Yesterday, February 19th, marked the 75th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066 by Franklin D. Roosevelt, which led to the internment of hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans during WWII. St Peter’s Episcopal Church in Seattle is an historically Japanese American congregation, and has been holding a series of events to commemorate the anniversary. The events have included lectures, a taiko concert, and a viewing of George Takei’s musical, Allegiance, based on his own memories of being placed in a camp as a child. St Peter’s also remembered the wrongly-incarcerated Japanese Americans in their service on Sunday morning. Katrina Hamilton, a parishioner at St Peter’s, wrote about it eloquently:
As part of our morning service we read the executive order out loud in its entirety, something I’d never done before. There is no mention in the order of ‘Japan’ or ‘Japanese Ancestry.’ That all came later. The letter of the law sounds very legal, very benign, very acceptable. That’s how it happens when it happens. The first rule of racial oppression is to never use the word race.
Each parishioner was given a candle at the start of the service, and one by one we went to light our candles and place them in a bed of sand put out for the occasion. It takes a long time for dozens of people to individually light candles. While we did the organist rhythmically rang a single bell. Every few seconds another bell, another candle, another life remembered. Before long the sand was getting rather full, and the candles were cramped. I thought for a minute that we should have brought out a bigger vessel for the sand. But I looked again at the candles and decided it was perfect. Each slender candle was a person, and each person was pushed in close to the next one. That’s how it was back then.
In his sermon our priest talked about how Japanese Americans were only allowed two suitcases each when they left for the camps. The church made space in the Sunday School rooms and each family was given a 6ft by 6ft area where they could store their other possessions for the duration of the war. The bishop’s wife took into her care the two precious rubber tree plants the church had been nurturing for years. Homes were found for the family pets. One woman was so concerned that no one would be able to provide for her two cats, she began saving up money to have them put down.
On April 26th, 1942 St. Peter’s had a final church service before shutting its doors. The church that had stood open for nearly forty years would stay closed until 1945. When internment ended the people came back, and with what little they had they rebuilt their lives and reopened the church. Their families continued to attend. Today I share the pews with some of those same parishioners, the ones who were pulled away from home as children because of how they looked. By the end of today’s service the candles had mostly burned down, save for a few that remained tall. There were once so many, now there are so few.
To honor the occasion, our organist mixed in selections of Japanese hymns and instrumentals with the more traditional Anglo-Episcopal music. For the final blessing Fr. Edmund repeated the words the bishop told the congregation that final Sunday in 1942, which blessed the members as they went out and prayed that they would one day reach the promised land.