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The Church behind Barbed Wire

Truth In Love 390

What can we learn from the issues with counseling and soul care that developed during the Japanese American Internment in World War II?

Nov 21, 2022

Dale Johnson: Today on the podcast I have with me, Tom Sugimura, I’m so grateful for this brother. He serves as a pastor, church planting mentor, and professor of biblical counseling at The Master’s University. He’s the author of what our podcast is titled today. A book, The Church Behind Barbed Wire, also Habakkuk: God’s Answers to Life’s Most Difficult Questions. He and his wife, Amanda, are raising their four children in Southern California, and I’m so grateful for Tom. We’ve just gotten to know one another and getting to know one another better. Also grateful for his work at our pre-conference this past year and 2021 at Hickory Grove, and looking forward to introducing him more to our certified members.

Today we’re going to do something a little different. I enjoy history. I like to look back at the ways in which we saw soul care in the past. And guys, listen, if you look back in history, the Church was the primary place that was viewed to do soul care. It was their task, and pastors were called physicians of the soul, and during a modern world, modern psychology certainly upended that idea. And Tom, today, I want you to do something that’s mixed into your heritage, your Japanese heritage, and talk about a time, a very stressful, difficult time of suffering during World War II. And I want you to talk about a couple of these ways that we saw soul care during the Japanese American internment of World War II. Now, I know that’s maybe a little different, but what I want you to do is help flesh out and show the beauty in really difficult situations, the use of Scripture in truly caring for souls. So first, let’s just introduce most people, especially if you have public education like I do. I’m kidding, people, right? I’m kidding. But maybe you don’t remember what went on during World War II or between Japan and America. So I want you to start there, Tom if you can. So, tell us what took place during the Japanese American internment, and why has it been helpful for you to research in preparation for this book, The Church Behind Barbed Wire?

Tom Sugimura: Thanks, Dale. This is a topic that many people don’t know about in history, but 80 years ago, on December 7th, 1941, Imperial Japan bombed Pearl Harbor prompting the U.S. to join World War II, and then ten weeks later, President Roosevelt signed executive order 9066 which effectively uprooted 120,000 Japanese Americans from the Pacific West Coast, sent them to incarceration centers throughout the nation’s interior. And they were essentially imprisoned behind barbed wire with soldiers; rifles turned inward. This was something that happened in America in the 1940s, and they lost their homes. They lost businesses, farms, and jobs, but most harmfully, they experienced great shame for their families. Many of them rarely ever spoke of camp except in whispered tones. My own grandma remained bitter until the day she died. And so, this began as a personal study. I just wanted to know more about my family’s history, and then, as I grew, I became a pastor and biblical counselor, and I started talking to other people about these stories, and every Japanese American family they have a story about the camps. My family they were in Santa Anita and then Manzanar, and the internment is a historical event that everyone at the time thought was right, but almost everyone now admits was wrong, and so it teaches us to be humble when it comes to history. It teaches us lessons about the past that can help us treat people rightly in the present. And as a counselor, I started seeing the application for the care of souls, particularly in regard to racial and ethnic tension. There’s been a lot of that these days. And so I found that by telling my story, it helped people to open up about their stories and helped me to learn how to listen better as a counselor. And as we talked about especially instances of unjust suffering, it gave people the freedom to talk about those things.

Dale Johnson: As we dive into this, a consistent thing that you see all throughout history is when suffering abounds, you see lots of needs for counseling problems. The soul is in anguish. The soul is extremely vexed, and this is certainly no different, but I want you to talk about some of the counseling problems that were brought about or that you started to notice as you researched this period during the internment.

Tom Sugimura: Sure, there was definitely the loss of freedom. And so, these Japanese American families are taken from their homes. Some of them were imprisoned or behind barbed wire for as many as three and a half months the prolonged length of the war; they lost material goods. I think about immigrant families. You know how hard working they are to make a life for their family, and all of a sudden, after 20, 30, 40 decades of trying to get a foothold in America, that’s taken away, and they have nothing. And so, there was the struggle of material loss, and there was ethnic prejudice that was unleashed; things were under the radar, but there were still problems. There were laws on the books which said that Japanese Americans couldn’t become citizens or they couldn’t own land. Some were even hindering immigration. And so, you have in California, for example, a senator that’s running on the platform “keep California white,” not something that would fly these days, but this was something that was allowable in those days. And so, all of that just came out in the newspapers, in the popular media, everyone from the President to the Supreme Court, there were pretty much in unison that the Japanese American internment was justified, and it was the way for the Japanese Americans to show loyalty to their country. And so, those were some of the struggles that people faced.

