Photo by Aurelio Pérez-Veith
A tiny piece of Los Angeles history disappeared last week. After 100 years, the Hollywood Independent Church (HIC) conducted its final service on November 19th. HIC’s Reverend John Vargas final service at the historic Japanese American and Hawaiian church was introduced to the sound of conch seashells and a performance of hula dancers. After the service, we were ushered into a recreation room where we could talk to old friends and enjoy homemade cupcakes and coffee. Hollywood Independent Church ceased to exist after a long history of love, inclusion, and diversity in the wake of the cruelty and injustice of the Japanese American Internment.
HIC was a victim of generational and demographic shifts in Los Angeles. It was my wife’s family church, but like many of the congregation, she moved away for college and ended up marrying a non-Southern Californian. When we moved back to Los Angeles about 8 years ago after nearly 20 years of being away, our ties to her church were only held together by the barest of threads. We donated a little money and got the newsletter, but rarely it to attend service. We were not alone.
Most of my wife’s peers had moved away to other cities within California, out of state, or even to a new country. The surrounding neighborhood became more Hispanic and, consequently, more Catholic. By the end, only a few souls were filling the sanctuary on Sundays. The church, faced with ongoing debt and an aging facility, decided that the only course of action was to sell the land and retire the debt while still having leftover funds to donate to the surrounding churches and community. Fortunately, Silver Lake adjacent property was a boon for the church who achieved all of its goals and more, contributing to some 20-40 charities and churches around Northeast Los Angeles, Glendale, and Burbank. Anyone involved with HIC would not be surprised by this generosity given its long history of service in Southern California.
Photo by Gary Lai
Originally called the Hollywood Japanese Christian Church, HIC was founded in 1916 by a group of Japanese immigrants to promote Christianity and mutual understanding with the communities around Southern California. With a membership of only 25 people, HIC was able to buy and build their own church on the outskirts of Silver Lake in East Hollywood. For almost 30 years, HIC continued its mission in Southern California.
On December 7th, 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Empire of the Japan. On February of 1942, Executive Order 9066 was signed, and the bulk of the HIC congregation was forcibly removed from the West Coast. These American citizens were allowed just two suitcases and were forced to leave their land, property, and most of their belongings behind. An accumulation of wealth for a generation was lost to opportunists, war profiteers, and “entrepreneurs” who were more than happy to “confiscate” and seize HIC members’ property as their own. Fortunately, the Pastor and members of Mt. Hollywood Congregational Church held onto and cared for HIC’s facility for 4 long years. Those HIC members who could return to Los Angeles faced financial destitution, bigotry, and isolation – but they still had their church.
Photo by Gary Lai
Instead falling to bitterness and negativity from the illegal persecution from their own country, the members of HIC decided to continue their mission of healing, inclusion, and love. They dropped the “Japanese” from their churches title to promote a more diverse population into their ranks. Hawaiians moving to the mainland were immediately drawn to the church and quickly became important leaders, but all nationalities and races were welcomed. HIC joined the Southern California Congregational Conference and would be a founding member of the Southern California Conference of the United Church of Christ (UCC). It would be one of the first churches to support LGBT rights and members would march in the Gay Pride Parade in West Hollywood. This tiny church that would never break more than a 100 members operated a food bank, an adult language center, and would participate in the Pacific Island Asian American Ministries of UCC. HIC would never turn its back on its mission and responsibilities.
Ironically, just a few days before HIC’s final service, Mr. Carl Higbie, a President-elect Trump supporter and surrogate, called for using the Japanese American internment as a precedent for Muslim American registration. Southern California Japanese American leaders have long cited their experiences as a warning to the Muslim American community and have been actively engaging the community with outreach and counseling.
As I said my goodbyes to former Hollywood Independent Church members after being over-sugared and over-caffeinated, I wondered if I could find the strength and resolve to follow the congregation’s example of love over hate, understanding over bigotry, and service over self-enrichment. I’m not sure I can do it, but I do know that if one tiny sliver of light in the second largest city in the country could do this much good, one tiny individual in this city can try.