Our First Japanese Thanksgiving

Perhaps one of the most difficult times for new missionaries are the holidays. When you’re used to annual family traditions, getting stuffed on holiday food and watching ¬†“The Sound of Music” for the hundredth time, it can feel a little weird living in a place where you have to drive 90 minutes to the nearest Costco just to get a turkey slightly larger than a big chicken.

We have been blessed to have plugged in with a wonderful church and two families in particular who have quickly become like new family to us. Seiji and Kathy Oyama are our pastors and two of their four wonderful kids are still living with them here in Japan. Peter and Ashley McKenzie came over with their 4 young children from North Carolina in September with Asian Access/SIM. As we arrived in Japan at roughly the same time, we share a lot of the same experiences living in Japan. Our daughter loves playing with their kids and holding their baby whenever she gets a chance.

This year, with the three of our families together for the first time, we were able to have a real Thanksgiving feast at the church. It was perfect timing because Pastor Seiji and the Oyama kids were out of the country until a few days before Thanksgiving and Kathy was so busy with all the things she does (and other things Seiji normally does), she really needed our help in the kitchen to make the dinner a reality.

The plan was to invite students from the English and Bible classes Kathy teaches at a nearby university. Peter and I visited the class a couple times in November to get to know the students a little better so they would feel more comfortable coming to the dinner. It was a joy for me because I had been missing the friendships I had built with university students through International Student Fellowship back in California and this seemed like a great way to start some new friendships with college students. Since our friends Jeff and Wendy visited last month, it had been on my heart to start an English based fellowship with Japanese students. Pastor Seiji and Kathy agreed there was a great opportunity and the timing to start something seemed right. The Thanksgiving dinner would be our opportunity to pitch the idea to our target audience: the students themselves.

On Thanksgiving Day, I took the train to church and walked to the local market where I bought 5kg of potatoes, 3kg of sweet potatoes, along with milk, butter and other ingredients to make mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes. The Oyamas had already purchased the turkeys and prepared them earlier in the morning, along with two stuffings and homemade gravy. The McKenzies were home making a few yummy side dishes.

The students began to arrive around 4:30pm after class let out. Dinner wasn’t until 5:30pm, so they went down to the church basement where we have a climbing wall, basketball hoop and a big open area for futsal (indoor soccer), skateboarding, or just fooling around. Jeff, a professor who attends our church and also teaches at the university, came with them. After we finished preparing our sides, I went down to socialize and play some games with the students. When dinner was ready, we had about 10 students waiting to try their first Thanksgiving meal. Though I invited several of our friends from Waseda University that we knew from California, none were able to attend this time.

During dinner, we split up and engaged the students in English conversation. Some of the students had been to the church before (we had another dinner in mid-October) and others had never been inside the church before. One of the topics we brought up was a regular English conversation fellowship. If we hosted an event on a regular monthly basis, would the students like to come?

The responses were overwhelmingly positive. The three students at my table not only said they would like to come, but they made a “pinky-promise” with me to prove they were serious. Later, I found out that Pastor Seiji and Kathy asked students about an English/Leadership training type of format and they were very excited about that possibility.

Now, we have confidence that we have a good core of students to start a regular program with. Once the busyness of the pre-Christmas activities settles, those of us who want to be involved will meet to talk about format and set some hard dates to get started, likely in late January or February 2015. But I am certain that God has given us this group of outstanding students to build from and things can only get better from there.


We Love Japanese Students!

(For the sake of accuracy, we should say we love ALL our International students, like Pui, who is from Thailand but was visiting Tokyo this month!)

Over the past few couple of weeks, I have had many opportunities to meet with many of the former university students whom we spent time with doing international student ministry in California, as well as meeting some current students who attend English and Bible classes taught by our pastor’s wife at a local university. I always find that Japanese university students are warm-hearted, friendly and eager to become friends with people from other countries.

This past week, our good friends Jeff and Wendy visited us from California. Though it was their vacation, their priority (other than eating as many different kinds of delicious Japanese food as possible) was meeting up with former international students to see how they are doing and encourage them. As a result, our family was also able to reconnect with many student friends that we had made in California. It was a real blessing to spend time with the students and see how they looked back on the time we all shared together in California with fond memories.

Some of the students made tremendous sacrifices to spend time with us. One student came from over 2 hours away just to spend 90 minutes attending church service with us. Another student met Jeff and Wendy on their arrival in Tokyo after 11pm and walked them to their hotel from their arrival point. Still another student worked until 1:30am one day so he could make sure he could get off work early the next day to meet them for dinner. These are some examples of how much the students value the relationships built with us while they were living overseas.

Another theme I found from talking to the students is that they relish the opportunity to speak English with native speakers, especially those who spent time overseas. One of the things that was important to us in student ministry was that it should always be a safe place for students to practice their English conversation. We were always encouraging and gentle in correcting any of their mistakes. Most students learned to enjoy English conversation with members of our ministry because they didn’t have to be embarrassed about making mistakes.

Spending time with Jeff and Wendy and our former students has rekindled a desire to reach out to university students again. There are 3 universities within a 5-10 minute walk from our church. Our church is large with plenty of room to organize a gathering of students. We have several native English speakers at church and many others who speak English very well as a result of spending time living overseas. And we have a pastor whom I believe can speak to the hearts of students in practical ways, giving them advice from the Bible that can be applied to many of the things they are going through: relationships, job hunting, emotional healing.

We have already started some high level brainstorming with those who might be interested from church on what this kind of ministry might look like. God willing, we’ll launch a monthly gathering early in 2015. Please be in prayer with us as we allow God to guide us in how this ministry should be structured and ask Him to bring many people with a passion for building friendships with university students to serve them.