A southern California Japanese-American congregation expecting to agree to a joint solution requiring at least a six-figure payment to its presbytery instead was granted its dismissal from the Presbyterian Church (USA) at no cost.
Acknowledging reluctance by the national denomination to take a stand on behalf of Wintersburg Presbyterian Church leaders and members during World War II when Japanese-Americans were incarcerated, the Presbytery of Los Ranchos reduced the amount the church should pay to leave the denomination with property to zero.
Prior to this action, an amount of $100,000 was negotiated by the Joint Discernment Team (JDT), comprised of representatives of the presbytery and the 470-member Wintersburg church. After considering Wintersburg’s unique history and the abandonment of the church by the denomination when most of its church members were incarcerated in internment camps some 70 years ago, the Council of the Presbytery of Los Ranchos presented a motion to reduce the amount Wintersburg should pay to zero. This motion was approved unanimously by the Presbytery of Los Ranchos at a called meeting on June 28, 2014. As a result, Wintersburg was allowed to leave the PCUSA with its property and join ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.
Fred Tanizaki, executive pastor for Wintersburg and a member of the Joint Discernment Team, noted the significance of the decision by the presbytery.
“The motion was initiated by the Presbytery Council,” he said, noting that a female member of the council broke into tears as she brought the motion before the full presbytery to allow Wintersburg’s departure without monetary compensation. “We were so touched by her genuine humility and sincerity as she presented the motion.
“Our people are deeply touched by the display of integrity, generosity, humility and graciousness shown by the presbytery.”
Considering church history
The sides had brokered an agreement that was 11 percent of the Santa Ana church’s $10 million worth of net assets. Given Wintersburg’s net asset value of approximately $10 million, Tanizaki indicated that a $500,000 or more exit fee might have been demanded by the Presbytery of Los Ranchos, but the JDT took into account Wintersburg’s unique history in proposing a reduced settlement of $100,000.
“We knew that a $100,000 payment was disproportionately low compared to what had been proposed by the other five churches (dismissed a month earlier but now facing ecclesiastical judicial issues after remedial complaints were filed about their joint solution agreements). The presbytery took into account our history,” Tanizaki said.
That history includes a period of time during WWII when the church was shuttered and many of its members were relocated to internment camps in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming.
At that time, Wintersburg was a small church, comprised of Japanese immigrants and their U.S.-born children. Those immigrants founded the church in 1904 as a mission. The congregation experienced growth, and the first church building was erected in 1934 after its organization in 1930.
Relocation during WWII
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941, changed things for the church, leading to its closure from May 1942 until November 1945 as Japanese-Americans were imprisoned in government internment camps as a result of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 18, 1942. That order, in effect, meant that any person of Japanese ancestry had to be relocated from the West Coast.
Ultimately 122,000 people of Japanese ancestry were involuntarily detained and removed from their homes, communities and churches. Approximately two-thirds of those were legal American citizens. No charges were brought against them and yet they lost their homes, property and personal liberty.
“It really was a tragic situation; it was heartbreaking,” Tanizaki explained. “The suffering was incredible. When it was over, people came back to Wintersburg. It was abandoned, but they started anew. They felt called to share the Gospel.”
A hands-off approach
While members of the Japanese-American congregation were being relocated, neither the national Presbyterian denomination nor the regional presbytery took a stand on behalf of their members, taking a mostly hands-off position.
A 1981 General Assembly resolution noted the incarceration of those Japanese-American Christians, concluding that the Presbyterian Church could have and should have done more to assist and support them.
During the joint solution process, Wintersburg’s representatives asked that those factors be given consideration in negotiating a settlement.
Moved by the Joint Discernment Team report, the Presbytery Council proposed that Wintersburg be dismissed at no cost, a motion that was approved by the presbytery.
“It wasn’t a matter of reparation,” Tanizaki said. “It’s more an element of justice, peacemaking and reconciliation. It wasn’t the PCUSA that put Japanese-Americans in those camps. But, it was an acknowledgement that the people of Wintersburg were abandoned in the 1940s. It was a way of making peace and reconciliation with us even as we leave the denomination.
“We are the living legacy of our ancestors who went through so much but never abandoned their faith in Jesus Christ.”
In response, the Presbytery of Los Ranchos fully embraced the points made in the Joint Discernment Report, which cited the Book of Order, sections W-7.4002 (justice) and W-7.4003 (making peace). The presbytery’s actions embodied an active display of peacemaking with the Wintersburg congregation.
The presbytery also drafted a letter of apology that was sent to the Wintersburg congregation. It cited Scripture from Genesis 50:17 (Jacob’s plea of Joseph to forgive his brothers) and Matthew 25:42-43 (Jesus speaking of a lack of provision for those in need).
“… with deep sadness and remorse for the neglect shown to your congregation at the height of its need, we, the members and congregations of the Presbytery of Los Ranchos, ask your forgiveness,” the letter read.
“Though we cannot remove the pain that has been experienced as a result of the neglect of our forebears, we wish to extend our deepest apologies to the generations of Wintersburg Presbyterian Church who were and continue to be affected by the abandonment of your brothers and sisters in the PCUSA during the Japanese-American internment. For the absence of advocacy, the neglect of care and failure of leadership of the church parents we commonly claim, the people of your presbytery humbly request your congregation’s forgiveness.”
Addressing an act of reconciliation
Approximately one month later on July 31 at a called presbytery meeting, Tanizaki was given an opportunity to address the presbyters who took such gracious action toward the Wintersburg congregation. He referenced written comments from two Wintersburg members who experienced incarceration during World War II.
“Dear Presbytery of Los Ranchos, I was deeply moved and grateful for the heart-felt repentance expressed in your letter of apology to the Japanese-American members of our congregation, past and present. That gesture of love and concern was even more important and of lasting significance to me than your truly gracious reduction in the monetary terms of our dismissal,” one member wrote.
The other wrote, “I am overwhelmed by the gracious dismissal for Wintersburg. It was totally unexpected, and we were so moved by the heartwarming thoughts of the Presbytery of Los Ranchos. We prayed for a gracious dismissal, and God granted us more than we asked or thought. Thank you! We will continue to pray for the churches in Los Ranchos – for your work and service to God as you bring the Gospel to each of your churches and expand God’s kingdom.”
Acknowledging Paul’s epistle to the Colossians, Tanizaki noted that it is Christ who reconciles all things and referenced passages from Micah 6:8 and Romans 12:18 that call people to act justly, seek peace and be reconciled with one another.
“… on behalf of Wintersburg Presbyterian Church, it is a personal honor to express our deep and heart-felt appreciation to you, the people of the Presbytery of Los Ranchos,” Tanizaki said. “As a result of your actions, though the people of Wintersburg witnessed injustice and abandonment in its past, it is experiencing the awesome, gracious, healing work of our Lord through you, our sisters and brothers of this presbytery, in the present.”