Pilgrimage to the Delta
Rev. Deborah Lee writes:
I have just returned from the second PANA Pilgrimage to the Sacramento River Delta (October 24-26, 2008). My body is tired, but my spirit is renewed. Fifty of us traveled for three days, circumambulating the sacred Tuyshtak (Mt. Diablo) to the California towns of Stockton, Walnut Grove and Locke. A traveling community of pilgrims, sleeping on church floors, stretching time. Using our senses and imagination to step into the fields and footsteps of the past and then back into the present again. Listening, Remembering, Mourning, Honoring and Sharing—this was our mantra, in speech, in gesture, in community. These were the threads, as we stitched and wove the places, the images, the silences, and the stories.
The PANA pilgrimage to the Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta, like the PANA pilgrimage to Manzanar, is a communal practice of pilgrimage as defined by Professor Joanne Doi: human beings on the way, together with the Sacred. As a community on the way together, we were a mix of students from the Graduate Theological Union enrolled in the California Immigrant Theologies course, students from San Francisco State University taking the Chinese American Personality and Japanese American History classes, and some wonderful students of life from the larger community. We were Native peoples indigenous to the Americas; we were immigrants, children of immigrants, and great-great-grandchildren of immigrants from Vietnam, the Philippines, China, Taiwan, Cambodia, Korea, Japan, Germany, Ireland and El Salvador. We were people piecing together our own story; people looking for new roots; people longing to feel connected to this land. People trying to recover and remember those ancestors whom we do not even know by name.
The Delta pilgrimage is a communal practice of weaving. It weaves spiritual consciousness with the social, political, historical dimension of place. It weaves the present with the past. It weaves one community’s story with another, so we can see where they connect and where they pull apart. It weaves the stories of interethnic, interracial and interreligious conflict with the stories of interethnic, interracial and interreligious cooperation. It weaves who we are as a restored community. Weaving in the loose strands, new colors and fibers, sometimes going back to reweave and repair the cloth into something new. Weaving. Like the Latin root of the word religion: religio, meaning tying or binding together. With so many conditions in our world seemingly unraveling at the seams, weaving is good practice.
When we first began dreaming a Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta pilgrimage, we would often get the response, “Where? Which delta?” People, ourselves included, knew very little about the significance of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, which is less than 60 miles from San Francisco. Few people knew that one third of the State’s water supply flows flows through the Delta. Fewer people had ever been to Stockton, or had a sense of the significance of Stockton and the Delta towns. Even people who lived in the Central Valley region often did not know the significance of this place as the cradle of numerous early Asian immigrant communities, and how it continues to be a destination for new immigrant communities today.
The Delta pilgrimage is a practice of naming the Delta as a sacred place for Asian American and other communities. If you are an indigenous Californian, Stockton and Walnut Grove were once Native villages, with sacred shellmounds lining the riverbanks. Native communities still are recovering remains of their kin and ancestors today. If you are Sikh, Stockton was the center of Sikh life in the U.S., as the home of the first Sikh gurdwara (place of worship) in the United States in 1912, and the only place of worship for Sikhs in the U.S. until the 1970s. The Central Valley was also the place where the revolutionary Ghadar party organized to drive the British out of India. If you are Filipino, Stockton was the home of the largest Filipino population in the U.S. between the 1930s and the 1960s, and the birthplace of the Filipino agricultural labor organizing that eventually led to the formation of the United Farm Workers. If you are Chinese (especially Heungshan), the tiny, barely standing, town of Locke (est. 1915) is the only American town built by and for Chinese, many of whom worked on the railroads, built the levees, and transformed the land into agricultural production. If you are Japanese, the rural nihonmachi (Japanese town) of Walnut Grove was a commercial and social center for farm laborers in the 1920s and 1930s. It is the only Japanese town built by and for the Japanese community, and was home to dozens of businesses—before the entire Japanese population of Walnut Grove was evacuated in 1942 to internment camps. If you are Cambodian, there are now 10,000 Cambodians who have made Stockton their home, an important place for resettlement, though the community still struggles with poverty, unemployment, and other challenges. If you are Latino, today we see Latino day laborers standing along the streets of Little Manila where young Filipino men once stood. The field workers today are predominantly Latino, with some Filipino and Southeast Asians. The old houses of Courtland which were once home to Chinese agricultural families are now home to Latino families working in the fields. The pilgrimage is naming the Delta as a sacred place: a place made sacred by the suffering of the ancestors, but also by the humanity and community they forged there.
