By ELLEN ENDO, Rafu Shimpo
Concerns about the future of Little Tokyo’s 100-year-old Union Church have sparked a debate among its parishioners and leadership and begged the question: Is this church for sale?
Union’s predominantly Japan-born and Japanese American members are currently grappling with questions reportedly related to the church’s finances, sustainability, governance, shifting demographics, and transparency, among other issues.
The issues prompted former Union Church Nichigo (Japanese-speaking) Pastor Takashi Izumikawa to write a letter to the editor to The Rafu Shimpo. The letter was printed March 8 in this newspaper’s Japanese language section.
Izumikawa’s published comments drew a response from the Advisory Commission of the Presbytery of the Pacific and led to a meeting between commission representatives and the Nichigo on March 25. About 40 of Union Church’s Nichigo members attended the meeting. Union Church Senior Pastor Tim Yee was not in attendance.
Representing the Presbytery were Sue Fisher, interim pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Westchester; Robert Boone, elder, First Presbyterian Church of Inglewood; Pastor Howard Kim, Dae Hueng Korean Presbyterian Church, Gardena; and Pastor Ann Hayman, who moderated the discussion.
Although little mention was made of Izumikawa’s letter, a Presbytery-approved response in English and Japanese was distributed to attendees. Meanwhile, Izumikawa’s original comments have been translated into English and are summarized below along with the Presbytery’s response:
Izumikawa: “This church has been serving the souls of Japanese people in the world for a long time. It is the pride of Nikkei people indeed. Japanese Americans are proud of this church. I have heard about a crisis this church is now facing.”
Presbytery: “Union Church has been a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA) since its creation 100 years ago when two United Church of Christ congregations joined with a Presbyterian congregation as a federated, or union, church. The agreement between the two denominations is that Union Church will follow the government of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the Presbyterian Church (USA) will hold title to the property. Union Church is governed by leaders (Elders) who are elected by the congregation. All decisions are made by a majority decision of the Council of Elders and are recorded in writing.”
Izumikawa: “In 2009, the Union Church started to work with an American church (Bel Air Presbyterian) for missionary work in Little Tokyo.”
Presbytery: “The elected Council of Union Church is the voice of authority, and their voice represents the official position of the church. And so, it is with that authority that we correct the statements made in Mr. Izumikawa’s (letter to the editor).
“The mission outreach in 2009 referenced (in the letter) was begun and advocated for by the Nisei of Union (Church) with full agreement of the Nichigo on the council at the time. It was conducted in partnership with and funded by a sister Presbyterian church. The sister church was chosen by Union for their technical expertise, previous success in outreach and financial stability. The outreach was a success, exceeding all expectations, and as a result, Union has grown in membership. The sister church is no longer involved, and the grant expired several years ago.”
Izumikawa: “Since then, the church constitution and organization of the board of directors have been amended. Japanese-speaking pastors and leaders who disagreed with the new direction were kicked out. And now, the church is planning to sell the land for the purpose of building condos there.”
Presbytery: “No Union Church members have been expelled. If church members do not agree with the decisions of the elected leaders, they may leave if they wish. Some have left voluntarily. The changes to the by-laws were voted on by the congregation as a whole to allow the new non-Japanese members to be elected as Elders and have a representative voice and vote on the Council. This is all a matter of public record.”
Izumikawa: “Sadly, just like the sale of four Keiro facilities two years ago, some might be thinking that this became a serious, contested issue due to a lack of communication between English-speaking Japanese American members and Japanese-speaking Shin Issei (post-WWII immigrants). God, please be merciful.”
Presbytery: “Union Church is not moving or closing. The church council has received proposals to redevelop the property. The church property is held in trust by a higher governing body and cannot be redeveloped without its approval. It is not the intention of any higher governing body to sell this church.”
Izumikawa: “A church is a building or a sect. According to the Bible, the church is a body of Christ. In other words, it’s about everybody who is saved by belief in Jesus Christ as his or her personal Savior and Lord. Thus, English-speaking Japanese Americans and Japanese-speaking Shin Issei must cooperate, as they are responsible for protecting the church together in Christ.
“Of course, it is hoped that member churches of the Japanese Christian Church Federation of Southern California, as well as Japanese Christians, should strive to ++pray++ with one heart.”
(Editor’s note — Part II of this article will delve into the issues, accusations, and queries raised in connection with Union Church’s latest discourse.)