Who Is My Neighbor?

‘Community’ is a word that easily came to mind on Tuesday afternoon in the Martha Miller Center first floor rotunda. The crisp November wind was just sharp enough to make the walls feel like a reprieve, and the sun poked through windows to illuminate eager participants. Seventy people filled the room, with Hope College faculty and students lining the perimeter and Holland-area community members occupying the small round tables scattered in the middle. The circular room and cozy seating arrangement acted as an invitation for participants to interact as well as listen. Conversation bubbled and bounced along the tables until the moment Dr. Doshi of Hope’s Communication department stood, wielding a microphone.

The lecture, sponsored by Hope’s Communication department, featured Dr. David Myers, Amy Otis-DeGrau and Rev. Dr. Denise Kingdom-Grier discussing their personal connections with the Japanese internment during World War II and this year’s Big Read novel When the Emperor was Divine. The purpose of the event was to discuss and reflect on one of the essential questions posed by the novel: who is my neighbor?

Dr. Myers opened with the story of a place close to his heart: Bainbridge Island, Washington, where his parents lived early in their marriage and where some of his family still resides. The island community, he noted, was something of an anomaly during the internment period; the close-knit community consisted of several figures who openly spoke out against the internment order and, contrary to what is depicted in Otsuka’s novel, took measures to ensure that interned citizens were welcomed home with their abandoned lives still intact. Most notably, the island’s newspaper, run by Walt and Millie Woodward, was the only West Coast newspaper to object to the internment order. As his story of an island’s resilience and warm-heartedness came to a close, Dr. Myers left the audience with a final thought: nidoto nai yoni. Let it not happen again.

Amy Otis-DeGrau, the next speaker, told of her own family’s experience during the internment. A third-generation Japanese-American, her grandparents, four aunts and uncles, and one-year-old mother were all incarcerated. She shared the story of her family’s lost money, property, history and dignity. She also discussed the famed 442nd infantry regiment, comprised almost entirely of Japanese-American soldiers and one of the most decorated regiments of World War II. While she mentioned the irony of these men fighting on behalf of a country that rejected them, Otis-DeGrau emphasized the fact that many men of the 442nd regiment acted as voices of justice during their time training in Jim Crow-era Arkansas; several accounts survive of 442nd regiment men being punished for speaking out over injustices suffered by African Americans. From there, Otis-DeGrau shared several biblical passages citing the importance of justice in the Christian faith. Scripture, she reminded the audience, is full of calls for justice; anyone identifying as a Christian is called by Scripture to work toward justice. And one cannot work toward justice silently.

Silence, Otis-DeGrau said, comes in many forms. One of the forms, with which she is very familiar, is the phrase “shikata ga nai,” meaning it cannot be helped. It was the phrase which met many of her early questions about the war and her family’s imprisonment, a phrase which communicates the lack of agency experienced by Japanese-Americans during this period in American history. But silence also takes other forms; it is the lack of conversation surrounding the controversial internment, the cursory glance with which this dehumanization and injustice is given, the unchallenged paranoia and prejudice that ran rampant in the newspapers and radio stations, the lack of dialogue even now about the trauma.

We are all connected, Otis-DeGrau claimed, and the point of connection is in our stories. For that reason, she said, it is extraordinarily important to share these stories of inequity. If they are the bonds which hold us together, it is crucial to give them a voice, to give power to those connections, and to use them in our fight for justice.

The final speaker, Denise Kingdom-Grier, discussed justice and the idea of ‘otherness’ in the Bible. Drawing on her experience researching apartheid in South Africa and several biblical stories as she picked up the thread of what it means to be just, she used the well-known story of the Good Samaritan to illustrate what it means to be not only just, but to be a neighbor. The two, she suggested, are closely tied. Kingdom-Grier posited that to be a neighbor is to enter into another person’s story without expecting to receive any benefit from it. Instead of seeing someone suffering and backing away, as the priest and Levite do in the story of the Good Samaritan, it means reaching out, taking initiative, taking an active role in a narrative that is not our own. But that is not all, she said. Using the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, she suggested that to be a neighbor also means to give somebody an opportunity to help us and meet our needs; it means to be vulnerable. Potentially, it means allowing conflict to arise so as to come to an understanding.

These three speakers, with their different professional, ethnic, and faith backgrounds offered a diverse but cohesive view of the role neighbors play in our lives, and what it means to be a neighbor. For Dr. Myers, neighborliness abounded on Bainbridge Island as the community raised its voice in solidarity with their incarcerated neighbors and worked to uphold their ties to the community even in their absence. For Amy Otis-DeGrau, the great enemy of neighborhood is silence; the way to reinforce its bonds is sharing stories and speaking out. For Rev. Dr. Kingdom-Grier, to be a neighbor is to allow vulnerability, to enter into another’s story and engage. For all three, though, one thing was noticeably absent; in none of their discussions of neighborhood did they mention physical proximity, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or any other identifiers which are typically used to connect people to a particular community. There were no caveats to the term ‘neighbor’ such as “Christian neighbor,” “Muslim neighbor,” “LGBTQ+ neighbor.” None of their stories included people who were inherently neighbors by virtue of their social status, ethnicity, or physical location. To all of them, neighborliness is an action; to be a neighbor is to be a person of action.

