HomeJapanese AmericanHistoric Japanese American church nearly loses name, legacy

Historic Japanese American church nearly loses name, legacy

By Amy-Xioshi DePaola

When Japanese Americans returned from the incarceration camps, many struggled to rebuild after much was taken from them.

They found solace by reopening a church in Downtown Anaheim for Japanese American Christians to worship in during a time when many institutions did not welcome them. The church, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2021, remains and is known today as the Anaheim Free Methodist Church (AFMC).

But this year, they feared their identity and legacy would be wiped out completely.

The congregation found themselves blindsided on March 12 when the Voice Church announced that the Anaheim church would effectively be absorbed as one of its properties, rebranding the historic church as “Voice Church North OC.” It also stated that Taka Iguchi, who co-founded the Voice Church in 2018 and heads its Tustin location, would be the lead pastor.  

In a YouTube announcement video that is no longer publicly available, Iguchi appeared eager to revamp AFMC, citing “declining enrollment” during COVID-19 and the aging demographics as underlying issues—which congregation member Carol Yee refutes.

Although turnout was lowered during the initial stay-at-home orders, “we still had 100-150 people in attendance at the end of COVID. We were just getting back to business as usual when the takeover happened,” Yee said in a phone interview.

She added that during the pandemic, the congregation banded together to drop off meals for elderly parishioners, and even helped to cover gaps in 24-hour caregiving for the sick, including while Yee herself was undergoing chemo and stem cell transplant.

“I can’t tell you how much love and care we received even during the height of COVID,” Yee said. “We might not have been able to gather in church, but we were very much still functioning as a church body in ways Taka Iguchi could never understand or appreciate.”

Anaheim Free Methodist Church staff fired

Despite objections from the AFMC board and congregation, the Voice Church continued its takeover, including firing and replacing original staff members, as well as demanding that AFMC hand over its financials and social media, according to court documents. Iguchi also ordered that the hired “pastors would be compelled to ‘shut down’ any effort of membership of AFMC” as objectors banded together to save the church. 

Nancy Kawamura, who’s attended AFMC since 1975 with her husband, remembers feeling like “the carpet was totally pulled away from under us” when the news hit. She and other churchgoers stopped attending services and considered moving to a different parish, particularly after the forced resignation of the local staff, including Kazuhiro Enomoto, who led the Japanese-language worship services.

“Our church was created out of the ashes of World War Two,” Yee said, adding that its oldest member is 102. “We still have members in their 80s and 90s who suffered the loss of civil liberties … As children and young adults, they persevered through having loved a country that denied their civil liberties.

“Now that many are aged and infirm, they have suffered a similar insult from loving a denomination that did not love them back.”

So AFMC acted, filing a civil complaint in the Orange County Superior Court. The lawsuit alleges that Iguchi and the Voice Church acted “in a coordinated effort to illegally merge” with AFMC between mid-January and March.

AFMC files lawsuit

Church members accused Voice Church of disregarding California’s Nonprofit Religious Corporation laws and local church bylaws. Iguchi had been appointed in early March by Superintendent Keith Tanita of the Pacific Coast Japanese Conference as “lead pastor of AFMC without prior consultation … and in violation of written procedures,” according to the complaint.

In addition to erasing the church’s unique identity, the Voice Church’s takeover of AFMC would eliminate its status and rights as a nonprofit religious corporation with a separate board of directors and members of the corporation under California’s corporation’s code.

“We felt called to fight not only for our freedom but for the freedom of those who have also been violated and for those who may yet to be violated,” Yee said.

Church members say AFMC is the latest victim of a process commonly known as “steeplejacking,” a strategy that targets smaller congregations. They charge that the Pacific Coast Japanese Free Methodist Conference (PCJFMC) has been implementing this strategy for years. The Conference allegedly often forces the resignation of the pastor and then swoops in and takes over before the congregation has time to react. Other strategies can include closing a local church and selling the property or colluding with another church to merge without any input from the existing church or its leadership. The result is akin to a hostile business takeover. 

Joe Yahata is seen standing in front of the congregation
Joe Yahata is seen top right. He was very instrumental in the early days of the church. He has since passed, but his daughter is still very active and is currently serving on the church board. Photo courtesy Carolyn Yee”

History of takeovers by Pacific Coast Japanese Free Methodist Conference alleged

Yee said this has already occurred with about five of their sister churches, including AFMC.

“Churches are to be in God’s image,” Yee said. “I get the feeling that they’re trying to create their own ‘brand’ and their own image.”

Parishioner and youth coordinator Grace Ohara Rungsarangnont, who considers herself “born and raised” at AFMC after 34 years, agreed. 

“Instead of honoring the legacy and history of AFMC and those that helped create the Conference in general, the Conference decided to maximize the amount of hurt and erase AFMC, as if it didn’t exist,” she said. 

Rungsarangnont remembers the sinking feeling of deja vu, having heard of similar tales from friends in the Bay Area and East Bay Free Methodist. None of these other churches were able to put up a legal defense—but AFMC recognized a pattern and asked for help.

“That whole history was going to be erased overnight,” said James Kawahara, a member of AFMC’s legal team, in a phone interview.

