By Michael Roberts
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The children had no trouble assimilating into the local schools. "I think people respected the Japanese because they were honest and hardworking," Maggie says. The only untoward incident she can recall involved white antagonism toward a mixed-race couple; the distraught young woman eventually committed suicide. Young Maggie swore she would avoid similar difficulties. "Then I went and married an Irish man I met in the service," she laughs.
By the late 1930s there were an estimated 2,500 Japanese-Americans living in Colorado. "About half were constituents of Dad's church, though of course they were scattered all over the place," says Joseph Uemura, who was three when the family came to Colorado.
Joseph, a retired professor of philosophy now living in Minnesota, notes that in those days, the church was called the Japanese Methodist Church and Institute. "Institute because it offered language classes--English and Japanese, citizenship classes, and classes in Japanese culture, such as calligraphy," he explains.
"As with most immigrant churches, Dad's church perpetuated the shift toward assimilation while helping the immigrants hold on to their culture. The Japanese Christian church also served as a referral center for available social services, as well as lawyers and doctors who could be trusted by immigrant families."
Meanwhile, the traditional church of the Japanese--Buddhist--remained isolated from the community at large, mainly, Joseph says, because its clergy spoke only Japanese and were not set up to help immigrants adjust to their new land.
The Japanese Christian church, on the other hand, was often the contact point with the larger community. What most whites knew of the Japanese in America came through exchanges between churches. So services at the Japanese Methodist Church were held in Japanese and English, in part to be more inviting to outsiders.
The church at 25th and California pulled Japanese families into an already ethnically diverse neighborhood. "There was a grocery store across the street run by a Jewish couple," Joseph recalls. "There were Scot immigrants on one side and Irish on the other, and Hispanics--they were just called 'Spanish' in those days--across from our backyard. And, of course, Germans still lived in the area. I had a lot of diverse pals, including black friends I played basketball with at the Glenarm Y. Their neighborhood was only two blocks from mine."
The church hosted more than worship services. In the mid- to late 1930s a group of elderly white people known as the Townsend Club met there once a week. "I remember heating the church so that they could sit around and play bingo and checkers," Joseph says. "But the main reason they met was to plan their strategy for getting Congress to pass the Social Security Act."
And every summer Pastor Uemura rented the large sanctuary and two adjacent storage and office buildings to smaller black churches in the area for their unity conferences. "I remember that, because I would spend two weeks cleaning up the church so that it looked great when they arrived," Joseph recalls. He didn't mind the extra time spent in the sanctuary. It was peaceful, and he liked looking at the stained-glass windows. "One had the 'eye of God,'" he remembers, "which was particularly impressive to a young boy."
But the peace and harmony at 25th and California was shattered on December 7, 1941. Like the German-Americans who'd occupied the church two dozen years earlier, Japanese-Americans were now looked upon as possible enemies.
A few weeks after the U.S. declared war on Japan, the Uemura family peered fearfully from the parsonage as a mob gathered on the streets outside the church. Anti-Japanese agitators stirred up the crowd until someone picked up a rock and hurled it at the beautiful windows. Soon more rocks were flying, and then more, until nothing remained of the stained glass.
Pulling his family away, Uemura tried to calm them with the words of Jesus as he hung on the cross: "They know not what they do." He also invoked an old Japanese saying, Shi-kataganai, which translates loosely to 'There's nothing we can do about it, so accept it and go on.'
There was certainly nothing Uemura could do about the riot that night. But the next day he took his case to the ministers of Denver's other Methodist churches. A decision was reached to rename the church in order to avoid further antagonizing the populace; it became the California Street Methodist Church. But the ministers didn't stop there. They brought the incident to the attention of the Colorado Council of Churches, whose leaders went back to their own congregations and asked for money to replace the shattered windows of the Japanese church.
The replacement glass was not as fine as the original windows from Germany. "But as a fifteen-year-old boy who had been badly frightened, I thought it was a wonderful gesture," Joseph says.
After that, the neighborhood was relatively peaceful. Joseph's friends of all races stuck by him, and the children stayed in school. Worship services continued, and the black churches still rented the sanctuary for their big meetings. But the greatest challenge lay ahead.
In the spring of 1942, Japanese-Americans within 500 miles of either coast, areas known as War Zone I, were told they would have to leave their homes and businesses and move to a War Zone II or be forced into relocation camps. The pretext for the order was that Japanese-Americans, born in this country or not, could not be trusted. They had two months to leave voluntarily or be removed by the military.