The Rev. Mineo Katagiri was a United Church of Christ clergy who advocated for social justice and racial equality and was an early supporter of LGBTQ rights. Katagiri was born on August 1, 1919, in Haleiwa, Hawai’i. His father and mother were Buddhist and worked as barbers on the north shore of Oahu. His father supplemented the family income through selling home-brewed liquor and hand-carved sashimi. During his youth Mineo witnessed and experienced the horrible conditions and injustices of the plantation system—sugar cane and pineapple fields—where many Asian immigrants worked long days for meager wages. Years later he would write: “My hatred of the plantation system has become an emotional one. My life has therefore been one of quest for means and methods of breaking such a system.”
Mineo enrolled in the University of Hawaii in 1937, intending to become a lawyer so as to work for social change. An athlete who played baseball and basketball, he became active in the university YMCA to participate in its sports programs. His leadership abilities became evident as he was elected to the student council of the university and the vice-president, and later president, of the YMCA. His life changed dramatically in August 1939 when he traveled to the World Conference of Christian Youth in Amsterdam as part of the YMCA’s delegation. Europe was aflame with the rise of Nazi Germany and its persecution of Jews. Following the conference, Mineo and some friends toured Europe. While in Germany he became gravely ill with an infection and high fever. Fearing that he might die in Nazi Germany, he prayed to God that if he recovered, he would give his life to Christian service. He did recover quickly and upon his return to the university changed his focus to ministry. He graduated in 1941 and enrolled in Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
Union was a high-profile seminary at that time, with a renowned faculty and a focus on social justice. Mineo thrived there and through the counsel of some friends he associated with the Congregational Church (which became the United Church of Christ in 1957). After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, there was pressure in the Japanese-American community for young men to enlist in the U.S. military. As Mineo was preparing to graduate from seminary in 1944, he received a draft notice. By that time he was strong in his pacifist beliefs and claimed conscientious objector status. This was not a popular stance within his family and community.
Mineo served briefly as a pastor in rural Kentucky and then outside Chicago. However, he encountered much resistance because of the strong anti-Japanese sentiment in the U.S. at the time. So in January 1945, he returned to Hawai’i and married his childhood sweetheart, Nobu Sasai. Three daughters were born into the family in the years following as he pastored congregations on Oahu, Maui, and Kauai. He also taught at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan.
In 1959, the Katagiri family moved to Seattle, where Mineo became the campus minister at University Congregational United Church of Christ. There his charismatic, active, open-minded style flourished in interactions with university students. As the turbulent 1960s unfolded, U.S. church leaders began searching and experimenting on how to do authentic ministry in cities. In 1965, United Church of Christ officials in Seattle decided to create an Ecumenical Metropolitan Ministry to engage urban problems and needs. Because of his success in campus ministry, Katagiri was invited to head this new ministry initiative.
Katagiri understood that in this role he should be learning about and listening to the multitude of voices and communities in the city and working in partnerships to improve peoples’ lives. One of the Seattle communities he encountered early in this ministry were the gay men who gathered in the bars and restaurants around Pioneer Square. In March 1966, a small group of gay and lesbian activists met in Katagiri’s office and formed the Dorian Society, Seattle’s first gay rights group. Katagiri continued to meet with the group and provide meeting space for them. In November 1966, when the Seattle City Council was considering whether to limit or curtail gay clubs, Katagiri was chosen to be a spokesperson for the gay community before the Council. The Council decided to allow gay clubs to remain.
Modeled on the innovative dialogues between homosexuals and clergy that the Council on Religion and the Homosexual began in San Francisco in 1964, Katagiri hosted similar daylong gatherings with gay and church leaders for listening and learning. Katagiri also worked with the gay community to provide opportunities for journalists and church leaders to take tour of gay clubs and establishments to get firsthand, personal knowledge of LGBTQ persons.
Katagiri was driven by his passionate belief in the integrity and dignity of every human being. Therefore, he worked for economic and racial justice as well as LGBTQ equality. He served as president of the Seattle-King County Economic Opportunity Board and was on the boards of the Central Area Civil Rights Committee and the Seattle Urban League. He founded and led the Asian Coalition for Equality.
Katagiri’s vigorous and faithful ministry and leadership took him to a national church position in 1970 as the Director of Mission Priorities for the United Church of Christ in New York City. In 1975, he was called to be the Conference Minister for the Northern California UCC. He supported the collective ordination of Stacy Cusulos, Jody Parsons and Loey Powell on April 2, 1978 and led a prayer in that ordination service, (See Sisterhood Is Powerful exhibit.) Stacy served as the Associate Conference Minister for Youth and Young Adults. When another pastor tried to have her removed from that position because she was known to be lesbian, Katagiri’s strong defense of Cusulos and her fitness for ministry were instrumental in keeping her in that position.
Katagiri retired in 1984 and lived in San Francisco. He died on November 15, 2005 at the age of 86.
(This biographical statement written by Mark Bowman from an article, “This, I Think, They Deserve to Have: the Ministry and Advocacy for Gay and Marginalized People,” by Stan Yogi--see below--and from obituaries in the San Francisco Chronicle and Seattle Times, as well as Wikipedia.)
Biography Date: July 2020
"This, I Think, They Deserve to Have: the Ministry and Advocacy of Rev. Mineo Katagiri for Gay and Marginalized People, Part 1" by Stan Yogi.
"This, I Think, They Deserve to Have: the Ministry and Advocacy of Rev. Mineo Katagiri for Gay and Marginalized People, Part 2" by Stan Yogi.