Melvin Fujikawa, long-time Baptist worship leader/pastor and later gay activist, was born in 1954 and grew up in a Japanese American community in Gardena, California. His parents, Kaneso & Sachi Fujikawa, were Nisei (second-generation immigrants). His mother was more Americanized and progressive and encouraged Melvin to be a freer spirit and artistic. As a child, Melvin often felt out of place with his peers. While other Asian-Americans around him were more academic, Melvin enjoyed arts and performing. His mother helped him to find outlets to study and perform music. He began playing violin at an early age. He took lessons, played recitals and was accepted into an orchestra for gifted children. As an adolescent he sang and toured with a youth performance group called The Young Americans which was based in West Hollywood but later became national.
Melvin was also aware of his attraction to boys and men from a young age. While it was impossible to affirm himself as gay within his social setting, he knew what his attractions were. While he did not try to force himself to be straight, he developed habits of “editing” his self to hide his sexuality. These closet habits became entrenched in his life.
Melvin’s parents were not religious, so he did not grow up in the church. During his youth he visited Gardena Valley Baptist Church with Japanese American friends. He was entranced seeing people singing there; there was a freedom to perform. His musical gifts were recognized and he was invited to take on leadership roles in singing and worship. No one mentioned homosexuality there at that time, so while he was accepted, he still had a lingering sense that he didn’t completely fit in.
Melvin received undergraduate and graduate degrees in vocal performance from USC. During this time he felt drawn to the vocation of ministry which both provided opportunities for performing and also expressing love for people. Ministry provided with a level of intimacy that he did not have in other parts of his life.
After his early years serving as music director at Gardena Valley Baptist Church, he began working in campus ministry. Starting in the early 1980s he served with the Asian-American Christian Fellowship at CSUN, UCLA and USC. He enrolled in seminary at Fuller Theological Seminary in 1985. Because he continued to serve in full-time ministry and went to school very part-time, he graduated in 1994. He became music and worship director at the Union Church of Los Angeles (UCC and Presbyterian) which was located in Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles. When the pastor left, he served on the interim pastoral team.
At age 40 Melvin went through a major midlife crisis. For a year and a half he felt anger and frustration with God about who he was and what he was doing. He struggled with a lack of meaning and purpose. After a lot of searching he came to see that he needed to find a deeper sense of purposefulness for his life and that he would have to figure out what that was. He began reading and studying about human sexuality and about being gay. He visited All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena where he could observe gay persons and couples in church. He did not explore connections with gay men because of his church ministry position. Eventually he found truce with God.
He had been attending Evergreen Baptist Church in Los Angeles and stepped into a part-time worship leadership role when that was open. The church went through a major split in 1995 with the lead pastor departing with some people and most of financial resources Melvin stayed with the remnant who remained at the property and began planting a new congregation. He served as worship pastor from 1996-2006. When rumors about his personal life surfaced, the other pastors asked Melvin to make a public statement about his sexuality. It was painful for Melvin to publicly deny his homosexuality but he felt he had no choice in order to continue to do ministry which he deeply loved.
In 2006, Melvin was called to become the executive pastor of Christian Layman Church in Oakland. Even as his ministry thrived there he was feeling increasing unease at being in the closet. At age 55 he determined that he was ready to come out publicly. Knowing there were strong antigay feelings in his church, he resigned in April 2010 so that he could come out without causing problems there.
That October he started coming out slowly and strategically; choosing whom to come out to and in what order. He first told a long-time friend that he was gay. Momentum grew and his new life began opening up. At the suggestion of a friend he joined the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus in January 2011. This brought a large network of relationships, including one with Mark Hamner who was a retired Presbyterian pastor. Later that year Mark was diagnosed with leukemia. As Mark went through treatment, Melvin became his caregiver and moved in with him. Their relationship continued to deepen and when the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality was announced on June 26, 2015, Mark proposed to Melvin that evening. The chorus was gathered for a performance and in front of the whole chorus, Mark got down on his knees and asked Melvin to marry him. They were married on May 7, 2016. Mark died June 8, 2017.
Melvin has performed numerous solos with the SF Gay Men’s Chorus and also the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles. He is now a licensed spiritual director and a voice coach. He is also active as a speaker in Asian American churches on sexuality, helping them become more open to and affirming of LGBTQ persons. Beginning in March 2020, he has been serving as a consultant to Evergreen Baptist Church on their journey to engage same-sex marriage. Indicative of the diversity of that congregation, some leaders are ready and willing to marry same-sex couples while others are not.
Melvin does not regret waiting 56 years before coming out. For him the closet was a sacred place…place of growth and solitude that shaped his being. He learned much about living through and thriving in pain. He learned the importance of listening to and understanding pain in other persons.
(This biographical statement written by Mark Bowman from interviews with Melvin Fujikawa and edited by Melvin.)
Biography Date: January 2021
Baptist | Clergy Activist | Asian American | Artist/musician/poet | Berkeley | Los Angeles | California
“Melvin Fujikawa | Profile”, LGBTQ Religious Archives Network, accessed September 19, 2021, https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/profiles/melvin-fujikawa.