Many Japanese American Christians first heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, as they returned home from Sunday worship. Japanese students gathered with their faculty at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California, to pray long into the evening. During the nightly curfew enforced for Nikkei (the term for all ethnic Japanese in the US), ministers telephoned frightened church members who huddled together in their homes.
Ten weeks later, President Franklin Roosevelt authorized Executive Order 9066, forcing nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans from the Pacific Coast to relocate to internment camps. Throughout the spring of 1942, public notices started appearing on telephone poles in cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles announcing the dates when “all persons of Japanese ancestry, both alien and nonalien” would be evacuated and where they would be picked up.
Each family could only bring whatever luggage they could carry, leaving behind homes, businesses, farms, churches, communities, and even pets. Authorities then bused them to makeshift assembly camps where they would reside for several months before being transferred to one of 10 relocation centers in the country’s interior.
My grandparents and their two young children, my aunt and uncle, were detained at Manzanar Relocation Center near Death Valley, California. The older generation rarely talked about the camps, so in college I began to study the internment to learn about my family’s story. Now, as a pastor, I’ve expanded my research to how the Japanese American church practiced soul care during that difficult time in our nation’s history.
By the outset of World War II, Nikkei churches numbered about 100, mostly led by Issei, or immigrants from Japan, but also including Nisei, ethnic Japanese born in the US. These believers endured their grief and shame by caring for one another, as exemplified by the actions of Nikkei pastors and the sermons they preached in the days before evacuation.
In my research, I discovered an unpublished manuscript entitled The Sunday Before: Sermons by Pacific Coast Pastors of the Japanese Race on the Sunday before Evacuation to Assembly Centers in the Late Spring of 1942. Like John the Baptist, Nikkei ministers raised their voices in the wilderness to proclaim a message of hope in Jesus Christ. Yet they also actively lived out their faith by suffering with their flocks and leading worship services behind the barbed wire of the internment camps. Their witness in the face of unjust suffering models how we can care for souls today. (Unless otherwise noted, most of the sermons quoted below are from The Sunday Before).
The whole counsel of God’s Word
In the days before evacuation, Nikkei pastors exhorted their anxious flocks to remember Old Testament pilgrims like Abraham, Moses, and the faithful remnant in the Babylonian exile. They also sought to bolster their congregation’s “sufferology” from the New Testament letters to persecuted churches and from the example of Christ himself. During those tense days and in the months to come, pastors reminded their fellow believers that God would empower them to rejoice in suffering just like Daniel praying in the den of lions, Paul and Silas singing praises in prison, and Jesus willingly enduring on the cross “for the joy set before him” (Heb. 12:2). A believer’s faith was not determined by their circumstances, but rather by their response to these circumstances.
On Easter Sunday, April 5, John Yamazaki proclaimed from the pulpit of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church that the power of Christ’s resurrection came only through suffering, citing Philippians 3:10. Yamazaki, who had pastored St. Mary’s since 1913, then reminded his flock that Good Friday preceded Easter as he walked them through examples in Scripture of God’s sustaining grace during times of evacuation: Abraham leaving Ur for a land that God would show him, and Israel wandering in the wilderness before reaching the Promised Land.
“It was those of the new generation—may I term them ‘the second generation’ or ‘Nisei of the Exodus’—that crossed the [Jordan] River and went into Canaan, the Promised Land, under the leadership of Joshua, a new leader,” he said.
Yamazaki continued with the Babylonian captives, the remnant who returned to rebuild Jerusalem, and Mary and Joseph’s trek to Bethlehem where Jesus was born. “This is the higher and greater way that God holds for us,” Yamazaki said. “So, if evacuation is the order of the day in our lives, we have examples in history recorded in the Bible.”
