Warmth of Members' Homes
By Victor Edward Jarvis
We grew up in New York, us four kids and Mom. Mom left Dad when I was about two years old, just after she'd begun to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. That was back in '69. What a crazy cool year! Anyway, Dad was very abusive; he would beat her so severely she had to wear long skirts and long sleeves to cover the marks and bruises.
I think it was a mutual friend of Mom and Dad's at the High School of Music and Art who introduced them both to the Soka Gakkai in America. Mom chanted; Dad did not.
Because she divorced him and took on this heathen religion, a double no-no in our strictly Lutheran family, the five of us were disowned and ended up living on the street and in run-down apartments. NSA (the name of SGI-USA back then) had a tiny, tiny, tiny community center on Beech (Sp?) or Beechwood avenue/street in Queens. But we mostly met in membersí homes.
Folks, those meetings were the best times of my young life. Everyone was so hip and into learning this new religion. Smiling, talking about kosen-rufu, defining Buddhist terms like esho funi, shiki shin funi, and bonno soku bodai. But the most important thing, the singular event that sticks out the most in my mind ... how important it is for us to continue always to meet in each other's homes ....
There was this one young Japanese man who could barely speak a word of English. He was about 5'1", always bowed to everyone who walked in the door and constantly opened up his tiny Queens studio apartment to members and meetings. Once a week, Mom would scrub our clothes clean, dole out fresh underwear (Note: we were so poor, my twin sister and I had to share underwear with my two older brothers), hand us each our own beads and books, and off we'd walk the several miles to his apartment.
Our clothes weren't the best, our shoes were worn out, but when we walked in the door we felt like kings and queens. You see, somehow, this man had found out that we were without food and had been moving from place to place, that Mom received welfare and struggled to work enough to feed and clothe us. Towards the end of each meeting he would approach us playing in his entranceway and motion for us to enter his kitchen. On his tiny stove would be a wok full of the most succulent beef teriyaki imaginable!!!!
Noodles, strips of beef, onions, peppers, tomatoes, bamboo, and teriyaki! As the members left, they could see us off to the side slurping this delightful dinner down. Some days, it was literally the ONLY thing we ate. Often it was the ONLY thing we ate that had meat or some form of protein in it.
I don't know what this man got out of this ... he simply stood there and watched us four kids eat to our heart's content. He and Mom would go through this dance of she offering the few dollars she had, him refusing, him offering her a bowl of food, she refusing, back and forth, back and forth. Finally, at one point, Mom caved in, stopped offering money, and accepted a bowl of food herself.
Mom would forego eating so that we four could eat. She eventually ended up working three jobs so we could get off welfare and move to a better place: Hartford, Connecticut. Sometimes we'd go back to New York and visit Grandma and see old members. A few even ended up moving to Connecticut too. I never did get that man's name and I don't know where his apartment is. I could go back to the old neighborhood and kinda retrace our steps, but I don't know the number or building.
Every now and then, I chant to run into him one day, or that I'll tell this experience and he'll recognize himself. But that's not the point of this experience riddled with bad English and poor verb usage.
The point is this: we didn't need the community center per se to look after one another. The community center, or kaikan as we called it back then, was a place for members from many neighborhoods to come together and catch up and meet. But it was in a Japanese member's home that four starving children and their Mom got to eat and receive encouragement that no amount of space or mortgage money could provide.
I am not a Christian but I have read the Bible, and in the book of Isaiah it says to feed the hungry and clothe the poor, and that if we do so, then our light will be like that of the noonday sun. And I like to think that Isaiah was also talking about us Buddhists. So whether it's 13,000 square feet with a huge audience/altar room, or a 13' by 9' studio, it's all the same ... where we meet only serves the purpose of us caring for one another.
May all living beings be happy and remain at ease. May we all be blessed with caring and compassionate companions in faith.
Oh, and as for Mom, she just celebrated her 30th Gohonzon and faith birthday.
She never graduated from high school and now she's a lead paralegal at a very prestigious law firm. My oldest brother has a PhD in Neuroscience: Learning and Memory, with a professorship at Rockefeller University, and he teaches at Duke. My twin sister is the Managing Editor of New England's oldest continuously-run African-American newspaper, I'm the production assistant, and my second oldest brother is an accomplished musician. Our youngest brother is a Computer Engineering major.