Connected by their shared faiths, Southern California attorneys Kawahara and Bruce Ishimatsu were compelled to help AFMC at a reduced rate. They say in this case, the breach of fiduciary duties and the California corporate code by the Pacific Coast Japanese Free Conference were clear.

Kawahara said that he hopes the lawsuit shines a light on the Pacific Coast Japanese Free Methodist Conference and forces the organization to rethink its “dehumanizing” mode of operation, describing the practice as “very corporate, very authoritarian.”

Mergers, he stated, are meant to be mutual agreements—and this very much was not the case: AFMC members were not asked to give their consent.

The Voice Church also disputed the word “merger,” stating in an email that “The two churches were not merging; each was to remain separately focused on the needs of their own city and congregation.

“We had hopes to work with the existing congregation of the Anaheim church to build and grow the current congregation, and serve as many people in the community as possible together,” the Voice Church continued. 

It also planned on creating a mural of the Anaheim church’s history to “celebrate and honor the incredible 100 years of ministry,” the Voice Church said. 

Takeover halted

Currently, the lawsuit is still active, but on May 22, the Conference’s legal team stated that “The planned affiliation between AFMC and the Voice Church is ended.” Iguchi and other Voice staff members also announced their resignations.

The Voice Church has confirmed the resignation of Iguchi, stating in an email, “Voice Church wishes all the best for the Anaheim church as they search for a new pastor.”

The Pacific Coast Japanese Free Methodist Conference is cooperating and returning the Anaheim church’s intellectual property, name and identity, Kawahara confirmed.

Kawamura is grateful that parishioners, upon hearing the news, are beginning to return, especially since attendance has dropped since the Voice Church’s announcement. In addition to worship services, the planned takeover affected the numbers at AFMC’s many community classes, as well as support groups for the homeless, widows and widowers and seniors, she said; Kawamura herself is part of two groups and is also a steward. 

Meanwhile, Yee said young people are also coming back, asking what they can do to help. One of them includes Elyse Gima, who has been part of the community since she was 7 years old. 

Church legacy preserved

“I will always speak of and pass on the importance of Japanese American Christian spaces like AFMC and the lasting impact they’ve had on families, mine included,” Gima said. “I will always remember [AFMC] with a sense of ‘home.’”

“They took for granted that the church would always be there for them,” Yee explained.  “Some have shared that they had hoped to someday raise their own kids in the church to experience the same church family love that they enjoyed.”

The congregation remains shaken and uncertain of the future but are coming together once again to preserve what they hold dear. 

“Now that we got our name and church back, the real work begins,” Rungsarangnont said. “I’m not sure if … anything truly can be done in terms of the trust that was burned down between Anaheim and the Conference.

“But … Anaheim is my family, and even though I’m still processing and upset, my husband and I will go back to help in any way that we can.”

For more information, go to https://www.saveafmc.org/.

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  1. This is a very upsetting and completely biased view of what happened in this situation. I am a member of voice church and started to attend once our churches were to merge. I brought my family as we were closer to AFMC and wanted to get plugged in and start knowing people. Unfortunately, there are deceptive and mean spirted people that attend AFMC and created lies about another good church and church organization. Even the picture above, they pulled my children into the picture, WITHOUT MY CONSENT, and then took a picture. When I asked what happened, they advised me it was a group photo for Anaheim Voice Church. Then 30 seconds later, a couple of the so-called AFMC leaders went on stage and said it they were having a surprise meeting behind the Pastors back and attendees like me. They also then said that was an AFMC group pic and have now been using the pic as if it was a regular pic of the church. There is no accuracy in that photo. I can’t believe how DECEITFUL AND DISHONEST the board of AFMC is. They should be ashamed of themselves for KIDNAPPING MY CHILDREN to use in their own pic and spreading lies about other churches and organization. To the AFMC BOARD, STOP USING THIS PIC WITH MY KIDS IN IT. I NEVER GAVE YOU PERMISSION TO USE, I DON’T ATTEND AFMC AS A CONGREGANT AND I AM GLAD I NEVER WILL AGAIN. I WILL NEVER ATTEND A CHURCH THAT LIES ABOUT OTHER CHURCHES AND PEOPLE, WILL NEVER ATTEND AFMC AS THEY USE ATTENDANTS CHILDREN AS WEAPONS IN THEIR LIES. SHAME ON AFMC AND SHAME ON ASAMNEWS FOR THIS TERRIBLE BIASED REPORTING. GOOD REPORTING MEANS YOU SPEAK TO BOTH SIDES BEFORE YOU WRITE AN ARTICLE AND PUBLISH IT. THIS IS OBSCENELY BIASED AND I CAN SEE THERE HAS BEEN NO FACT CHECKING OR SPEAKING TO BOTH SIDES BEFORE THIS ARTICLE WAS PUBLISHED.

  2. Gabriel’s above comment is evidence of how the Voice Church leadership, specifically Taka Iguchi, was attempting to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes, even their own congregation in their attempts to take over AFMC, to dissolve their board without their consent, via the pressure of the PCJC superintendent and bishop. E.g. using the term “merge” when “unilateral takeover” is more appropriate. This is the real deception here.


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