Rick Hamlin recalls a memorable church service, which included a traditional Japanese dance performed to Silent Night.
- Posted on Oct 19, 2018
Nine o’clock on Christmas Eve, we filed into the pews, the church giving off that yuletide scent of incense and balsam. Wreaths with red bows, poinsettias around the altar, a Nativity in the back, the organist hinting at carols to come—it could have been any church at this festive time. Except for the program printed in both Spanish and English and the curious row of kids, eight of them, dressed in Japanese kimonos, holding fans in the front pew.
“What are they dressed for?” I whispered to Tim, our twenty-something son.
“The performance,” he said. He pointed at the program. There would be a dance to “Silent Night” at the end of the service.
“Oh,” I said, not exactly sure what we were in for. But then this place had a heritage that was out of the ordinary.
My wife, Carol, and I think of it as “Tim’s church,” the one he’s been a part of since moving to Los Angeles a few years ago. St. Mary’s Episcopal Church on Mariposa, not far from downtown L.A. The first Sunday I visited was February 19, 2017, the seventy-fifth anniversary of President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. It was a significant time for a place of worship then known as the Japanese Episcopal Church.
In those early, fearful days of World War II, President Roosevelt authorized the secretary of war to incarcerate Japanese Americans in internment camps, which in the case of this Episcopal church meant an entire congregation.
During the sermon that Sunday in 2017, the rector, Mother Anna, gestured toward a copy of the actual presidential order framed under glass. “Instructions to all persons of Japanese ancestry…” it read in bold. Afterward I walked over to see it. Several older members of the parish stood with me. They recounted the war years, first in Santa Anita, the fabled California racetrack, then in the Arizona desert. They were young then, and the memories they shared were not necessarily traumatic—“there were a lot of kids for us to play with,” said one—but it was clearly an unforgettable day.
In the spring of 1942 the congregants were sent to camps in Arizona or Arkansas, along with their priests, who were a father and son. Their last occasion to worship in their beloved church was Easter Sunday. “We shall have our Easter” was the Rev. John Yamazaki’s poignant message.
He reminded his congregation that “if evacuation is the order of the day in our lives, we have examples in history recorded in the Bible”—Joseph and Mary’s flight into Egypt, for one. “This is our Calvary,” he said, “and we must be willing to say, ‘Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.’ As Jesus Christ had his resurrection from the dark tomb, so may it be with us. We shall have our Easter.”
His words of hope were prescient. In 1945 he and his flock came back to St. Mary’s and rebuilt their lives. Before the war, Japa-nese Americans had been limited to a few professions—selling fruits and vegetables, fishing, growing flowers, gardening—each memorialized in the church in a stained-glass window of Pentecost that showed Christ at the center, lit by tongues of fire. After those restrictions were lifted, the people of St. Mary’s prospered. They had children and grandchildren, ultimately moving away from the old neighborhood.
But they did not forget their church. For generations they have returned from far-flung Southern California suburbs, worshipping at the church Sunday after Sunday.
There were many Japanese American families sitting in the pews with us on Christmas Eve. I looked again at the program and noticed that one of the songs we would sing was a Japanese hymn. And there were the children in kimonos. But those children were not all Japanese, nor was the choir. Nor was the congregation.
The neighborhood had changed, as urban neighborhoods do. This part that had been called Uptown was now dubbed Koreatown, and to make things more interesting, most of the residents around the church were Mexican Americans from the state of Oaxaca. When Mother Anna came to St. Mary’s in 2011, she welcomed the Oaxacans. Their children were enrolled in the Head Start program and the church basketball court was open for use. St. Mary’s newest members brought their santo to the church, a statue of Saint Christopher, where they gathered to light candles and pray.
I doubt these changes came easy. I’ve sat in enough church committee meetings to know that “keep things exactly the same” is a frequent refrain. And yet, as Elizabeth Sherrill once wrote, that is the one prayer God can never answer.
The Japanese Americans who worshipped at St. Mary’s must have thought of it as their church, their special place. A sanctuary. But they couldn’t help remembering what it had been like—going back a few generations—to come to a new country, to navigate a new language, to work hard to establish themselves in a new place. They welcomed their Spanish-speaking Christian brothers and sisters, and Mother Anna established a schedule where at least once a month, the service would be bilingual.
As it was on this Christmas Eve with Tim.
We rose to sing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” in Spanish and in English all at once. We prayed in both languages, a lovely mix of voices. And most impressively, Mother Anna gave the sermon going back and forth from Spanish to English, English to Spanish, paragraph by paragraph.
She spoke of Joseph and Mary and the journey they had to take. She reminded us that Joseph was a carpenter—that these people who celebrated the first Christmas were working people, just like the congregation. We greeted one another in peace and took Communion, walking past the dancers in their kimonos. Japanese American children, Latino children, black children.
Finally their moment came. They walked to the front of the church and held out their fans. “Silent Night” played.
I was transfixed. The kids bowed, struck poses and moved into different patterns, fans fluttering. They’d obviously rehearsed for weeks. They moved gracefully, reverently, turning the stage into an exquisite Japanese tableau. They were dignified, and as they danced they brought the oh-so-familiar words “heavenly peace” to life.
No, the world wasn’t that calm and things didn’t always feel bright, but here was a place where fellow Christians had known the disruptions and sorrows of war. For a time they had been labeled the enemy, but they knew how to make peace, welcoming the strangers in their midst. Coming together in a dance.
As Rev. John Yamazaki said, “We shall have our Easter.”
This was our Christmas.
At the end of the performance the children held their poses, fans in hand, then bowed.
It was a “Silent Night” I’d never forget.