The first Saturday of every May is reserved in my calendar for Cameron House Carnival. Every year on this day, I get to see friends from my home church in Chinatown, listen to my dad’s old buddies tell stories about all the crazy things they used to do, and I also get to eat delicious jade waffles. While Carnival is a day of reunions, catching up, raising money, volunteering, playing games, and eating yummy foods, it’s also a day that constantly brings me back to a red brick building in Chinatown on 920 Sacramento. We call it “Cameron House,” and that’s actually where my faith story begins.
Chinese people started coming to California in large numbers during the California Gold Rush (1850-1860) and then as extra labor for the Transcontinental Railroad through the Sierras. They worked the dirty, low-paying jobs, but when unemployment rose, it was the Chinese who were accused of stealing American jobs. The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, which prevented almost all immigration from China. It also meant that married men could not bring their wives from China, single men were not allowed to bring brides, and that it was illegal for Chinese men living in America to marry Americans. This created a large bachelor society in which the organized sex and slave trade thrived, as women and girls were smuggled in the United States.
The gospel of Christ tells of a God who loved the unloved in justice and mercy. He has called His children to do likewise, to love mercy and do justice, and to walk humbly before Him. The Christians in San Francisco in the 1800s did just that. Some pastors spoke against Chinese racism and the terrible treatment that the Chinese went through, but it was a handful of Presbyterian women who started working up a plan to create a refuge for the women in Chinatown. They opened the Occidental Mission Home for Girls in 1874 to “intervene” on behalf of these young, Asian, female immigrants.
Miss Donaldina Cameron, at the age of 25 came to the Occidental Mission Home as a sewing teacher, where she ended up staying 40 years and devoting her life to women victimized by violence and discrimination. She saved hundreds of girls and influenced thousands more. The Mission Home was renamed in 1942 as the Donaldina Cameron House in her honor. The work of Miss Cameron did not end there. The Mission Home also opened up the Ming Quong Home for Girls in Oakland and Los Gatos, as an orphanage and as a custodial home for girls with families that could not care for them financially or emotionally. When my grandma immigrated to the United States, she ended up in Los Gatos at the Ming Quong Home for Girls.
The Ming Quong Home helped my grandma assimilate into the United States, giving her the skills and knowledge needed to live here. She also started going to church through Cameron House, bringing her kids (my dad) to church, where they enjoyed the Cameron House Youth program. Consequently, it was important to my parents that my brother and I receive a Christian education by taking us to church and enrolling us in a Christian school, which would have a huge impact on my worldview, who I am today, and teach me where my true hope and joy must come from.
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. Ephesians 2:4-5
While I know that it is through faith that I am saved, not by my works or the works of those before me, I also know that it is by grace that my parents valued a Christian education for me. It’s by grace that my grandma was placed into the Ming Quong Home for Girls. It was by grace that Miss Cameron did the hard, dirty work in Chinatown, and that some humble, San Francisco-Victorian-era women had a heart for the Chinese, that churches felt the need to be a presence in Chinatown, and ultimately that God loved us so much that He made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in sin.
I feel so honored and blessed to have the legacy of Donaldina Cameron’s love and faith as a part of my own faith story.
From where can you trace your faith roots?
And by the way — I get to spend my summer here!