The cold mountain air chilled my face as I emerged from my car. I surveyed the empty parking lot and looked at the aging wooden barracks in the shadows of the brown and parched mountains that surrounded us. Barren and desolate, it was a windswept and uninviting landscape.
This was Manzanar.
For years, I avoided visiting this camp. It was a tragic and chilling reminder of the United States government executive order 9066, signed into law on November 16th, 1942, by then-President Franklin Roosevelt. Under the order, resident aliens were removed from areas of the West Coast that were deemed strategically and militarily sensitive. The result was over 120,000 Japanese, many of whom were American citizens, were forced to relocate to ten different internment camps scattered throughout the United States. Manzanar was one of these.
The wooden planks creaked as I traversed the cramped and communal living quarters. I peered out a window to see the imposing guard towers separated from the camp by barbed wire. The guards were there for their protection, the guide informed us, but many of the Japanese-Americans questioned that if they were there for their protection, why were the guns pointed at them?
I was torn with emotions that were difficult to verbalize but viscerally searing within my soul. I avoided visiting Manzanar because I knew I would be angry and upset. It was not a self-fulfilling prophecy; many others who were not of Japanese ancestry shared the same feelings as I did. I thought of my own family members. My grandfather was a translator in the United States Army, working with the Allies in Burma as part of Merrill’s Marauders. I thought of my uncle who fought with the famed 442nd Army regiment in Europe, the most decorated unit in the bloody history of United States armed forces. My aunt had grown up in another internment camp in Colorado. I thought of so many other Japanese-Americans of this greatest generation that I had met. They fought and defended their country, a country that turned its back upon them and branded them, traitors, simply because of their heritage.
How does one recover from such a devastating setback in life? The answer is as diverse as the families that were torn apart by this tragedy. It was a willingness to remain in a country that literally turned its back upon its own citizens. It was through the kindness of some Americans who were willing to help out the Japanese-Americans. It was education and hard work, accepting any job they could find and attending schools that would only accept minorities. But ultimately, it was the entire Japanese-American community coming together to support one another.
Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
Galatians 6:2 (ESV)
In the aftermath of 9/11, one of the most poignant speeches I heard was given by then-Secretary of Transportation, Norman Mineta. Mineta had spent his childhood in one of these internment camps. Mineta mandated that all U.S. airlines would refrain from racial profiling of Muslim and Middle Eastern passengers. At that time, it was a decidedly unpopular statement. Detractors criticized Mineta for allowing his childhood trauma to affect national security issues. Then President George W. Bush supported Mineta and compassionately stated, “We’re also concerned about [anti-Muslim] rhetoric and we don’t want to have happen today what happened to Norm in 1942.”
Were there Japanese aliens who posed a security threat to the United States? Undoubtedly. The difficulty then, and now, is how to discern the enemy from the loyal citizen. I do not have any solutions for the current immigration crisis but I do know that we cannot trample upon and strip the rights of any American citizen like it was done nearly 80 years ago. All racial and ethnic groups must come together in America and bear the burdens of one another. For Christians, we must show this country and the world that the love of Jesus Christ compels us to seek wise and compassionate solutions instead of embracing xenophobic solutions.
Love and trust the Lord; seek His will in your life.