It all began with a strange telephone conversation in 1942: “Hello, you have the First Free Methodist Church. This is Pastor Williamson.”
Then came the unexpected response, “Pastor, my name is Hideo Aoki, and I am an ordained elder in the Pacific Coast Japanese Conference of the Free Methodist Church. I would like to visit with you if that’s possible.”
World War II was raging, and racial hatred of Japanese people was now boiling over. The “Japs” were pilloried everywhere — in song, verse, books, magazines and newspapers, on posters and the radio. How was Dad to handle this caller? Cautiously, and not sure of the legitimacy of the call, he answered, “Of course, you are welcome.” In the same breath, he called on the Lord for special wisdom.
The meeting took place that evening when Hideo and Doris Aoki knocked on the parsonage door and were welcomed in by Mom. Dad shooed us kids out of the living room. I was 8 years old and listening through a crack in the door, and I remember it well.
There unfolded the remarkable tale of how the Aokis had literally escaped from being captives in a “relocation” camp as ordered by President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. That order required the incarceration of every Japanese person on the West Coast, regardless of citizenship or loyalty. There were 10 such relocation camps around the country — crudely constructed barracks surrounded by barbed wire fencing.
The Aokis related how the Lord had protected them on their perilous journey across the country and had brought them to a place that seemed to be of His choosing. Hideo continued, “Pastor Williamson, I know it may be forward of me to ask, but is there any way you could be of assistance in helping create a place for us in this community? We have only one suitcase of clothes, our old Chevy, and a few dollars, but we are willing to work, to do anything the Lord asks of us.”
Dad’s first response was, of course, he would do everything possible to help a brother in Christ in his hour of need.
The other side of that coin, however, was not so pretty. What would the congregation’s response be? There was a lot of animosity among members of the congregation for the “dirty Japs” who had bombed Pearl Harbor.
Dad asked where they were staying and, very reluctantly, Doris admitted that they had no place yet. It was an awkward moment, and Dad was about to suggest that he and Mom needed to have a private discussion. It wasn’t necessary; Mom just read his mind and nodded.
“Well,” Dad said, “we have an extra room upstairs, which you could use until something can be worked out. Of course, we only have one bathroom.”
One problem was solved, at least temporarily. The bigger problem had to do with attitudes within the congregation. Dad was well aware of the bitter feelings toward the Japanese around the country, in the community and in the church. The situation could turn ugly.
With this in mind, he called Conference Superintendent E.W. Walls for counsel. Walls’ advice to Dad was brilliant. He said, “I want you to call a meeting of the Official Board of the church. I will be there with you.”
The following evening, Superintendent Walls convened the meeting with a heartfelt prayer for reconciliation among brothers. Then he said, “Folks, you have here the opportunity of a lifetime! You have been given a chance to demonstrate that our God’s love is bigger and more powerful than any force on Earth; that His power to change hearts, and lives, is profoundly real — not just some words from a dusty old theology book — but real, absolutely real — right here in my heart and in yours.”
Walls then went on to describe the ordeal of a Free Methodist minister, a brother in Christ, who escaped the tyranny of a government policy gone amok. Walls told of this Christian brother’s flight, his harrowing journey across the country, and his welcome by a brother pastor. He then asked, “Are there any here who cannot accept a brother in Christ, and his wife, as your own?”
Some of the board members were crusty old-timers whose biases and racial epithets against Japanese people were well-known. Here was a moment of truth, and in God’s special way, truth prevailed. As Dad ushered Hideo and Doris into the room, the eyes of those crusty old-timers welled with tears and hands clapped. God is good!
Not only did the church accept the Aokis, they soon were warmly welcomed as part of the church family. Hideo preached more than once in Dad’s absence. The remaining doubters in the congregation were soon overwhelmed by the transforming presence of the Holy Spirit. It was a re-enactment of the parable of the Good Samaritan who loved and cared for his enemy. Yes, God is very good!
The story of the Aokis spread around the conference. At the annual camp meeting, the Aokis were welcomed in Christian love. The photo speaks for itself. It was taken at the 1943 Free Methodist camp meeting in Birmingham, Iowa, and includes the Aokis, a radiant Christian couple, loved by all and welcomed into a warm Christian family.
Richard Williamson is the son of Glen and Corina Williamson. He is retired after 25 years of ministry in Free Methodist and United Methodist congregations. He and his wife, Cookie, make their home in Greeley, Colorado.