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New Historic Site in Hawaii is UMC first

Featured New Historic Site in Hawaii is UMC first

GCAH has recognized over a dozen new UMC Historic Sites since July 1, 2017!

An Historic Site is a location or structure associated with an event, development, or personality deemed of strong historic significance in the history of an Annual, Central, or Jurisdictional Conference. Historic Sites are designated by formal action of the Annual, Central, or Jurisdictional Conference within whose region the site is located.

This crop of new sites includes the first site to be recognized in the state of Hawaii. Site #535 is the site of the first the Japanese Methodist Church in southern CA and Hawaii, now Harris UM Church, in Honolulu. "The Western Jurisdictional Commission on Archives and History is especially pleased to have the first Japanese Church in Southern California and Hawaii recognized. Japanese Methodists' have played an important in our Western Methodist History," said the Rev. Dr. DarEll T. Weist, President of the Western Jurisdiction Commission on Archives and History and GCAH board member. "We have three Japanese Bishops elected from our Jurisdiction and many Japanese in other leadership roles. To honor one of the Japanese Mother congregations is very special to us all."

According to the church's website, the history of this church goes back to July 15, 1888, when Bishop M.C. Harris baptized the first group of Japanese in Hawaii who had converted to Christianity under Rev. Kanichi Miyama's leadership. The California Methodist Conference had sent Rev. Miyama to Hawaii in 1887 to minister to and comfort the exploited immigrant Japanese workers on the plantations. In the short span of two years, Rev. Miyama had stabilized the lives of the immigrant workers, organized the Japanese YMCA and the Women's Mutual Aid Society (the forerunner to today's Kuakini Medical Center), and evangelized Japanese immigrants through Bible classes and prayer meetings to form the first Japanese Christian Church in Hawaii.

For the next five years, the church struggled to survive through the devoted efforts of Miyama converts Kawasaki, Yasumori and Nishi. By 1894, it was strong enough to build its first wooden sanctuary on River Street named the "Japanese Methodist Episcopal Church." This church was tragically destroyed by the famous Chinatown Fire of 1899. But under the inspired leadership of Rev. Gennosuke Motokawa, the second Japanese Methodist Episcopal Church was built and dedicated on Easter Sunday 1904. For the next 20 years this "River Street Church" served as the dominant Christian mission serving Japanese immigrants in Honolulu. Under the successive ministerial leadership of Reverends Miura, Nakamura, Hirota and Komuro, the church began to develop an English-speaking membership in the growing congregation. The Sunday School served over 300 children from the neighboring area, requiring the church to seek larger, more modern facilities.

With support from the Hawaii Methodist Mission, a new church was built at the corner of Fort and Vineyard Streets. It was dedicated on February 21, 1926 and named "Harris Memorial Methodist Church" in honor of Bishop M.C. Harris. For the next 36 years up to 1962, "Harris Church" was served by a succession of ten ministers starting with Rev. Tokuji Komuro up to Rev. Shigeo Tanabe. The church survived the hardships of the Great Depression and World War II to gradually transition into a predominantly English-speaking congregation, exerting a strong influence on the youth of the largely immigrant neighborhood. During WorldWar II, the church's stature and influence grew within the local Japanese community as Buddhist and Shinto missions were closed down. The Church increased its missionary outreach to the urban community around it.

But in the early 1950s, the "golden years" of this church came to an end with notices from the government of three projects: the widening of Vineyard Street into a thoroughfare, the conversion of Fort Street into the Pali Highway, and the Urban Redevelopment Agency's so-called "slum clearance." These projects displaced Harris Church from its Fort and Vineyard location. Harris Church concurred with the urging of the National Methodist Church Conference to remain as a "downtown church to serve the inner city." It accepted the offer of the Urban Redevelopment Agency of a relocation site at the corner of Nuuanu Avenue and Vineyard Boulevard. The leadership of Rev. Shigeo Tanabe held the displaced church together for the next eight years as it worshiped in various temporary locations. During that time, the church raised $230,500 and built its present facility, which was dedicated on June 17, 1962.

Mission and outreach has been at the heart of Harris UMC. It supported other United Methodist Churches like Aldersgate, Trinity, and Pacific Islanders. To this day, Harris Church continues to make gifts to world disaster relief and local and overseas service projects. It also ministers through the Institute for Human Services' Soup Ministry, Aala Park Sandwich Ministry, Family Promise, and the Faith Action for Community Equity (FACE) program. It shares its facilities with a Head Start Program (Parents and Children Together preschool), American Lung Association, Kokua Council Senior Citizens, Adoption Circle of Hawaii, Gamblers Annon, NAACP, and Interfaith Alliance. Harris is no longer simply "a Japanese Church." It now assumes the challenge of serving and sustaining a multi-racial congregation drawn from the whole island. It is a thriving inner city church effectively serving at the heart of the city of Honolulu.

If you are interested in applying for UM Historic Site status, please keep in mind that the effort to designate an Historic Site is not a casual one. The case for historicity, maintenance, and use must be well established. The General Commission on Archives and History counsels that the designation be bestowed sparingly, after careful investigation and research. Inquiry should be made into such pertinent factors as present ownership, maintenance, and accessibility for those who may wish to visit.

The commission further recommends that a painstaking effort be made to collect and preserve substantive proof of the site's history, such as books, pamphlets, maps, pastoral and church records, journals, letters, periodicals, photographs, and personal memorabilia. Copies of these materials should be deposited in the conference archives.

For more information and links to the guidelines and application, visit

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