March 17, 2020
Seventy eight years ago, shortly after the Japanese armed forces bombed Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an order sending Japanese American families to incarceration camps which held nearly 120,000 people. The camps are often referred to as “relocation” or “internment” or “evacuation” camps, but in fact these American citizens were imprisoned in rural camps bounded by barbed wire fences and watched by armed guards.
As Plymouth celebrates its 150th Anniversary this year, we are looking back to learn about the church’s response to this shameful event. As Don Bell told us last fall in Moment of Ministry, Plymouth can be justly proud of its long record of social justice and the many lasting contributions we have birthed in areas such as homelessness, mental health, new church starts, and more recently, anti-racism,ds immigration ministries, and LGBTQ rights. But Don raised the question of the church’s responses to other historical instances of injustice and specifically asked about the Japanese American incarcerations during the Second World War. Here is a little bit of what we know.
In the years before the war, several Japanese American families were members of Plymouth. The Church also had a close relationship with the Japanese Congregational Church of Seattle, which had been founded by Japanese immigrants in 1907. There was a Japanese-American basketball team from Plymouth’s Youth Ministry at the time. Nonetheless, shortly after the President’s order, all Japanese Americans - - women, men and children - - were herded onto buses with few possessions and sent under military guard to inland camps.
Some Plymouth members kept in touch with incarcerated friends. An Order of Service in mid-1943 reprinted a letter from the former president of the church’s Boys’ Club, George Takagawa, to a Plymouth colleague. Mr. Takagawa reported that the community was making the best of their untenable situation a faraway camp. We don’t have records of any other correspondence from Plymouth members to their Japanese-American friends.
A new minister, Rev. Dr. Allan Lorimer, arrived at Plymouth the same month that the Japanese Americans were shipped off to camps. In a sermon he wrote: “The Japanese who are American citizens have been interned not by due process of law but by presidential edict. It means that the President can send any group of us he wishes to internment camp. No hearing need be granted us. No right of defense. Only a signature is required. Therein lies the tragedy."
We don’t have much more information about Dr. Lorimer’s views or any activities against on the incarceration. However, it is gratifying that our former interim minister, Reverend Thomas Stiers, said the following in a sermon at his longtime Connecticut church in 2003: "[Reverend] Lorimer was the first American preacher to condemn the taking of the Japanese-Americans to detention camps. Lorimer was a strong champion of justice for all. His time in Japan had given him a global outlook." Rev. Lorimer served Plymouth throughout the war years, and we can hope he continued to speak out.
On the other hand, in January 1943, almost a year after the incarcerations began, Plymouth’s Sunday evening Forum featured a debate regarding the rights of Gordon Hirabayashi, an American awaiting trial in King County for refusing to be evacuated. A speaker from the American Civil Liberties Union argued that incarceration policy came about largely because of “propaganda” and was not based on fact. A Plymouth member took the side of the government order. We don’t know if many members agreed with the government. We don’t know if people spoke out at this meeting, or actively advocated against this now-discredited policy.
So, Plymouth is left with fragmentary information about our role in challenging this shameful episode in our country’s past. As we now know, however, failure to act in the face of injustice was devastating to the victims and harmful to our democracy. Our hope for our beloved community at this time and place is that we more strongly advocate for justice now in the face of new threats at this very moment. Every February 19 the Japanese-American community commemorates the Day of Remembrance, marking the annual date of Executive Order 9066, February 19. It should be a date Plymouth remembers, too. -Susan Jones, 150 Anniversary Committee
Note: to a great extent my sources are Suzanne Sanderson’s current Plymouth library Blog, the book Seeking to Serve, the 1988 Plymouth history by Millie Andrews, and the 70th Anniversary booklet produced by the Seattle Japanese Congregational Church.
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