By Vanessa Kahin
It’s been almost 80 years since First Baptist Church of Clovis welcomed members of a Japanese colony into its fold, when no other church in the area would do so.
As the Clovis community extends not only a welcome — but also an apology — to members of a Japanese colony who were removed from the city following the attack on Pearl Harbor, FBC will host its own welcome with a Community Day event Sunday.
Members of Clovis’ Japanese colony and their descendants are once again invited to the church, as well as anyone else who wants to celebrate what church officials are calling “a day of cultural reconciliation.”
“What we’re praying for is reconciliation with their descendants,” said FBC Pastor Tom Schuj.
Japanese immigrants began arriving in Clovis in 1910 and were employed as railroad workers. When more Japanese settled in Clovis, they lived with their families in a camp just south of the train tracks.
During this time, Schuj said, FBC was the only church that would welcome the Japanese. However, they were segregated within the church, having to sit toward the back.
Still, Schuj said, FBC provided transportation to and from the Japanese camp and the church, and gave free literature to the children.
“We ministered to them in the name of Jesus,” Schuj said. “The church was one of the few social connections they had within the community.” Many Japanese followed the Shinto religion, Schuj said, and many were evangelized during that time.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, members of the Japanese colony became prisoners of war; taken into federal custody and evacuated from Clovis.
Decades went by and the story of the Japanese colony became generally obscured — even to Clovis native Adrian Chavez. He was attending Central New Mexico Community College in Albuquerque when he first learned of Clovis’ Japanese colony in a New Mexico history class fall 2013.
“The thing that caught my attention was having been raised in Clovis and never hearing of the story regarding the Japanese-Americans,” Chavez said in an email statement. “It really intrigued me.”
Chavez conducted research about the Japanese colony. Following a series of questions he posted on Facebook, he got in contact with former colony member Dr. Roy Ebihara through a friend.
Ebihara was born and raised in Clovis, where he lived with his parents and nine siblings. He is a retired optometrist living in Ohio.
Chavez believes the Ebiharas were the first Christian Japanese-American family in Clovis converted from Shinto.
“I then decided to contact Mayor David Lansford just with the intent of notifying him of our lost history,” Chavez said in the email. Lansford invited Chavez to speak to the Clovis city commission.
“I read a letter that was shared to me from Dr. Roy by his brother Henry Ebihara. This letter was very poignant … it spoke directly to the citizens of Clovis and it was a very heartfelt and powerful letter … written many years prior to me even speaking to the city (commission),” Chavez said.
Lansford then asked Chavez what the commission should do concerning the events surrounding the Japanese colony. Chavez suggested inviting Ebihara back to the city. Ebihara was the only surviving member of the colony Chavez knew of at the time.
Chavez also reached out to the FBC.
The commission offered to write a letter of apology to Ebihara. Members of the colony — including Ebihara — will be present during Clovis’ Pioneer Days celebration.
For Chavez, helping shed light on Clovis’ Japanese colony has also shed light on a new passion.
“Having gone through some trying times of my own I could empathize with the plight of the Japanese-Americans,” he said. “I have since decided to return back to school and pursue a career in political science so that I may help pass laws that make sense in our communities. I would say that I will be focusing mainly on public policy changes.”
For Schuj, positive public policy was first sparked at church.
“First Baptist Church took the first step, and was on the right side of justice,” Schuj said. “We’re just praying for a cultural reconciliation.”
What: Community Day, featuring worship services, Japanese drummers, historical multimedia presentation and a brisket lunch free to the community. Former Clovis resident Dr. Roy Ebihara will be presented with a community award.
When: 10:30 a.m. Sunday, June 8
Where: First Baptist Church of Clovis, 302 Gidding St.