By JON KAWAMOTO,Wheel of Dharma Editor
Terri Omori, a lifelong Shin Buddhist with deep ties to the San Diego and Vista temples, will become the first woman president of Buddhist Churches of America — a major milestone in the organization’s 123-year history.
The formal appointment will be made March 13, after the Eitaikyo service at the BCA’s National Council Meeting. The NCM, which will be virtual, is being hosted this year by the Central California District.
“I’m very humbled and honored to be given this opportunity,” she said. “When I said yes, it was out of gratitude. It was just the result of the deeper appreciation that I had growing up, and of all the years that I have been able to have the Dharma as part of my life. And, it was also recognizing all those who have come before me.
“It’s an honor, a true honor. And I hope that during my term that I can continue to make the Dharma accessible for all.”
Omori’s history with the BCA extends to include her Nisei parents, Ben and Miki Honda, her Issei grandparents and Honda family members — as well as her husband Ford Omori’s parents and grandparents.
Growing up in San Diego and attending the Buddhist Temple of San Diego, she attended Sunday services and Dharma School, eventually becoming an assistant Dharma School teacher helping in her mother’s class, participated in Obon as well as other temple events, joined the Jr. YBA, the Sr. YBA, and then taiko group and served as the temple’s organist.
A Turning Point
A pivotal event occurred when she married Ford Omori in 1989 and moved to Vista. The Vista Buddhist Temple building had just been dedicated in 1987.
“After Ford and I got married, it was just natural for me to join the Vista temple and I got involved right away,” she said, recalling that she and Ford would bring his baachan (grandmother) to services.
Since Omori had been the temple organist in San Diego, Vista’s resident minister, Rev. Art Takemoto, asked her if she would play the organ at Vista and she agreed.
“So, I started playing with the other musician, and I started seeing that there were one or two children, really young, coming to services,” she said. “There was no Dharma School at the time. So I asked the parents, ‘You want me to take the children downstairs and I’ll teach them some Dharma School gathas?’ And, they said, ‘Yes.’ So I started doing that.”
One thing led to another commitment and further involvement. Terri and Ford Omori assisted the Jr. YBA, and she also joined her husband in the Vista taiko group.
When the Omoris began having their own family in the early 1990s – first, daughter Katie and then son Kurtis – along with other families, the Dharma School got off the ground and it became part of the Southern District Dharma School Teachers League. As the temple babies were growing up, Omori helped initiate a Jr. Taiko group and the Jr. YBA for the high-schoolers.
Omori has remained an active Dharma School teacher beyond her own children’s graduation from high school — and was honored last year with 25 years of service by the Federation of Dharma School Teachers League (FDSTL).
In 2007, Omori was selected as president of Vista Buddhist Temple, where, to this day, she remains the first and only woman to hold that title. She would continue in that leadership role for the next three years.
Oversaw Vista Changes
During her tenure, she, Ford Omori and Vista board member (and current Vista president) Ricky Schlesinger and other Sangha members took major steps to come up with a plan to address its declining membership and grow the Sangha.
Their efforts have been nothing short of exceptional. Since then, Vista has more than doubled its paid membership to about 115 members and its story has become a successful template for other BCA temples and churches to follow on how to grow its Sangha. (See “Vista Is Singled Out for Its Membership Growth” in the February 2022 issue of Wheel of Dharma.)
As Vista president, Omori’s involvement expanded into the BCA. She began attending the National Council meetings. In 2014, she became the Southern District Council chair-elect, and was one of its representatives to the National Board.
She was elected as a BCA director-at-large, and was automatically made a member of the Social Welfare Committee. She also volunteered to be on the Membership and Propagation Committee because membership issues remain a key concern to her. And she served on a BCA ad hoc committee in charge of the 10th anniversary of the Jodo Shinshu Center in Berkeley in 2016.
In 2017, rumors began swirling around the BCA about Omori and her possibly running for the BCA presidency. Rick Stambul, who was BCA president-elect at the time, proved to be an influential and significant figure who ultimately would succeed — with the help of others — in convincing Omori.
But when Stambul first asked Omori if she’d consider becoming BCA president in 2017, her answer was quick — “No.”
She explained: “I truly felt I wasn’t qualified to be the BCA president, and that was my main reason for saying ‘No’ the first time he asked me.”
And when Stambul approached Omori again, she replied: “No.”
Circumstances changed when Stambul became BCA president in 2018. He once again approached Omori, and after considerable discussion and thought, she agreed to serve on the Executive Committee.
“I said, ‘Yes, I’ll be one of the VPs (vice presidents) because I wanted to support Rick during his time as president,’” she said.
Stambul’s role in contacting Omori and encouraging her to run as BCA president is no surprise because he’s been a staunch advocate of having more women in leadership roles in the BCA. (See “A Plea to the Women of BCA” and “A Plea to the Women of BCA: Part II,” December 2018 and January 2019, Wheel of Dharma.)
In a groundbreaking speech on “A Vision for BCA in the 21st Century” at the FBWA conference in Visalia in Sept. 15, 2018, he said: “The path forward for women in Shin Buddhism in America, in BCA, must not only involve women, as it has, but must be led by women.”
Later, in that same speech, Stambul said: “In about one year, in December of 2019, the BCA National Board will hold elections for national officers. The time has come for women to lead BCA. Let me repeat that. The time has come for women to lead BCA; to develop new ways, in new partnerships, in which to preserve our teachings, and to protect our temples in the future.”
(Omori had already agreed to serve as a vice president before Stambul’s speech.)
Lists Her Priorities
Now, as she looks ahead to the next two years as BCA president, Omori lists among her priorities the persistent issue of membership affecting the BCA.
In November 2020, the BCA Executive Committee addressed the issue of declining membership and discussed strategies. From 2010 to 2020, the BCA has seen a 28 percent decline in membership from 16,994 members to the current 12,200. Over that same time, the BCA’s budget has increased 29 percent, from $1.43 million to $1.85 million. (See “BCA Discusses Its Declining Membership, Strategies,” December 2020, Wheel of Dharma.)
“The one goal that I have which is in line with Rev. Harada is, of course, growing our membership,” she said.
Omori wants to explore outreach in a variety of ways, including online and social media, and help temples develop a plan to grow and retain members at the same time. She praised the establishment of a new category — an individual BCA membership — for those who don’t have a temple nearby.
“We see people joining in online at the temple services, and participating in CBE events from all over the United States,” Omori said. “We’re reaching out and providing them with the Dharma. I think we really have to continue to think of different ways of doing outreach as well as providing the individual with the Dharma and making them feel a part of the BCA.”