Culture, change, identity in three Japanese-American congregations

August 22, 2011

It's become a familiar story — an aging congregation challenged to grow a declining membership, to reinvent mission, to reach out to its surroundings and embrace diversity and change, to adopt new models of ministry to survive.

Add "Japanese-American heritage" to the mix and the picture gets more complicated, the future is not necessarily clear and the question of identity becomes intense and sometimes painful, say members of St. Peter's Church, Seattle; St. Mary's Church, Los Angeles and Sei Ko Kai Christ Church, San Francisco — three such congregations in transition.

When St. Peter's adopted a multicultural ministry model a few years ago, the decision was "huge" and one of the most painful the congregation has ever made, according to the Rev. Jim Thibodeaux.

He compares the experience to "being in a meat tenderizer. You know, you take a piece of chicken, put it in a bag and hammer it, flatten it out," said Thibodeaux, rector for three years. The decision to shift paradigms occurred prior to his tenure and "was made with the head and heart, but as with all decisions, the heart takes more time to change," he added.

Change is tough for any congregation, but "when you're identified as the ethnic Japanese-American congregation in the diocese, it takes a long time to accept the fact that you are no longer the heritage church," said Jay Shoji, treasurer, whose grandfather was the first Japanese-American vicar of the congregation, founded in 1908.

He remembers a time when "if you moved to Seattle and were of Japanese descent, you were more or less encouraged or told that St. Peter's is where you should be going to church."

"It wasn't just us saying we were the heritage church -- it was the diocese telling us. The expectation was on both sides," added Shoji, 47, a Boeing engineer, during a recent interview from his office. "And when your history is tied up in that, you can say you're no longer it, but it's tough to live it."

Factored into that history is also the World War II relocation camp experience, "the ultimate forced segregation that is still a central part of who St. Peter's is," said Thibodeaux.

After the camps, members returned "to the ultimate forced integration," because their homes and businesses had been taken over by others and "St. Peter's was no longer a neighborhood church," he said.

"It became instead a destination parish and an even stronger cultural parish in the sense of being one of the last vestiges of holding that community together after forced integration," Thibodeaux said.

Now, overall Japanese immigration has slowed compared to other groups. Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Koren (from Myanmar), Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrants, along with African Americans, make up about a third of the congregation's membership, Thibodeaux said. Japanese-Americans and Caucasians each make up some 35 percent of the congregation, which has an average Sunday attendance of about 50.

Changing, for St. Peter's, took "a lot of struggle and several clergy, some of which were good fits and some were not," added Thibodeaux. "It took the diocese learning to be a bit more sensitive and the church learning to be a little less isolationist, which of course comes with most ethnic congregations -- a sense of being on your own and not being understood when you don't exude the dominant culture.

"Now the community is saying, what does it mean to be a Japanese-American church?" Thibodeaux said.

St. Mary's, Los Angeles: poised for change

Most Sunday mornings until she was about age eight, Gayle Kawahara -- like her father before her — walked the few blocks from home to St. Mary's, their neighborhood church and the historically Japanese-American congregation in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles.

"My father grew up in that neighborhood. The neighborhood started to change when I was about eight, with more Mexican and Korean immigrants moving in," recalled Kawahara during a recent telephone interview. The family moved to the suburbs but commuted the 30-mile distance weekly, a tradition still kept by Kawahara, 45, a second-generation dentist who serves on the vestry.

And the neighborhood kept changing. Although it's known locally as Koreatown, about 61 percent of its residents are newly arrived from Central and South America, a demographic inversely proportional to St. Mary's 68-percent Japanese-American membership.

That places the 104-year-old church "at an interesting crossroads" although St. Mary's seems poised, like St. Peter's, to return to its original mission -- outreach to immigrants, said Glenn Nishibayashi, 54, a third-generation member and former senior warden.

A few years ago, the church added a Spanish-language service and the two congregations periodically worship together. The parish recently called its first bilingual Spanish-English rector and the Rev. Floyd Naters Gamarra, an associate priest who leads the Spanish-language service, said there are signs of a gradual gelling between the two congregations. Still, while the recent rector search committee leadership included representation from the Spanish-speaking congregation, the vestry as yet does not. "But it's going to happen soon," Gamarra said.

"Different people have different views of what our future could be," adds Nishibayashi, whose own family in many ways mirrors the church's history. His grandparents were Issei, first-generation, who joined as immigrants; his Nisei parents married there; he and his three siblings were all baptized and married at the church.

As his own Sansei generation increasingly joined the mainstream and moved away, fewer commuted for Sunday worship, creating a drop in membership among both Sansei and Yonsei or their Gen-X children, said Nishibayashi, who commutes a half-hour. "My sister's commute is an hour. On busy weekends, it's tough to take that kind of time out when you have a family," he said. "It becomes a whole day event when you drive that far."

Also tough was his 21-year-old son's recent decision to attend another church, closer to the family's Cerritos home, where he could worship with friends and a sizeable group of peers, Nishibayashi said.

"He still comes to St. Mary's sometimes; he knows how much St. Mary's means to me, and that so many people are holding onto the old traditions," Nishibayashi said.

Many of those traditions were forged in memory and hardship, especially the "horrific" bond created by the World War II relocations, Nishibayashi said. His father's family was sent to Jerome, Arkansas; his mother's to Heart Mountain, Wyoming.

"My dad tells the story about loading trucks with stuff people brought to the church; it was a gathering place before they went off to the assembling point at Santa Anita Racetrack," he said.

