Ministry Across Cultures

Like many other Westmont students, Dave Yutaka Nakagawa ’41 left school after World War II began. But instead of entering the service, he was sent to an internment camp. A citizen, Christian, and native Californian, he was evacuated to Colorado with the other Japanese residents of his coastal hometown.

Dave helped ministers in the camp organize church services and recreational activities for youth. Then, under a program relocating Japanese college students to the Midwest, he moved to Dayton, Ohio, attended Central Y College, and worked at the YMCA.

Dealing with Caucasian youth forced him to grapple with cultural differences. “It was quite a challenge to present myself, a person of Japanese ancestry, as their leader,” Dave recalls. “I walked to the center of the stage and looked into the eyes of the boys. This was the first time they had seen a Japanese. I ventured a hearty, ‘Hi fellows!’ There was a slight pause, and then, ‘Hi, Dave!’ I continued. You see, I speak your language. I am a citizen of this country, and you must not judge a person by the color of his skin or how he looks. I have been trained to be a ‘Y’ leader, and I am anxious to do the very best job here.”

Boys had been following Dave all his life, but he wasn’t sure he could reach them in Dayton. In time, a boy started shadowing him and said, “Dave, I want to be just like you.” Dave then explained that Christ was his leader in life and that he followed His guidance. When the youth replied that he wanted to know Christ, too, Dave received confirmation for a lifelong call to youth work.

The government again interfered with his education when Dave was drafted and installed as a physical fitness instructor at Fort Bragg, N.C., before being deployed to Germany.

After the war, Dave returned to Los Angeles to work for the Downtown YMCA, reaching out to Japanese youth released from internment camps. “Many had very little supervision, they were undisciplined, and they needed direction and purpose in life,” Dave explained. Working mostly through churches, he established group athletics and clubs, including a basketball league.

The sports program provided unexpected benefits, like teaching manners, table etiquette, and proper behavior to high school players so they could attend awards banquets. “Beyond competing with other athletes, these boys began to develop social poise and awareness,” he states.

Dave then became physical education director and later branch executive of the Pasadena Boys Club. He encountered additional cultural challenges working with African-American youth. When his tires were slashed and the building vandalized, he made repairs as quickly as possible and expelled boys who behaved too wildly.

“I realized I had been very naive about a changing community . . . and had to learn to appreciate black families, their background, problems, values, and aspirations,” Dave noted. At first, he thought seriously about resigning. When word got out, a group of boys asked if he was leaving. “Nothing I have tried to do has worked,” he replied. “I figured that you boys just don’t want me. Maybe I’m too strict. Maybe you need a black leader, not a Japanese.”

The boys begged him to stay. “We just wanted to test you,” they said. “We know you care for us even though we are black.”

Dave was thrilled. “Through this experience I became more sensitive to the cries of youth and more willing to see things through the eyes and hearts of young boys, especially those from impoverished backgrounds.”

After 33 years of youth work, Dave retired and began a new “career” as a lay leader in the Japanese Presbyterian church. He set up an institute to train lay leaders and organized an annual family retreat. He also represented the Synod to the National Board of Presbyterian Men and traveled extensively.

Committed to helping people affirm and grow in their faith and to reaching out to the “least of these,” Dave intends to continue ministering as long as he is able.

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