The day after his sermon, a sad caravan of “66 small trucks and cars, 6 large trucks, and 13 public (Pacific Electric) Busses” conveyed 700 people from St. Mary’s departure point, “pretty much emptying out the neighborhood of Mariposa Avenue and Olympic Boulevard,” according to a journal article by Joanna Gillespie in Anglican and Episcopal History. Yamazaki would go on to pastor the Episcopal church at the Jerome camp in Arkansas.
After the war, St. Mary’s became a refuge and a resource center for Nikkei resettlers who had nowhere else to live, because their former homes had been taken. Yamazaki served as president of the Los Angeles Japanese Clergy Association and continued to pastor St. Mary’s until 1956, when his son took over as rector.
The sufferings of Christ
Shigeo Shimada grew up in Japan, where his father disowned him for believing in the “foreign” religion of Christianity. He immigrated to America for seminary studies with only his broken English and $200 in his pocket, yet he clung to the truth that the same God who saved him in Japan would provide for him in a distant land, he wrote in his book, A Stone Cried Out: The True Story of Simple Faith in Difficult Days.
At a farewell service on February 15, before being sent off to internment camps, Shimada exhorted Alameda Japanese Methodist Church in the San Francisco Bay Area to remember the sufferings of Christ, according to his book.
You and I are and will be suffering a great deal because of this war. This is an opportunity to test our Christian faith. Let us meet all suffering face to face and endure the coming tribulations patiently. Let us not give up hope, whatever our trial may be. … Remember, you are all Christians and you are all citizens of the kingdom of God. The Issei people are called enemy aliens, and unfortunately the Nisei are treated like aliens as well. However, we must not become enemy aliens of God. Please behave as children of God wherever you may go and whatever your situation may be.
Shimada refused to conceal the future suffering his people would face, relating the Nikkei persecution to that of the early church under the Roman Empire. Peter had written to Christians who were likewise dispersed from their homes and facing an uncertain future (1 Pet. 1:1). They, too, were subject to harsh authorities with little say about what would happen to them (2:18).
Yet Shimada called them to be like Jesus, whose humility was not a sign of weakness, but rather a mark of measured strength: “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (2:21). The church’s suffering should neither be strange nor unexpected, but an opportunity to joyfully share in the sufferings of Christ. Thus, believers must be ready for whatever might befall them and rejoice, knowing that faithful endurance would fashion them into the likeness of their Lord and Savior.
Shimada would soon be tested himself, as his family was assigned to live in one of the filthiest horse stables at Tanforan Assembly Center, a former racetrack south of San Francisco. They slept in an old horse stall which had been whitewashed inside without first being cleaned. Workers had placed linoleum on the floor directly atop a pile of manure and the putrid smell filled the air day and night until it saturated their hair and clothes, he wrote in his book. Shimada resented being treated like an animal until he began to reflect on Christ’s atoning sacrifice.
My thoughts turned to Jesus Christ who was born in a stable that must have been much worse than ours. … Yet Mary and Joseph did not complain about their miserable situation. When the shepherds came to meet Jesus and worship him, it was a heavenly picture. I am sure that the stable was full of glory. However, in another stable of the twentieth century there was nothing but the spirit of resentment and bitterness. Why such a difference between the two stables? It was a difference of the hearts. Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds were profoundly related with God, whereas God was absent in my heart in our stable. I was deeply ashamed of myself. When I realized that being put in a stable as the holy family had been was a unique experience, a spirit of peace replaced the resentment and bitterness in my heart.
Shimada’s family was transferred to Topaz Relocation Center in Utah, where agitators often accused Christian ministers of being pro-American spies. Shimada had to sleep with a guard outside his bunkhouse, yet he faithfully shepherded the flock that God had given him.
After the war, Shimada continued to pastor Nikkei churches. He was also able to lead his aged father to Christ, more than 25 years after being disowned and thrown into the street.
The fellowship of the gathered church
Sohei Kowta, the pastor of Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Church in Orange County, California, preached an installation service for young Donald Toriumi at Union Church of Los Angeles on April 19. He urged Nikkei Christians to uphold the example of Abraham, who not only followed the Lord in faith, but also continued to worship him: “Wherever he visited a new place, the first thing he did there was to build an altar to Jehovah God.” He also emphasized that the church was not just a building, but mainly consisted of her people.