The Delta pilgrimage is more than any one of those communities’ stories. It is a weaving of the stories of the different ethnic communities into a common fabric. Listening to what the ancestors might be trying to say to us, and seeking to understand a bigger story. So we went to the places and tried to see what is seen and unseen: indigenous shellmounds under the pavement, lives buried in the fields and in the walls of the levees. We walked the streets of crumbling buildings and empty towns. We listened to the silences and the stories of the elders and of the young in the Delta who carry the stories, the wounds, and the struggle. We listened to Paiute Elder Ashley George and Ione Miwok tribal members Elder Billie Elliston and her cousin Elder Phyllis Coy, to Miwok Ernestine Cardenas and 20-year-old Frankie Cardenas. We listened to the Cambodian congregation at Central United Methodist Church in Stockton, whose members came in the 1980s fleeing the genocide; to historian Professor Dawn Mabalon from the Little Manila Foundation, to elders Letty Perez from Trinity Presbyterian and Anita Bautista from the Filipino American National Historical Society; to sansei daughter Barbara Takei and the remaining nisei women of Walnut Grove’s nihonmachi; to Connie King, one of the last nine Chinese people left in Locke, and her stories of the old Chinese men of Locke and her lifelong struggle to own the land where her home sits. We shared the hospitality and langar meal with the Sikh community of Stockton; sat with the gravestones at Franklin cemetery; and rode down the river listening to the whispers in the wind. Listening to the stories and the silences, we began to recover and weave a pan-Asian and pan-ethnic collective memory.
What did we hear in this song of the Delta? We heard each ethnic community with its own song. But together they became a symphony of voices, telling of disenfranchisement and destruction of Native communities, of trans-Pacific migration from Asia, of work and contributions that shaped an agricultural industry that feeds the nation, of shameful treatment, and anti-immigrant violence, of the creation of institutions and religious congregations to support community life. It is a complex symphony, not just of ethnic pride, but also acknowledging the deep and painful interethnic conflict which existed between our groups: between Chinese and Japanese, Japanese and Filipino. It is a symphony which still raises contradictions around gender and sexual orientation. What other threads need to be woven in? In recognizing and understanding these conflicts, we have the opportunity to heal the past and move forward.
We healed, as Connie King (Chinese, from Isleton and Locke) told the story of saying goodbye to her Japanese friends with whom she attended the segregated “Oriental” school. “It was a sad, sad day. We cried and cried. I still cry to think of that day.” We healed when the students from San Francisco State performed a play on the inter-ethnic conflict between Filipino laborers and the Japanese farmowners ending with the line, “We are one under the same sun. The color of that blood is the same one. For our people to be free, to be free, to be free.” We healed understanding that preserving a place means keeping our ancestors and their struggle alive. We healed floating down the river remembering that the first crew hired to construct the levees in 1852 was made up of Chinese, California Native Americans, and Native Hawaiians. We healed at the thought that maybe our ancestors knew each other.
Pilgrimage is a practice. We do it, and we return again. This is PANA’s second Delta pilgrimage, and each time we go a little deeper, uncover a little more. To make a pilgrimage to a place is to develop a relationship with it, with the land, with the people, to be more attentive to the song of the Delta today: how California water issues are seriously affecting the Delta; how redevelopment is threatening Native and Asian American sacred sites; how immigrant and farm laborers are suffering from inadequate working conditions, raids and deportation; how cities in the Central Valley like Stockton are suffering tremendously from foreclosures and economic recession with great impact on schools and communities. We keep listening to the song of the land and its people. It is a song that is very much alive today.
We concluded the Delta pilgrimage floating on a riverboat on the Sacramento River. Off the back of the boat into the waters, we offered purple orchid leis that PSR student and pilgrim Jeffrey Acido had brought by plane from Hawai’i, one for each group of our common ancestors whose suffering and spirit mark the Delta land and waters: the Coast Miwok, Patwin, Plains Miwok, Bay Miwok, Ohlone (Costonaon), and Yokuts; the Native Hawaiians, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Filipino, the Sikh, the Latino, the Cambodian and our European ancestors. Listening, Remembering, Mourning, Honoring and Sharing. We shared a Flower Ritual liturgy “wanting memories to teach us to see the beauty in the world, listening to the voices above the storms of life...voices that whisper what we need to hear.”
We ate strawberries grown in the Delta, sang songs, and each throwing in our own flower blossom, promised, on our return, to remember. As the noon day sun fell into a fall afternoon, and we watched the flowers disappear in the distance, we said, “I think the ancestors are happy. We can go home now.”
We go home, but the journey does not end. Our experiences and memories continue to move outward into our lives and communities, like ripples from a flower lei falling into river water.
More photos, prayers, poetry, reflections, and liturgy inspired by the Delta pilgrimage are available on the PANA website.