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Sanctuary

For a century this inner-city church has served as a refuge. But its most important mission has always been outside the walls.

Realizing that thousands of families would soon be on the move with no place to go, Reverend Uemura went to Governor William Carr and asked that Japanese-American evacuees be allowed to move to Colorado. "I remember Dad coming home several times after meeting with [Attorney General Charles Clayton] Morrissey," says Joseph, "until one night he said, 'They're going to let them come.'"

Many of the evacuees were Christians who headed for the only Japanese church in the area. Most were families with no more possessions than what they could carry in a vehicle or on their backs. To handle the influx, the buildings behind the church were converted into dormitories, and at the height of the evacuation, families ate and slept in the sanctuary.

The entire congregation pitched in. Some took families into their homes. Others offered jobs. The truck farmers brought their produce to the church to help feed the refugees.

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By mid-1942 the flood of displaced families had slowed to a constant trickle. But the pastor had a new cause. Japanese-American students who had been attending college in War Zone I areas had been forced to give up their studies, and many of them had ended up in relocation camps. A whole generation was stagnating. Uemura went back to the governor and this time persuaded him to encourage the students to come to Colorado, where many resumed their studies at the University of Denver. Now the church dormitories were filled with young men, a few women and their books.

Although run ragged by the refugees, Uemura had not forgotten the rest of his far-flung congregation. But here he faced another problem. Japanese-Americans were restricted to their communities. Even if he could overcome the difficulties of gas rationing, a Japanese minister was not free to travel about. Uemura paid another call on Carr. His people were isolated and afraid, he told the governor, and there had been attacks against Japanese-Americans in distant communities. They needed a minister to bring them words of hope.

Again the leaders of Colorado came through. Uemura was given a special pass and extra gas rations so he could travel from Hanna, Wyoming, to Sterling, Nebraska, to Rocky Ford--and points in between. And somehow, he still got back in time for Sunday services at 25th and California.

But the work was taking its toll on the pastor. Sometimes all he had time for was his mission, a bite to eat and a few hours' sleep while his beloved books gathered dust on the shelves. His children helped all they could: cleaning, scrubbing, cooking, tending to the sick when a doctor was not available.

Then personal tragedy struck. In 1943 one of Joseph's older sisters came down with spinal meningitis and died. Her death devastated the family, but it seemed to hit Seijiro Uemura particularly hard.

"I think he blamed himself," Joseph says. "He thought he gave her too much work, that she was too tired and that's why she got sick. He tried to take it like he took everything else, stoic. 'We have work to do,' Shi-kataganai, and all that, but he seemed more worn and frail after she died."

The war ended but Uemura's obligations continued. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese had been displaced from their homes and sent to relocation camps, while their businesses were co-opted. Their former communities did not welcome their return.

So Uemura went one more time to Governor Carr. Please, he asked, let these good Americans know they will be welcome in Colorado. Carr agreed, and the politician's compassion earned him a place in the hearts of the Japanese community, which erected a monument to him that stands in Sakura Square. But Carr's decision was unpopular with the rest of the population and is thought to have cost him the next election.

The governor's proclamation offering Colorado as a place of refuge brought a new flood of families to Denver, many of whom settled near the church at 25th and California--which meant more work for the Uemura family.

Some historians would later contend that Carr and his attorney general simply read the state constitution and saw no legal reason to block the influx of Japanese during and after the war. But those who knew best realized that much of the credit for persuading the two men to take their brave stance should go to a short, hardworking pastor who loved people and books.

"And dad was always supported in his efforts by the Council of Churches, even when it was sometimes unpopular with their own congregations," Joseph says. "The council has never received proper credit for that."

In 1947 Seijiro Uemura asked to be transferred to a smaller church in California. He was 67 years old. A heart attack the year before had slowed him, but mostly he was worn out by his efforts for his people and by the death of his daughter. Younger Japanese associate pastors had arrived at the church at 25th and California and were eager to take over. Uemura, they whispered, was no longer energetic enough to lead a congregation swollen by the end of the war.

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