At Sycamore Congregational Church in El Cerrito (north of Berkeley), history, community, and traditions are key to the vibrant life of the congregation. When you walk into this parish for either of its two services on Sunday, at 9:45 (Japanese Language) or 11:00 AM (English Language), you are greeted with the 100+ year timeline that stretches the length of the parish hall entryway and tells you its story. The community today prides itself on being a place of deep faith, and extravagant welcome to all people. It is a progressive church that draws members from diverse theological backgrounds.
Central to its identity, Sycamore UCC is a church originally created for, and by Japanese and Japanese-American Christians. Its history reflects on how the 一世 Issei, the first generation of Japanese immigrants to North America, integrated Christianity into their religious identity through missions of the Congregational Church. The church began in 1904 when it started in Oakland as an independent church by and for Japanese students who desired a place to worship, pray, and study the bible in their primary language. It was the first Japanese church in North America to be completely self-sufficient, and self-governing, and was named for the street, “Sycamore”, in Oakland where it was first located.
Sycamore’s history reflects the community’s dedication to nurturing and preserving Japanese language, traditions, and how it has been a haven for Japanese and Japanese-American Christians to share in faith and fellowship that affirms their ethnic identities. The congregation’s early years were greatly impacted in a time when violent racism against Asian Americans was virulent in the U.S. Many members made huge material and financial sacrifices, and dedicated their extra time to efforts to sustain the congregation. Because of this, it could independently thrive as it grew and offered vital community events and programs such as the annual bazaar, athletic leagues, and programs for youth and children.
In 1941, after years of increasing tension and conflict, both economically and diplomatically between the United States and Japan, Japanese armed forces attacked Pearl Harbor. The United States declared war, and entered World War II. In 1942 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the travesty of the racist and xenophobic imprisonment of over 110,000 citizens of Japanese ancestry, and Japanese nationals and permanent residents. This had a huge impact on Sycamore: members were swept up in the imprisonment, and the targeting of their resources, homes, and lands. Non-Japanese members, and members of neighboring churches cared for the church during this time, and the Conference held the property as a trustee. Plymouth Congregational Church in Oakland helped store and protect church belongings, and equipment. When the imprisonment order was lifted in 1945, Japanese-American and Japanese people could return to their homes all over California. They were met with intense racism, seizure of homes and property that were not returned, and barriers to employment and resources. Because of this, the West Coast Congregational churches and parsonages converted themselves into hostels and ministries for returnees and their families, and ministries to serve their communities grew and bloomed.
Over the next years the 二世 Nisei (second generation) and 三世 Sansei (third generation) would take on the responsibility to help care for the Issei generation that was aging. The church became Sycamore Congregational Church, and would reform itself to have an English Language Senior Pastor and a Nichigo/Japanese Language Pastor, a structure that continues to this day. The church moved to El Cerrito in the 1960s, expanding its building to embrace a growing membership. In the 1970s it was the birthplace of the Pacific Islander Asian American Ministries for the wider United Church of Christ, and continues to be an integral congregation in both Conference and National Church ministries and dialogues.
We spoke this week with Senior Pastor Rev. Kevin Omi, Japanese Language Pastor Rev. Yasutaka Yoshioka, and Akiko Taylor (Church Secretary, former Preschool Parent, and Member since 1999) about the rich history of their congregation, and the bright future of their community.
Our conversation came right after the one of the church’s annual events: Omochi tsuki; Japanese 餅 Mochi pounding. They shared that this tradition preserves the culture, language, and techniques of creating mochi while also providing space for generations to come together. In Japan, people of all ages have a chance to build relationships and prepare food so that families and friends can feast and rest in the upcoming New Year celebrations. Sycamore celebrates this early so everyone can spend New Year’s with their families. Mochitsuki begins with cooking early in the morning, and entails using an usu (carved out tree stump where the mochi is pounded), kine (mallet), and of course the mochi formed with steamed sweet rice. The pounding labor is shared; some members using the Kine, and others turning the dough in the Usu. Then it is shaped by hand till it is completely smooth, and laid out to cool and be dusted with cornstarch flour on tables in the hall of the church. Sycamore prepared over 450 pounds of mochi this year, almost of of it with special machines from Japan that save the labor of pounding it by hand!
Later it is eaten with different toppings including azuki bean paste, shoyu (soy sauce), daikon (Japanese radish), and soy powder. Akiko shared that the time of preparation, and pounding reflects the confluence of Japanese traditions and Christian fellowship for the community. It’s a time when people of all ages can come together to learn, celebrate, eat, and share in Japanese language and culture together.
The Pastors and Akiko reflected on how because Christianity is a tiny percentage of Japan (<1%), many Japanese people and people of Japanese descent share in several religious and spiritual traditions integrated with their Christianity. This is why the church of Sycamore is vital for many of its members; it’s a place where they can nourish and sustain many parts of their identities and lives while also growing in their Christian faith, and giving back to the wider Church and world.
Many of Sycamore’s programs and ministries today reflect this kind of fellowship, while strengthening the church’s relationship to their neighbors and wider community (read their 2015 Annual Report). The church has sponsored programs such as the bi-lingual Christian preschool, Japanese language and abacus classes, and support of families who immigrate to the area from Japan including visiting professors. The Women’s Fellowship leads the creation of beautiful arts and crafts, and Fujinkai is responsible for cooking many of the Japanese delicacies, and artworks. The Annual Bazaar that attracts 1300 – 1600 people, and 200 volunteers a year, includes Japanese food/crafts/ entertainment/goods for the wider neighborhood. I myself attended the Bazaar a year ago, after hearing about the event and the church’s care towards Transgender and LGBQ+ people – and experienced an incredible welcome. The food was prepared by many older church members and served by the youth who took great care of the guests, and lots of Sycamore’s members were excited to share the history and culture behind all the crafts, goods, and recipes that are featured at the Bazaar. The church mentors several Members-in-Discernment towards Ordination, and includes several Clergy in Covenant with the wider Conference. It cultivates connections in the wider community through several age-based Japanese ministries, weekly Interfaith Meditation, collaborations with the Pacific School of Religion, and its service to others in the Greater Richmond Interfaith Program including preparing and serving hot meals to those who would otherwise go hungry.
Learn more about Sycamore Congregational church at their website, or join them one Sunday or at an event and experience their radical welcome and faith,
“We are Sycamore United Church of Christ… Rooted in a legacy of Japanese ministries; Rejoicing in the Gospel and worship; Reaching out to all people; Restoring God’s Peace in our communities and the world.”
Learn more about Sycamore Congregational Church through their website and social media: