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Nikkei incarceration and Episcopal faith

Several young adults of color (and one white person, certainly by mistake) were asked to speak to a small gathering of Episcopalians at General Convention this week to share our stories on the intersections of “faith, race, and justice.” Here is roughly what I shared. 

I found the Episcopal Church in August of this year, two months after I was able to link my racial identity with my faith in Christ for the first time. In June, I went on a pilgrimage with a group of college-age Japanese Americans to a desert three hours north of Los Angeles, to a place called Manzanar. During world war two, over one hundred thousand Japanese Americans were incarcerated by our government and put into domestic concentration camps. Ten thousand ended up in Manzanar. Some people have called this experience an “internment,” although what happened to our community in the 1940s was very different than the practice of wartime internment.

When we arrived, the reality of the camp hit me. It felt like the spirits of the people who had lived there were inches away. I sensed their heartbreak and loss so intimately. I saw the husks of barbed wire fences and guard towers. Stood on the hot, burning sands of the desert. At one point I just stood there with my eyes closed – and felt this total, eerie silence I haven’t experienced anywhere else. Though there was nothing for miles around, when I closed my eyes it felt like I was standing in a tiny, soundproof closet. It was deafening, and shattering. That is the first time I experienced how silence itself can be a literal form of oppression. That was when I started to believe that talking about race was actually important, and that if my faith was going to mean anything, it would have to start here. Not only with reflecting on race and racism in general, but here, in the sand, with these people who were held behind barbed wire.

What happened to our community is disturbing, but it’s familiar in light of the history of the country in which we church. Communities of color have historically been intentionally ghettoized, segregated, incarcerated, detained and deported, pushed onto reservations as their land was consumed. And yet we see every time this happens is that these transcendent, really divine forms of resistance begin to emerge through music, from hip hop to the blues to jazz, and art, these crushed communities consistently produce these beautiful, powerful emblems resilience borne from the crucibles of our pain.

In our case, they took Japanese Americans from coastal fishing villages and all manner of places, and placed us in a scorching desert. And we labored, we crafted, we irrigated, we created koi ponds and paper cranes and stone sculptures and transformed hard land into gardens and rivers, all while inward-facing machine guns were pointed at our heads. Where could this activity be from apart from the empowering presence of God, the work of the Holy Spirit? Divine spirit enables oppressed peoples to resist trauma with radical creativity. Those who oppress us never expect this. I am reminded of that old proverb: they tried to bury us – they didn’t know we were seeds.

cracked cement riverbed in Manzanar

cracked cement riverbed in Manzanar

The Helper is already dwelling in these places, at work empowering our peoples to survive pain of biblical proportions. So while I love this talk about Holy Spirit descending down upon us from heaven, if Jesus is to be found primarily among the bleeding and the incarcerated, perhaps we could also pray that the spirit ascend from these low places and trickle up to those of us who come from positions of privilege.

Now, some questions I have for us in the Episcopal church: if we believe that God is literally incarnated among those who are incarcerated, that God is most intimately present with people who are beaten, starved, shot, erased, disappeared, lynched, and crucified – then what does it mean for us to be the “Church of the Presidents,” senators, and financial tycoons? What does it mean for us to be consistently ranked the highest earning and highest educated Christian denomination in this country, and to house the halls of power?

What does it mean for me, as a Japanese American, to belong to the church of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who without apology demanded the plunder and incarceration of my people? What does it mean to be a part of a church that in the history of General Convention has never invited an Asian American or Pacific Islander to preach at the Eucharist? I have heard people say that we are not truly Catholic until we are all included, and this seems true here.

And wasn’t today’s worship amazing? Today was the first time my dad asked me to tell him more about our church. Why? I called him right after worship and asked, can you believe it? They had Taiko drums during the Eucharist. Dad, during a church service of mostly white people, yes, they honored the first Nikkei priest (who was incarcerated during world war two) and the mass was celebrated by Utah’s Japanese American bishop. And they brought a fleet of Taiko drums in to replace the usual calm, choral communion music with loud, powerful, palpable drumming. As Rev. Fred Vergara has said, this morning you heard the throbbing heartbeat of the Asian American community. No…we not some silent, complacent, calm, model minority. You heard the shouting of our drums today, and we are powerful, dangerous, an active threat to the evils of racism and white supremacy in our church and country.

Our white-dominated church needs our voices. Not to fill a diversity quota but because we bring irreplaceable perspectives to the living out of our Christian faith. Who better than hurting peoples forced to march trails of tears to teach us the meaning of biblical exoduses, or Jesus’ family fleeing King Herod after his birth? Who better to talk about the meaning of the story of Jesus’ family being turned away at the inn, Christ being born in a manger, than Seattle-area Japanese Americans, who were forced to live in horse stables and sleep on piles of filthy hay before they were sent to concentration camps? As North Americans, what else can we look to besides a tortured, lynched body to understand the meaning of the cross of Jesus?

Jesus said he is present wherever two or three are gathered together. What about ten thousand, trapped behind barbed wire, corralled into a crowded desert prison? Jesus promised to be present among two or three. What about hundreds of black bodies, chained together on a slave ship sailing across the Atlantic? What about the thousands of crucified bodies that literally littered the American South during the lynching era? Surely Jesus is also powerfully gathered wherever embattled communities of color in the United States have been given no spiritual food by our church other than what Dr. King has called the spoiled meat of racism.

The God of the Bible is living among our people, in our stories of creativity and resistance. If we do not begin looking for the Spirit of God here, I don’t know we’ll ever find her.

Flag over Manzanar

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Reblogged this on missionrva and commented:
    If you want to know the real impact of General Convention. It can be found in these voices, the new Episcopalians, the formally marginalized, the people we were waiting for to make us a complete body in Christ. This is a beautiful essay worth reading about convention worship.

    July 4, 2015
  2. George C. Wong #

    Thank you for your heartfelt, beautiful piece. It caught me by surprise in a good way because I rarely read about the camps in connection with the EC. As an Episcopal priest whose mother was born in Manzanar, I witnessed a cloud of shame and silence hang over two generations of my family as well as over many others who were interned. It is only in the past few years that I have been able to learn more about the experience of my family in California before, during and after the war. Last year, I spoke about their wartime and resettlement experiences at VTS with hopes of conveying a fuller sense of responses by those in camp– which ranged from compliance and serving in the military to resistance in the form of both active and passive protest, but just as often given voice in artistic expressions. I also wanted to talk about the strategies for survival that my family employed post-war, chiefly becoming the very most American of citizens and shedding traces of Japanese culture. I cannot speak for other families or even for all of my own family, but, for me, the experience could not begin to be redeemed until I could carry a more complete, somehow more real story to the cross. Seventy years after the camps, there is still much healing to be done for my own family and, I suspect, for all involved. Many thanks for your thoughts and blessings on your journey!

    July 4, 2015
  3. Suzanne Jones #

    Thank you for sharing this – I was very moved by this story. I am sharing this link to another similar story from a different minority group. It seems God is working in many ways toward reconciliation.

    July 5, 2015

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