Ministry in a Japanese Canadian Community

by Yoko Kihara, Kyodan missionary, Minister of the United Church of Canada Fraser Valley Japanese United Church
Surrey, British Columbia, Canada

I was appointed as a half-time minister at Fraser Valley Japanese United Church in Surrey, British Columbia in 2005. It was difficult to support the livelihood of my family, so my husband, two daughters, and I have been financially supported by friends in the Kyodan in Japan. The term of the first appointment was three years, but it was renewed, and thankfully our congregation has been receiving a United Church of Canada Home Mission Support Grant since 2010. Although our membership is shrinking, I am still continuing and developing the ministry in the Japanese-Canadian community here.

Christian mission began among Japanese people on the west coast of Canada in 1892, and the Japanese Methodist Church in Vancouver and on Vancouver Island were the first to be founded. There were seven Japanese United Churches on the west coast before World War II. When war broke out, Japanese-Canadian people living within 100 miles of the west coast were relocated, and they and their churches lost their property. Rev. William McWilliams, who had served as an overseas missionary in Japan for 21 years before the war, worked very hard to help Japanese-Canadian people in the internment camp during the war. One of his greatest contributions was providing high school education within the internment camp by calling on missionaries who had worked in Japan before the war and by caring for young Japanese-Canadian people spiritually. Thanks to the devotional work of McWilliams and other missionaries, many people were baptized in the internment camp and formed UCC Japanese-Canadian c hurches all over Canada.

At the end of the war, McWilliams came out of the internment camp with the Japanese-Canadian people and encouraged them to stay and to survive in Canada, since he knew there was starvation and confusion in Japan just after the war. In 1950, the British Columbian government finally permitted Japanese-Canadian people to go back to the coast, and McWilliams also moved to South Surrey, visited struggling Japanese people all over Fraser Valley, and formed four Home Gathering Groups. Thanks to his devotion and passion for ministry, many Japanese-Canadian first- and second-generation people were baptized. Fraser Valley Japanese United Church grew at it provided a community and a sense of home where people could share Japanese food with each other, learn English and the basic knowledge about being a Canadian citizen, and meet a caring pastor who guided them to the Christian faith.

After the 1980s, Canadian immigration policy changed, and as Japan developed economically, the number of immigrants from Japan drastically decreased. Many of the recent immigrants from Japan married non-Japanese people, so they no longer belong to the Japanese community. Therefore, our congregation is shrinking year by year and financially struggles to support even a half-time minister. I think it would have been an easy decision for me just to complete the three-year appointment and go back to Japan. But I felt a sense of calling to serve this tiny faith community, just as God had loved the people of Israel because of their small numbers and weakness (Deuteronomy 7). Also, our two children had adjusted to the Canadian culture of diversity and chose to stay here to complete their post-secondary education. Our family decided to apply for landed immigrant status, and I enrolled in the admission process to become a UCC ordained minister to continue the ministry in Canada. Both processes took about three years. I was accepted by the United Church of Canada as an ordained minister in June 2010, and my whole family was accepted as landed immigrants in November 2010.

During these processes, I met many young Japanese intermarried families in this area and learned that each family was partly isolated; had problems with their children’s education; and needed a place to meet, make friends, and hang out. We started an outreach gathering for children once or twice a month from July 2009, and usually 10 to 15 children and their mothers gather together. Those children and their families naturally participated in special services, such as at Easter and Christmas, and in special events, such as summer picnics and festivals.

Since the Fraser Valley Japanese congregation is peaceful and caring, and since its senior members enjoyed the children’s participation in services and other events as well as the interaction with young families, gradually the congregation and young families were united in a sense of community. Since the lives of children and young families are very busy today, we cannot expect every child to come every time. However, after the natural disaster in Japan on March 11, 2011, two single-parent families were evacuated from the nuclear disaster area and joined our children’s group. I found that everyone needs a sense of belonging and am grateful that our small community is serving others in need beyond our expectation.

