Activists seek to secure ‘sacred’ land for Japanese immigrants

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HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. >> The words “Jesus Lives” are inscribed on a dilapidated unoccupied structure at the busy intersection of Warner Avenue and Nichols Lane in this Orange County town south of Los Angeles.

The building’s windows are boarded up. Varying shades of white, unmatched paint cover the graffiti and highlight the cracks on the exterior of the property.

It is the historic Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Church that sits on a 4.5-acre landscape that the National Trust for Historic Preservation says is one of the only Japanese American properties acquired before the California did not pass the Foreign Lands Act in 1913 which prohibited Asian immigrants from owning land.

The first known Japanese immigrants arrived in Orange County in 1900, and just four years later religious leaders — Episcopalians, Buddhists, Presbyterians and Methodists among them — founded the Wintersburg Japanese Mission, the National said. Trust. Charles Furuta and Rev. Barnabus Hisayoshi Terasawa purchased the land in 1908, and the original buildings were constructed in 1910. The mission was officially recognized as a church by the Presbyterian Church in the United States in 1930. A church more large for the growing congregation was built in 1934.

Local advocates and historians have sought for years to preserve the historic property — now owned by Republic Services, a waste management company — which many say is a sacred place. In the past there have been attempts to develop the site as a self-service storage facility.

And in recent weeks, the public has reignited efforts to protect this land after a fire on Feb. 25 destroyed two of the six buildings on the property, including a 112-year-old rectory and the 1910 Wintersburg Japanese Mission, which has was demolished hours after the fire, according to local historian Mary Adams Urashima. The Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Church, built in 1934, remains intact.

Police said they “have no reason to believe” the fire was started intentionally.

On March 19, Asian American organizations held a rally outside Historic Wintersburg to demand an independent investigation into the fire, chanting, “Don’t destroy our history, we deserve the truth!” Some held signs declaring, “Save the Church, Save Our History!”

“It put everyone in panic mode, because there was actually a loss,” Jamie Hiber, executive director of the Heritage Museum of Orange County, said of the fire. “It allowed a platform for that to come back to the fore.”

Urashima, who has written extensively about Wintersburg’s history, said she had long feared the property could catch fire and called the loss of the buildings a “negligent demolition.” Weeds and brush posed a fire hazard and vandalism had deteriorated the condition of the buildings. Urashima and others hope the Orange County Heritage Museum could eventually acquire the land for a park and museum for the public to enjoy.

Neither Republic Services nor the City of Huntington Beach returned a request for comment, but Acting City Manager Sean Joyce recently told the Los Angeles Times that he has “had exploratory discussions with Republic regarding the status of ownership, including possible purchase by the city”. .”

The property encapsulates three generations of Japanese American faith and public life. Urashima said Japanese immigrants took English lessons and discussed financial planning, even as they continued Japanese traditions such as celebrating the emperor’s birthday. It was also where Furuta became the first Christian baptized Japanese person in Orange County, she said.

For Urashima, this place is “a consecrated ground and a spiritual place for so many people”.

“I think it makes the ground sacred,” she added.

Urashima said the property could offer Americans the opportunity to learn about Japanese American life beyond World War II internment camps and see that Japanese American history is not ” one-dimensional”.

“When you remove those things from the landscape that tell of other points of view, other chapters of American history, people lose that connection and they don’t often see them as part of American history,” he said. said Urashima. “It’s fading.”

The community of Wintersburg was incarcerated during World War II, and Furuta was taken to Tuna Canyon Detention Center in Los Angeles. The families returned after the war. The church, which had been closed, reopened and continued to grow until it moved to nearby Santa Ana, where it remains a predominantly Japanese American congregation.

For Nancy Kyoko Oda, president of the Tuna Canyon Detention Station Coalition, “it would be a tragedy to lose something like this”.

His coalition is working to publicize the history of the station, which detained Japanese Americans whom the U.S. government deemed “enemy aliens” during the war. The station site has been transformed into a golf course.

“There’s a saying, ‘Out of sight, out of mind,'” Oda said. “Sometimes people don’t want to acknowledge this great loss of human freedom… They take your church away from you. They take your house, your business, everything you have.

The Wintersburg Historic Property is considered one of “America’s Most Endangered Historic Places” and in 2015 was designated a “National Treasure” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Hiber said the Orange County Heritage Museum has a vision for the space as a museum and a destination for local students for lectures.

“Even after the fire, it is a spiritual place. It’s already a destination of pilgrimage not just for Japanese Americans, but for Japanese people in general,” Hiber said.

“The family came back after (internment) to occupy that space and created it into something new and applicable to their experience after the war and coming back from the internment camp,” she said. “Just walk around the perimeter…you feel it; you feel the story.


This content is written and produced by Religion News Service and distributed by The Associated Press. RNS and AP join forces on certain religious news content. RNS is solely responsible for this story.


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