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Reigniting Our Passion to Raise Youth

Building bonds—(L-r) Young men’s division members gather at the home of Gary Arkoff (far right) in Santa Rosa, Calif., April 2023.

The Redwood Coast Region men’s and women’s division leaders, Gary Arkoff and Mina Rhoden, tell the World Tribune how they supported the growth of the youth division in their region and reopened their Buddhist center.

World Tribune: Thank you both for telling us about your journey to foster the youth in Redwood Coast and reopen your Buddhist center last year. What challenges did you face? 

Gary Arkoff: We were fortunate to open the Redwood Coast Buddhist Center in 2001 despite the relatively small number of SGI members in the region. Twenty years ago, we had a vibrant youth division. However, in the intervening years, youth participation slowly diminished as people graduated or drifted away from their Buddhist practice. This was exacerbated by COVID-19 and the fact that our geographic location has become more expensive and fewer young people live here in general. 

Last spring, we were told that the lease on our center was expiring and it was unlikely to be renewed if we could not reopen. Our biggest hurdle was having enough youth to support behind the scenes. 

My first instinct was to throw in the towel. At that time, we could not even find three youth who were consistently practicing, much less youth to support behind the scenes. Fortunately, my women’s co-leader, Mina, said that we would reopen our center no matter what. So, for unity’s sake, I agreed. 

WT: Mina, what was going through your mind at that time?

Mina Rhoden: My greatest concern was the growth of our membership. At the time we were still in a partial COVID shutdown, and there were no other in-person meetings other than those held at the SGI centers. Without a center in Redwood Coast Region, it would be really challenging to bring guests and have people receive the Gohonzon. So, I felt like somehow, even if it seems impossible, we have to do it. We are not letting our center go. But I didn’t have any strategy in mind. 

WT: Where did you begin?

Mina: Gary and I started with earnest prayer. We reached out to the members in our region. We asked them to unite with us in prayer to raise youth and to reopen the center. It really became our abiding mission to all pray for this. Then, slowly, things started to shift. For example, a young woman moved to our region right before the October kosen-rufu gongyo meeting and supported as Byakuren. She’s been consistently supporting every month since then!

Gary: I came across this quote while reading The New Human Revolution. Ikeda Sensei writes: 

When I joined the Soka Gakkai, the youth division essentially comprised only seven people. … At that time, I made a vow in my heart to [second Soka Gakkai President Josei] Toda: “Someday, I will make this the foremost gathering of young people in all Japan. I will see to this, even if it means having to do everything myself.” Today, with the young men’s division alone numbering 560,000 members, the Soka Gakkai youth division has in fact become the largest youth gathering in Japan. 

If even one person awakens to his or her mission and earnestly advances in faith, if there is just one person with the dauntless spirit of a true lion, then, from that one person, everything will unfold. (NHR-7, revised edition, 109–10)

Shortly after we made this determination, I received a call from my zone men’s leader asking if we could visit young men. My logical brain wanted to say, “What young men?” But I said “sure” and chanted serious daimoku to make it happen. I reached out to a young man who I had not seen in some time to go to lunch with us. He agreed and brought his brother with him. I had no intention of asking him to do a Soka Group or Gajokai shift. But during lunch, he asked me what it would take to reopen the Redwood Coast Buddhist Center. I told him we need young people to support, and he said, “You are looking at two right here.”

I shared this with Mina, and together, we made a determination to reopen our center for the October kosen-rufu gongyo meeting, come what may. To me, that was purely an act of faith. 

WT: What happened next?

Gary: The power of our prayer and unity summoned forth several other youth. For example, I got a call from a Many Treasures Group member asking me to support a visit with a young man that I had not seen in about six years. During our visit, the young man said he would like to help out. 

One by one, youth started emerging and we were able to open our Redwood Coast Buddhist Center for the October kosen-rufu gongyo meeting—just as we had determined! I’m happy to share that we have opened every month since then, and our goal is to open it for more meetings starting next year. 

Mina Rhoden with a young women’s division member Jaylene at the Redwood Coast Buddhist Center, Santa Rosa, Calif., September 2023.

WT: Why is it important for you personally to ensure that youth are thriving in your region?

Mina: The main demographic of our area is elderly people. This presents us with an existential challenge: If we don’t raise young people, Nichiren Buddhism will no longer exist in our area in the future.

When I think about my own experience, I pray that, somehow, I will surround myself with youth to support. I faced a lot of trauma in my earlier years, and this practice saved me from depression. I started chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo as a teenager and, because of it, I felt hope that things would get better. I transformed my life through participating in SGI activities. 

I worry about young people these days. Many struggle with mental health challenges, and they don’t have access to our Buddhist practice unless we tell them about it. There is no greater joy than to see somebody’s life transform through them standing up in faith. 

WT: What is the most important thing to keep in mind to expand the ranks of youth?

Gary: Everything starts with sincere prayer in the morning. I chant every day to meet young people who want to practice Buddhism and for everyone in the region to experience the joy of sharing Buddhism with young people.

I recently received guidance from a senior in faith that if I focus on introducing youth and fostering them, all of my personal goals would fall into place. How true that is! I got a new job at the high school where I have been working for years. I do not meet all of the job requirements, but was hired nonetheless. My life is really amazing, and I find tremendous joy in even the simple things. This joy comes from my Buddhist practice, and I want to share that with others. 

For me, this experience was not simply about reopening our Buddhist center. Our real challenge was to reignite the passion to raise youth. 

Mina: I feel like we are still peeling back layers to reach our full potential. We are still in the process of ensuring that we have a solid foundation of youth in our region, but basing everything on faith, we will definitely do it! 

December 1, 2023, World Tribune, p. 8

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