Conversations on race relations and racial reconciliation have been at the forefront of conversation throughout the nation over the past few months, and among those conversations, church leaders have also been actively discussing how to engage with and love people across ethnic lines.
One such faith-based group that has been promoting and enaging in conversation multi-ethnically is the Institute for the Study of Asian American Christianity (ISAAC), a non-profit that had originally focused on Asian American issues within the church, but recently began engaging in bilateral dialogue with African American Christian leaders since ISAAC's sixth symposium on race and gender in November. Since then, ISAAC had hosted numerous gatherings that encouraged conversations toward deeper understanding and reconciliation between Asian American and African American Christians, including a gathering that took place at a Korean American pastor's home at which these leaders cooked, watched ABC's Fresh Off the Boat, and discussed the racial issues underlying the show.
Most recently, ISAAC invited African American and Asian American leaders to join together again in a gathering at Little Tokyo called "Together We Can Revive," in which they were first able to become more deeply informed about one of the most estranging and divisive portions of U.S. history--the Japanese internment camps--as well as a moment in evangelical history in which Christians were united across ethnic lines--the Azusa Street Revival.
The gathering had multiple educational dimensions; it moved from a classroom, to on foot in Little Tokyo, to the Bonnie Brae House, allowing those who attended to gather information intellectually, experientially, and spiritually.
First, Bill Watanabe, the executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center, and Tommy Dyo, the national executive director of Epic Movement, the Asian American ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ, shared briefly on the history of the Japanese internment camps to the intimate gathering of twenty people at Union Church in Little Tokyo. After Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued the Executive Order 9066 in February of 1942, which commanded all Japanese individuals, "alien and non-alien," to move inland, and were eventually moved into the infamous Japanese internment camps.
"Notice how they chose the wording of 'alien and non-alien,'" Dyo pointed out, "because they didn't want to refer to the Japanese Americans as U.S. citizens."
Some 120,000 Japanese were interned in ten internment camps in California, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Arkansas, Idaho, and Wyoming during this period.
For Watanabe and Dyo, this incident is not simply a historical account, but one that has directly affected them and their families.
Watanabe was born in the Manazanar internment camp. His parents were first taken to the Santa Anita assembly center, and then were moved to the internment camp in Manzanar, located in northern California, at which Watanabe was born. Finally, the family was moved to Tule Lake, which Watanabe said, was a "special segregation camp".
"If you were in Tule Lake, you really did something wrong," Watanabe said. He explained that his parents were sent to Tule Lake for having answered "No" on questions 27 and 28 on the 'Leave Clearance Application Form,' which asked:
"Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty wherever ordered?"
"Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, to any other foreign government, power, or organization?"
Those who answered "No"--who were also known as the "No Nos"--on these questions were sent to Tule Lake.
Interestingly, this painful history for Japanese Americans also had a connection with African Americans. Once the Japanese were moved out of Little Tokyo by the Executive Order 9066, African Americans started taking residence there in the tens of thousands. During this period between 1942 to 1945, Little Tokyo was called "Bronzeville," and became a hub of jazz music.
"It seems to me that Asian Americans and African Americans went through similar circumstances in their history," Oscar Owens, an elder at the West Angeles Church of God in Christ, said over the bento lunch served to the guests, chopsticks and all. "And it seems that there is wisdom that we can offer from two sides of the same coin."
Those who attended moved out into Little Tokyo for a historical tour of the area, visting locations such as the memorial of Toyo Miyatake, who handmade a camera within the Japanese internment camps to record concentration camp life; the area at which the Asuza Street Revival occurred; and the first Japanese Union Church, which is now home to an art center and the East-West Players, an Asian American theatre.
They also visited the Bonnie Brae House located near downtown Los Angeles, at which the Azusa Street Revival first began before it moved onto Asuza Street itself.
"The Bonnie Brae House is the only remaining landmark that commemorates this event," Owens explained. "William Seymour preached on top of the porch in front of this house, and so many people gathered that the porch eventually collapsed at the weight of the people. They then realized they need to move to another location, at which they moved to Azusa Street."
"This was the beginning of the worldwide pentecostal movement," Owens said.
Another significant aspect of the incident is that those who gathered to pray with Seymour and the Asberrys--who lived at the Bonnie Brae house at the time--included White, Latino, Asian, and African Americans, and were from various socioeconomic backgrounds, during a time in which racial and class segregation was prevalent.
Those who were present prayed together in the Bonnie Brae house, that just as the Asuza Street Revival broke down the walls of race and class over 100 years ago, that the Spirit would unite and bring people together once again.
As Pastor Frank Bartleman described the Revival: "The 'color line' was washed away in the blood.'"