Richard Sui On Chang, known as “Uncle Bishop” while heading the Episcopal Diocese of Hawaii and the first person of Chinese heritage to hold the position in the U.S., has died at the age of 76.
Chang was instrumental in helping the late Presiding Bishop Edmond Lee Browning lead the national Episcopal Church in implementing progressive changes, advocating for AIDS victims, the LGBTQ community, female priests and African-Americans.
From 1986 to 1995, Chang was executive officer to Browning in New York, later becoming chief operations officer there from 1995 to 1996. He served as bishop of Hawaii from 1997 to 2007 before retiring.
Born in Honolulu on Nov. 30, 1941, Chang died Aug. 30 at Straub Hospital following a short illness.
“The family will miss most his ability to bring reconciliation, his humility and his incredible loyalty,” his daughter Hannah Clifford said. “He was (friends for) decades with Bishop Browning. … It was something Dad treasured, (as well as) bringing Christ’s message to a broader community.
“Dad was a great administrator and listener, and his understanding of cultural diversity was more than a lot of people’s,” Clifford added. “He was the first Chinese bishop of Hawaii (and in the U.S.). He grew up in the islands and understood the divine tapestry of the islands, and I think that’s something he brought to the bigger stage.”
Clifford said clergy and laypeople called him “Uncle Bishop” and that he was also bestowed the Hawaiian name “Kaneomanakapulani” for establishing a Feast Day in the Episcopal Church for the work of Queen Emma and King Kamehameha IV. He previously served in various positions in Honolulu, Waimanalo and on Kauai.
Current Bishop Robert L. Fitzpatrick became Chang’s assistant in 2000. Fitzpatrick, who succeeded Chang, said: “He grew to be my mentor and my friend. I continued to seek his advice at our regular lunches. He will be sorely missed by the diocese, and personally by me.”
When Chang led the Hawaii diocese, “he restored the diocese to a sound financial footing, but more importantly he re-established the sense of integrity and responsible leadership,” Fitzpatrick said. “The two words that most come mind when I think of Dick are integrity and faithfulness. … He was always humble and calm.”
Father Charles Cesaretti said in a phone interview from New Milford, Penn., that he had been Chang’s very close friend and colleague for more than 30 years — “We were yin and yang!” They had known each other previously, but forged their relationship as co-assistants of Browning while in New York from 1986 to 1990. “Once you become a friend of Richard’s, it was for life,” he said.
“He’s a person of incredible integrity, a truth teller and … a model” for others to emulate, Cesaretti said, adding, “We had some rather robust conversations” about controversial issues such as the ordination of women and gay and lesbian rights, but they “never had a disagreement” that wasn’t resolved fairly and diplomatically.
“He had a great gift of leadership,” Cesaretti said. “Richard was a bottom-up person.” His style was to hear from as many different perspectives so that everyone felt they were part of the decision, “rather than being the person who made the decision and enforced it on the system.” He helped lay the groundwork of a major change, “rather than it becoming an emotional, heated issue,” added Cesaretti, who led St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Montrose, Pa., before retiring in 2009.
In addition to daughter Hannah Clifford, Chang is survived by his wife of 48 years, Delia M. Chang; daughter Holly Nagatoshi; sister Charlotte Tomita; and four grandchildren.
A celebration of life will be held at 4 p.m. Sept. 17 at The Cathedral of St. Andrew, 229 Queen Emma Square. Visitation is from 2 p.m.
In lieu of flowers or monetary gifts, donations may be made to The Chang Clergy Children’s Scholarship Fund at bit.ly/2eWzaqK.