Buena Vista United Methodist Church

Buena Vista United Methodist Church in Alameda, California, was born in the years of early Japanese immigration, nurtured generations, and was dispersed during the war years. Yet it survived and continues in expanding outreach.

Pre-war Years: A-Town

An English class for Japanese immigrants in Alameda welcomed its first students in 1898. [1] It was supported by the Woman's Home Mission Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church South, a Protestant denomination. [2] A year later the Japanese Mission School opened its doors. [3] Men gathered after a day of work to study English at night and exchange news. The Woman's Home Mission Society Annual Report of 1902 implored leaders to provide funds to hire a minister so that believers could be won [4] , and it soon bore fruit when the first convert, Mr. Bunichiro Yada, was baptized in August of 1903. [5] The Japanese Methodist Episcopal Mission (South) held its first official church service on November 22 of 1903, led by Reverend Namio Yanagiwara. [6] In September 1905 Mrs. Tazuyo Maeno became the first woman known to be baptized; she wasted no time in starting a Sunday School. [7]

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake resulted in steep rent climbs and this created an urgency to buy property. [8] In 1907 the Woman's Home Mission Society purchased 2311 Buena Vista Avenue in Alameda [9] , where the church is located to this day. The building was named Mary Helm Hall and it served as a place of worship, a "cooperative home," a night school, and a kindergarten [10] (soon expanded to an elementary school [11] ). Programs for children, in turn, attracted women and their families. [12] The mission became a hub of the growing Japanese American community in Alameda. All were welcome, regardless of faith. [13]

As the anti-Japanese movement swelled around them, the Japanese Methodist Episcopal Church (South) [14] served as an important social gathering place. Women found friends at the Fujinkai (Women's Association). Boy Scout Troop 7 was established. Church picnics were highlights of the year. Church youth were active in the California Young People's Christian Conference . Operettas produced by the young people of the church in the 1930s were major events, with young people building elaborate sets, mothers working late into the night sewing costumes, and young performers drawing standing-room-only crowds. [15]

The church was renamed the "Alameda Japanese Methodist Church" when three Methodist denominations merged in 1939. [16] Reverend Shigeo Shimada, a young minister from Japan who was studying at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, was appointed its pastor in 1940. [17]

The War and Post-War Years: The Diaspora

The FBI sweep through Japanese communities in the aftermath of the bombing of Pearl Harbor took Alameda church members. They were sent to the Department of Justice camp in Bismarck, North Dakota . Hyakutaro Towata's family recalled that the FBI took him away with just the clothes on his back, saying that they were taking him to Oakland, "Just overnight." When his sons went to see their father, he was gone and not heard from again for eight months. Mr. Towata's apparent cause for incarceration was his role as treasurer of the Nihonjinkai (the Japanese Association). [18]

"It was a new feeling," said Paul Yoshino, who grew up in the church in Alameda. "Up to that point in my life discrimination was there but in the back of my mind. Now I felt as if everyone was staring at me. I had been working at Colgate Palmolive warehouse with Howe Hanamura but was released from my job after Pearl Harbor. I was able to get another job at a Lake Merritt restaurant called "The Chimes" but was fired from that job because a customer complained that a Jap was working there." [19]

On February 2, 1942, Alameda, with its Naval Air Station, was classified as a Zone A Restricted Area—pushing all "Axis Aliens" completely out of Alameda. [20] When the order was announced, Japanese Americans were effectively forced to find housing outside of Alameda by February 24. Mrs. Hisano Akagi recounts:

In Oakland there was a Mr. Sera called "Kosera-san." He was a little man so he was called "Ko-sera"—little Sera. He was operating a cleaners and there was a room in the back. I thought I would ask him if we could use the room. I felt like crying when I called him to ask. When I phoned him, he said he would let us use the room in back. So we lived there for a while before being taken to Tanforan. [21]

The church elected Nisei, U.S. citizens by birth, to its board in hopes that the government would uphold their rights as citizens and enable the church to continue. [22] But on February 15, 1942, the church held a farewell service. Reverend Shimada encouraged the congregation:

You and I 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. I assure you that a new, better world will be born through our suffering just as a new life born through the sacrifice and suffering of a mother who gives birth to a child. 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. [23]

On May 6, 1942, the few people still in Alameda were transported to the Tanforan Assembly Center . The church building was entrusted to Dr. Frank Herron Smith, the superintendent of the Pacific Japanese Provisional Conference during the war years [24] , in Rev. Taro Goto's stead. Most people from Alameda were subsequently sent to Topaz , but some also ended up in other centers, notably Poston , Tule Lake , and Heart Mountain .

