“Religion is the service and worship of God or the supernatural.”1

Whether you are a devout Christian or a practicing Buddhist, an agnostic or atheist, deeply religious or moderately spiritual, the role of religion in your current life may differ from that of your immigrant ancestors.

Some form of religion is likely part of your ancestral history. Churches2, regardless of denomination, were often the bedrock of our immigrant ancestors’ social and spiritual lives.

Researching religious affiliations provides clues that add details to the family narrative.

For Issei and Nisei, religion was a community experience with social services, educational opportunities, familiar customs, language, food, friendship, and camaraderie, in addition to worship. Many offered clubs and activities, such as Boy/Girl Scouts, team sports, and Japanese language instruction. Congregations within the same communities, such as the Placer Buddhist Church and the Loomis First Methodist Church, often engaged in friendly rivalries (cook-offs and sports) and cooperation (scheduling festivals on different days). Some offered a support network for local businesses.

Finding Clues to the Religious Affiliations of Your Family
The best place to begin your search is at home. There may be photos and paper documents memorializing events such as baptisms, weddings, funerals, Buddhist affirmations, Dharma names, or death registers. Sometimes paper records are held by the family, other times by the individual church or its governing body.

As you begin to research the religious experiences of your immigrant ancestors, ask yourself questions to determine what records or stories might exist.

Did your family convert to Christianity? Before or after emigration?

If so, what denomination and why? Did they join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormon) after moving to Utah following World War II? Did a Quaker assist with their release from camp?

Did their ties to Buddhism strengthen or change during their lives in the U.S.?

Did they attend weekly services? Sunday School?

Did the family participate in Obon festivals? Where?

Does the church your family attended still exist?

Did the church your family attended merge with another? Where are those records?

Does the church your family attended have a written history?

Does the local library or historical society hold clues to local religious organizations?

Were your family members buried or cremated? Where are their remains? In a cemetery? An urn at home? Returned to Japan?

Does your family have a kakocho?

Do you have lists of guests who attended a funeral and gave koden?

What religious rituals did your family members experience? A Christian baptism? A Jewish bris?

The first visit to a Buddhist temple?

Did your family practice multiple religions? Was one parent Methodist and the other Buddhist?

What role did religious missionaries play in the lives of your Issei and Nisei family members before, during, and after World War II?

Artifacts and Heirlooms
Look for artifacts, either in your home, the homes of your relatives, or in their photos. Did your grandmother have prayer beads or a rosary? Did (or does) your family have a butsudan? Did you look for important papers or photographs tucked inside?

Gravestones might hold biographical and religious information. Find a Grave is a free database of cemetery records; volunteers add information and sometimes include translations.

Not all religious organizations have archival collections, but it’s worth asking. There may be church bulletins, old calendars, photos, records of religious events, lists of parishioners, and notices of classes. Is there a larger organizational authority or governance that may assist you? While administrative organizations may or may not have details about individuals, they can help you to understand the broader picture. The finding aid for Buddhist Churches of America records is located at UCLA Library Special Collections. The United Methodist Church General Commission on Archives and History can be found online. The governance of Catholic churches is by regional diocese; the list of all U.S. dioceses is available on Wikipedia.

Church Histories
If possible, contact the original church directly, regardless of denomination. Many churches have published histories. Sometimes these are located directly on their website, as with the Santa Maria United Methodist Church. Other times these histories are housed physically or virtually on another platform. Be creative when looking for church histories. For example, a 1931/32 historical black-and-white video of the Konko Church of San Francisco is available on YouTube.

Incarceration and Internment Records
Evacuee Case Files contain religious information for individuals who were incarcerated in WRA camps. Not only are religious affiliations noted, but sometimes character references by community members reflect a particular religion. Additionally, the place of departure following incarceration might offer clues. Was a young person released early to work in a church or religious institution or to attend a faith-based university? For those held in internment camps, Enemy Alien Case Files and FBI Files may also reflect religious affiliations. Assembly Center Records sometimes note where community members gathered before being transported.

Conventional, church, and camp newspapers are important sources of religious information. Look for wedding announcements and obituaries, as well as sponsorships and church activities.

Vital Records
Marriage records often name a church or religious affiliation. However, for picture brides married at the port of entry, the minister did not always reflect the religion of the bride or groom. Look at death certificates for burial clues. Religion is often mentioned on birth, marriage, and death certificates, as well as in military service or veteran’s records.

Regardless of your own spiritual following, the religious experiences of your ancestors are an important yet often overlooked component of your family story.

Linda Harms Okazaki is a professional genealogist who is past president of the California Genealogical Society. She specializes in Japanese American records. If you have a genealogical question which might be answered in this column, send an e-mail to LindasOrchard@gmail.com. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily of the Nichi Bei News.

1. Merriam Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/religion.

2. The term “church” in this article references any religious organization, including “temples.”

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