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Rev. Paul Nakamura: “A Ministry Bound With The Quest For Justice And Civil Rights For All” – Part 1

Rev. Paul T. Nakamura, shown here during the interfaith service at the Manzanar cemetery during the 34th Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage, April 24, 2004.
(Photo: Tom Walker/Manzanar Committee)

LOS ANGELES — Those who have attended the annual Manzanar Pilgrimage and have participated in its interfaith service have probably noticed him—a small, older man, one of the Christian ministers, leading the crowd in reciting the litany.

You may remember him because of the hat he always wears, or maybe it was his slight Pidgin English accent, a by-product of his upbringing in Waialua, Oahu, Hawai’i.

That unassuming, very modest, yet powerfully spoken minister is Reverend Takeichi “Paul” Nakamura, 88, who serves as pastor of Lutheran Oriental Church in Torrance, California.

Rev. Paul, as he is known to his parishioners and so many others, will be honored by the Manzanar Committee at the 46th Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage on April 25, 2015, as the recipient of the 2015 Sue Kunitomi Embrey Legacy Award, named after the late chair of the Manzanar Committee who was also one of the founders of the annual Manzanar Pilgrimage, and was the driving force behind the creation of the Manzanar National Historic Site.

Although most who know Rev. Paul from the Manzanar Pilgrimage know him for his participation in the interfaith service, few know that his contributions extend far beyond the boundaries of the Manzanar cemetery, or the pulpit of his Torrance church. Indeed, he was an integral member of the Manzanar Committee beyond coordinating and organizing the interfaith service. He was also a founding member of the Los Angeles Community Coalition on Redress/Reparations, which became the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations (NCRR; now Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress).

“He was the main organizer of the interfaith service,” said Manzanar Committee Co-Chair Bruce Embrey. “He had a passion for the Pilgrimage, and the interfaith service, in particular. It really showed in his complete and steadfast dedication to organizing the interfaith component.”

“The nature and character of the Pilgrimage was one of both spiritual and cultural/political,” added Embrey. “A key component of returning to Manzanar was that it was a spiritual journey. It wasn’t just serving a political role, even though it has done that since the first Pilgrimage. The Pilgrimage has always had that dual character, and I think Rev. Paul understood that.”

But when he first arrived in the Los Angeles area, Rev. Paul had virtually no idea what “camp” was, even though his wife, Kikuno, and her parents, were among the over 110,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry who were unjustly incarcerated in concentration camps during World War II.

“When I came out here, I met some of my wife’s family in Upland,” he reminisced. “I heard them talking about Manzanar. I had no clue what Manzanar was. I had no clue about anything regarding Manzanar, or what the camps were about. All I knew was that they went to camp. That was about it, so my interest in camp wasn’t that much. I wasn’t even aware of a pilgrimage.”

“One day, Rev. Ren Kimura, minister of San Fernando Holiness Church, came to me and said that he’s been going to the Manzanar Pilgrimage and he was having a Christian service,” said Rev. Paul. “He asked if I could go this one time, because he had to go to one of the other camps. I said, ‘OK,’ and from then on, it was every year.”

Rev. Paul, who was stationed in Okinawa and Japan with occupation forces after World War II while serving in the United States Army, recalled his earliest days with the Manzanar Committee.

“When I heard that the Manzanar Committee was meeting, I got the interfaith [group] involved in it, and I started to go to the meetings,” he said. “That’s how I got started. I wanted to get involved.”

“[Talking about the Japanese American Incarceration] was very important for our community, and really, for our nation, because it has tremendous ramifications,” he added. “More and more I began to think about it, I realized that this was [something] that changed lives. We have to remember. We have to remember to come [to Manzanar], and not forget. We have to have [the Manzanar Pilgrimage], and we have to take part in it.”

“[Camp] was the defining moment for our community. It changed the whole outlook we have on life, about people, about the country, what freedom means. It’s not free. You’ve got to work for it.”

Rev. Paul’s activism focused on the issues, but his brand of activism was never just about taking a stand. Rather, from the earliest Pilgrimages, he urged organizers to remember the role of the church during the incarceration as part of the Pilgrimage.

“I wanted to make sure that the church is not forgotten, and that the religious message is not left out, because the temples and the churches were central in the lives of the people,” Rev. Paul explained. “I also wanted to make sure that the spiritual aspect of the people was not being ignored because that’s so very important. It’s central, really, in everyone’s life, and it’s very important for our community not to forget. It must always be there.”

“It’s not just about us, it’s not about just ourselves,” Rev. Paul elaborated. “It’s for everybody. It needs to spread, to talk about God’s love in times of stress, God’s presence, in times of loneliness, in times of death, in times of mourning, happiness—a wedding, in times of hope—looking for an education—they had to have spiritual guidance.”

“It’s kind of sad because sometimes, when we have community meetings, sometimes the temples and the churches are not always represented, to say a prayer, at least. It makes me sad when that’s left out.”

One look at the Civil Rights Movement should provide a strong indication of the power of having a spiritual aspect in such movements.

“[The spiritual aspect] belongs there, period,” said Rev. Paul. “It is part of any great movement. You’ve got to have the spiritual aspect. Look at the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was a spiritual movement.”

“If you have a strong, spiritual movement, you can’t lose,” added Rev. Paul. “The spiritual movement is what gives them the vision, the hope, and the courage. Without that, you just don’t have it. People fall apart. If you took the interfaith aspect out of the Manzanar Pilgrimage, it becomes just another public gathering, and it’ll fall apart.”

Embrey credited Rev. Paul for his keen ability to blend social justice and faith.
“Rev. Paul is an amazing leader of faith who understands and practices his beliefs in the gospel from a justice perspective,” said Embrey. “His ministry is thoroughly bound with the quest for justice and civil rights for all people, and he sees his ministry as being part and parcel of that.”

“The fact that he was a member of the Manzanar Committee, and played a critical role, is because he saw the Manzanar Pilgrimage and the struggle for redress and reparations as part and parcel of the broader struggle for justice, equality and fairness in our society,” added Embrey. “He brought that to his ministry, and I think he brought his ministry to that broader movement. He is one of those rare, precious faith leaders who did that.”

As reported here, Rev. Paul Nakamura has played a critical role in the Manzanar Committee’s work, especially when it comes to the Manzanar Pilgrimage and its interfaith service, but also well beyond that annual event. Indeed, as noted earlier, he was at the ground floor of the fight for redress and reparations, and he even immersed himself in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s. You can read about all of that in the second installment of this series.  

Part 2 >>


*This article was originally published on the Manzanar Committee blog on April 19, 2015.


© 2015 Gann Matsuda

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