A tribute to Chieko Okazaki: a sister, in wisdom and kindness

A Guest Post by Janice Bouck
We invite you to leave your memories of Sister Okazaki in the comment section below this post. This memory is from the mother of permablogger Jana Remy.

Sister Chieko Okazaki was an inspiration to me in several ways.  Sharing the background of being an educator, I admired her level of excellence and her high expectations from those she taught, but at the same time doing so with much love, humor, and patient understanding.  Sister Okazaki often taught us from a minority view, having experienced prejudice in her life.  But her viewpoint was sometimes that of the minority as well.  She was sometimes outspoken and did not always give the standard reply, but rather was not afraid to have a differing opinion from the majority.  But her teachings were always couched in wisdom and kindness.

She was a petite woman, but commanded a tall stature when addressing an audience.  Her Asian beauty was striking and her carefully-chosen suits and meticulously coiffed hair were in contrast to the day I saw her buying a pair of jeans in ZCMI.  But, alas, she was as careful in her choice of denim as she obviously was in her choice of conference clothing.

Chieko Okazaki experienced tragedy in her life in the loss of her beloved husband.  I, too, went through the loss of a dear one and her experiences and her teachings were helpful to me as I reached out for comfort during those trying times.  She taught of hope and faith.  She raised our sights to better places.  She was a wonderful person to call “Sister”.

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17 Responses

  1. stacer says:

    Sister Okazaki’s talks were a huge influence on me in the early 90s when I was deciding whether to come back to church or not. Her optimism and willingness to persevere in the face of difficulties—not just racism but also the loss of her husband—told me that despite my frustrations with certain things, there was a place for my belief here in the church.

    I met her once. I can’t even remember the city or the occasion, just that it was after a church meeting of some sort, but I do remember expressing my appreciation to her and getting such a strong hug, and feeling so loved just in that brief encounter.

    Now I want to go back over her talks, which I haven’t revisited in a while, and feel that inspiration again.

  2. TopHat says:

    I didn’t really have many experiences with her, other than other people saying she was awesome. I came on the RS scene years after she had been in the Presidency. But my earliest run-in with her ideas was her book Lighten Up that my mom had on her book shelf. I should revisit it and some of her other books. Might make for a good book club night.

  3. Aimee says:

    When I was in college and starting to really piece together my spiritual and religious life for the first time, I just happened to hear one of Chieko’s talks at BYU’s Womens Conference that was airing on KBYU TV. As I sat and listened to her profound sermon on a Jesus who really KNOWS and loves women, my life was changed. She changed the way I understood Jesus and the power of the atonement. I am sure I have used this excerpt from her talk at least a dozen times while teaching in the years since. I’m including it here. Thank you, Sister Okazaki, for this and many, many other things you did to bring such goodness into the world.

    “Well, my dear sisters, the gospel is the good news that can free us from guilt. We know that Jesus experienced the totality of mortal existence in Gethsemane. It’s our faith that he experienced everything- absolutely everything. Sometimes we don’t think through the implications of that belief. We talk in great generalities about the sins of all humankind, about the suffering of the entire human family. But we don’t experience pain in generalities. We experience it individually. That means he knows what it felt like when your mother died of cancer- how it was for your mother, how it still is for you. He knows what it felt like to lose the student body election. He knows that moment when the brakes locked and the car started to skid. He experienced the slave ship sailing from Ghana toward Virginia. He experienced the gas chambers at Dachau. He experienced Napalm in Vietnam. He knows about drug addiction and alcoholism.
    Let me go further. There is nothing you have experienced as a woman that he does not also know and recognize. On a profound level, he understands the hunger to hold your baby that sustains you through pregnancy. He understands both the physical pain of giving birth and the immense joy. He knows about PMS and cramps and menopause. He understands about rape and infertility and abortion. His last recorded words to his disciples were, “And, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” (Matthew 28:20) He understands your mother-pain when your five-year-old leaves for kindergarten, when a bully picks on your fifth-grader, when your daughter calls to say that the new baby has Down syndrome. He knows your mother-rage when a trusted babysitter sexually abuses your two-year-old, when someone gives your thirteen-year-old drugs, when someone seduces your seventeen-year-old. He knows the pain you live with when you come home to a quiet apartment where the only children are visitors, when you hear that your former husband and his new wife were sealed in the temple last week, when your fiftieth wedding anniversary rolls around and your husband has been dead for two years. He knows all that. He’s been there. He’s been lower than all that. He’s not waiting for us to be perfect. Perfect people don’t need a Savior. He came to save his people in their imperfections. He is the Lord of the living, and the living make mistakes. He’s not embarrassed by us, angry at us, or shocked. He wants us in our brokenness, in our unhappiness, in our guilt and our grief. “

