Missionary to Japan
By Jerry McKay
Published January 2016 in Connection
I finished high school in 1974 with better grades than expected and more confidence in my academic abilities than when I started. I attribute that to an environment in which I felt safe and content. There was no comparing my years at Kingsway to my first year of high school back home. Graduation, however, did not mean I had to relocate to continue my studies. Because Kingsway offered the first two years of a bachelor in theology, I started my degree in Oshawa that fall.
Other than changes in the nature of my studies, my first year of college was not much different from high school except for two things. Donna did not stay in Oshawa. She went to Andrews University, a Seventh-day Adventist educational institution in Michigan; and I was introduced to the student missionary program.
In the ‘70s and early ‘80s, theAdventist church operated an extensive network of language schools throughout Asia. Most of the teachers were students from Adventist colleges and universities in North America. Most volunteered for one-year terms.
Perry—my subcutaneous-layer-of-fat friend—had spent the prior year in Japan, and it had transformed his life. He spoke with such enthusiasm about his experience that I was inspired to sign up for mission service. In fact, seven of us from my graduating class signed up. Perry also made plans to return to Japan for a second term.
I did not want to go to Japan, however. Despite Perry’s enthusiasm, he was no more able to convince me to go there than he had been to influence my appreciation of the female form. I volunteered for Indonesia. Once the decision had been made, every free moment during the remainder of the year was devoted to organizing suppers, canvassing churches, and washing cars to raise the money for our airfare.
As I said, despite Perry's glowing testimony about Japan, Japan was the last place I wanted to go. I have no idea why except that I had probably been influenced by my father’s negative comments about Japan when I was growing up.
Dad was 13 when World War II began, so he was well aware of the war in Europe. He was 13 days short of turning 16 when the Imperial Japanese Navy bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. From the safe but mundane environment of the family farm, Dad’s fascination with the war eventually took over, and he ran away to enlist.
Even if he had been of age, he would not have been accepted because a slight heart murmur was detected during a medical. Dad also had flat feet! As well, his father caught up with him and persuaded the authorities that dad was needed at home to help run the farm. Dad was sent home.
After that, he always resented being “forced to work on the damn farm.” For the rest of his life, though, he was fascinated by war history. Although that made for easy Christmas gift ideas—there is no shortage of books about WWII—the downside was that I often heard him speak with disdain of General Tojo and the atrocities of the Japanese military. Add to that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and you can see why Japan might not hold much fascination for me.
Of course, as you might expect, shortly before we were to leave for our respective destinations, I was asked if I would go to Japan. Apparently, there was a shortage of teachers. As this adventure had been on one of my numerous prayer lists, I was sincerely open to going wherever I thought God might indicate.
So, in June 1975, with one year of college under my belt and two weeks shy of turning 19, I hesitantly set out for The Land of the Rising Sun. It helped that Perry and two of my classmates would be going with me .OurJapan-bound band of four parted ways with our fellow missionaries and drove to California. We made a great road trip out of delivering a car from Toronto to a friend of a friend who had moved to Los Angeles.
I don’t remember much about L.A. other than Disneyland and Universal Studios.
I grew up watching Disney’s Wonderful World of Color every Sunday evening on our black-and-white TV!
Realizing a childhood fantasy of climbing up into The Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse was a thrill. Not to be outdone, Universal Studios gave me the opportunity to pass through the Red Sea from the safety of a tour bus. It wasn’t quite as dramatic as when Charlton Heston parted the sea in the 1956 movie The Ten Commandments, but my Bible-believing imagination made up for the lack of drama.
Just before we were to leave the continent there was one traumatic event—getting our hair cut. Because we were to become a revered sensei—teacher—we were required to conform to Japanese grooming standards. Even though my hair only went to the bottom of my ear lobes—short for the mid-seventies—it would be too long for Japan.
As if we were about to join the military, we marched into a local barber shop and ordered the barber to take it all off. Well, at least enough to reveal the entire ear. While it was a bit traumatic and my concern over my appearance was in overdrive, I was willing to make any sacrifice for God!
From Los Angeles, we headed to Hawaii for a second mini-vacation. The drive to Los Angeles and the flight to Honolulu—the first I had ever taken—were exciting enough to push most preoccupation with my orientation to the back of my mind. It was easy to hope it had been left behind. To my disappointment, my feelings about guys, the absence of attraction to women, and the angst that accompanied both followed me like the rest of my baggage.