War Relocation Authority (WRA) policy did not allow local congregations to reorganize themselves within the camps, allowing only a single body for each of Protestant, Catholic, and Buddhist faiths. [25] The Inter-Faith Church Council formed at Topaz and elected Rev. Goto as its first chairman. [26] Protestant leaders of national religious bodies saw the WRA policy as an opportunity for a living experiment in ecumenism and supported it. But these decisions were not made with the inclusion of Japanese American church leaders. [27]

In the early days of Topaz, church-related news merited its own weekly section, filling whole pages of the Topaz Times . [28] Rev. Shimada participated in the ministerial work of the camp, preaching to both English and Japanese speaking people. The October 31, 1942 edition reports on Rev. Shimada's sermon, "Christ's Message to the Topaz Church." [29] Rev. Shimada was appointed the head of the department of religious education for the Topaz Protestant Church. [30]

The WRA leaned upon ministers to coordinate social services. [31] Ministers played a role in organizing camps. Rev. Goto was instrumental in establishing the Topaz co-op stores. [32] Rev. Shimada helped to set up a camp library. [33] Their role in assisting camp administration also made ministers targets of violence [34] ; a church member who was a part of the camp police force guarded Rev Shimada's barrack after Rev. Goto was attacked. [35] Ministers provided counseling and mediation between family members, including conflicts that arose from the divisive loyalty oath. [36]

Finally, in 1945 people were allowed to return to the West Coast. Although in some other places denominational bodies resisted returning properties to churches [37] , Frank Herron Smith was able to reopen nearly all Japanese Methodist congregations. [38] J.B. Cobb and his wife, former missionaries to Japan, had lived in the Alameda church and had successfully guarded the belongings stored there." [39]

Norichika Akamatsu was the first church member to return. He prepared the church so that it could serve as a hostel for returnees. [40] Four families lived in the church for an extended period of time. Church members who owned homes in Alameda opened them to others, housing as many as twenty-four people or as many as five families. Others turned to public housing in places such as Berkeley and Hunter's Point. Few people would rent to Japanese Americans, but they would hire them as domestic help and some found housing in this way. [41]

The church began to rebuild itself, though some would never return to Alameda. The church continued to evolve, and in 1950 its name changed to "Buena Vista Methodist Church." [42]

After the War: The New Generation

The Nisei took on church leadership, and birthed a new generation, the Sansei . War brides from Japan joined the congregation. In 1959, the church reaffirmed its cultural identity by celebrating Hinamatsuri (Doll's Day), which then became the annual spring festival bazaar. [43]

The formation of the United Methodist Church in 1968 resulted in another church renaming, this time to "Buena Vista United Methodist Church."

The Sansei generation grew up, and in 1988 a young Sansei minister, Rev. Michael Yoshii, was appointed to the church. Reverend Yoshii was not by any means the first pastor to bring a deep concern for social justice to his ministry, but he was able to connect and inspire people with his vision for the church in a particularly effective way. [44] His ministry at BVUMC spanned over thirty years, until his retirement in 2020.

Early in his ministry at the church, Rev. Yoshii obtained a grant to start the Sansei Legacy Project, which examined the effect of the wartime experience on the Sansei generation. The church reached out to the community in many other ways as well. Extending Connections offered support and meaningful social connections to elderly. The basketball program attracted youth. The church joined with other Asian communities in Alameda to call for greater representation of people of color in the school district. It helped to organize a Day of Remembrance in Alameda. It participated in planning for the use of the decommissioned Alameda Naval Air Base lands. The church became pan-Asian, and it welcomed new members from outside the Japanese community. In 2006, the church became a Reconciling Congregation [45] , identifying itself with the movement to "advance justice and inclusion for all LGBTQ people in The United Methodist Church and beyond."

While the church continues to grow in diversity and now views itself as a multi-ethnic congregation, it considers this growth as well as its commitment to social justice as being strongly rooted in the wartime experience of its members and the unjust discrimination suffered by those who came before. For its anniversary in 2018, the church wrote:

Today, as we celebrate our 120 years as a faith community, we cherish and give thanks for our Issei and Nisei forebearers. We continue to anchor ourselves in their legacy as we strengthen our ministries in disability awareness, housing and immigration. Together we create sacred space to worship, fellowship, and contribute to the vision of beloved community in our world. [46]

Authored by Ann Hotta , Alameda Japanese American History

For More Information

Blankenship, Anne. M. Christianity, Social Justice, and the Japanese American Incarceration During World War II . Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016.

[Hanamura, Wendy, and Mark Sigmon]. [ Buena Vista United Methodist Church Centennial Celebration History ]. Alameda, Calif.: Buena Vista United Methodist Church, 1998.

California-Nevada Conference , The United Methodist Church website.

"A Centennial Legacy": History of the Japanese Christian Missions in North America 1877-1977 Volume I . Compiled by Rev. Sumio Koga. Chicago: Nobart, 1977.

