Two days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, three ecumenical organizations – of which the Presbyterian Church was a part – issued a statement that called upon Christians to maintain a Christian composure and charity in their dealings with Japanese Americans.
Ultimately, upon the issuing of Executive Order 9066 some 110,000 Japanese Americans, two thirds of whom were U.S. citizens, were put into 10 incarceration camps located in largely inhospitable desert areas.
On June 21, Beth Hessel, executive director of the Presbyterian Historical Society, shared these facts along with some of the history of church and mission involvement during those years of forced incarceration during a luncheon hosted by the Historical Society.
More than 100 missionaries worked with those in the camps, offering ministries of presence, prophetic witness and challenge. “Many of those in the camps expressed gratitude for the signs of friendship they received from churches on the outside,” shared Hessel. “Our church did make a difference in the lives of those who had been removed and incarcerated.”
But, in spite of the many ways in which Christian individuals tried to come to the aid of their Japanese brothers and sisters, Hessel suggested that the church collectively failed to fill a greater need. “The church collectively failed to convince the society that this was a racist travesty of justice,” continued Hessel.
One such example can be seen perhaps most clearly through the General Assembly. Though there were a variety of overtures related to the war, there were only three overtures in five years that concerned the treatment of Japanese Americans.
“The churches failed to argue that the expulsion of an entire population based on ethnic descent was unwarranted, ungodly and undemocratic,” Hessel argued.
It was, she admits, a complicated situation with those who struggled to come alongside Japanese Americans while at the same time supporting the war effort and the president.
“Those Presbyterians who got involved believed that being connected and working with the government was a way to ameliorate the situation, rather than being complicit,” explained Hessel.
In the current rise of racism and racial intolerance, it is important to acknowledge what role Presbyterians played, Hessel said, but to also recognize where Presbyterians failed and learn from that.