Caught in Honolulu
Honolulu in the ‘70s
Hawaii is an island paradise. Despite that fact, or perhaps because of it, I have not let off the same-sex attraction hook. Honolulu, in particular, had surprises waiting for me.
First, Donna had signed up for Japan while at Andrews University. However, we had made no plans to meet in Honolulu. So, when she step line-height: 22px;ped off the airport shuttle in front of her hotel and I was standing on the sidewalk in front of her, she was so startled she “lovingly” hit me in the face and then laughed sheepishly! It seemed we couldn’t be separated.
I had mixed feelings about meeting her. Even though I was pleased that she was going to be in Japan, seeing her in Honolulu revived old anxious feelings about having to be more than I felt I could be. Meeting Donna, however, was not as stressful as the other surprises Honolulu had waiting for me. During our three-day stay, two awkward situations occurred.
One afternoon, a group of us decided to visit the Polynesian Cultural Center. To get there, we had to take a bus. At one stop, a man was sitting on a bench just a few feet from the bus. He was attractive. As I was inclined to do, I was looking at him while pretending to look through or past him. It didn’t work.
Suddenly, he looked directly at me and made a suggestive gesture while motioning for me to get off the bus. I was stunned. His solicitation left me feeling totally exposed. I became very self-conscious and terrified that my friends might have noticed and by chance discovered my secret. After the bus had moved on, I was left with a feeling of heaviness I had never felt before that lingered for hours.
The second event was similar but even more anxiety-producing.
This time, our group was in a small diner. Two of my fellow missionaries were facing out the window toward the street. I was facing into the interior as was the fourth member of our group. After a few minutes, a man sitting a few tables away looked at us and shouted at us to stop staring!
If I felt exposed by the previous event, this time, I wanted to disappear. The classmate sitting beside me spoke up and apologized for any misunderstanding indicating that no one was staring at him. We muttered something about looking at something behind him. That was not true, and I knew it. And, yes, the stranger was attractive. And, yes, I had been sneaking a peek or two while waiting to be served. Once again, I was caught.
These events further illustrate the challenge I was facing because of my orientation. Although, for very different reasons, I knew why those guys had reacted as they had. They had caught me exercising my appreciation of their physical appearance. One had liked it, while the other clearly did not.
My companions’ appreciation of physical beauty was as active as mine and no less controlling. Strolling with them on Waikiki Beach had proved that! They, of course, did not need to be as discreet as I had been. Their world was filled with attractive women; my world was filled with attractive men. I couldn’t have explained why any more than they could have.
When we see objects that attract us, we want to look at them whether they are sunsets or attractive people. Why something attracts us is another story. When someone has an attractive smile or beautiful eyes, we want to look at them. And, yes, when they wear their clothes well, I liked to look, as well. My wanting to look at an attractive man said more about the nature of my orientation than most friends can ever appreciate.
This is, perhaps, the most difficult concept to explain to friends and acquaintances. However, as I have said before, I was never attracted to women and men. To borrow a word of the apostle Paul, I had never selected to exchange my heterosexual interests for homosexual interests. My attractions had always been only for other men.
My uncle used to use horse blinds to keep his horses from being distracted by objects to their right or left. Even if I had borrowed those blinds, I still had to deal with what was right in front of me. I could try to ignore my orientation, but it was always there. I was drawn to what was attractive to me—and that was men. At that point in my life, I was not sexually active; but my orientation influenced what I wanted to look at. Pretending my attractions didn’t exist was exhausting, as was the moral judgment I imposed upon myself.
At the end of those two days, feelings of social awkwardness had increased; and I had become more confused than ever about how long was too long to look at someone. I felt an uneasiness that I had never experienced before. Additional “why” questions were added to the lengthy list I was already rehearsing. The only way to cope was by compartmentalizing my world even further. This, of course, made the integration of my mind, body, and spirit impossible.
Of course, I didn’t talk to anyone about those events. I wouldn't have known where to begin. If anyone had brought up the bus stop event, I'm sure I would have dismissed it or made fun of the person who had simply acted as a mirror of my reality. I might, in fact, have protested too much!