“Within a very short time, we shall have to move out from … this church where we have played together and prayed together; this church where we have talked together and worked together; this church where we have sung together and sacrificed together,” he preached. “But, we Japanese … shall be like Abraham, the mighty migration leader; filled, not with hatred or bitterness, but with faith, hope and love. We shall go wherever God wants us to go, and as we go along we shall bless the people everywhere, as did Abraham of old.”
Kowta and many members of his church would end up at Poston Relocation Center in Arizona, where he served on the pastoral team of Poston Christian Church. Like the other camps, the church gathered members from many different denominations, both Issei and Nisei, including Japanese and English speakers. They adopted broader doctrinal statements like the Apostle’s Creed and jointly decided on which hymns to sing and how to rotate preaching. Their beautiful picture of oneness amid diversity followed the example of the early church and anticipated Christ’s coming kingdom.
Following the war, Kowta actively aided many Nikkei by establishing a resettlement center at Union Church called the Evergreen Hostel, where he would serve for many years.
The ministry of presence
Many Nikkei pastors comforted their congregations not only with their words but through the ministry of presence. Lester Suzuki, the young pastor of Los Angeles Japanese Methodist Church, could have avoided internment, as his wife’s family in Colorado offered them refuge. Instead, he and his family chose to suffer with his flock.
On April 26, the Sunday before their forced removal, Suzuki stood before the congregation to preach. “Brethren, we are facing the eve of evacuation,” he said. “We must evacuate our homes and churches and be taken to strange places, and we will not know what will happen to us. This is our last Sunday on which we can worship in our own sanctuary.”
Suzuki mourned with his church about leaving behind a chapel they had built with their own hands and financed with their hard-earned wages. Many had attended Sunday school there since childhood and were now forced to vacate without certainty of return.
In less than a week, Suzuki, with his wife and two children, boarded a bus to the Santa Anita racetrack, 14 miles northeast of Los Angeles, where they, too, would live in a horse stable for several months. Although his role was to cheer the flock, he couldn’t stop the tears from flowing as the bus pulled away from their home.
At Santa Anita, Suzuki was appointed chairman of Christian youth activities. He made his pastoral visits on a bicycle, and the youth ministry thrived since almost half of the evacuees were between the ages of 10–29. A third to a quarter of the 4,200 residents would attend the Sunday morning worship services, which met in the grandstands, with hymns played on a portable organ. “The Santa Anita stadium, which once seated screaming horse-racing fans, was now echoing the songs in praise of God lifted up by our young voices,” wrote Midori Watanabe in Triumphs of Faith.
Suzuki would go on to lead Granada Christian Church at Amache camp in Colorado and serve as a historian for the Nikkei community after the war. He conducted his doctoral research on Christian ministry in the camps and conducted many oral interviews among members of the churches he pastored.
He would attribute his effectiveness as a shepherd to the ministry of presence, as he recounts in his book, Ministry in the Assembly and Relocation Centers of World War II.
“The opportunities of the [relocation] Center experience gave every minister a deep sense of sensitivity with the inner feelings of people as they ministered in the post-war era,” he wrote. “The common experience of having suffered together with no extra privileges, having learned the common lessons of deprivation, of humiliation, of indignity, and yet come out with a sense of dignity and strength of character and much deeper faith in God made them much more effective ministers than if they had arrived from a free country.”
This ministry of soul care during the Japanese American internment compels the church today to remain present with fellow sufferers, to continue gathering together, and to remind one another of Christ’s person and work from the whole counsel of God’s Word.
Tom Sugimura is a church planting mentor, counselor, and pastor of New Life Church in Woodland Hills, California. He is the author of The Church Behind Barbed Wire: Stories of Faith during the Japanese American Internment of World War II.