Seventy years ago, the United States government rounded up approximately 110,000 American citizens and residents of Japanese ancestry and forcibly relocated them to concentration camps along the Pacific coast, segregating them from society for the next three years. We know the story of Fred Korematsu, a shipyard welder, who underwent surgery to alter his appearance so that he could escape the camps. Eventually, he was arrested and jailed. We know that among those rounded up, persons associated with Buddhism and not Christianity were the first forcibly removed, for they were considered the most dangerous, the least loyal to America.
The story of Pastor Allan Hunter, the leader of Mt. Hollywood Congregational Church in Los Angeles during the time of internment, gives us a little-known glimpse of an activist who worked for racial justice amidst what many would call the greatest mistreatment of American citizens and residents in the 20th century. Pastor Allan Hunter led a church just down the street from a Japanese Christian congregation that, as internment became a reality, he knew would lose everything they owned, including their church. Hunter had traveled to Japan and fallen in love with the culture and people, and immediately knew internment was an injustice. Further, he realized the aftermath of internment for these citizens would be grim- the government would seize their property, forcing them into homelessness when they were finally freed.
“Give us your keys”, he told his Japanese American friends. “Your homes and your church will be here when you come back.” On the day his friends were taken away, Hunter even attempted to hide some of the internees in his basement. Eventually, they succumbed to the evacuation officers, sending the internees off with coffee and sandwiches. The officer in charge commented, “You sure like those Japs.”
Allan Hunter has always been one of my heroes, both because of his faith and because he was a white man who knew the actions of fellow whites were wrong. Allan was not afraid to know the Japanese Americans, and he was not afraid to take subversive action when their freedom and humanity were put in jeopardy. He knew the value of the deep richness of Japanese American culture and that this congregation shared so much with his own.
As we mourn the attacks of September 11, 2001 last week, we should also acknowledge that internment still exists in our country, perhaps not physically, but structurally. The structure of our American society attempts to keep whiteness at the center of power, while marginalizing, or “interning”, those not in that category. Muslim and Sikh Americans still experience hate crimes, most of them racially-charged. Just a few days ago, so close to the anniversary of the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi, we mourn the brutal terrorizing of another Sikh man, Inderjit Singh Mukker, for the color of his skin, the length of his beard, and the turban he wears symbolizing his faith. When it comes to “internment” of any people due to fear of the other, race and religion are hard to separate. Then there is policing, a more literal internment of individuals, black, hispanic, and “dark”, who are unwelcome and disempowered in this structure. Where I come from, the city of Los Angeles, I have begun to think of my undocumented friends as “unwelcome prisoners” here, hearing about their experiences. They cannot leave, yet they are not wanted. While we may have outlawed internment in the way of 1945, we have not found a way to rid ourselves of that same structure of power, fed by fear and dehumanization.
If Pastor Allan Hunter were alive today, I believe he would be fighting for racial and ethnic justice, just as he did 70 years ago. He would see an undeniable link between all people, and his faith would fuel his efforts. Most importantly, his actions would come from a place of love and affection, for his Japanese American friends, his community, and his faith in God. We have plenty of Allan Hunters today, leaders who work to tear down the debilitating structure of our society. We need to hear their stories, and be inspired by the love for our fellow humans, not by anger or fear. While these are powerful emotions, love will tear down the walls.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.