Meet the new chaplain: Lisa Ishihara on faith, family, and student life
This autumn, Seattle Pacific welcomed new chaplain Lisa Ishihara to campus.
Ishihara is ordained in the Pacific Coast Japanese Conference of the Free Methodist Church and comes to SPU from a position as director of chapel programs at Biola University in California. Bo Lim, who had served as interim chaplain for four years, stepped back into his faculty role as associate professor of Old Testament. Response had the chance to listen in this summer as Ishihara and Lim transitioned across roles. Here is an excerpt from that conversation.
Lim: What experiences led you into ministry and to become a university chaplain?
Ishihara: I remember when my mom started a girls’ choir at our church. When I was about 12, I started helping her, and it eventually grew into this dance/worship ministry in our church. So that was kind of my first introduction into ministry. The desire in my heart was always to follow the Lord and serve him. In college, I was planning to go into business, and the Lord redirected me. After I graduated college, I worked as an executive team leader at Target for a bit, and he opened the doors for me to attend seminary. I thought I would go a lot later in life just for fun, and the Lord was like, “No, you’re going to go now.” Even when I graduated, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was actually really open to going back to business. But then the Lord opened the doors for me to serve at Biola as a director of chapel programs for 10 years.
Then I was asked to pray about this position. I went with God and my friends through the process, and I had about 54 people back at home praying for me and helping me to discern. This was a communal decision. It really was the people in my church and faith community speaking into my life and saying, “Lisa, I think this is what God has for you.” I am grateful for God’s call and excited to see what he has next for us.
Response: How do you see your job changing in light of the differences between SPU’s student body and the student body at Biola? [Editor’s note: Biola students sign a statement of faith, while SPU students do not.]
Ishihara: I think you get to ask different questions, and I like that because it helps us really own our faith. That has always been at the core of college ministry for me: How do you own your own faith? When you’re in a place where people have similar beliefs as you, you can ask some of those really deep, philosophical questions. And then when you engage people who are not like you, whether in faith, gender, background, socioeconomic status, or place in life, you get to have your faith tested or shaped or stretched.
I had about 54 people back at home praying for me and helping me to discern.
You really get to ask the question, “What do I believe?” A big part of college life is figuring out your own identities. Who are you? As a believer, who are you in Christ? I’ve asked the question, as a woman, who am I? As an Asian-American, who am I? As a person who has been active and ordained in the church, who am I? Our students have the opportunity to ask those identity questions as they engage students who have similar and different journeys.
Lim: Culturally speaking, how would you describe yourself? What is your own cultural background, and how does that play into who you are and how you minister?
Ishihara: I grew up at Anaheim Japanese Free Methodist Church, and it’s the church that also sent me out to come up here. There’s this feeling of family in our church. We have many different generations in our church, and I love that we all get to worship together in one service.
We do everything around food. And when you’re having a meal, you just talk about anything and everything that’s happening, from taking care of your parents who are now older and need support to those that are figuring out, “How do I raise my kids?” or “How do I raise my grandkids?” to some of us who are singles in our church and trying to figure out, “OK, how do I live the flourishing single life? What does that look like?” People have a lot of good wisdom. The Asian-American collectivistic community that I was a part of that was predominantly Japanese-American modeled this “sticky rice” — being connected to one another and doing life together.
After World War II, when many of our family members had been in internment camps and were then released from camp, they had to bond together to persevere. And there’s a certain perseverance and endurance modeled that helped to form and shape me. Loyalty, commitment, hard work, and faithfulness are these underlying values that were modeled in my Japanese-American faith community.
So when I make a big decision about my life, it’s not just my life. It’s also about my community. I had about five different send-offs as I left from groups who prayed for me and sent me up here. I have gotten so many texts and emails and phone calls, and I’ve only been up here a week. My church community is with me in this transition.
Lim: When I came up to SPU, I had a very similar experience. I’m Korean-American, and there’s a certain level of obligation, a level of support. Our parents helped us move and have journeyed with us. There’s a sense of, I stand here today having the baton passed to me by a cloud of witnesses, and I minister out of that space. How has that background impacted who you are and how you minister as a chaplain?
Ishihara: We minister out of who God has made us to be and the people that we come from. It’s important to remember that and then to have freedom to live and do ministry out of that.
We need different spaces — we’re all part of this large, greater community. At the same time, it’s also valuable to be known and to be seen and to be loved in a way that feels like it speaks to your heart. We need places where we can be known, where we can grow and understand more, but there’s also a place to be a part of the larger community. Both are important, and I hope to create those spaces in the ministry here. Part of our Christian faith and a relationship with Christ is to be known, to be seen, to be loved, to be forgiven, to be fully accepted. Sometimes, these communities get to reflect that. I hope to help foster some of those communities for our students, faculty, and staff.
Response: Students coming to college at SPU and elsewhere bring diverse perspectives and identities of ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexuality, and other attributes to a small community. How do you, as a chaplain, engage with that diversity?
Ishihara: A faith-based educational institution has the opportunity to be a place where you can engage your social identities and ask formative questions about who you are. This is a conversation that many Christian universities and institutions are having.
As a Christian, I believe that all of our social identities can be part of our development and sanctification process. For Christians, the work of Christ and what he has done for us on the cross ties us together and makes us heirs to the kingdom. Out of that, God grows and shapes and sanctifies us in these different ways and helps to empower us and make us into who he made us to be. We need to have places for our students to develop in their social identities.
Part of my responsibility is to create spaces for students to grow, personally and communally. There’s an opportunity for the institution to provide resources and tools that shape our students and empower them to be flourishing human beings. Part of that is helping students navigate challenging conversations and learn to live in the tension. It’s important to consider, when someone might reject me or get really mad about something, how do I engage and respond to that?
Part of that is just learning how to sit in tension, to be really good listeners, and to value others and their story and their journey. We should be able to navigate these difficult spaces where I can fully respect you even if we fully disagree on this one part of life. The hard part is, we often forget that. Many of us focus on that one part that we don’t like, and we forget that, oh, that person was made in the image of Christ, and they reflect the image of God too.
I would love to bring in resources for students that help them to navigate that well. If we have tools, if we can share those with the community, that’s a way that we can grow together for the common good.
We need to have places for our students to develop in their social identities.
Lim: Thinking about what we as a Christian university can contribute to the common good, I think it’s exactly this. There’s always been a political reality to a university. But one of the things we want to resist as a university is being merely a political tool. There is an ideal that we strive for at a university, that we can appreciate ideas. That we can have vigorous debate. That we can have deep respect for difference. And actually, I would argue, in our current climate maybe a contribution of the Christian university is to actually pull this off, because it isn’t happening at many universities.
I hope an ideal we can strive for in a Christian place is to say, “Hey, look. I know these are controversial topics. I know there’s a lot on the line. But I will hear you because you have an intrinsic value.” We have a communal value of love and humility, so I have a posture of entering into conversations. That can be an incredible witness today.
Ishihara: The Christian institution has the greatest opportunity to model engagement and also model love. I’ve been camping a lot on Philippians 1:9–11. It says, “This is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” What I love about this passage is it grounds it in the love of God, and it’s out of this abounding love that comes from God that we’re able to discern what is true and what is good. We all have learning and growth to do in our conversations, but I think it’s a great hope.
This article originally appeared on pages 42–44 of the autumn 2018 issue of Response with the headline, “Called to community: Meet University Chaplain Lisa Ishihara.” Illustration by Ricky Lynn.