"It was where they came back to, also, after the war. It's amazing how many 50th wedding anniversaries were celebrated in the same year at St. Mary's," he added. "They all got married before they were sent off to internment camps because they didn't want to be separated. It's no wonder their bond is so tight."

Renewing the bonds: Sei Ko Kai, San Francisco

Ironically, a renewed interest in the camp experience offers future hope, as Yonsei in search of their roots may return to ethnically Japanese-American churches, said the Rev. Stina Pope, vicar of Sei Ko Kai, San Francisco.

"There are some people in the bigger community who say you've got to become multicultural, basically drop the Japanese-American identity, to survive, but I'm not so sure that's true for Sei Ko Kai; we don't fit any particular model or pattern," she said during a recent telephone interview from her office.

One young parishioner, Matthew Yoshio Boris, 14, graduated from middle school June 17 and was confirmed a day later at Sei Ko Kai, the church of his grandmother and mother, a 45-minute commute from his Marin County home.

Born on the 4th of July, Boris, who is hapa, or half-Japanese, recently asked to be referred to by his middle name, Yoshio. The commute to Sei Ko Kai is worth the opportunity to worship, at least partly, in Japanese. He intends to become fluent, eventually, he said in a recent telephone interview from his home.

"I've gotten really interested in the whole internment camp experience," within the last year, he said. "I read Farewell to Manzanar and wanted to learn more about how the internees were treated in the camps. I just keep reading more and learning more."

The Rev. Jim Kodera agreed that there is renewed interest among Japanese-American Episcopalians in reconnecting with their roots and coming to terms with the camp experience. So much so that a trip to the Manzanar National Historic Site in Independence, California increased attendance at this year's Japanese Convocation of Episcopal Asiamerica Ministry or EAM, held in Los Angeles in June.

"What was remarkable about this year's convocation was the pilgrimage to Manzanar and the urge to forge ahead and prepare for our future and for Japanese-Americans to come face to face with that most gripping of experiences," said Kodera, chair and professor of religion at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. He is also EAM President and said the group may ask General Convention 2012, scheduled to meet July 5-12 in Indianapolis, to consider a formal remembrance of the victims.

Gayle Kawahara organized the bus trip to Manzanar, some 220 miles north of Los Angeles, which drew Michelle Miyatake-Karuma, 40, who grew up at St. Mary's and stills attends periodically. "I'm wondering how to explain to my daughter, Kelly, who's 10, about our family connection to Manzanar," she said.

Miyatake-Karuma's grandfather, Toyo Miyatake, a Japanese immigrant, along with his wife and children were among thousands of Japanese-Americans removed to Manzanar in 1942. They were labeled 'Family 9975', according to camp records. A well-known local photographer, Miyatake smuggled his camera into the camp "to make sure his story, this story of the Japanese, was documented," his granddaughter said. Miyatake's photos are included among museum exhibits.

Kawahara also feels protective of that story "because it changed a group of people as a whole. That experience changed a culture and it's important for people to know that. You can't understand Japanese-American culture if you don't understand it."

She wonders about the story's outcome, how adopting a multicultural model will affect the congregation's identity. "To me, St. Mary's identity is a Japanese-American heritage church," she said.

Recalling mission, revisiting roots

Pope says Sei Ko Kai worships partially in Japanese yet embraces a diversity of other ethnicities and reaches out to the surrounding community, which after the war was no longer Japanese.

She cautioned that there is no one specific pattern or formula; that each congregation has defined its mission in the past and will continue to do so. But with younger members like Yoshio Boris "looking for their roots, I have a sneaking suspicion if we can hang on long enough, we may have something very special to offer that is a little different because we retained our identity at Sei Ko Kai," she said.

Boris agreed. "I definitely welcome other ethnicities at Sei Ko Kai. I don't see any reason not to welcome them, although they cannot understand the Japanese part of the service. We can't change that for them," he said.

"There's nothing wrong with having a Japanese church … whatever's easy for you to understand and whatever's easy for you to connect with, it's great. I think it's great that there are churches out there that are (ethnically) specific."

For now, Nishibayashi hopes to pursue a "parallel" experience at St. Mary's to honor those who adhere to tradition, while at the same time "developing and starting the new programs that will give St. Mary's new life from different sources, so in another ten years we don't simply have to turn off the lights and lock the doors. It's a delicate balance you have to strike."

Pope agreed. She noted that, at least for her congregation, declining membership doesn't necessarily equate with dwindling resources. "Stewardship looks different here than other churches," she said. "When we needed to paint the church outside, we simply put the word out and raised the $50,000 necessary. That's not the usual case for a congregation that has around 20 average Sunday attendance."

Regarding the future, "I don't know how all this is going to come out," she added. "People ask me what my vision is, and I'm pretty resolute that I don't have a vision -- that my job as vicar is to hold the people's vision, and it's coming."

The Rev. Fred Vergara, missioner for Asian ministries for the Episcopal Church, offers up a vision for churches in transition. He invoked an image of church as gas station, as a kind of "repository of the Holy Spirit for people on the go, a place to stop by for some moment of time … where they can be filled with the Spirit while they are there. When they move on, they carry that community with them and form new communities and in the process all have been filled by the Spirit."

The irony is that unless struggling congregations embrace such "hospitality of necessity," they may completely disappear without leaving a legacy of the church they love, he added.

"We live in a very fleeting society, there are very rapid changes and globalization has made us a very mobile people. The people on the move right now in the United States are immigrants," he said. "For the people who are settled, it can be very hard."