I met Paul Higa when I was about 24 and he was a junior or senior in high school because we went to the same church on 48th St and 8th Ave in the Crenshaw area of Los Angeles — Crenshaw Christian Reformed Church. When he graduated from high school you probably would not have noticed him much. He was Japanese in a Chinese church with a mostly black Sunday School and a few white faces like mine. Very few.
He was quiet, did nothing to draw attention to himself. But he served those in the church who were even younger than he was. He and some some of the rest of us started a group for the junior high students. Actually, the college group, of which my husband and I were the sponsors, started the group. But Paul was the one who was the main leadership behind it. I often worked with him and the others.
He was always concerned about the kids who were on the outskirts, the kids who were at risk, and he gave them his time freely, even as he pursued a full-time college schedule. When we moved from the area in 1976, Paul and his wife became official youth pastors. Before he just did the work without any official position and little recognition.
Most of us thought that Paul might be headed for seminary someday because of his love for God and his concern for youth. We then lost track of Paul for 30 years, though I heard through the grapevine he’d gone into probation work.
When I got the email Thursday, April 13, 2006 that Paul, only 53, had died of a stroke, it hit me like a ton of bricks because he was the youngest of the college group (Most of us were then in our late 50s or early 60s in 2006.) When I read the link to his obituary, I was floored.
Paul Higa, that quiet young man I knew and had spent hours talking to in my living room, had grown up and become the Chief Probation Officer for Los Angeles County, responsible for 80,000 people on probation and several youth camps in the department. I learned at the memorial service that Los Angeles County has the largest probation department in the world (which might suggest something about the crime rate in the county).
Paul started as a probation officer at the bottom, but as was apparent from the speeches of the county officials who spoke at the service in Santa Barbara, he rose because he had a vision for the department and he worked very hard to bring it about. He didn’t want kids to get out of juvenile halls and camps and go right back to the life that led them down the wrong path in the first place. He wanted to reach into homes and work with the families of the youth, and into schools and help them mainstream these kids into getting the education they needed. He wanted to see that those who were mentally ill or disadvantaged in some other way got the help and treatment they needed to help them survive away from crime.
I never realized until revising this today, the day before Easter, 2016, that Paul’s work had inspired a documentary which was then made into a movie, Gridiron Gang, available on Amazon. Actor Leon Rippy plays Paul. It shows how two probation officers used football to help turn around some of the juvenile offenders so that they could succeed outside when released from custody.
As Paul advanced, step by step, up the ladder, he managed to pass this vision down the line to those who started where he did, at the bottom. At the service I saw not only the county officials, but also the workers under Paul, get up and testify to his dedication, his integrity, and his vision and how they felt Paul treated them like family, cared about their work and did what he could in the way of support and training to make them successful.
Although I saw how much Paul had matured in both his faith and his responsibilities, I did not learn anything new about Paul’s character. He was the same honest, hard-working, concerned, humble person I’d known, who could turn into a bulldog when he had to fight to get what “his kids” needed. He worked with chaplains of all faiths and with other organizations who worked in the communities “his” kids would go back to. I saw a steward of God’s gifts who had been faithful in a few things, as the parable says, and so he was given more tasks in which to be faithful
Paul was a servant of God in the midst of a bureaucracy — a very big bureaucracy. As someone said during the open mike part of the service, he didn’t move to the top position by just doing what he was told. He followed the vision that God gave him to get there. During the year before he died, he brought about a lot of reforms in the department that were motivated by his faith.
I doubt that Paul would have told you what he did, only what he still hoped to accomplish. He just wanted to serve his God by serving those, as someone said, that society was content to throw away and forget about. He wanted those kids to be redeemed and flourish and be successful, and he worked as hard as he could to make it happen.
Many people think Christianity is just about the carrot and the stick. The night of the memorial service some of us who had traveled far for the service went to dinner together at a Chinese restaurant in Santa Barbara. Since we rarely get to talk anymore, we wanted to take advantage of the opportunity.
David, a young man whom Paul had influenced, shared an experience with us. Paul had walked past him when he was standing outside outside the sanctuary one Sunday morning, during what David called “a long, boring sermon.” As David put it, “Sometimes those are the best times to think and to search the Scriptures.”
Paul, who must have also been outside the sanctuary, invited him to share his thoughts, and David came out with some theological stuff he had been mulling over. At that time David was not yet a Christian. But he’d been reading Romans and had seen for the first time one of the truths of the Christian faith — that it was the death of Christ that made it possible for the first time to actually choose to do good.
In our Easter service this morning, [I originally wrote this April 16, 2006] our pastor used an analogy he borrowed from C.S. Lewis that put it like this, my paraphrase: A horse is a horse. He has the nature of a horse. He can learn to run and run very fast and even jump obstacles. But no matter how hard he tries, he can’t fly. It’s not his nature. It’s beyond his natural abilities. But if he were given wings and could fly, he would see everything from a different perspective and go where he was never able to before. Becoming a Christian is like that. The basic nature changes. We become something different than what we are naturally. We become new creatures — new creatures who have a choice about doing good or evil. Before that we could not truly choose good because our nature itself was to do evil.
The theology of the death of Christ can be found in many books, but I think the Bible makes most of them unnecessary. Some of us are convicted that we can truly do no good unless we have this new nature. In other words, we know we are sinners and have only a future without God unless we have a redeemer. We want to know God as our father, and the death of Christ made it possible.
We serve God out of gratitude, not fear. We aren’t trying to earn anything because we know we can’t. We want a relationship with our Creator, a relationship such as David, whom the Bible describes as a man after God’s own heart, had, not because he was perfect, but because he got his significance as a person from his relationship with God. David didn’t get his significance from being King of Israel. He got it from God. Neither did our friend Paul get his significance from rising to the top of his chosen profession. He got it from God, whom he was serving.
The ultimate question a man can ask himself is where his significance (or self-worth) comes from. Some people know and some have never really thought about it. When a person knows, he can then figure out whether that thing is solid and lasting or whether it can be destroyed by something or taken away. Mine comes from being a redeemed child of God.
You can get yours any way you choose. I’m not asking anyone to choose the way I have. That’s God’s business. I only want people I interact with to know their options — especially if they are searching for significance. When your significance comes from the fact that someone loved you at your worst enough to die to redeem you, and that person remains your advocate, interceding on your behalf with the only one who has the ultimate power over your life — that source of significance cannot be taken away even if you lose position, family, health, a high net worth, or whatever else you can think of. Jesus died to redeem me, he rose from the dead, and has gone to prepare a place for me. He has power over death, and has made it possible for me to know my Heavenly Father, meet Him face to face someday, and spend forever in his presence.
That’s what Easter means to me.