Hunter, Allan A., ed. 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 . Los Angeles: G. Binford, 1945.

Pacific Japanese Provisional Conference of the Methodist Church (1939–1964) . California-Pacific Conference, The United Methodist Church website.

Suzuki, Lester. Ministry in the Assembly and Relocation Centers of World War II . Berkeley, Calif. : Yardbird, 1979.

Woman's Home Mission Society, Methodist Episcopal Church South Annual Reports, 1900-1907, 1909-1910. [Reports available via Internet Archive.]

Footnotes

  1. "Buena Vista United Methodist Church of Alameda" in A Centennial Legacy": History of the Japanese Christian Missions in North America 1877-1977 Volume I , compiled by Rev. Sumio Koga. (Chicago: Nobart, 1977), 123.
  2. The Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church South were, at that time, two distinct denominations.
  3. Woman's Home Mission Society, M.E. Church South, The Fourteenth Annual Report A.D. 1900 (Nashville Tenn.: Publishing House of the M.E. Church, South, 1900), 22, https://archive.org/details/fourteenthannual1900meth , viewed June 6, 2022.
  4. Woman's Home Mission Society, M.E. Church South, Sixteenth Annual Report, 1902 (Nashville Tenn.: Publishing House Methodist Episcopal Church, South, 1902), 19-20, https://archive.org/details/sixteenthannualr01meth , viewed June 6, 2022.
  5. "Buena Vista United Methodist Church of Alameda," 123, but no date in this citation; see Hanamura document for August date also 1909 annual report states he was the first convert.
  6. Woman's Home Mission Society, M.E. Church South, Eighteenth Annual Report, 1904 (Nashville Tenn.: Publishing House Methodist Episcopal Church, South, 1904), 29, https://archive.org/details/eighteenthannual1904meth , viewed June 6, 2022.
  7. Woman's Home Mission Society, M.E. Church South, Twentieth Annual Report 1906 (Nashville Tenn.: Publishing House Methodist Episcopal Church, South, 1906), 90, https://archive.org/details/twentiethannualr1906meth , viewed June 6, 2022.
  8. Woman's Home Mission Society, M.E. Church South, Twenty-first Annual Report 1907 (Nashville Tenn.: Publishing House Methodist Episcopal Church, South, 1907), 89, https://archive.org/details/twentyfirstannua1907meth,viewed June 6, 2022.
  9. Mary Helm (1845-1913) was the presumable donor of $7976.67 of the total $8,500 that was paid in cash for the property. Buena Vista Church lore has it that "...Miss Mary Helm was called by God to serve as a missionary in Japan, but she died at an early age before she could realize her dream. Miss Helm's younger sister donated the money Mary left to support missionary work among the Japanese immigrants on the West Coast." ([Wendy Hanamura and Mark Sigmon], [ Buena Vista United Methodist Church Centennial Celebration History ] (Alameda, Calif.: Buena Vista United Methodist Church, 1998.)) But Mary Helm was very much alive in 1907, serving as editor of the Women's Home Mission Society journal, Our Home . Mary's older sister, Lucinda Barbour Helm (1839-1897) was the founder of the Women's Home Mission Society.
  10. Woman's Home Mission Society, M.E. Church South, Twenty-second Annual Report 1908 (Nashville Tenn.: Publishing House Methodist Episcopal Church, South, 1908), 46-49.
  11. Woman's Home Mission Society, M.E. Church South, Twenty-third Annual Report 1909 (Nashville Tenn.: Publishing House Methodist Episcopal Church, South, 1909), 105, https://archive.org/details/twentythirdannua1909meth , viewed June 6, 2022. The Alameda Jinjō Shōgakkō (Grammar School) was an accredited school for full-time students. But when full-time schools that did not use English as the primary language were barred, the school continued as an after-school Japanese language learning program, the Alameda ("A-Shi") Nihongo Gakuen (Alameda Japanese School).
  12. Woman's Home Mission Society, M.E. Church South, Twenty-third Annual Report 1909 , 105.
  13. [Wendy Hanamura and Mark Sigmon], [ Buena Vista United Methodist Church Centennial Celebration History ] (Alameda, Calif.: Buena Vista United Methodist Church, 1998)
  14. Addresses/names of the church/mission/school in this period
    • 1898: (English language classes) 2312 Encinal Avenue
    • 1899: Japanese Mission 1539 Park Street
    • 1901: Japanese Mission School 1245 Park Street
    • 1903: Japanese Methodist Episcopal Mission (South) 2416 Eagle Avenue