With that in mind, the question “who is my neighbor?” seems to be almost inappropriate; the lecture and novel together seem to suggest that instead of attempting to identify and evaluate others, maybe we ought to look inwards and identify ourselves. If we are looking outside ourselves for neighbors perhaps we’ve missed the point of the novel, the lecture, and scripture. In the very act of asking whether or not someone is a neighbor to us, we shy away from neighborhood; we hesitate to enter into another’s story, we stay silent in our equivocation, we mark them as separate from our established community. In that moment of reluctance they may be a neighbor, but we are not.

The question becomes then, not how do we find neighbors, but how do we be neighbors. Being a neighbor, much like being a Christian, a student, or a member of the Big Read committee is not so simple as choosing a label, sticking it onto ourselves and moving on. It is an action; rather, it is many repeated actions. It is speaking out, it is standing up, it is entering into story after story that is not our own. It is going through the world asking not “who is my neighbor?” but “whose neighbor will I be?”


Contributed by Annika Gidley

Annika is a junior at Hope College double majoring in Creative Writing and Spanish. When not reading, writing, or talking about Harry Potter, she can be found at the local coffee shop or the nearest Big Read event.


Japanese Drumming

Hello to everyone participating in the 2017 Holland Area Big Read!

I hope everyone is enjoying When the Emperor was Divine and the events that are happening around Holland!

Last night’s Big Read event was the Raion Taiko Drumming Performance at Dimnent Chapel, and the six drummers did an outstanding job! I’d never heard of taiko drumming when I first went to the event, but I was excited to go, as was the large group of others there: old, young, and families alike. The Raion Taiko drummers didn’t disappoint, helping to kick off Big Read with a bang.

The drummers were very synchronized as they went through the pieces, playing with enthusiasm and extravagant movements to add to the experience. Thinking of how much time and dedication would go into memorizing the pieces and performing perfectly in sync with the other drummers amazes me. When the odaiko, their largest drum, was being played, I could feel the beat in my head and body because of the sheer volume of noise.

While the other five drummers moved the drums around in preparation for the next performance at about the midway point, one of the drummers, Brian Kaga, took the microphone. He first thanked us for coming, then proceeded to give us a tiny Japanese lesson. He taught us that tamago (tah-mah-go) is Japanese for egg, and the Japanese first started eating fish before adding egg to their diets. He tried to find an exact date for when they first began eating egg, but all he could tell us was that “it was a long tamago.” Cue the laughter. “I was told not to tell that joke, so—” More laughter.

All egg jokes aside, Brian told us a little about the history of taiko drumming and the drums the group used. Taiko music is based on weather and nature, like thunderstorms, rain, and earthquakes, and was originally used for ceremonies or practical reasons until after World War II, when it became a form of entertainment. Their biggest is called an odaiko and is 3.5 feet in diameter, weighing 220 pounds and carved from one solid piece of tree trunk. The Raion Taiko group had four different types of drums total (odaiko, okedo daiko, shime-daiko, and nagado taiko), and their smallest, called shime-daiko, had screws all around the circumference, which the audience was told is used to change the pitch and tune the drums.

The performance wasn’t all drums, either—a shamisen (three stringed, banjo-like instrument from Japan) and a wooden flute also made appearances during the event, and occasionally, small hand cymbals and a gong were used for accents.

For those who were there, I hope you enjoyed the performance as much as I did, and for those who didn’t, I hope you come to one of our other Big Read events!

Happy Reading!


Contributed by Taylor Gort, a senior at Black River High School. She enjoys reading, writing while listening to music, and hanging out at the library.

This is Why I Do the Big Read

“What was your favorite part of the kick-off event?”

As I asked this simple question in my 10th grade English class at West Ottawa High School, hands shot in the air!  Each year when my students read the book chosen for Holland’s Big Read, I require that they attend at least one event of their choosing.  At the kick-off event this year, I saw many of my students in the audience.  Yes, they were “forced” to attend, but the impact was so powerful.  As students in my class shared their experience the next day, I saw how the speakers impacted my students and engaged them in a way I can’t do in my classroom alone.  Some students’ favorite part was learning about the history of the Japanese Empire, or about America’s role in WWII, or the personal account of a Japanese-American’s family story.  In class the next day, they initiated conversations about choices the speakers made about what to share at the event and how they connected their knowledge and experience to the book we are reading together.  They showed me extensive notes they took during the talks that I never asked them to take.  They shared in an experience together to explore aspects of a novel we are reading for class.  For school!  This is why I do the Big Read.

