Puyallup: News

Puyallup Japanese American church sees legacy draw to close

Rev. Karen Yokota, front, and Jesse Love, back, give communion to Violet Fujita, front center, and Sally Hamanishi during service at Whitney Memorial Church in Puyallup. After 109 years, the church is disbanding.
Rev. Karen Yokota, front, and Jesse Love, back, give communion to Violet Fujita, front center, and Sally Hamanishi during service at Whitney Memorial Church in Puyallup. After 109 years, the church is disbanding. jbessex@gateline.com

Greg Mizukami’s family has been actively involved with Whitney Memorial United Methodist Church in Puyallup since the end of World War II.

The Milton resident himself has been involved since he was an infant 67 years ago.

“It’s my base for my faith,” he said of the church at 1819 W Main Street. “It’s always been there for me. I have been to other churches, but this is my home church. It’s my foundation.”

For Mizukami and the 15 other regular members of the Japanese American church, the foundation which their faith was built on has been rocked.

With a history dating back nearly 110 years, Whitney Memorial Church is now disbanding. A decline in membership is ultimately what led Rev. Karen Yokota-Love and other church leaders to vote and make the final call to close the doors. As part of the United Methodist Church’s Pacific Northwest Conference, Yokota-Love says the church is disbanding because it does not have enough members in the congregation to fulfill the basic roles the conference requires to conduct a service.

“Our church membership has been on the decline for a number of reasons,” Mizukami said. “Primarily it’s the advancement of age in my parents’ generation — they’re dying off. We’ve been in that mode (of losing members) for such a long time that I saw it coming.”

“We have an older congregation, and their children and their children have moved out of the area,” Yokota-Love echoed. “Typically speaking, Japanese Americans are generational. Their children would come, but now those children are spread out all over the place.”

While Mizukami saw the closure coming, he’s still in the process of unpacking the inevitability of it all.

You hear people talk about the five stages of grief, and I’ve gone right down the list. I’m pretty much in the final stages now of not being angry or making up excuses. I’m moving towards acceptance and moving on.

Greg Mizukami

“You hear people talk about the five stages of grief, and I’ve gone right down the list,” he said. “I’m pretty much in the final stages now of not being angry or making up excuses. I’m moving towards acceptance and moving on.”

As a Japanese American herself, Yokota-Love understands the many nuances and traditions of Japanese culture that she shares with the congregation.

“When I came up here to check it out, I fell in love with (the congregation),” she said. “I wanted to serve them.”

Yokota-Love’s father was born in the Tule Lake Japanese internment camp in California, coincidentally where one church member was interned during WW II.

“We were able to talk and unpack the shared experience,” she said. “It’s been nice to serve this congregation. A lot of them are like my grandparents, aunties, uncles or cousins.”

Mizukami agreed, saying many of the members see Yokota-Love as their grandchild.

“We’re on the same wave length,” he quipped. “We just get each other.”

While the process to disband Whitney Memorial included a vote, the decision was some five to ten years in the making.

“We were weighing the options to close when there was a lot of us here, and we could do it in a celebratory way to honor our traditions and our legacy,” Yokota-Love said. “I think that’s what built this Japanese American community to be close knit: the connection to our culture, our ancestors, our heritage and celebrating who we are.”

Church members will continue to meet as a small group on a once-a-month basis, very similar to how the church began 109 years ago.

It’s been part of a life cycle, and the life cycle is what we’re celebrating. Something new will come of this, we just don’t know what yet.

Rev. Karen Yokota-Love

“It’s been part of a life cycle,” Yokota-Love said. “And the life cycle is what we’re celebrating. Something new will come of this, we just don’t know what yet.”

The celebration service for Whitney Memorial United Methodist Church is slated for 3 p.m. June 12 at Puyallup United Methodist Church, 1919 W. Pioneer Avenue.

Heather DeRosa: 253-256-7043, @herald_hderosa

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