One of the biggest ones, as I talked to Japanese-Americans, is the destruction of the family. And so, these fathers who are working so hard to put food on the table and to lead their families, all of a sudden, the government is providing, and they’re in the camps, and they don’t know what’s going on. And so, they’re not working; they’re not providing; they’re not the leaders of their home. They’re even losing some of the authority that they had because they’re only Japanese speaking, and their English-speaking children are now doing everything for them, and mom’s not cooking. So if the camp is providing the food, there’s no meals around the dinner table, families aren’t eating together, children leave the home at dawn, and they don’t come home until dusk. And so, we see that the family unit was destroyed, and then we see that there was shame, bitterness, and unforgiveness, especially among those who didn’t have a Christian foundation, and also we see the silence of the church. We see that the non-Japanese church, although this was an injustice, there was mostly silence from those who were Bible-believing, those who claim to have friendships with the Japanese. There was silence on the part of the church when they should have been saying what they need to be saying. 

Dale Johnson: Now, a lot of times, we talk about sin and suffering, and we talk about biblical counseling. We can apply the Scriptures, of course, admonishing those who are in sin and then dealing with those who are suffering. And as we described issues of suffering, we have categories like natural disasters, and accidents, and someone who has sinned against you. And so, we’re trying to help give encouragement and comfort during those types of sufferings. And in this case, we’re dealing with something that is an unjust suffering that adds a layer of complexity. And so I want you to talk a little bit about how the Japanese American Church provided soul care for one another while they were facing this injustice.

Tom Sugimura: That’s one of the joys of doing this study is seeing the way that God worked through his people. And one of those very tangible expressions is the ministry of Christian fellowship, just believers coming together, practicing the one-another. And there was the moment that these Japanese-American pastors came to the camp. The first week they were there, they didn’t moan; they didn’t complain. They said, “we need to start a church.”‘ And so, they all gathered together and they had no hymnals and Bibles because they were considered contraband Japanese language. They didn’t have their pianos or choir robes or anything like that. And so, they all came together, and they said, “We are going to worship as one nondenominational church.” And so, what you have in each of the ten camps, the relocation centers were non-denominational churches with Methodists worshiping with Presbyterians and Baptists, and Holiness Christians, all together under maybe the Apostles’ Creed. And so, we see the unity of the church in a time of suffering, and they’re singing cherished hymns that we’ve sung for generations, they’re remembering the faithful saints in church history, and so, I love to see the ministry of Christian fellowship as it’s played out as in the Japanese American internment.

We also see the ministry of the Word, both preached and counseled. There is a collection of sermons called “The Sunday Before,” and it was the Sunday before the evacuation. We see the way preachers in these Japanese American churches minister to their congregations. I think of Leicester Suzuki, and he’s preaching in LA, and he says to his congregation, “This building we’ve built with our own hands. We’ve raised the funds from our hard-earned labor. Many of you grew up here going to Sunday school. You saw your children married. You saw your parents buried here, and we’re about to leave, and we have no idea when we may return, but he preached to them the ministry of the gospel, and he talked to them about the life of Abraham, talk to them about the life of Moses, he brought to them the faithfulness of the saints and the Babylonian exile, and this ministry of the Word encouraged the people through both preaching and through counseling.

Dale Johnson: I think that is outstanding. One of the things that it demonstrates to us is the power of God’s Word that it is sufficient to help us no matter the circumstances, no matter the difficulty. These types of testimonies are witnesses to us of the faithfulness of our God, of the power of His Spirit, by the Word through periods of history. And these are things that ought to encourage us. Even in the Psalms, the Scripture teaches us to teach the works of our God to our children. And these are places and times where we see God’s faithfulness in so many ways.

Now, that was the Japanese American church. I want you to talk a little bit about the non-Japanese churches. You mentioned earlier that some of them sort of turned a blind eye or really weren’t that helpful, and there’s something to be said when churches turn their face away from human suffering and problems and allow sin to run rampant. When we don’t engage in soul care, we leave people vulnerable, that’s the point, and we have to focus here, but I want you to talk a little bit about some of the ways that non-Japanese churches were helpful to these Japanese Americans. 

Tom Sugimura: Yeah, we know that Christians are called to love in both word and deed. And one of those ways is we speak up for those who do not have a voice. Proverbs 31. We see that acts of kindness can open the door as we’re ministering to counselees. Sometimes people don’t respond immediately to the Scripture. Sometimes an act of kindness will open the door to that, and so we saw that during the war. Again, the majority of churches, the majority of Christians were silent, but there were voices of protest. The handful of Christians mostly liberals, or pacifist Christians or those with a previous relationship to the Japanese American church. Missionaries or pastors or those that were with them and they spoke out against the internment.

There was also relational solidarity. I think of Emery Andrews. He was a pastor up in Seattle at the Japanese Baptist Church, and when his congregation was evacuated and relocated to Minidoka, Idaho, Emery Andrews relocated his whole family with them, and he moved from Seattle to Idaho, and he went back and forth. I think it was about 56 times on this big blue bus, and every time one of these families in his church wanted something from Seattle, he would go back, and he would retrieve it, and he would drive this distance just to show them that he loved them that he cared for them. He would go in every Sunday, and he would be a guest preacher in one of those camps’ churches. And so, we see that there’s that relational solidarity there.

And then simple acts of kindness. I think of Miss Clara Breed. She was a librarian in San Diego, and in her library branch, she is watching each of these little Japanese American children come into her library and turning in their library cards because they know it’s the last time that they were ever gonna be able to go to this library for a time. And she had providentially ordered a bunch of self-addressed stamped postcards, and she began to distribute these to each of the children that were coming in. She said when you get to wherever it is that you’re going, you send me a postcard. Tell me how you’re doing, and let me continue to correspond with you and she correspondent throughout the rest of the war. She encouraged them. She sent them gifts during Christmas; she reminded them that there was hope. And so, we see that these small acts of kindness and these words of encouragement were ways that the non-Japanese church stepped up and ministered effectively. 

Dale Johnson: What a testimony. I teach a course called “The History of Soul Care,” and I teach my students in the very beginning the value of looking back into history, and there are stories just like this that help us to see blind spots that all of us may be privy to in the culture in which we live in, and we have to be cautious that the Word constantly has to refine our heart and mind and soul, and there’s so much that we can learn from history. The things out of many, many points that I teach my students we can learn from history are patterns that we ought to emulate and practices that we need to avoid. And we certainly learned some of those things in this story, and I want you to help us to understand what lessons can we all learn about ministry to hurting people in our world today from this time period. 

Tom Sugimura: I think what we can learn is that the same tools of soul care are applicable all throughout history. I love your book The Church as a Culture of Care because it reminds us that the church is a ministry, and so we see that soul care ministry is the same whether it’s the 1940s or whether it’s today. We see that the same truths of Scripture apply in every area. Romans 15:4, we see that that hope ministers to people in suffering at all times.

As counselors, we start by listening to people’s stories; we have compassion, we have empathy, we care for them, we help them to process through the areas of their stories that might need refinement, and then we helped to connect them to the gospel story, the meta-narrative of Scripture and we help them realize that they are created in the image and likeness of God. We help them to realize that they’re being held accountable for the way they look or their ethnic heritage is a product of the fall, and it’s always been the case all throughout history that we have divided over ethnicity or culture or language or socioeconomic status, but we bring them then to the story of redemption through the cross of Jesus Christ that these sins can be forgiven in this suffering can be redeemed. And one day, we’re headed to glory where all of these things will be no more. And so, we want to listen to people’s stories, and then we want to help them reframe those stories within the gospel narrative.

Dale Johnson: Amen, and I think you’ve done a really good job of helping us to see that through periods of history and the applicability of and the timelessness of our God’s revelation to us and that we need to continue applying it in every circumstance that we have in the modern. Tom has written this book, The Church Behind The Barbed Wire, and I want to encourage you to get this book. I think it would be something that would be helpful for us to read real-life stories of suffering and difficulty, but where we see the Scriptures relied upon and care for those, even in difficult places and suffering unjustly. Tom, thank you so much for your work here. I really appreciate your duties in history, but seeing the biblical vitality that we see throughout history. 

Tom Sugimura: Dale, thank you so much for having me.

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