We also started a seniors’ outreach gathering from July 2010 and invited isolated first-generation Japanese people. We meet once each month, and I lead easy physical exercises and stretches and also lead the singing of Japanese traditional songs and famous hymns. Then we have a potluck lunch, share with each other important information for seniors, and enjoy talking. Seniors living alone, without many opportunities to meet and eat together, look forward to attending the next gathering. About ten people regularly attend.

Seniors are generally losing things, such as good health, house, partner, abilities, so experience a sense of loneliness. I have realized that the loneliness and isolation of immigrant seniors involve much more than just that. Their children speak only English, have internalized Canadian values, and never live together with their parents. Although elderly Japanese-Canadian people somehow keep Japanese traditional values, never complain, and are very patient, they increasingly have trouble adapting to Canadian food, and many of them have difficulty in assisted living and care facilities. I think that how to support the lives of elderly immigrants in Canada will become a serious issue, and I believe that this small outreach ministry will contribute to the creation of a caring and supportive network for isolated Japanese elderly people in our community.

Although new immigrants to Canada are increasing, the United Church of Canada could not include these people, partly due to its liberal theology and the lack of cultural sensitivity. Many UCC churches share space with ethnic minority faith communities, not to reach out to them but to raise money for the maintenance of the building, and there are many problems and conflicts between two or three cultural groups. In 2006, the UCC General Council approved the proposal of a vision to become an “intercultural” church. To be “intercultural” means being non-judgmental, learning, celebrating, and understanding of different cultures in order to build reciprocal relationships and create a new and rich culture. After the vision was approved, I attended three national Intercultural Conferences and received racial justice training and training for intercultural ministry. Since Fraser Presbytery, to which Fraser Valley Japanese United Church belongs, set intercultural ministry and multigenerational ministry as strategic goals for its vision for mission in 2010, I have been expected to lead and enhance the intercultural ministry in Fraser Presbytery as one of the ethnic minority ministers.

In addition, Fraser Valley Japanese United Church has been financially supported by a UCC Home Mission Grant since 2010, so I need to contribute to the wider church in various ways. I visited a local congregation that is intentionally becoming an intercultural church and led intercultural workshops. I also organized a workshop within Fraser Presbytery, inviting a facilitator from Los Angeles, and formed a study group for the ministry. It takes time and energy to understand different cultures and to build a reciprocal and creative relationship, but it is also exciting and inspiring to enhance and to explore the ministry as I deeply know and think about how I was shaped in Japan and in my family, how I accepted the Christian faith, and how I am going to integrate Japanese traditional values and spirituality with North American Christianity through the intercultural conversation.

Today, every UCC Japanese church is aging and shrinking, and some of them are intentionally trying to become an intercultural church by embracing other cultural groups as well as the third- and fourth-generation of Japanese-Canadian people who married non-Japanese people. Although our congregation has few opportunities to join or participate in exchanges with other cultural people because of the language barrier, the rate of intermarriage of Japanese people is very high, and we try to include non-Japanese spouses and their parents in special occasions by having bilingual services.

Canada is a country that accepts many immigrants and refugees from abroad, and our environment is changing year by year. In former years, each cultural group formed its own communities and tried to avoid the cultural crush by keeping its distance. Now our children are living in a much more diverse situation than before, and we are enjoying various cultural foods and festivals. Some people and groups are intentionally trying to develop an understanding of each other that goes beyond the visible part of culture. In our community in Surrey, multi-faith conversation and interaction happens regularly. For example, people of various faiths gathered and prayed together for the people in Japan right after the disaster there on March 11, 2011. The leader of each faith group prayed for Japan in its own language, and I was deeply touched and felt that our people were being lifted up all over the world by prayers that transcend our differences.

I do not know how long we can continue the ministry in the Japanese-Canadian community here, but I trust God, who guided us and prepared the way for us until today. As Abraham and Sarah traveled in the desert without knowing where they were to go, we will continue our faith journey as a family of God, with hope given by God.

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