A History of Japanese Americans in California:
Japanese Union Church of Los Angeles
In 1977, Japanese Christian missions celebrated their 100th anniversary in America. Early Japanese immigrants to America met regularly with White church members to learn about Christianity and the English language. Later, as Japanese attendance at these group meetings increased, segregated congregations were often established. The significance of ethnic churches is that they served as social centers as well as places of religious worship for the Japanese American community. The Union Church of Los Angeles has been particularly important in both these aspects, serving large numbers of Japanese in Los Angeles and surrounding communities. In addition to its Christian work, the church became known as a place where Japanese could gather. Japanese-language films were shown in the sanctuary auditorium, and the gymnasium encouraged development of Japanese athletic leagues. The church also sponsored social services programs, a language school, and a hostel on another piece of property.
The Japanese Union Church of Los Angeles building is a three-story, brick and concrete structure. Its San Pedro Street frontage is characterized by four Ionic columns and three stained glass windows. The tip of the cross that sits atop the building is 45 feet above the street level. Inside are various offices and classrooms. The church's sanctuary is on the second floor, with a balcony on the third floor. The basement area once served as a gymnasium, but was later converted into a social hall. Today, the basement has been partitioned to create office space for the Japanese Community Pioneer Center.
The building is located in the heart of the Little Tokyo district of Los Angeles, directly across the street from the Los Angeles Police Department.
The Japanese Union Church of Los Angeles was established February 7, 1918 through the merger of three congregations, the Los Angeles Presbyterian Church (est. 1905), the Los Angeles Congregational Church (est. 1908), and the Japanese Bethlehem Congregational Church of Los Angeles (est. by 1911). By combining resources, it was hoped that a larger church with expanded programs could be created to better serve the community. Rev. Giichi Tanaka was appointed as the first pastor of the church.
By 1920, the need for a new church building had become apparent, and a building program was initiated. Three years later, on March 25, 1923, the new church building at 120 N. San Pedro Street was dedicated. In the years that followed, the Union Church benefitted the entire Japanese American community through its many programs.
During World War II, church members, along with other Japanese Americans on the West Coast, were interned at Heart Mountain in Wyoming. Rev. Donald Toriumi, who was the church's minister immediately before the exodus, continued to lead the congregation at Heart Mountain. The church building was used as a Black community center during this period of Japanese absence.
Rev. Sohei Kowta, formerly with the church's social service institute, recognized the need to establish a center to aid Japanese Americans returning from the concentration camps. Along with the Presbytery and the American Friends Service Committee, he established a resettlement center in the institute's building. This became known as the Evergreen Hotel, and Rev. Kowta conducted religious services for Union Church members and other residents.
In 1949, the Black community center was relocated, and the congregation resumed meeting in the San Pedro Street building November 14 of that year. In 1955, the name of the Japanese Union Church of Los Angeles was changed to the Union Church of Los Angeles.
In the mid-1960s, the City of Los Angeles began formulating plans for redevelopment of Little Tokyo. Plans included widening certain sections of San Pedro Street. In the years that followed, the congregation weighed its options, and decided to search for a new site. The church property was sold to the City of Los Angeles, which leased the building to the Community Redevelopment Agency. The building is scheduled for demolition. New property was purchased at the corner of Third and San Pedro streets where groundbreaking ceremonies were held on October 12, 1975. On November 7, 1976, the new building was dedicated.
Today, the Sunday congregation numbers about 285 (165 for English-language services and 115-120 for Japanese-language services). Hiroshi Izumi is the Japanese-language pastor, and Duane Takayama is the Director of Christian Education. Since the retirement of Rev. Howard Toriumi, the church has not appointed a permanent English-language pastor.
In addition to its church services, the Union Church continues to work with the Japanese American community by providing space for various groups. The church itself sponsors youth and adult fellowship groups, as well as Boy and Girl Scout troops. The neighboring Little Tokyo Towers, a senior citizens' housing project, uses the church for some of its cultural and social classes. The church also serves as headquarters for the Southern California Church Federation, an association of Japanese Christian Churches.
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