    • Keri Brooks says:

      This is beautiful. (I wanted to say awesome at first, but that word gets so overused.) Which talk is it from?

      • Aimee says:

        I can’t remember which Women’s Conference it was (and I’m sure I didn’t see it live, so I can’t even guess the year, though Deborah sounds like she’s in the ball park). In any case, I think this quote is also in her book, “Lighten Up” and is worth having around for any lesson remotely related to the atonement or mercy or any Christian principle, really.

    • Caroline says:

      This made me teary. How I love Chieko Okazaki. May we know many, many more of her kind.

      • Amelia says:

        me, too, Caroline. It’s so unusual and powerful to see the Atonement tied in such a close, deeply personal way to the struggles women face. I love it.

    • Corktree says:

      Thank you for sharing this one Aimee. It represents what I feel Chieko’s writing, talks and faith do for me; make me want to have a relationship with Christ and feel his love and understanding. She enabled me (and still does as she lives on in her words and example) to feel that it was possible to feel the way I do about the Church and still pursue that aspect of believing – like it really is Christ’s church. She was a beautiful giant of a woman despite her petite package and I’m grateful she used her voice as she did.

    • One of my favorite Chieko quotes!

  4. Deborah says:

    Kerri: It’s from a Women’s Conference talk — 1994 I believe. That passage also profoundly influenced my understanding of salvific love.

    I feel so lucky to have “come of age” during the Jack/Okazaki/Clyde administration. Their profound wisdom and generosity made me excited to join Relief Society and gave me a sense of its promise during my early 20s. I have so many favorite talks. Sister Okazaki’s crazy quilt metaphor is perhaps my favorite, with its bold thesis: “There is not just one right way to be a Mormon Woman.” Here’s a passage from the talk:

    All of us women have an image of the ideal family—a marriage in the temple to an active priesthood holder, and children who are obedient and faithful. But President Ezra Taft Benson has pointed out that only 14 percent of American households in 1980 match the traditional image of a family—working husband, full-time mother with children still in the home. 2 Reliable statistics indicate that only one out of five LDS families in the United States have a husband and wife married in the temple with children in their home. As Elder M. Russell Ballard has already reminded us, there is great diversity in LDS homes. But all of these homes can be righteous homes where individuals love each other, love the Lord, and strengthen each other. Let me give you an example. Here are two quilts. Both are handmade, beautiful, and delightful to snuggle down in or wrap around a grandchild. Now look at this quilt. It’s a Hawaiian quilt with a strong, predictable pattern. We can look at half of the quilt and predict what the other half looks like. Sometimes our lives seem patterned, predictable in happy ways, in order. Now look at this second quilt. This style is called a crazy quilt. Some pieces are the same color, but no two pieces are the same size. They’re odd shapes. They come together at odd angles. This is an unpredictable quilt. Sometimes our lives are unpredictable, unpatterned, not neat or well-ordered. Well, there’s not one right way to be a quilt as long as the pieces are stitched together firmly. Both of these quilts will keep us warm and cozy. Both are beautiful and made with love. There’s not just one right way to be a Mormon woman, either, as long as we are firmly grounded in faith in the Savior, make and keep covenants, live the commandments, and work together in charity. (Chieko Okazaki, “Strength in the Savior” General Conference October 1993)

    Her talk on healing for sexual abuse is the best treatment on the subject I have ever seen come from the church:

    http://theexponent.wordpress.com/2007/09/06/chieko-okazakis-healing-from-sexual-abuse/

    I will miss her voice terribly. We are all called to be saints, but this wonderful woman deserves to be canonized.

