Emmanuele Purdon | Punchstock photo.
When 20-year-old Yo Nagata was married on March 29, 1942, at California's Sycamore Congregational Church (UCC), then located in Oakland but now in El Cerrito, her wedding was the last official gathering of the Japanese-American congregation before its members were forced into internment camps during World War II.
While most were in confinement at the Topaz Relocation Center in Utah, Sycamore's members continued to conduct worship services, thanks to the commitment of the congregation's lay leaders. But, even with much assistance from non-Japanese Christians in the Bay Area, including Oakland's Plymouth Congregational UCC, members still returned in 1945 to find their lives and their church in terrible states of disrepair.
Now in her 80s, Nagata and the congregation's other 93 members are remembering the good with the bad as Sycamore Church honors its difficult but remarkable 100-year history.
Founded in 1904 by three Japanese students, the church is one of the first and oldest self-sustaining Japanese- American Christian congregations in the United States. Decades later, it is increasingly becoming a diverse multiracial, multicultural congregation, but one that hopes never to abandon or apologize for its commitment to the Japanese-speaking community.
"An important part of who we are in the world is our ministry to the Japanese- speaking and Japanese-American communities, but you don't have to be of Japanese heritage to be a part of this congregation," says the Rev. Sharon MacArthur, Sycamore's Chinese-American pastor who says she always has felt called to multiracial, multicultural ministry. "If the congregation becomes diverse, that's okay. But our thrust is on Japanese-American ministry."
"With a lot of Japanese-American churches, the bilingual aspect of it has gone by the wayside," MacArthur says. "Immigration [from Japan] is not at the pace that it used to be in the 1950s." But that's not the case at Sycamore, where a Japanese-language worship service and preschool keep the church in the heartbeat of northern California's thriving Asian-American community.
Moreover, the church continues to employ a nichigo or "Japanese language" pastor from the United Church of Christ in Japan (UCCJ). As a sign of the church's U.S.-Japanese roots, that person, the Rev. Mitsuho Okado, holds ministerial standing in both the UCCJ and the UCC's Northern California- Nevada Conference.
"He was raised Christian in a non- Christian country," MacArthur says, "and I was raised non-Christian in what I perceive to be Christian culture, but we are so in sync about theology, our understandings of the Trinity, of ways to be the church."
One of Sycamore's most notable members was author Yoshiko Uchida, who in 1943, as a then-student at the University of California at Berkeley, was forced to live in an internment camp. She would later become famous for her writings about the injustices her people encountered there and the difficulties she experienced during her lifetime as a Japanese person in the United States—subjects she would explore until her death in 1992. Her books remain popular among Japanese-American young people and recommended reading for many of California's public school students, MacArthur says.
In 1964, Sycamore helped to give birth to the West Oakland Christian Parish, an ecumenical, intercity ministry committed to serving its then-predominantly African-American neighborhood. "They made their whole facilities available to us," says the Rev. W. Evan Golder, who helped found the ministry with help from a Presbyterian pastor and the Rev. Hector Lopez, who is now the UCC's Central Pacific Conference Minister. And again, in the 1970s, Sycamore was instrumental in forming the UCC's Pacific Islander and Asian-American Ministries, one of the denomination's historic racial/ethnic constituency groups.
MacArthur says that the UCC's multiracial, multicultural commitment is one that must be owned not only by those congregations that are predominately white, but for the UCC's racial/ ethnic congregations as well. Still, she says, that does not mean turning your back to your own congregation's heritage, but rather embracing the diversity of heritages that exists throughout the church universal.
"We are a Japanese-American church," MacArthur says, "and we help the national church to be a multiracial, multicultural church in a way that helps people not feel negative about who they are as a congregation, that they are not doing something bad by ministering to those they are called to serve."
On April 17-18, at a commemorative banquet and special worship service, Sycamore remembered its call to serve. The celebration included a display of a 100-year timeline where members had posted their memories. Some were dif- fi cult to share, MacArthur remembers, because such an outward, emotional exercise does not come easy in Japanese culture.
"I think one of the most interesting exercises as a church is when our members are asked to share their memories, because it's not something they are accustomed to doing," MacArthur says, "but hearing their stories has helped shape the future of our church."