    • 1907: Japanese Methodist Episcopal Mission (South) 2311 Buena Vista Avenue
    • Circa 1918: Japanese Methodist Episcopal Church (South) 2311 Buena Vista Avenue
  15. [Hanamura and Sigmon], [ Centennial Celebration History ].
  16. Namely, the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church South, and the Methodist Protestant Church.
  17. Pacific Japanese Provisional Annual Conference, Official Journal: First Annual Session of the Pacific Japanese Provisional Annual Conference of the Methodist Church and the Second Session of the Pacific Japanese Mission of the Methodist Church (Berkeley, Calif, June 7-9, 1940), 7, https://www.calpacumc.org/archiveshistory/#1561163059555-ce37f54e-402c , viewed June 9, 2022.
  18. [Hanamura and Sigmon], [ Centennial Celebration History ].
  19. [Hanamura and Sigmon], [ Centennial Celebration History ].
  20. "Enemy Aliens: The State Extends Restricted Areas," San Francisco Chronicle , Feb. 3, 1942, 1, 6, San Francisco Chronicle Historical Archive , https://infoweb-newsbank-com.ezproxy.sfpl.org/apps/news/document-view?p=EANX-NB&docref=image/v2%3A142051F45F422A02%40EANX-NB-1421C15CE3B99DD5%402430394-1421B44A04ED409B%400 , accessed June 11, 2022.
  21. [Hanamura and Sigmon], [ Centennial Celebration History ].
  22. [Hanamura and Sigmon], [ Centennial Celebration History ].
  23. Shimada, Shigeo, A Stone Cried Out: The True Story of Simple Faith in Difficult Days (Valley Forge, Penn.: Judson Press, 1986), 122, https://archive.org/details/stonecriedoutt00shim , viewed June 9, 2022.
  24. [Hanamura and Sigmon], [ Centennial Celebration History ].
  25. Anne M. Blankenship, Christianity, Social Justice, and the Japanese American Incarceration During World War II (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 99-122. At Topaz Seventh-Day Adventists also had their own congregation.
  26. "Church Notes," Topaz Times , September 26, 1942, 4, https://www.loc.gov/resource/sn85040302/1942-09-26/ed-1/ , viewed June 9, 2022.
  27. Blankenship, Christianity, Social Justice , 60–61.
  28. Topaz Times (Weekly Church Edition), Nov. 7, 1942, https://www.loc.gov/item/sn85040302/1942-11-07/ed-1/ , viewed June 9, 2022.
  29. "Sermons," Topaz Times (Weekly Church Edition), Oct. 31, 1942, https://www.loc.gov/resource/sn85040302/1942-10-31/ed-1/ , viewed June 9, 2022.
  30. "Protestant Heads Named," Topaz Times (Weekly Church Edition), Nov. 14, 1942, https://www.loc.gov/resource/sn85040302/1942-11-14/ed-1/,viewed June 9, 2022.
  31. Blankenship, Christianity, Social Justice , 122.
  32. "Organization and Development of the Topaz Consumer Cooperative Enterprises," Topaz Reports Office, Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Records, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, JAERR BANC MSS 67/14 c, folder H2.02:17, accessed at https://oac.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/k6gq74p8/?brand=oac4 on June 9, 2022.
  33. "The Churches: Inter-Faith Plans to Open Library," Topaz Times (Weekly Church Edition), Nov. 21, 1942, https://www.loc.gov/resource/sn85040302/1942-11-21/ed-1/,viewed June 9, 2022.
  34. Blankenship, Christianity, Social Justice , 143–44.
  35. Shimada, A Stone Cried Out , 127–28.
  36. Shimada, A Stone Cried Out , 129–33.
  37. Blankenship, Christianity, Social Justice , 189–206.
  38. Blankenship, Christianity, Social Justice , 204.
  39. [Hanamura and Sigmon], [ Centennial Celebration History ].
  40. "Buena Vista United Methodist Church of Alameda," 124; Ichiro Isokawa letter dated Jan. 4, 1946, WRA Hostel File, 14, Yamashita Family Archives, University of California, Santa Cruz, https://yamashitaarchives.ucsc.edu/items/show/3044 , viewed June 10, 2022.
  41. [Hanamura and Sigmon], [ Centennial Celebration History ].
  42. "Buena Vista United Methodist Church of Alameda," 124.
  43. Michael Yoshii, "The Buena Vista Church Bazaar: A Story within a Story" in People on the Way: Asian North Americans Discovering Christ, Culture, and Community edited by David Ng (Valley Forge, Penn.: Judson Press, 1996), 43-61.
  44. [Hanamura and Sigmon], [ Centennial Celebration History ].
  45. Buena Vista United Methodist Church website, http://www.buenavistaumc.org/ , viewed June 23, 2022.
  46. "Building Beloved Community: Buena Vista United Methodist Church 120th Anniversary Celebration, Saturday, October 20, 2018," Program brochure.

Last updated Sept. 2, 2022, 3:18 p.m..