Reverend Dr. Cyril Powles
We Don’t Need Another Hero is a great song recorded by Tina Turner. The unwanted “hero” in the song is the hero who disappoints. The “hero” who leaves unfulfilled the hopes others had in him or her. We unfortunately know plenty of these types of “heroes.” It is the hero who doesn’t disappoint, the one who brings us hope who we value.
I attended a Celebration of the Life of the Reverend Dr. Cyril Powles at St. Mark’s Anglican Church in Vancouver on August 9, 2013. Reflections on Cyril’s life were given by Peter Ichiro Shibusawa, Bishop of Chubu in Japan, Joy Kogawa, retired UBC Professor John Howes, Cyril’s brother Percival, Cyril’s wife Marjorie, his son Peter, and the Reverend John Marsh who presided over the service.
Joy Kogawa began her reflections by saying that “He was my hero.” And what a hero I would learn he was!
Cyril Powles passed away on July 26, 2013 at the age of 94. Cyril was born in Japan in 1918 when his father was a bishop in the Anglican Church of Japan. He spent his earliest years in rural Takada City in Niigata Prefecture. At 15 years of age he came to Canada. He would complete studies at McGill University and the Montreal Diocesan Theological College. He was ordained as a priest in 1944. Cyril also earned a Master’s Degree in Japanese language and history from Harvard University.
In 1948 Cyril returned to Japan with his wife Marjorie to work as missionaries with the Anglican Church of Japan. For the next two decades Cyril worked in the chaplaincy of Rikkyo University (also known as Saint Paul’s University) in Tokyo where he also taught religious studies and modern Japanese history. The couple returned to Canada in 1970 where Cyril was able to complete a PhD in Asian Studies at UBC. He then taught religious studies and modern Japanese history at Trinity College in the University of Toronto until he retired in 1984.
An eloquent summation of the many ways Cyril was a hero to others came from the Reverend John Marsh, a close friend of Cyril’s, who presided over the service. John recounted numerous examples of how Cyril strove for justice in the world. His devotion to justice made him a champion of the outsider and the powerless. When he once appeared as a witness in a court proceeding, Cyril was asked if he was a liberal. His answer was “No, I am not. I am a radical.” He was someone who stood up for the oppressed with fearless disregard of how unpopular the cause might be. Just such an example was his support of Anglican priest Jim Ferry in 1992 when Mr. Ferry was suspended by the church because he was in a gay relationship. The diocese of Toronto disapproved of Cyril’s support for Mr. Ferry, but it did not stop Cyril from acting as advocate for Ferry. John spoke of other examples of Cyril’s commitment to working for social justice. They included his support of Caesar Chavez and the farm workers union.
It is easy to find early reasons why Cyril was Joy Kogawa’s hero. After the end of the Second World War, Cyril offered support and guidance to Japanese Canadians in the internment camps in the Slocan Valley of British Columbia, including the camp Joy was located in. Cyril also gave his support to those who sought an apology and compensation from the federal government for the injustice of internment. I have learned that he was also instrumental in the public apology made recently by the diocese of New Westminster for its confiscation and sale during the war of the churches belonging to Anglicans of Japanese heritage.
Cyril Powles had a profound knowledge and appreciation of both Western and Japanese culture. This enabled him to bring a voice of reason to cultural and social conflicts. He committed his life to working for social justice. He was a hero. We need more heroes like Cyril Powles.
Gary Matson, President, GVJCCA