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What We’ve Learned From the Hope Champions

The power of relentless Buddhist practice amid difficulties.

Malte Mueller / Getty Images.

In March 2021, the SGI-USA established an award that shone light on a group whose presence had illuminated so many: the guests throughout the country who, amid the pandemic, had been consistently chanting and inspiring others with their breakthroughs in faith.

The HOPE Champion[1] award acknowledged their sustained efforts to practice Buddhism at a time when all in-person activities had been halted to safeguard the health and well-being of each person.

As their profiles began appearing in the World Tribune, they reinforced for us the power of relentless Buddhist practice amid difficulties. Their stories echoed Nichiren Daishonin’s emphasis on never regressing in faith, when he writes: “Carry through with your faith in the Lotus Sutra. You cannot strike fire from flint if you stop halfway.”[2]

“For the first time, I had the desire to fight back,” shared one Hope Champion in the paper.

“Slowly but surely, the negative thoughts and self-doubt faded, and hope appeared,” said another.

“That is what this practice has taught me. I am in charge of my own life,” read another still.

Last fall, the first of our Buddhist centers reopened for in-person kosen-rufu gongyo meetings, presenting the first opportunity since early 2020 for guests to receive the Gohonzon. As other centers followed suit, many more Hope Champions have become full-fledged SGI members and, in some cases, taken on fresh leadership responsibilities in the district.

For us, they remain symbols of hope, of sustained engagement, of the power of the bodhisattva vow. Let’s hear from three of them. 

—Prepared by the World Tribune staff

The Strength of a Lion

by Michelle Okocha

I can still see myself as a little girl, passing beneath the big sign for Palm Tavern, an iconic jazz club on the South Side of Chicago, and asking my parents, “What is that?” A smaller sign below read, “Happiness Is Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.” No one had an answer. 

Over the years, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo would pop up in my life, brief encounters through others who dabbled in the practice. Many of my questions remained unanswered. This is probably why, when my friend mentioned over lunch in June 2021 that she was Buddhist, I quickly barraged her with questions. 

“Goodness, Michelle! If you’re really interested, let’s set a date and do a deep dive.”

A few days later, my friend sat me across from a longtime member who answered my questions one by one, even as I lobbed them in twos and threes. He encouraged me to come up with three things I wanted to chant about. Waiting to receive the Gohonzon, I’ve been chanting for my husband and four sons to realize their dreams, for financial independence and to found a beautiful hot yoga studio. 

The biggest change has been internal—I am less judgmental, less controlling. A conflict recently arose between my brother and me. No doubt, without my Buddhist practice, we would have been at loggerheads. But I’ve been going to my district meetings, listening to experiences, to victory after victory. (And what a way to spend an evening.) These meetings remind me that we, as ordinary people, possess limitless wisdom, courage and compassion, that we possess these qualities of the Buddha inherently. I approach people differently, with greater joy, a sense of responsibility, even awe. This person is a Buddha! I’m understanding more deeply by the day that this is the meaning of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. It has given me the focus and strength of a lion. 

The Joy of Having a Soka Family 

by Andrew Martin
Vancouver, Wash.

An old family friend introduced me to Nichiren Buddhism when I was 12 years old. My family was very dysfunctional, and I felt powerless to change my situation. Chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo helped me build courage and strength. From then on, I continued to chant, on and off, even when my siblings and I were put in foster care. 

After I was adopted, I opened up to my new family about my experience with the SGI. They were supportive, even attending a few SGI meetings. I chanted each day with greater strength and confidence, but depression and PTSD consumed me, and I stopped practicing.

In 2017, I met two of the most noble and compassionate people I know: my district leaders. They have been my Soka family ever since. At one point, I had stopped chanting and attending meetings, but I was in regular contact with them. They would invite me over for dinner, and we always did gongyo together. Despite not being related, my district leaders always looked out for, cherished and encouraged me. Their unceasing compassion inspired me to take Buddhism seriously in 2020. I told them that I was ready to devote myself and chant to bring forth my best life condition. Since then, I have received strong encouragement and chant every morning with two other young men from our respective homes. Whenever I chant, my cat, Khloe, always sits with me, and I believe she’s a great support in my life, too.  

With this support, I have also started to reconnect and grow closer with my biological family. Though I was afraid to do so at first, my district leaders encouraged me that my Buddhist practice would help me develop a more harmonious family. Now, we are slowly rebuilding our relationship, one step at a time. 

When my local Buddhist center reopens, I plan to receive the Gohonzon. I have my altar ready. I feel a deep sense of gratitude when I reflect on how far I’ve come, and I realize how chanting and my Soka family have brought me so much joy and love.

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Changing My World

by Aikaterini Gkogkou
Buffalo, New York

Isolated early in the pandemic, away from my family in Greece, I felt very low. A friend of mine, a fellow mathematics Ph.D., would video call me. We shared the things we did at home, the movies we had watched. On one Zoom in summer 2020, she read a passage to me: “When we change, the world changes.” 

I had already been reading up on Buddhism on my own. I wanted to learn but lacked the guidance, the right books. The passage moved me. When she lifted a booklet that read An Introduction to Buddhism, I wanted to learn more. So, connecting with the SGI and my district has been a blessing.

Members text when they start chanting so I can join from home. And when time permits, I attend meetings where we’ll share our goals, accomplishments and discuss Buddhist concepts, my favorite being “changing poison into medicine.” This has taught me that no matter how intense a situation is, we can find the power to persevere and overcome it through chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and participating in SGI activities. Though we still haven’t met in person, my district has become like my second family. I can be myself and share my thoughts openly.

All of this support has helped me establish my consistent practice of chanting every morning and evening; and I’ve changed inside. 

For a long time, my relationship with my mother wasn’t the best. Our conversations covered the typical “Hi, how are you?” but we didn’t share anything personal. I always felt judged by her, like we were competing in a way. But now I’m more patient, appreciative. Because of Buddhism, I can see that she cares about me in her own unique way. She hasn’t changed her behavior, but what I see has changed. Now, I find myself wanting to talk to her, and we video call almost every day, sharing meal recipes. “I want to try making that in the U.S., too!” I’ll say. This is proof of my world changing, my human revolution.

Human relationships can be so difficult at times. Without the right guidance, you can feel completely lost. But now, I just start chanting. Questions emerge in my mind, and then, so do actions, answers. Powerful—I can’t think of any other word to better describe our Buddhist practice.

My friend later gifted me that first intro-to-Buddhism book. I have since gifted it to someone else. I believe that if she starts practicing Buddhism, her whole world will change, too.


  1. The HOPE Champions award honors guests who are chanting consistently, self-subscribing to the SGI-USA publications, receiving benefit and are willing to share their experience at a local meeting. ↩︎
  2. “Earthly Desires Are Enlightenment,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 319. ↩︎

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