As the programming during the month of November continues, I will keep asking my students to share their experiences at events to make connections with When the Emperor Was Divine.  These conversations will help deepen their understanding of the book and of the community around them.  Attending these events will help broaden their understanding of the novel as a whole, but also show them that reading does not only happen in school.  At events, they will see community members who are choosing to attend because reading matters to them.  As a teacher who sees more and more students who dislike to read, this opportunity is important.  I want my students to read a book with me and learn about the human condition, but I also want them to see that school is not the only place this happens.  Stories matter, and the events my students attend help them see that stories matter outside of their English teacher’s classroom.  This is why I do the Big Read.

When students leave my class, I want them to be better readers, writers, speakers, and listeners, but I also want them to be better thinkers.  Better participants in their community.  Better activists for what they’re passionate about.  I want my students to be ready for college and for a career, but I also want them to be ready for life.  The conversations we have together in class about When the Emperor Was Divine and the experiences my students have out in their community make this program the most valuable thing I do all year.  We will talk about the events and our experience until summer break.  My students will ask, “When can we do something like THAT again?”  And even if I cannot offer them this opportunity all year long, offering it for a few weeks in November is important to me and will become important to them.  This is why I do the Big Read.


Contributed by Audra Bolhuis. Audra is a English Language Arts teacher at West Ottawa High School.

The Big Kick-off

This Wednesday was the official kickoff for the 2017 Big Read. The book this year is When the Emperor was Divine, a heartbreaking and endearing story about a family that is forced to live in a Japanese internment camp during WWII. The novel, written by Julie Otsuka, explains the story of her family history and the history of so many Japanese Americans during this time. The kickoff, held at the Knickerbocker Theater in Downtown Holland, featured three speakers from the Hope College community. The first speaker, Dr. Wayne Tan, started his lecture by telling the stories of Mr. Kobayashi, a textile merchant, and Mrs. Aihara, a farmer’s wife. Both seem like insignificant people, but their stories are part of the rise and demise of the Japanese empire. The rest of his lecture focused on the emperor and the mythology surrounding him.

The second speaker was Dr. Jeanne Petit. Her discussion centered on the historical insights of the novel. She specifically focused on the Japanese migration and how the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 made the immigration problems worse for the Japanese Americans.

The final speaker was Amy Otis-DeGrau, a third generation Japanese American citizen whose family was placed in an internment camp 75 years ago. She talked about the powers of silence, knowledge, and voice, and how it is our responsibility to make sure that these don’t get overlooked. Her personal story was so impactful and heartbreaking that the heavy emotion could be felt throughout the entire theater.

The biggest takeaway from tonight’s kickoff was learning how important When the Emperor was Divine is to read in the current state of the world. It can teach us to have empathy for others and learn about a part of history that is often just a paragraph in a textbook. There is so much about the Japanese internment camps that were created during WWII that we don’t even know about, but this book will bring that to light. The kickoff event was filled with not only students, but Holland community members as well, all eager to listen and learn. This is one of the best things about the Big Read is that it brings people of all ages and backgrounds together, and it helps us learn not only from the book, but from each other as well. This kickoff event showed how eager the community is to begin this month of learning!



Contributed by Lauren Duistermars

Lauren is a senior at Hope College, majoring in English Literature with a minor in communications. When she’s not in class she can be found at any sporting event, walking around a bookstore, or sipping a peppermint mocha latte.

…So What Exactly is The Big Read?

Hey there Holland friends!

October is winding down and preparations for the Big Read are ramping up! We’re excited to see many of you at our events next month, but you might be reading this and thinking to yourself, what exactly is this “Big Read” thing? 

We’re with you! The Big Read is an octopus of an event, with tentacles reaching out into a myriad of community spaces and areas of study. Here’s our take: The Big Read is like a book club on steroids. Okay, but that’s still a little vague, you’re thinking. Not to worry; we’ve got the perfect resource for you! Check out this link for all of the details about this year’s main events and other ways that you can interact with Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine. And keep an eye out on our social media pages for pictures and videos capturing all of the action!

We’re 5 short days away, people! We can’t wait to see you at our kick-off event on November 1st! (Can’t make it? Check out our other events here.)

The Big Preview 2017

Gold-tinged leaves glowing on maple trees, flannel-donned students filling Hope’s campus, and cider slushes in the hands of downtown shoppers… all signs that The Big Read Holland Area is right around the corner! Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine is this fall’s star and there are events available for every member of our community to join the conversation.


