ETHNIC CHURCHES: Japanese church members live out faith, change lives
EDITOR'S NOTE: Southern Baptists are one of the most diverse denominations in America, with more than 9,330 ethnic congregations -- almost one in five Southern Baptist congregations. Many ethnic churches -- from New Jersey to Oklahoma to Oregon -- are excellent examples of what it means to be passionate followers of Jesus Christ with a heart for lost people of any background. Baptist Press offers these five ethnic congregations as snapshots of Southern Baptist diversity and role models of congregational health.
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TIGARD, Ore. (BP)--Mike Yokoy was pastoring a church in Japan when he sensed God calling him as a missionary to the United States. He made his way to Tigard, Ore., where he assumed the pastorate of a fledgling congregation of 15 people.
Today -- 20 years later -- Japanese International Baptist Church has reached beyond its ethnic origins and become truly international in scope, with church members reaching out to everyone they come in contact with, regardless of cultural background.
"It is a unique thing God is doing," says Kenji Yokoy, one of Mike's sons who serves as pastor of the church's English-speaking congregation. "We are getting people we would never have imagined reaching. People from prison, those who have been addicted, they stay because there is love here."
Many outsiders experience that love for the first time in Japanese International's "Life groups," which meet all over the city and are primarily grouped by affinities, such as people who have struggled with drug and alcohol abuse.
"I am a convicted felon," says church member Sid Crawford. "A man I worked with in Prison Fellowship ... told me to find a church when I got out of jail and he helped me find a job with a Christian roofing company."
Church member Cliff Bailey met Crawford's girlfriend, Toya Meyer, while she was living in a transitional home for people with addictions. Bailey encouraged the Meyer and Crawford to give Japanese International a chance.
"I came here one year ago, and was baptized in March," Crawford says. "You cannot come to this church and not feel the love of Christ."
Crawford now assists with a weekly food ministry, serves as a greeter, hosts the weekly discipleship group for former addicts and has become a general handyman around the church's facilities.
Japanese International is making a real difference in people's lives in other ways as well.
Each week, the church receives nearly expired food items from Trader Joe's, a high-end supermarket, and each Sunday afternoon 20 members sort and deliver a bag of groceries to 40 homes in need of assistance. Members also can be found delivering food and clothing to homeless people living under bridges in the Portland metro area.
"We have found that many we reach out to there know Scripture better than those going out," Yokoy says.
Church members recently delivered 4,000 pounds of clothing to the Portland Rescue Mission. A mission team was sent to help with hurricane relief in Louisiana and teams also go to Japan two or three times a year.
Japanese International takes the Great Commission literally -- helping launch nearly a dozen Japanese churches in the Northwest and across the United States. They also would like to birth a congregation in Japan.
"There are more Japanese being saved in the United States than Japan and we want to do what we can to change that," Yokoy says.
Their heart for lost souls has broadened the range of people the church is reaching. While Japanese is the primary language in one weekly service, a second congregation draws English-speaking second- and third-generation Japanese, as well as Caucasians, Chinese and Koreans. The two congregations maintain their unity with joint worship services held each quarter. They also meet for weekly meals following Sunday services.
"Our congregation is becoming so diversified," Yokoy explains. "We are always trying to figure out where the Lord is leading, as we don't want to go forward on our own strength. While our church is transitioning into a medium-sized church, we have maintained godly people that were here from the beginning."
Reaching young Japanese Americans is a challenge that requires special insight into the cross-cultural challenges they face. The church prayed for two years for leaders to guide the youth group, and those prayers were answered when Candace and Aaron Koller joined the church.
The Kollers, who had recently returned to the United States after serving for three years as missionaries in Japan, understand the shy students they work with.
"We are bringing them out of their comfort zone," Aaron Koller says. "But God is transforming us more than them. It is not automatic for us to follow after Christ."
But life change begets life change as new believers reach out to others who don't yet know Christ.
Sid Crawford invited Pam Gamache, a resident in an apartment complex Crawford manages. Now she has accepted Christ and is preparing to be baptized.
"I realized I needed to stop fighting God," Gamache says. "I am a recovering addict, but now I have great friends here who I can talk to and will accept me.
"I have invited some Muslim friends to attend my baptism," she adds. "Now I am reaching out to others like they have done for me."
When believers take the living Christ out of the sanctuary and into their daily lives, lives are changed, Yokoy says.
"God calls us as Christians to embody theology," he explains. "Live out your faith and people begin to transform."
Sheila Allen is managing editor of the Northwest Baptist Witness (nwbaptist.org), newsjournal of the Northwest Baptist Convention.