Wartime gift restored to peaceful luster
- Eric Bartels
- Portland Tribune - Features
Gate came from man bound for internment during World War II
In August 1942, a downtown Portland businessman entrusted a treasured possession to a local pastor before leaving for Idaho. Nearly 65 years later, it's still in good hands.
The businessman, a Japanese-American shopkeeper, never returned to Portland, his life forever changed by Executive Order 9066, which forced him and more than 100,000 others into relocation camps during World War II.
But his gift to Portland, a hand-hewn Shinto symbol called a torii gate, stands proudly once again. Through the efforts of a Southeast Portland congregation and others, it has been restored to the place of honor accorded it by a church pastor determined to reject wartime hysteria.
The gate will be rededicated Sunday at Camp Adams, a sylvan Clackamas County retreat that remains part of the summers and the memories of parishioners at Southeast Portland's Waverly Heights Congregational United Church of Christ.
Glen Pullen, a computer specialist at Portland State University who grew up in the neighborhood, remembers the gate from his youth.
'I grew up in this church,' he says. 'That torii was always part of the environment. Just part of the landscape.'
Pullen says Lee Lynne was pastor of the church for six years beginning in 1936. His decision to install the distinctive gate on a shady stream bank generated controversy. Church members reportedly objected to the presence of a symbol of Japanese culture so soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the 9/11 of its day.
Church lore holds that the gate was once dumped into the stream below it. Pullen wonders if the acrimony led to the pastor's departure from Waverly Heights Church in early 1943.
'He might have been fired. I really don't know,' he says.
Oregon poet laureate Lawson Inada, who will speak at the rededication ceremony this weekend, says Japanese-Americans such as the gate's donor were woven into the fabric of life on America's West Coast by the time of World War II.
'What it shows is our long-standing relationships in the community,' says Inada, who was interned as a child. 'My grandparents entrusted longtime neighbors with things. People would even watch over property. Our neighbors took our pets.
'There were a lot of people like that who were extremely helpful. It shows the human side of things.'
Still, Inada wonders how President Franklin Roosevelt could have sent Japanese-Americans, some of them here for generations, into isolation.
'I sometimes think maybe he had never met any of us,' he says.
Gate became a fixer-upper
It was Pullen who noticed that the gate, which stands roughly 8 feet tall, had fallen into disrepair in recent years. Nature had taken its toll on the wooden structure, and unknown humans had used it for target practice.
'The past couple years it deteriorated quite badly,' Pullen says. Then, last winter, he saw a profile in a weekly neighborhood newspaper about a Southeast Portland woodworker named Dan Miller.
'He specialized in toriis, of all things,' Pullen says. He called Miller in November, and the soft-spoken 58-year-old former seminary student agreed to take on the job.
'I just like Japanese things,' Miller says. 'I seem to have a feel for it.'
He says the gate appears to have been made from native fir, but by a craftsman familiar with traditional construction.
'It was somebody who knew what they were doing. We had a heck of a time getting it apart. It was really well-made.'
Miller says the torii gate, a product of the Shinto religion and its reverence for the natural world, represents a gateway from the physical into the spiritual world. The characteristic upturned ends of the crosspiece are intended to repel evil spirits that approach from the sky.
'The gate is meant to be almost an enticement to sacred space,' he says.
Nancy Tice, who began spending parts of her summers at Camp Adams at age 8, remembers the gate.
'It's on this embankment where two streams come together,' she says. 'You can watch the swimmers down below, or you could just sit there and listen to the water. It's a gathering place.'
Tice, a Southeast Portland publicist and lifelong member of the church, took it upon herself to identify the donor of the gate, whose name did not appear anywhere in church records.
Aided by the downtown Japanese Methodist Church, the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center and longtime Portland residents of Japanese extraction, Tice finally located a Portland man with a yearbook from the Minidoka Relocation Center in south central Idaho. There, the yearbook's owner was interned alongside a shopkeeper named Hongero Kato.
Tice believes Kato, whose family relocated to Chicago after the war, was the former owner of the gate, although 'we cannot absolutely, positively prove it.'
Church traditionally inclusive
While the United Church of Christ has always had a progressive, all-inclusive profile, Tice says, Lynne's willingness to install the gate remains praiseworthy.
'He was able to look past the current conflict to think about it being a symbol of friendship between nations even though they were at war,' she says. 'They weren't going to be at war forever.
'It was a way of reminding people that we need to remember the significance of friendship and find other ways to solve problems.'
Current pastor David Zaworski says that while Lynne would have been following church principles to act on his conscience, 'it may have caused him some heat even within the congregation. The minister does not tell people what to believe in our church.'
Zaworski says Lynne's gesture would have been in keeping with tradition at the United Church of Christ and its antecedents, which have opposed slavery, ordained women, and accepted lesbians and gays into their leadership ranks.
'Justice issues have long been an important part of our church's tradition,' Zaworski says. 'I suspect that was on his mind.'