This past Sunday’s emphasis on Global Mission and Peacekeeping started a chain of reflections for Glenna Finnicum, and she offered us the following stories just two days later. Thank you, Glenna, for sharing in the richness of your years of service to the larger community.
There are so many charities and aid organizations today calling for our attention that you might ask, “Does the church really need to engage in world mission in the 21st century?” I was an educational missionary to Japan for eight years. Let me tell you some of my mission experiences and you will see that I have no doubt that World Mission is very relevant and important. I learned much more than I taught. Anyone who has spent time as a missionary will have their own but similar experiences.
Before going to Japan, I went to a couple of weeks of mission orientation at Montreat, NC. One afternoon we all met with someone who had served as a missionary in the country to which we were being sent. Four of us were going to Japan. We met with an old man well into his 80’s who had been in Japan for one term 50 years before…. before World War Two!! (I’m a Baby Boomer and World War Two is ancient history!) What could he possibly tell us that was relevant 50+ years later?
He had been sent to an industrial city to establish a preaching point. He had his “soap box” on a street corner outside of a major factory where shift workers came and went. Every day, regardless of weather, he was there trying to engage people, but no one would stop and talk with him. After 3 years he left Japan feeling a failure — not one convert. About 30 years later he had the opportunity to return to Japan for the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. He visited the city where he had been to see how things had changed. As he was standing on “his” street corner, a Japanese man came up to him and said, “I know you. Didn’t you used to be here on this corner trying to talk to people?” The former missionary admitted that he was that man. The Japanese man said, “Come with me. I want to show you the church you started.” The former missionary said he must be mistaken, he didn’t start a church. The Japanese man then explained that he had been impressed by the American’s dedication and persistence. What could be so important to the American that he was there day after day, year after year trying to talk to people? The young Japanese man found out that the American was a Christian so he investigated what Christians believe, wound up becoming a Christian, went to seminary, and now he was pastor of the local church with a thriving congregation. So yes, the American missionary had indeed started the church.
For 25+ years the missionary had thought his time in Japan had been a waste. But here was a thriving church because of his mission work. Like the sower (Matt. 13:3-9) we are each given a bag of “seeds” to sow. I can’t make the seeds grow, only God can provide the sun, the rain, and the fertile soil. My only responsibility is to sow the seeds with abandon. God will do the rest. This is probably the most important lesson I’ve ever learned in my life.
When I first went to Japan there weren’t all that many foreigners there, especially outside Tokyo. Few Japanese spoke English because it was taught like Latin — for translation only, except in the Christian mission schools where conversation was taught. One day I was on my way by train to a PCUS mission retreat in a rural area. An old Japanese woman (about 80) was sitting across the train carriage with her daughter. The old woman guessed that I was a missionary and struck up a conversation with me in English. She said that she had gone to one of the well-known Christian girls’ high schools and had fond memories of the missionaries there. I was astounded that she could still carry on a conversation in English all these years later. Her daughter, who had grown up in the WWII years when most missionaries left the country, didn’t speak English. Boy, those early missionaries left some big shoes with deep footprints for me to fill!
Japan is a patriarchal society and typically a Japanese woman usually defers to men. The majority of the Christian schools were founded in the 1880’s and 1890’s to educate girls. The first school I taught in near Nagasaki was originally a boy’s school but when it was relocated and rebuilt after WWII, it was opened for both boys and girls. The faculty was mostly men and the student government was led by the boys. One year one of the girls decided to run for the student council. All the girls voted for her so she was the top vote-getter. That made her the council president! The girls had a voice!
Though there hadn’t been a missionary there for a long time, when I would go into town I was always made to feel welcome. Many of the middle-age business owners had gone to my school and remembered missionaries. They were pleased to have a missionary there again.
I also was asked to teach an evening class for Sony engineers. At that time the engineers were routinely posted to the US for a year or two exchange. Much of our class time was free discussion around the table about America, it’s geography, culture, customs, beliefs, attitudes, etc. One of the men in the class was originally from Okinawa and a Christian. He spoke English fairly well and sparked many discussions. Since religion is an important part of a society so our discussions often included that. It was important for these men understand what to expect from our culture. They also enriched my understanding of their culture.
The second school where I taught was a girls’ Jr. and Sr. High School in a city of about 400,000 near Mt. Fuji. I was very surprised to find out how many churches were in the area, at least ten within walking distance of the school. I also realized that the vast majority of the women leaders in the business community and local government were graduates of our school. Christian girls’ schools had given these women the tools, skills, and desire to succeed outside the home. One year when I was there national elections were held. A number of women were running for various positions, including one major party candidate for Prime Minister. Almost every one of these women was educated in a Christian school.
Another concern of many missionaries in Japan was fighting apartheid. Historically, Japan had an untouchable caste. Then, in Japan’s colonial expansion many Koreans were brought to Japan as forced labor to work in mines and dangerous industries. Both these groups faced strong discrimination and injustice. The missionaries kept this fight against injustice in the news and forced the government to address the issue of discrimination in legal rights.
Memory is long and deep. Missionaries fight for better human rights including education, anti-discrimination, healthcare, and equal rights for all. Through many years and a history of hard work and dedication, Christian missionaries have earned the respect of the people. It takes time to build the knowledge, relationships, and connections to help bring about the changes. Often their voices will carry weight whereas someone trying within the system will not be heard.
The focus of missionary work has changed in the last 30 to 40 years from direct aid to listening, advising, facilitating, and equipping the people with the knowledge and skills to help make changes and improve their own society. As Jesus taught the Apostles and equipped them to go forth, missionaries help teach and equip the people where they are working to do the same.
God has given each of us a bag of “seeds”. I happily sow my “seeds” with abandon and trust in God to make them grow.