Sacramento Japanese United Methodist Church celebrates 125 years of welcoming immigrants

Shigeri Okamotob and Kiko Ito greet Rose Williams at the Sacramento Japanese Methodist Church, one of the oldest churches in Sacramento, that celebrated its 125th birthday Sunday.
Shigeri Okamotob and Kiko Ito greet Rose Williams at the Sacramento Japanese Methodist Church, one of the oldest churches in Sacramento, that celebrated its 125th birthday Sunday.

One of the oldest churches in Sacramento celebrated its 125th birthday Sunday, having survived the Japanese internment camps and the forced relocation of Sacramento's Japantown to make way for the I-5 freeway.

Some 250 parishioners ages 12 to 95 sang, prayed and ate chicken katsu and teriyaki at the Sacramento Japanese Methodist Church on Franklin Boulevard in south Sacramento, which has endured because it has been a beacon of hope for many generations of immigrants, said Rev. Motoe Yamada Foor.

"We are an immigrants' church; remember the graciousness of the people who helped us through our suffering," said Foor, a Japanese immigrant who came to pastor "The Garden Church," as it is known, nine years ago. It remains one of the few remaining Japanese American churches that conduct parts of its service in Japanese.

"We know Japanese immigrants came, worked hard and everything was taken away, but we kept going because we believe in hope," Foor told her congregation, adding that non-Japanese friends and neighbors looked after their churches, homes, stores and farms while they were sent away to remote internment camps for the duration of World War II .

Foor, the daughter of a Japanese Zen Buddhist, said her first name, Motoe, means, "I am the vine and you are the branches," and the church's magic is reflected in its vision statement, "Loving God, Serving Others, Transforming Lives." It is also propelled by a legacy of transcending discrimination against immigrants, bigotry and poverty, issues that are more important than ever today, Foor said. "We hold an immigrant day to help immigrants and provide free lunches, ice cream socials, and a summer vacation Bible camp to the two public schools around us that have many low-income, Spanish speaking students."

Rev. Motoe Yamada Foor leads the prayer service at the Sacramento Japanese Methodist Church on Sunday. Paul Kitagaki Jr.

The church represents the merger of three Japanese American churches: the Pioneer Methodist Church founded in 1892 by six Japanese immigrant men; the Florin Japanese Methodist Church started in 1913 in a stable by three Japanese students; and the Walnut Grove Japanese Methodist Church, which was formed in 1912 by farmworkers, Foor said..

After United Methodists came by riverboat from San Francisco to recruit Japanese immigrants, the Pioneer Methodist Church was born near 5th and L streets, Foor said. In 1913, the thriving Japanese enclave of Florin gave birth to the Florin Japanese Methodist Church, which by 1931 performed 62 baptisms.

"We were segregated and had to go to Japanese schools, and the church became the center of our social life," Foor said, "But after the attack on Peal Harbor, Japanese Americans were seen as the enemy and members of the community and pastors were investigated," she said. About 120,000 Japanese Americans — more than half of them U.S. citizens — were locked away in incarceration camps..

They included congregants Mitsue "Mitzi" Ishisaka, 95, whose family was sent to Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas; Gloria Imagire, 82, whose family was sent to Gila, Ariz., and Tule Yomogida, who was born in Tule Lake, the largest of the camps, on July 10, 1942, a week after her mother arrived..

"Her family wanted to (name her after Tule Lake) so they wouldn't forget the experience, and it would never happen again," Foor said.

"I started coming here in the 1950s and have been coming ever since. This is my second family," said Yomogida, whose family owned the Lucky Grocery Store on 4th and O across from Pioneer Church.

Because many Japanese never returned to Sacramento and redevelopment followed by construction of the I-5 freeway decimated Japantown in the late 1950s, the two churches eventually merged in 1968 on Franklin Boulevard after a white couple, Eugene and Marion Drown, sold them the old Merwin Memorial Methodist Church building and grounds for $1, Foor said.

"The Drowns really wanted to support the racial and ethnic communities around them, and they were very active members until they passed away about five years ago," Foor said.

The church has sponsored an Asian basketball league, a head start program and an Asian community center over the years. Its legacy lives on across generations. "I've been coming here all my life because all the people are really nice and I get to spend time with my parents, Gloria and Art Imagire," said Greta Rymer, 12, as she helped out in the kitchen.

In the 1980s, when Sacramento resettled thousands of refugees from the former Soviet Union, the church members tutored Romanian immigrants, said Rev. Mark Nakagawa, who served as associate minister from 1985-1994. "God calls you to be the branches that provide stability for the dispossessed, those that seek rest and refuge from the storms of life."