Home Editor's Choice Paul Kusuda: A voice against injustice

Paul Kusuda: A voice against injustice

In this week of gratitude, I’d like to take a moment to remember someone to whom I am grateful, someone I had the chance to encounter many times over the past 20 years.

Paul Kusuda died on November 10 at home at the age of 95. His impact on the lives of so many in the Madison area and on the community as a whole lives on. I first got to know Paul when he served on the Citizens Advisory Board at the Cap Times when I was the editorial page editor. Later I was one of his pastors at Lake Edge United Church of Christ for a time.

Because of these connections, I had the honor of giving the eulogy at Paul’s memorial service on Nov. 17 at Lake Edge UCC. While Paul was not religious in many of the traditional meanings of that word, his life embodied someone who knew how to live out Jesus’ teachings far better than many of us who claim the label of Christian.

One of the defining moments of Paul’s life came in 1942 when he and his family were sent to what was called a “war relocation camp” in California’s Death Valley. These Japanese internment camps became home for close to 120,000 Americans during World War II, sent there out of a fear that they might not be loyal to the U.S.

Paul, then 19 years old, wrote this letter from that internment camp:

“Dear President Roosevelt…”

That would be Paul – going right to the top to try to address an injustice.

“In schools,” he wrote, “everyone is taught that in the eyes of the law, all persons are considered innocent until proven to be guilty. But why was it that we were branded as potential spies, we were singled out as threatening democracy, we were and are considered dangerous? That hurt!”

Paul never got a response from FDR. “He had other, more pressing problems,” Paul graciously said more recently in that sly way of his.

Paul knew the power of words. He was never shy about using words to try to create a better, more fair and more just world.

Seventy-five years after that letter to the president, Paul wrote a column that appeared in the Asian Wisconszine section of Capital City Hues – one of the many, many columns he wrote for them over 13 years.

See if Paul’s words from just a year ago echo those words in his letter to FDR. Paul focused on how those in power today have demonized Muslims because they practice a different religion and pray to a different God.

His words expressed his “sense of outrage that America is again on the verge of making the same mistake — damning a group based on erroneous information, no information, xenophobia, and hysteria.”

I suspect that one of the reasons that Paul could feel comfortable in a church community like Lake Edge UCC is that he heard similar ideas there over the years.

He heard about Jesus continually crossing the lines that separated people in his time.

He heard words from another Paul, a follower of Jesus who broke the barriers between religious and ethnic groups in his era with words like “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Here’s a small story that I think tells a lot about Paul – and his wife of 67 years, Atsuko.

In 1988, Congress passed and President Reagan signed a measure to provide reparations to those held in the internment camps. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush sent a letter to each of the internees – that would include both Paul and Atsuko – with a check for $20,000 to each one. Paul and Atsuko did not keep the money. They donated it to a number of causes that were important to them.

If Paul was most identified with his experience in the internment camp and his life-long effort to keep something like that from happening again, that was not his only cause.

His life touched the lives of young people in trouble with the law and old people struggling with daily life.

His life touched students as a mentor and refugees seeking to settle in a new land.

His career as a social worker included helping write the legislation that led to the certification of social workers in Wisconsin and his life as a volunteer spanned 20 years of serving the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program in Dane County – nearly half of that organization’s existence.

And the honors he received go on and on and also speak to the range of his involvements – social work awards, an honor from the American Civil Liberties Union, the 2006 Dane County Martin Luther King, Jr. Recognition Award and so many more.

In presenting the King Award to Paul, then Dane County Executive Kathy Falk said of Paul’s reaction to his internment as a young man, “Instead of allowing that unfortunate and painful experience to make him hitter, Paul Kusuda has worked hard to heal those wounds by working very hard (with many organizations) – a labor of strength, dedication to the highest ideals of this country.”

Paul never lost faith in America or in the possibilities of creating a better world. While he was a faithful part of Lake Edge UCC across many decades, the north star in his life was the promise of America, even when the actions of the nation fell short of the promise.

Even in the internment camp, he argued with the growing anti-American sentiment of some of his fellow Japanese there, at no small risk to himself.

Even as he supported programs for Asian-American studies and other ethnic studies at UW-Madison, he cautioned against political or social alliances built around ethnic identities that could fragment a sense of the greater good.

Even as he was horrified to see the nation beginning to replay what had happened to him and his family with its hostility toward Muslims, he held out the promise of what America should be.

As part of a story that appeared in Isthmus last April, there is a video of Paul’s conversation. At one point, Paul pulls out his tattered copy of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. You could sense how deeply he believed in the power of those words as he ready them in a voice that had become a bit raspy with age:

“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these is Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness…”

As he wrote in his column last November, “To deny those rights to a group because of religion, ethnicity, race, or other characteristic is to deny to all. Such denial is hardly what many of us know America to be.”

Paul knew how to walk with people who were hurting and in his death, I think that invitation is there for us to continue his work.

So I asked the family, friends and community leaders at that memorial service to hold Paul’s life in our memories, to embrace each other in our sorrow at his passing and then to carry on his legacy by how we go about overcoming unfairness and injustice in our world.

In that spirit, we ended with that wonderful, hopeful anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”

We shall overcome
We shall overcome
We shall overcome, some day
Oh, deep in my heart
I do believe
We shall overcome, some day.