    • Aimee says:

      I LOVE this quote. LOVE it. What a beautiful metaphor for how we should think of each other and ourselves. Thanks, Deborah.

  5. Chieko Okazaki was a beautiful, wise, loving woman. How I wish I’d had her model as a Mormon woman successfully managing family and career earlier in my life.

  6. Amelia says:

    I love this tribute, especially the last paragraph. Chieko Okazaki touched so many women in very real, very personal ways. And reading the excerpts that Deborah and Aimee shared, it’s easy to see why. Her incredible combination of a very practical, very compassionate recognition of how complex life is with all of its difficulties with an understanding of the gospel focused on love makes me want to both cry and shout for joy at the same time. I wish we all had this beautiful understanding of life and the gospel.

  7. spunky says:

    I’ll never forget the moment I first heard Chieko speak. Its funny, because it was a conference talk when I was only moderately active, and she brought in boat oars as a visual aid. I was floored and impressed that she did that- and fell in love immediately. This simple, visual conference anomaly made me actually pay attention to her when she spoke- and I felt with her, unlike the other male and female conference speakers, that I was included in being called a woman of Zion. She helped me to understand that I could have a relationship with Christ even though I didn’t fit the typical Mormon mould.

  8. Kirsten says:

    Sis. Okazaki’s words were so helpful to me in dark hours when I felt that I just wasn’t who I was “supposed” to be. She helped me see that I was enough… just the way I was. She helped me let go of guilt, anxiety, shame— and truly helped me to “Lighten Up!” I will forever be grateful for her conference visual aids– cat’s cradle and quilts (something near and dear to my soul!) Her positivity and vivaciousness were the embrace that my soul needed.

  9. Joanne says:

    I have reread Chieko’s book “Cat’s Cradle” many times. I also enjoy looking up her old conference talks — very pertinent for today and tomorrow. Like Deborah, I’m grateful I came of age during the Jack/Okazaki/Clyde era. I have specific, high praise for each of those women, and they will always be my standard for female leaders.

    Maybe 5 years ago, I watched (on Vimeo) as she addressed LDS lawyers at some kind of conference. (The person who introduced Chieko said that saying the name “Chieko” now has similar recognition and endearment to saying the names of first-name-only folks like Cher, Evita, Oprah, Jackie, etc.) No doubt Chieko is a victim’s advocate, but I was also touched by how she spoke to those attorneys who would become public defenders, ensuring the basic rights of the accused — the people no one really wants to represent.

  10. Vicky says:

    She came to our stake in 1999 on inspiration from the stake RS presidency and on her own inspiration. The date had to be picked in advance of even consulting with her and it all worked out perfectly that she was going to be 9 hours away in another stake and that RS presidency graciously agreed to share her. She spoke to our RS sisters and those from two other stakes on the exact date turned in for the stake calendar.She strengthened in all directions for the amount of time she was here. She was in her early 70’s. She shared privately she was glad to be with us – it was the anniversary of her husband’s death and she was glad to be serving and busy. She took private time with a woman who had just recently lost her daughter in a tragic accident, a young teenager who had suffered sexual abuse, a soon to be widow whose husband was dying from cancer. She met privately with the stake Primary, YW and RS presidencies and enouraged us in unity. Then she spoke to over 1000 women, some of who traveled to hear her. She said to us, “I can’t believe these women drove all that way just to hear me!” She was full of love, energy, and the Spirit. Twelve years later, we still reflect and ponder on her visit and her words.

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