In The Pipeline: ‘Jesus Lives,’ and so may church
“Jesus Lives” reads the rainbow-themed mural painted on the side of the old church building at Warner Avenue and Nichols Lane. Inside, another painting: On a large wall of the church, “I Love Taylor Walsh” has been spray-painted in day-glo pink by some recent uninvited visitors.
Such is the confused state of the historic former Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Church, which dates back to 1934.
I had the special privilege recently of taking an insider’s tour of the compound along with a host of other local historian-types and interested parties, courtesy of Rainbow Environmental Services. They own the property and led the tour as a means of creating some dialogue that may help determine the fate of the church and the rest of the farm property (which includes the family house and several other historic structures).
The group included Dann Gibb from the Fountain Valley Historical Society, Art Hansen from Cal State Fullerton and Mary Adams Urashima, a government and public affairs consultant, among others.
Just how important is this site in terms of local history? Local historian Chris Jepsen put it well when he wrote recently, “This is the most important extant Asian American historical site in Orange County, and still features the Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Church — including the 1910 mission and manse, and the 1934 church — as well as the pioneer Furuta family’s charming California bungalow.”
If you ever look at a (really) old map of the area, you’ll see the area was called Wintersburg. It was founded in the 1880s by a farmer named Henry Winters, and living here were some true pioneers of the county. There were the Gothards, Nicholses and Grahams — and a substantial Japanese community including the Furuta family, who donated an acre of their property to build the original Wintersburg mission in 1910 (the church moved to Santa Ana in 1965 and now goes by the name Wintersburg Presbyterian Church).
Since the early 1990s, the property has sat empty, removed from view the last several years by a tarp-wrapped fence. As we’d see soon, though, vandals and squatters have had their way with the place and certainly altered what may or may not be salvageable.
The day of our tour, Jerry Moffatt, co-president and chief operating officer of Rainbow, briefed us beforehand. Not knowing yet the exact status of how it might develop the property, he explained, clearly to the relief of those gathered, that the company would be willing to donate any costs associated with demolition toward moving some of the structures to keep them intact.
While that would not cover all the costs associated with moving, it is a generous, productive offer. After some other information about how to safely wander the grounds, we crossed the street and, as if entering some sort of time portal, were transported back to Huntington Beach, circa 1910.
The crops were gone, but wide-open spaces remained. The sounds of traffic faded away on the protected property, and the simple, honest, hard work of the immigrant Furuta family hung in the air.
Urashima, who helped organize the tour, shared her impression: “It definitely was a step back into a quieter time. Warner Avenue was a dirt road; most of the surrounding area would have been fields of celery or peppers. The home, mission and church were surrounded by lawns, goldfish ponds and a garden. I got the impression that while those in Wintersburg obviously worked hard, there was a simple quality of life we don’t experience today.”
She’s right. And even though the ponds, gardens and vegetables are no longer there, they are easy to imagine in the lazy, rural open space.
The buildings we entered, including the 1910 and 1934 churches and the manse, were all soggy and heaving. Inside the structures, floors were collapsed, garbage was strewn everywhere, and gang graffiti (along with the aforementioned pledge to Ms. Walsh) covered many walls.
But bits of the past remained.
In the 1934 church, brochures and hymnals from decades ago were scattered about, along with other interesting artifacts. It was fascinating to tiptoe through these sacred buildings, all of us whispering as if not to wake the spirits.
Back out in the daylight, the discussions all centered on what might be possible in terms of saving these vital structures. Some buildings seem more movable than others.
But none of it seems easy. Or cheap.
As far as the future, Hansen, emeritus professor of history and Asian American studies at Cal State Fullerton and former senior historian at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, said he’d like to see certified historical preservationists evaluate the area and figure out a sensible plan to preserve the structures.
Urashima said an organization needs to be set in place to handle the restoration, provide maintenance and security and manage visitors should the structures get moved.
“I would love to see the buildings go together to a museum or exhibition-type site where they can be visited and offer educational experiences about Orange County’s agricultural development, the history of Wintersburg and Huntington Beach, and the story of Japanese Americans in California,” she said.
So the good news is, this issue is very much alive. Yes, there are serious challenges, logistical and financial among them, but Rainbow Environmental Services seems very amenable to doing what it can do to help preserve this history, and that’s a good thing.
Whatever happens, it might be worth slowing down or even pulling over near the intersection of Warner and Nichols just to absorb some of the rich history on the other side of the fencing. You can see glimpse from the street of what’s inside — a peek into a past that hopefully will have a future.
CHRIS EPTING is the author of 18 books, including the new “Hello, It’s Me: Dispatches from a Pop Culture Junkie.” You can write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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