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Ministry as a returnee—from Japan to the nations and back again

For over 15 years, I (in the dark sweater in the front row) have worked as an aid worker in Brazil, Vietnam, Kenya, Ethiopia, and South Africa. I have also studied in the United States and Australia. While in these countries, I found churches by asking people and searching the internet. Sometimes it was not a church building but a home or a hotel conference room. I always found some fellowship. Instead of spending my weekends with co-workers, I tried to spend more time with God’s family. At times, some of my co-workers joined me. When I was abroad, my Christian friends in Japan prayed for me. Now that I am in Japan, my foreign Christian friends are doing the same. It is a privilege to have friends who help me in this way.

God’s mercy

I became a Christian during university in Japan. During my first year, a student, who’d become a Christian in high school through the Navigators, began a Navigators’ English club and I attended. The English club joined a Christmas camp hosted by Ms. Mary Gudeman, a TEAM missionary. At the camp, I heard a message from John 3:16 and prayed to accept Jesus as my Savior.

As a college student, I attended the 80th anniversary celebration of my Japanese denomination. A Canadian missionary, Rev. Leslie Grove, who ministered to Japanese in Brazil, spoke at the celebration. He mentioned the need for people to work with the Japanese Brazilians. I was interested in helping missionaries in Brazil and responded to this need.

I went to Brazil through a Japanese government program—as a teacher for Japanese immigrants. But it did not work out as I had expected. While there, I could have had opportunities to work for the Lord through local churches. Instead of seeking God’s will, however, I spent most of the time for myself. I was an immature person in my profession and my faith. I went home full of regret for not having done what I had hoped to do.

The Lord was merciful to me and gave me another chance. After coming back from Brazil, I studied nutrition for five years, with the goal of helping in developing countries. At that time, the number of Japanese descendants from South America returning to Japan was increasing and Christians from Brazil were meeting in various places for Bible studies. Sometimes, after attending a Japanese church on Sunday morning, I would go to a Brazilian Portuguese service in the afternoon.

After a year, I needed to move to another city in Japan, and I discovered there was a Brazilian church there. Twice a month, a Japanese pastor would preach in the Sunday afternoon service and a Brazilian would translate into Portuguese. I was able to assist the communication between the Japanese and Brazilians at the church. One day, I went to a Brazilian family’s house to give them some information about the church. The pastor had received a call about this family wanting some information regarding the fellowship. They were a young couple with a one-year-old son and had been in Japan for three months. They felt lonely without a church and were looking for a similar denominational Brazilian church. After visiting them, they said that I was an angel from God sent to them.

Working in different countries

After that, I worked in several different countries. The capital cities always had international churches with English services. It was difficult to find Japanese Christian fellowships in developing countries. However, in Kenya there was a Japanese Christian Fellowship in Nairobi under the strong leadership of Rev. Takao Ichihashi.

I lived in Australia for three months, and met Rev. Stephen Young, a pastor for Japanese, there. He sent a summary of his weekly sermon to those who left Australia. So after I left, I received a sermon from him every week for almost ten years. It helped me to feel connected to the church.

Usually, it took a little while before I found a Christian fellowship in the countries I lived in. But even though I wasn’t fluent in English, I never felt alone or uncared for. The pastor and church leaders always welcomed me as a new family member. They often invited me to family events like birthdays, Christmas, and Thanksgiving. I also made good friends with the women working in the churches and had lunch with them. These friendships continue today through prayer and the exchanging of Christmas cards.

In Ethiopia, the church had about a thousand in attendance, with English, French, and Korean services. I attended the English service, and Dr. Gary Threatt, the pastor for the service, would prepare a sermon outline that we could follow as non-native English speakers. We could follow the message with people from many different countries. I had good friends from Thailand and China there. The pastor and his wife would visit with our small group of Asians in my house.

After coming back home

When I came back home to Japan, I had difficulty finding a job, building relationships with people, and settling into a church. I decided to start my own business of caring for elderly people. I looked for houses near a church, but for years I could not find the right place. I felt alone and kept asking the Lord for a local church to attend, even asking friends to pray about it. They responded with encouragement and useful information about people, churches, and seminars. With the support from these friends, I found strength.

Instead of looking for what I wanted to do, I began to pray to the Lord about what he wanted me to do. I wanted to help people close to me. My despondency eased and I felt full of joy and peace. After attending Japanese churches, I started going to bilingual fellowships where I could find people who had similar experiences. We lived far from each other, and it took effort to meet and worship the Lord together.

One day, I came down with terrible hip pain and could not go to the bilingual fellowship a one-hour bus ride away. At that time, I found a leaflet of a Korean church in my mailbox. I had never been there, thinking it was for Koreans in Japan. But I trusted in the leading of the Holy Spirit and went to the Sunday service.

They treated me as a member of God’s family from the first day just like the other foreign countries I had been in. They insisted I have lunch with them after the service. The Korean pastor also asked me many questions and we built a good relationship. I settled into that fellowship, and I was able to share my thoughts with the Koreans and the pastor at the prayer meetings.

I found a small house near the church. Within six months, I was able to open a day care center for the elderly. Since opening this center, my parents, who had never attended a church, have met the pastor and Christians from the church. They even attended some of the Sunday services.

The way forward

I presently plan to start a guesthouse to house Christian workers who have a burden for ministry in Japan. I have accommodation for rent. We Christians in Japan are not very visible in society. Currently, Japan needs workers in several areas of the workforce, especially for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and the Expo in Osaka. Welcoming faithful Christian workers should aid visibility and be a light to those who are living without a relationship with God.

Photo submitted by author

Ritsuko Aikawa was born in Hyogo and has worked as a teacher, community nutritionist, and trainer of health workers in developing countries.   

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