Distant Roots, Common Struggles: How a small Asian-American church in Bellevue is walking in solidarity with undocumented neighbors.

Lighthouse church in Bellevue has engaged with us in beautiful ways. In the process we found out there were a lot of common struggles for Asian-American and Latino-American communities. Monica Romero Wright sat down with Pastor Nancy Sugikawa and Daniel Astudillo as they shared their experiences engaging with immigration justice and the work at Puentes.

“This was the beginning of our church changing to becomecompassion- and justice-minded. We began to ask ourselves, “What are we doing about the issues of global poverty and injustice?” Nancy Sugikawa, a pastor at Lighthouse Christian Church in Bellevue, remarked to me. I met with her and church member Daniel Astudillo in a crowded Starbucks on Mercer Island over the weekend to talk about the church’s involvement with Puentes—little did I know of the story that was to come.


After World War II, a lot of prejudice remained with regards to the Japanese community. “People in Seattle were scared. They thought What if they’re spies? What if they want to hurt us? It was hard to be Japanese American after Pearl Harbor. Over 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry were removed from their homesand placed in prisons—like current-day detention centers—and then when they were finally freed, they were unwelcomed in many cities,” Sugikawa commented. One of the fewneighborhoods in Seattle that would sell or even rent property to a Japanese or Chinese family was Beacon Hill, which at the time was a very run-down part of the city.


“A lot of our church members grew up on Beacon Hill. But, after just onegeneration, many Japanese-and Chinese-Americans were able to attend college and make enough money to move out to the Eastside—to cities like Bellevue and Mercer Island,” Sugikawa explained. “However, most of the Japanese and Chinese churches remained on Beacon Hill.So in 2001, Lighthouse Christian Church was founded to serve English-speaking, Asian-Americans living on the Eastside.”


By 2009, Lighthouse had over 400 members and was now focused on anyone that would like to join, regardless of ethnicity. It was in this year, too, that the church began its process of transforming into a church dedicated to serving the community.


“Around this time, Richard Stearns, the president of World Vision, came out with a book called A Hole in Our Gospel. It discussed how many churches today focus solely on spreading the word about Jesus but neglectissues of advocacy and social justice. So many of us have forgotten that faith and piety go hand-in-hand with helping others,” said Sugikawa. This book ignited a desire in Sugikawa and other pastors to place more focus on loving and serving their neighbors.


“We decided to participate in what is called ‘Advent Conspiracy’. The purpose of this movement is to bring a deeper meaning to Christmas in the four weeks leading up to the holiday by opposing its commercialization and focusing on caring for the poor. We focus on four values: spend less, give more, love all, and worship fully,” Sugikawa explained. “So, for example, if you usually buy your kids five or six presents, maybe only buy them three. Then, donate the money that you saved to help those in need in Jesus’ name.”


Since it was their first year participating, Sugikawa estimated that they would raise around $40,000 between their 400 members. However, much to everyone’s surprise, the church raised nearly $140,000 in four weeks and donated it to three charitable organizations as well as the school where they meet on Sundays. This year, Lighthouse selected Puentes as one of the organizations that would benefit from their participation in Advent Conspiracy.


I asked Sugikawa why they had chosen Puentes to be one of the organizations. She said that she had heard María-Jose Soerens speak at an event, and realized that immigration was likely affecting the church’s own community at Lake Hills in Bellevue, since it is roughly 20% Latino.


“We were established as an Asian-American church and didn’t have any Latino members, so that group was just not responding to us.I attended a gathering between Asian-American and Hispanic-American pastors about two years ago to discuss what affects our respective communities,” Sugikawa told me. “One of the major topics from the Latino side of the discussion was immigration. Many Latinos are afraid of being deported or targeted in some way—and the other pastors and I realized that although immigration issues do not affect Asian-Americans as significantly, they affect our Latino neighbors so we need to care about these issues too.”


Lighthouse members created a social justice group called Impact—a group dedicated to learning about poverty and systemic injustice, and then discussing ways to take action. A year and a half ago the group decided to focus on immigration and Soeren was invited to speak on what was happening at the NW Detention Center. Sugikawa remarked: “It was challenging at first for more people to become interested in justice and racial reconciliation. However, things are beginning to changesinceDaniel came.”Daniel Astudillo is one of the first Latino immigrants to join the church.


“It was really unexpected actually… to be sitting in service one Sunday and then hear the words ‘immigration’ and ‘detention centers’. Your ears perk up like a dog’s almost!” Astudillo said. “The immigrant community often gets forgotten. People forget that we are human beings with real feelings, but when we went to the detention center, we got to show the detainees that we are here and we care about them and love them.” Astudillo referenced a trip that he, Sugikawa and five other Lighthousemembers took to the North West Detention Center in Tacoma, WA, accompanied by two Puentes staff members.


The conversation shifted back to Sugikawa for a few minutes before we wrapped up. “You know, during World War II, the Japanese were in the same position that so many Latinos are in now: being detained,” she said. “It’s so easy to forget all that happened after two or three generations. But now that we are in positions of influence, it is even more important that we use our voice to speak out against the injustices that take place in places like the detention centers… The Bible tells us to protect the foreigners, the powerless in our midst, as we were once foreigners ourselves. We must not forget that.”

Lighthouse came to Puentes with open hearts and open minds, and because of that, our collaboration has been extremely successful. We hope that the work of Lighthouse not only continues to act as a force of change; but also inspires other individuals, communities and organizations to do so as well.