Hugging the bank of the Sacramento River, some thirty miles south of Sacramento, in the area known as the California delta, lies a quiet little community of Walnut Grove, or known to Issei Japanese as “Kawashimo.” According to old records, the Japanese came to this area at the turn of the century, and by the time of the first World War, quite a few had settled here. Towards the end of the war, families started to be established and youngsters appeared on the scene. This prompted the religious need.
Around 1923, concern grew for the need of a place of gathering for people with Buddhist background and for religious training of the young ones. Around this time, people in this area gathered from time to time to hold Howakai at different homes. On these occasions ministers from the Buddhist Church of Sacramento came 25 miles to conduct the services. On special occasions, such as funerals, people traveled to the Church in Sacramento.
In 1924, Mrs. Tome Yoshida, a devout Buddhist, started a Buddhist Sunday School in her own home in Walnut Grove with about fifteen pupils. The tables and benches made for this school can still be found in her home today.
A few years later, an intense interest arose among the people to build a church in Walnut Grove. As a result, a committee was formed, headed by the three most influential residents among the Buddhists, Shodo Tatsuda, Ukichi Kuwabara and Seitaro Hayashi. This committee worked to found the Walnut Grove Buddhist Church. Kikunoshin Hirotsu was appointed building construction chairman of the gigantic project.
CHURCH BUILDING CONSTRUCTED
The church building was completed in 1927 and became a branch of the Buddhist Church of Sacramento. The services at the Church wereconducted by Shodo Tatsuda, under the guidance of ministers from Sacramento.
On January 24, 1929, the first meeting was held to officially organize the church group. Hikotaro Inaba was elected as the first president to lead the group. The interest was overwhelming and large numbers of people committed themselves to support the Church. On February 1, 1931, with 130 members, Walnut Grove Buddhist Church became independent and severed its tie with the Buddhist Church of Sacramento. On May 31, 1931, Rev. Chonen Terakawa was assigned to the new church. A special dedicatory service was held on August 8 and 9, 1931.Rev. Terakawa also started to conduct services at Isleton in 1932 in a barrack type building. He also started family services and a Japanese Language School near Thornton on a large farm known as Canal Ranch where several Japanese families were residing.
In 1927, young teen-age girls started a club known as Shiragikukai with about ten members at the home of Shodo Tatsuda. Pre-teen age girls also became organized as Shojokai (Young Girls Buddhist Association) in June, 1930. Young boys were not left out in getting organized either. With thirteen members, they formed the Young Men’s Buddhist Association in 1928. In May, 1938, the YMBA and YWBA (formed sometime earlier) merged to fo rm a YBA with a membership of 80. The Fujinkai was officially organized on January 8, 1932.
The neighboring community of Isleton, after completion of their church building, held its Nyubutsushiki on October 28, 1934, with many members from Walnut Grove participating.
The visitation of Renshi Shojo Ohtani on January 29, 1935, was perhaps one of the most important events for many Jodo Shinshu followers of Walnut Grove, at which time nearly 100 members were able to receive their Confirmation.
When the second World War started with Japan and caused the evacuation of people of Japanese ancestry, the church building was boarded up and sealed for the duration. The Japanese of the town were evacuated to Merced and Turlock Assembly Centers and then to Amache, Colorado and Gila, Arizona Relocation Centers. Some of the people residing in the outlying area of Walnut Grove went to Walerga Assembly Center and then to Tule Lake Relocation Center.
On July 27, 1945, Shigeo Kato and his family of five returned to Walnut Grove, and with the aid of Tomio Matsuoka, Rev. Takeo Agatsuma (a Walnut Grove Methodist Church minister), and Ralph Sugimoto, made preparations to receive other returnees. The Church was converted to a hostel, and in August, the first group from Gila came back, while the group in Amache came back in September.
ISLETON JOINS WALNUT GROVE
Returnees to the Isleton area found the Church looted and heavily damaged. Thus, the members sold the building and disbanded the Isleton Buddhist Church. Funds received from the sale of the building were donated to the Walnut Grove Buddhist Church and to the New York Buddhist Academy. Isleton Buddhists decided to join the Walnut Grove Buddhist Church.
On December 16, 1945, with Rev. Takuyu Shirakawa also returning, the Church sponsored a combined Memorial Service and a Hoonko Service for members who passed away during the evacuation days. At the same time the Fujinkai and the YBA were reactivated.
The Church mourned the passing of Rev. Shirakawa in October, 1949. In July, 1950, it welcomed Rev. Seikaku Mizutani from Lodi.
1952 was a busy year for the Walnut Grove Buddhists with the visitation of the Lord Abbot Kosho Ohtani, the construction of a Nokotsudo and the celebration of the 25th Anniversary of Walnut Grove Buddhist Church.
The passing of Rev. Mizutani on September 25, 1972, after a short illness, was a great loss to the Church. He had served the Church for 22 years. His missionary work goes back to 1916 when he arrived in the United States as a youth of 20. His service to the BCA and the Buddhists spans a period of 56 years from 1916-1972. His record, so far, has never been matched by any other minister. Rev. Mizutani’s long years of dedication in the services of Buddhist ministry will be long remembered by all.
CHURCH ACTIVITIES DECLINE
The Church, in 1973, is composed of 120 members with almost one-half being widows of past members and aged members. Sunday School is attended by about 30 pupils. The YBA has been disbanded, but there is a possibility of organizing, a small Jr. YBA group. There has been a marked decline in church activities due to the population shifting towards larger cities, and especially due to students attending colleges and universities away from home. However, there might be some brightness in the future because of the trend of people wanting to move to rural areas in recent years. When such a time comes, the Church might be able to fulfill the needs of these newcomers.
MINISTERS AND PRESIDENTS
Ministers and years served:
Chonen Terakawa (1931-1936)
Tokujo Tsumura (1936-1941)
Takuyu Shirakawa (1941-1949)
Seikaku Mizutani (1950-1972)
Shoshin Ota (1973-1985)
Ken Fujimoto (1985 to 2006)
Harry Bridge (2007-2009)
Katsuya Kusunoki (2010- )
Presidents and years served:
Hikotaro Inaba (1929-1930)
Suehiko Yoshida (1931)
Shusaku Hamada (1932)
Ukichi Kuwabara (1933)
Enichi Yamao, M.D. (1933-1938)
Kunisaburo Ishizuka (1939-1941, 1949-1950, 1952-1954, 1957-1958, 1960, 1963, 1965)
Sadayoshi Yagi (1942)
Shigeo Kato (1947-1948, 1951, 1955-1956, 1959, 1961-1962, 1964, 1968)
Morio D. Aoyama (1966-1967, 1969, 1971-1972)
Takao R. Sugimoto (1970)
Sumio R. Himoto (1973)
(History Committee: Shigeo Kato-chairman, Roy Himoto, Katsuji Kirihara and Ralph Sugimoto)
History courtesy of BCA History Book.