by Kokai Hikari, Kyodan missionary
I, a native ofJapan, have been aUnitedMethodistChurchpastor for the past 14 years of my 25 years in theUSA. My husband, a native of therepublicofKorea, is also a UMC pastor. So we have served ten churches between us inNew EnglandandNew York. When I look back at my experiences as an ethnic minority pastor, it is true that the challenges have been many, yet the blessings have been countless.
The First United Methodist Church of Oceanside,Long Island,NYis the church where I served the most recently before coming back toJapan. This is an active congregation that engages in many mission outreach ministries. Members operate a thrift shop in the church basement in order to help people in need in that middle-class community. The church offers a good preschool for neighborhood children from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds.
The church has a mission team that recruits and trains volunteers who can be ready to go wherever help is needed. This team also works to inform and educate the whole congregation on how to be a church with a spirit of serving. The team is constantly introducing the congregation to new opportunities and ways to help others so that everyone in the church can serve in the ministry of mission outreach. Now what truly amazed and inspired me the most as a pastor of that church was the fact that all these ministries have been initiated and carried out by its strong lay leadership, which includes youth and elderly people. Their commitment to live out the faith through the giving of their talents, time, and treasures to the church’s ministry has taught me great lessons about the life of discipleship and the church as a body of Jesus Christ in the world.
Another blessing I received through the ministry of this church was many opportunities to work together with other communities of faith in the town.Oceansidehas ten houses of worship, including three synagogues, one Roman Catholic, one Lutheran, one Presbyterian, one Episcopal, one Evangelical, and one United Methodist church. Ecumenical corroboration among Christian churches offers worship services together during the Advent and Lenten seasons. Inter-religious relationship is also strong, so we come together every year for a Thanksgiving service with prayers and praises from diverse traditions to give our gratitude to the Creator of heaven and earth. The 9/11 memorial service is another time when we become united in prayers to ask healing and peace for the world. Yet I will say that a spirit of unity among different communities of faith becomes the most evident when we serve together to benefit the community. Establishing a scholarship program for high school students who need financial help, a support system among low-income families that provides such help as transportation and counseling, a food pantry and distribution of food to house-bound elderly people— these are just a few of the many ministries we worked on together. I felt blessings and joys every day to be a pastor of a church in that community.
Yet God surprised me by a call, which was the most unexpected one I had ever imagined. It was a call to become a missionary toJapanto serve as program coordinator of the Wesley Foundation, located on a property inTokyothat originally housed women missionaries teaching at Aoyama Gakuin. Conscious of the efforts of these early missionaries, amid many hardships, the Foundation is continuing to promote education and leadership development as well as endeavoring to create social awareness and motivation for service in the Christian spirit. Rather than through the establishment of institutions, these goals are now being through pursued other avenues: holding monthly youth forums and seminars on current issues; cosponsoring events of other NGOs and PBOs and service projects related to domestic and global concerns (such as post-earthquake volunteer activities in Tohoku); and providing opportunities for interested persons from schools and churches in Japan and other countries to participate in these activities as well as in international conferences in Japan and abroad. The seeds planted by former missionaries as a labor of love have produced much fruit. Here I am; I am a fruit of their mission work, through which I became a Christian, a pastor, and now a missionary for God’s work inJapan.
When I heard this call to mission service inJapan, I and my family faced many challenges to overcome. Yet in discernment with prayers, we came to the conclusion to trust God’s Will for us. I was awakened by God's providence in my life journey up to this moment. I realized that until now I have lived exactly half my lifetime inJapanand the other half in theUnited States. I have been given great blessings of learning both cultures and languages; I have had pastoral experiences in both countries. Is it a time when God is calling me to further God’s work in both countries that I now call “home”? If so, then I feel very privileged to serve as a missionary so that I may be able to continue the mission work of planting the seeds of Christ’s love inJapan. In the airplane as I was coming toJapan, an old gospel song echoed in my heart: “I don’t know about tomorrow. I just live from day to day........Many things about tomorrow I don’t seem to understand. But I know who holds my future and I know who holds my hand.”