Shikata Ga Nai
“Love your neighbor as yourself.” – Mark 12:31
75 years ago this spring, during World War II, FDR ordered 115,000 Japanese-Americans into internment camps; most were U.S. citizens. They were told it was for their own protection, but when they showed up in empty lots to board the busses, American soldiers were standing nearby with bayonets. They were tagged like cattle or property.
They had had only a week’s notice to make arrangements for pets, jobs, homes and all their affairs, packing just a few things into one or two small suitcases.
For three years they would live in barracks in some of the most inhospitable places in our country: abandoned race tracks, desert environments far from civilization. When they returned home, some would find their houses repossessed and their jobs given away, leaving them without any means to care for their families.
Some of their children and grandchildren would later ask them: why didn’t you resist? They said: what could we do? The U.S. Army was against us! We felt our only hope was to cooperate. The Japanese proverb, “shikata ga nai,” “there is nothing to be done,” rang in their ears.
At my church, First Church Berkeley, one faithful young woman decided that something could be done. “We can do an inhumane thing in a humane way,” she proclaimed, and organized the church ladies to make the church an embarkation point to the camps instead of the empty lot where the government had planned the transfer.
On the day the busses arrived, the church ladies cooked food, fed their Japanese-American neighbors, minded their children while their parents did paperwork, provided clean bathrooms, shelter from the sun. Mine and other churches: took on pets, took cherished heirlooms into safekeeping, even became custodians of left-behind houses and properties, paying mortgages and taxes, mowing lawns, making repairs.
My church’s gesture was a small one, and a complicated one–was it enabling, or exposing, the injustice of the order? But there is always something that can be done, especially by those with privilege.
God who makes us all neighbors to one another, we might find ourselves in another such moment, soon. How shall we act? Give us the courage to know what can be done, and to do it.
Molly Baskette is Senior Minister of the First Church of Berkeley, California, and the author of the best-selling Real Good Church and Standing Naked Before God.