a church that is actively in support of the LGBT community's human rights. I agree with that position, and it is a privilege to be part of that ministry," says Hanaoka, who resides in Daly City with his wife, Ayako, and two daughters who are in their early 20s. He also has a 33-year-old son living in Los Angeles.

One of Hanaoka's daughters is a lesbian, and in late July he spoke about his emotional adjustments to her sexual preference at a United Methodist gathering in Berkeley for Asian Americans. His own experiences have strengthened his commitment to moving the larger United Methodist Church to full inclusion of LGBT people. He'd like to see them be able to marry and to become pastors.

His personal experiences also have made peace issues central to his 35 years of ministry. He was an infant who survived the bombing of Nagasaki in 1945. His mother, one of his sisters, and his brother were not so lucky. While they did not succumb immediately, they all died from the effects of radiation before he was a teenager.

Hanaoka organized an observance in Peace Plaza in Japantown on Aug. 6, the 60th anniversary of the bombing, and he thinks revitalizing the antinuclear movement is imperative.

"The general public may be under the impression that we're no longer under a nuclear threat because the Cold War has ended. But we are, in fact, under a greater threat of nuclear disaster because of the destructive power of the nuclear weapons that we have now," he points out. "The Hiroshima bomb was 40 kilotons. But the smallest ICBM today carries three nuclear bombs with a total destructive power of 180 megatons. We, the U.S., have at least 10,000 such weapons, and the rest of the world combined has another 10,000 that we know of, so the destructive power is definitely increasing and so is the efficiency of carrying such weapons."

It is faith, not fear of annihilation, that informs Hanaoka's life, however. He attributes this to a sister who, like he, survived the radiation exposure. "She was a Christian, and she wanted to make sure that I had some positive understanding of life because the experiences within the family were so tragic. She took me to church at least twice a week: Sunday service and Wednesday prayers. So the church was my life, and when I was in high school I decided I would become a pastor, knowing that there are so many other people who needed to have hope and faith in humanity as well as in God," he recalls.

Hanaoka, who was then an American Baptist, majored in theology in college and came to the U.S. in 1970 to study at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pa., where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had also studied. Later, while pursuing a Ph.D. at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, he was appointed part-time pastor at a United Methodist church in Albany. "I became familiar with the United Methodist theology and was really attracted to it, so that's why I switched my affiliation," he says.

Hanaoka is interested in bringing to Bethany a national movement called Shalom, a ministry that collaborates with neighborhood groups to make positive changes, attracting new members as a result. But first, his 175-member congregation is going to have to decide what neighborhood they're actually going to be in.

"There are three options before the membership right now," Hanaoka says. "One is to move to 2299 Market Street [a long-empty lot] and build something there. The second option is to remain where we are and do some extensive renovations to meet the seismic requirements, and the third option is to move to another, already existing building."

The congregation will be voting their preference this month or next, he says. "We received a feasibility study, and a committee studied the options and made a report. Now, people are thinking it over. There's no way of knowing what they'll decide."

In any event, Hanaoka appreciates the warm welcome he's received in Noe Valley, and he promises to keep us informed about what his congregation--proud to be on the front lines of the struggle for human rights--decides to do next.