Social Solidarity and Folding Paper Cranes

When I was in college, interfaith programming offered me a place for spiritual guidance and reflection. The Chaplain’s Office and Hillel focused much of their efforts on service, an area of common ground for students. I served meals at homeless shelters, planted community gardens, volunteered abroad and shared meals with peers learning how their faith tradition called them to service. As someone who grew up in a religion without a concept of God, I was, and still am, curious, about how to live in a world with both God and violence. In class and out, much of my college experience focused on formal interfaith collaboration and study.

A few years after college, I moved back to Chicago and left interfaith work for a while. I started attending the Jodo-Shinshu Buddhist temple, a historically Japanese American community I went to as a kid, and started organizing within the Japanese American community. My religious and ethnic identities have always been intertwined and these identities shaped the conditions that came before me - a teaching called engi, or interdependence across time.


My grandparents and great grandparents, along with all Japanese Americans from California, Washington and Oregon, spent WWII detained by the US government. The Buddhist temple I grew up in was built by people just out of prison. Its leaders had been taken by the FBI. Archives from the Department of Justice show their lawyers grappling with Shinto rituals amongst Japanese Americans. America, even an America that forcibly incarcerates its citizens, has constitutional protections for religious freedom. To deal with this, DOJ reclassified Shinto, an animistic practice, not as a religion, but a state tradition. Maybe that’s why no one taught me to recognize the spirits in the world around me.

Sano Ansai (great grandmother of Lisa Doi) likely at the hospital at Rohwer War Relocation Center.

It is a time when many of us feel like we are captive, ordered to stay home. Fortunately, we are not in captivity. Our confinement is an expression of interbeing. At this time, I think of those confined today in jails, prisons and immigrant detention facilities, whose punishments should not be death. My act of social solidarity is folding paper cranes. Fold by fold, I impart these tsuru with the spirits of Sano Ansai and Yasujiro Tani and wishes of healing and freedom.

This I have heard and reflect upon:

Beings are innumerable, we vow to heal them.

Pain is inexhaustible, we vow to ease it.

Solidarity is unsurpassable, we vow to achieve it.

Today, a lot of my organizing happens outside of explicitly interfaith settings, but that does not mean it is not interfaith. Within Japanese America, we are Buddhist, Christian, Shinto, and all of the above when it comes to religious identity. The notion of singular religious identity doesn’t translate well in Japanese. I organize with Muslim neighbors against state surveillance and racial profiling or Christian and Jewish immigrant rights groups against ICE detention--these may not exactly be interfaith groups, but it is interfaith work.

And, then there is this moment. “This is not a time of social distancing but of physical distancing and social solidarity,” a Buddhist teacher shared. “Flatten the curve” is a real-life Buddhist teaching on interbeing that all living beings are connected. As my childhood minister liked to put it, “my life is not only my life, but the life of others’ sacrifices.” This is also a time when I recall my ancestors, particularly my great-grandmother and my partner’s great-grandfather who both died while they were incarcerated (along with 1,867 others).

Lisa Doi, front row far left on an IFYC sponsored collaboration between the Japanese American Citizens League Chicago and the Arab American Action Network in 2019. Photo was taken near Rohwer, AR.

Lisa Doi at the Japanese American community’s annual Day of Remembrance program, commemorating the signing of Executive Order 9066, in February 2019.