It’s a Sunday morning at Buena Vista United Methodist Church in Alameda, and El Salvadoran native Salvador Sotelo is clearly nervous. The West Oakland resident was chosen to deliver the sermon on October 13 in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month. About forty congregation members gaze at him while he stands behind the pulpit, looking down at his note sheet.
Sotelo’s 38-year-old daughter Julia stands next to him to translate, but rarely does he call for her assistance. Sotelo abandons his script, written in Spanish, and begins speaking slowly and clearly in English. He preaches passionately about community and the work of Father Oscar Romero, a Salvadoran Catholic Priest who was assassinated in 1980 at the beginning of the El Salvadoran civil war; he was recently granted sainthood by the Catholic Church.
After the service, church members come up to Sotelo to talk. He is no longer anxious; he’s visibly relaxed.
Sotelo’s sermon is an indicator of the way the church is changing, reaching out to new immigrant communities, including those who live in neighboring Oakland. The diverse congregation is made up primarily of Japanese Americans and has a track record of honoring immigrants—like Sotelo—and their stories, dating all the way back to the church’s founding in 1898.
The congregation has strong Japanese roots, but today is made up of recent immigrants from Central America, West Africa, those from the Asian diaspora, such as Filipino Americans. Their members also come from other faiths, such as Buddhism. They come together over issues commonly shared by immigrant communities, such as discrimination and misrepresentation.
Pastor Michael Yoshii, who has served as full-time pastor since 1988, said that the 1988 Civil Liberties Act signed by then-President Ronald Reagan, which was an official apology made by the U.S government for the internment of Japanese people during World War II, was a turning point in the church’s focus regarding which communities it served. “A lot of people in the Japanese community talked about that and said, ‘Well, we have to make sure that since we got an apology that we don’t allow this to happen to anybody else. In other words, it’s not just about us, it’s about the rights for everybody,” he said.
The September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center also sparked a church discussion about the mistreatment of other immigrant groups and what the lasting effect would be on Middle Eastern and Muslim communities in the United States.
“Some of our older members we had the first Sunday after 9/11, they asked the question, ‘What’s happening to the Arabs and Muslims and South Asians?’ Because they could feel for themselves, just like when Pearl Harbor happened, Japanese Americans became the face of the enemy,” Yoshii said. “They could see that was happening with 9/11. They could see there was going to be collateral damage for certain communities.”
On October 19, the congregation, along with past members and church partners, gathered at the Scottish Rite Center in Oakland for their 120th anniversary celebration. Over 500 attendees were present. Pastor Yoshii spoke about how Buena Vista’s past has informed its present. “We see this as a pivot point from remembering the past, and also pivoting to the future as well. I want to invoke the presence of those who have gone on before us, those who laid the foundation of our congregation 120 years ago,” Yoshii said. “We always want to respect and remember their memories for the spiritual energy they continue to give us in our lives and in our faith and in our collective congregation.”
The church’s founding members were Issei, a Japanese term which refers to the first generation of Japanese immigrants who came to America at the beginning of the 20th Century. The Meji restoration period in Japan that began in 1868 allowed Japanese citizens to emigrate for the first time in decades. Following the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 in the United States, Japanese immigrants were sought after to fill the void of cheap Chinese labor.
Male migrants who arrived in Alameda were taught English by two women who started a night school for these newcomers. The school expanded to include housing and employment opportunities, eventually becoming the church it is today.
Wendy Hanamura, a third generation member, grew up in the church. Her parents were Issei church leaders and were also the first interreligious marriage at Buena Vista, as her father was Christian and her mother was Buddhist. “My heart is full as I look across this room and I see students I taught in Sunday School, and people I grew up and all of my former pastors when I was growing up,” Hanamura said.
She shared the history of the church’s founding congregation, compiled by Shiz Kawamura, an Issei member, in 1998. Hanamura detailed some of the struggles the Japanese community faced in the early 20th Century, such as the Asiatic Exclusion League, which formed to prevent Asian immigrants from entering the United States. Some of the church’s members were also put into internment camps during World War II—many left their possessions at the church for safekeeping before they were taken from their homes.
Judy Furuichi is a longtime church member and co-lay leader, whose main role is serving as a liaison between the pastor and the congregation. She was born in an internment camp in Topaz, Utah, and spoke about her family’s journey back to Alameda. “When you are interned, when you’re in camp, you can only take what you can carry,” Furuichi said. “We had lost all our possessions, and no home to return to. But, the church opened their doors and welcomed us. The church stored our very few precious belongings for not just our family, but many other families.”
Sotelo was also in attendance at the celebration, and the day before the event he had spoken about how the church members have also helped him and his family. Sotelo and his wife have been living in West Oakland since the early 2000’s, and he is currently in the process of obtaining his green card. “They [the church members] gave me a loan to pay the immigration lawyer, but I paid back the loan already,” Sotelo said.
And just as church members once helped Furuichi’s family, Sotelo said they are also helping his family find a new place to stay. He said he and his wife are struggling to stay in West Oakland, where their landlord is pushing to increase the rent way past what they can afford to pay. “I have to be here for a while because I have no place to go yet,” Sotelo said somberly.
Gala King, the church’s social justice program developer, went into detail about how the church has been supporting the Sotelo family. “They were going through such struggles with their housing. Our support really looks like accompanying them to their hearings. They’ve had several hearings with their landlord in Oakland,” King said.
King also listed some of the Oakland organizations they partner with to fulfill their commitment to helping marginalized groups. “Our programming looks like providing accompaniment as far as helping them access legal services, helping them navigate the education system in Oakland and Alameda, and connecting them to other immigrant communities, a lot through our partnership with Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity,” King said. The interfaith group connects faith-based groups with social justice projects about immigration and criminal justice.
She said they also promote humane immigration policies, “both locally, looking at sanctuary cities policies in Oakland and Alameda, as well as statewide.”
The 120th anniversary brought together several generations of the congregation, all sharing a common faith and goal of creating what Buena Vista members call “beloved community.”
“I came to Buena Vista in search of more spiritual and faith nurturing, and seeing the way in which this faith community really embodies their faith in an active and justice-centered way was very groundbreaking for me,” King said. “To me it’s just been a blessing to be a part of this.”
Like King, Sotelo and his family arrived at Buena Vista not knowing what to expect. According to him, Catholicism is widely practiced throughout El Salvador, and he attended a Catholic Church in Oakland prior to becoming a Buena Vista member.
The treatment Sotelo’s family received was very welcoming, and he said they knew they had found their spiritual home. “We’d never been in a Methodist Church [before], and they were—still are—very kind, very respectful,” Sotelo said. “They are a beautiful people who make us feel good.”