The Big Read’s happenings range from book discussions and film screenings to Japanese drumming and a writing workshop; you can check them all out on our calendar page! Visit our website to learn more about getting involved (and maybe even check out our awesome t-shirts!)

Hollanders and other nearby friends, we can’t wait to see you at our first event – only 33 more days!

2017 Book Announced!

The Big Read Holland Area will return this fall, supported for the fourth consecutive year by an award to Hope College through the NEA Big Read.

This year’s program at Hope, running across the first three weeks in November, will feature Julie Otsuka’s book When the Emperor Was Divine.

When the Emperor Was Divine transports readers to 1942, as it tells the story of Japanese-American internment from five points of view. The NEA’s website for the Big Read says that the book “not only invites readers to consider the troubling moral and civic questions that emerge from this period in American history but also offers a tale that is both incredibly poignant and fully human.”

Read the full press release

Student Art Exhibition of Learning

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The final Big Read Event for Edwidge Danticat’s memoir “Brother, I’m Dying” took place on November 17th, from 7-9 pm at the Holland Armory. This event focused on local high school students’ artwork from area schools such as West Ottawa, Holland High, Holland Christian, and Zeeland Christian, along with pieces from Hope College. Some of the students had the opportunity to work collaboratively with artists Barry Elz and Joel Schoon-Tanis.unnamedThe pieces that artists made were in responses to the question, “How can art giveunnamed (3) a voice to the voiceless?” One of the main themes of Danticat’s memoir was giving a voice to the voiceless. Although she did not necessarily tie this idea into artwork it was interesting to see the two combine in a way that truly did give voices to those without.

Many of the students’ artwork focused on the topic of immigration. It was empowering to see adolescents focusing on such an important topic. Seeing the students’ responses to the book through artwork showed that we can make a change on issues that hold such great importance. No other event could have captured the essence of this year’s Big Read as well as this culminating event did. unnamed (1)unnamed (2)

Poverty, Inc. Screening


At 7pm on November 10th, students, faculty, and Holland community members filled almost every seat of the Knickerbocker Theatre for a screening of the 2014 documentary Poverty, Inc. Directed and produced by Michael Matheson Miller, Poverty, Inc. questions the impact of modern charities, foreign aid, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and their influence on local entrepreneurship in lesser-developed countries.14963341_1231221350271595_6968857888606075548_nFollowing the screening, we were lucky enough to have Haitian entrepreneur Daniel Jean Louis discuss his experience with foreign aid in Haiti and answer questions from the audience. Louis spoke of his upbringing, saying, “Growing up in Haiti taught me about the complexity of this world…[and] I kept asking questions: why is Haiti poor, what makes poverty, and what can be done about it?” Louis continued to say that “poverty is the inability for people to maximize their potential.” He stressed that aid can create a “culture of dependency,” and that instead we need to focus on how we can help the local businesses and entrepreneurs in their own countries rather than intervening and bringing in foreign products. While Louis acknowledged that foreign aid is an immediate solution, he stressed that it hinders local businesses that produce the same products.

Several audience members asked pertinent and insightful questions that resulted in collective nods through the crowd. For example, one individual asked, “How can you help us know where to more effectively give our money?” To this, Louis 15036539_1231221400271590_8392368188183801609_nrecommended doing adequate research and looking into audits and financial statements that thoroughly documents how the organization uses the money. Further, he stressed that often personal connections (such as a friend involved in an NGO) could provide further information, stating that “it’s on the education of the donor community.” Another question, asked by a high school student, was, “What would you recommend young people doing [about NGOs]?” Louis responded by once again stressing education, which seemed to be one of the big themes of the night.

As the event came to an end, many people stayed to speak with Louis, and the lobby of the Knickerbocker bustled as people continued speaking about the event. It was great to see so many individuals interested in learning more about the poverty crisis and how they can help!


By  Katie McMorris

Coffee and Conversation


 The fourth Big Read Holland Area book discussion this year took place on November 8th at Biggby Coffee. Lead by Professor Tato and the Big Read Student Committee, several Hope students as well as a high school student joined together to look at many dimensions of Danticat’s memoir.

Those in attendance had a rich discussion focused on the themes in the book such as relationships, immigration, silence, and religion. There are many facets in this story that allow the reader to look at it from many different angles.

14980770_1228645033862560_8936384943494165642_nThe topic of immigration was heavily discussed and the various perspectives on this controversial issue were addressed. Immigrants’ stories are not taken into consideration by Americans and border patrol when they make it to the United States. Danticat’s memoir does an excellent job of stating the issue, while also allowing the readers to add their own emotion.

This book discussion gave participants insight into the book based on other readers’ thoughts and take on the story. Participants were exposed to other perspectives that allowed them to learn more about the book and Danticat’s story.

By Audrey McKenzie