Unexpectedly, I was left with a preoccupation regarding the guy who had made the suggestive gesture. I kept thinking about him. I wanted to know who he was. I wanted to talk to him even if I had no idea what I would have talked to him about. It was a very strange experience being within a few feet of someone I thought probably understood something of my experience. I couldn't forget the guy at the bus stop.
Except for those unsettling experiences and getting the worst sunburn in my life, our little vacation was a blast. From Honolulu, Japan was only six hours into my future. As our departure approached, my attention turned from beaches and bus stops to pagodas. I recalled the mission stories I had read when I was a child. Although those missionaries had gone overseas by boat, I was just as overwhelmed with excitement and some dread when our fully loaded China Airlines 747 took off for Tokyo.
|IIn the Land of the Rising Sun |
During our orientation sessions at school, Perry had talked about what we might expect in Japan. Nothing ever prepares you for the real thing. Japan had an element of shock. Our flight landed in Tokyo late at night. As soon as we stepped off the plane, it was obvious that English had vanished and that everyone around me had dark hair and brown eyes.
Being mid-June, the rainy season was well underway. Rainy season is a month of on-again-off-again rain. When we left the airport the warm damp night air hit us like a wall and brought every alien smell up close and personal. The ubiquitous lights of Tokyo were accentuated by the rain and made our drive—on the left-hand side of the road—to the church headquarters in Yokohama dizzying. Canada felt very far away.
At the church compound, we were fed and shown a place to sleep. My assigned roommate never showed up. He arrived the following day on a second plane load of would-be teachers. Once again, like my first night at Kingsway, I was on my own in a strange place. When I turned off the light for the night, I couldn’t help wondering if I had bitten off too much or if God had made a mistake.
Once everyone had arrived, we were whisked away by Shinkansen—Japan's high-speed train—to Osaka where the flagship language school was located. There we had a crash course in teaching conversational English and were given more cultural tips for living in Japan. Practicing large-group English language teaching methods with people I did not know pushed my introvert boundaries to the limit, but I survived.
I was not impressed with Osaka because it was too big for my liking, and the language school was the largest in the country. To accommodate the 500 students per quarter, a large group of teachers would naturally have to stay there. If Osaka was too big, Tokyo was colossal. The greater Tokyo area is one of the most populated places on the planet with a population similar to that of Canada—35 million. For this reason, Tokyo was that last place I wanted to live. Therefore, I hinted, hoped, and prayed about going to a smaller city and a more intimate school.
You guessed it. I was asked to go to Tokyo, and I accepted.
For the next year, I spent nearly everyy waking moment in Amanuma, a western suburb of Tokyo. The language school was on the same compound as the Adventist hospital. Founded in the early 1900s, the hospital and church were landmarks. In fact, the small one-way street that winds its way from the commuter train station to the hospital is called Kyokai Dori—Church Street. Everyone, for miles around, knew of the hospital and church.
The language school was in one of three unique two-story wooden buildings that had been constructed to house missionary families. It was a miracle they were still standing.
They were around during the Great Kanto Earthquake that had occurred September 1, 1923. In addition, to damage caused directly by the earthquake,
Tokyo had been ravaged by fire. The earthquake had struck at lunchtime on Saturday when people were cooking. I was told that each of the three houses had had a brick chimney. While the houses stood and escaped the fires, the chimneys collapsed and were never replaced.
Then, during World War II, Tokyo had been firebombed. One night in March, American forces had dropped some 1,600 tons of incendiary bombs. Approximately 15 square miles of the city had been destroyed and 100,000 people died. Although the bombing was centered near the docks, far from the hospital and those wooden houses, they too might have gone up in flames if the war had not ended six months later. I had students who were living in Tokyo during the earthquake and the bombing. They had fascinating and painful stories to tell.
In the 1970s, however, there were fewer foreign missionaries around. Because of that, two of those houses were used for other purposes. The SDA Language Institute was in one of them, and we all loved it. The history and architecture of the building created an exceptionally intimate and exotic place to teach and study. It was the very environment I had been praying for.
I clearly recall climbing the stairs to the second floor of the school and standing in front of the door to my first class. It was too late to turn back. Relying totally on our week of orientation, I walked into that class of 15 high school and college students. It was the perfect way to begin. Most of the students were my age, and we connected instantly. Many from that first class became lifelong friends.
We worked hard—teaching 30 plus hours per week. We had private and large group classes. We taught children, teenagers, and professionals of all kinds. And then there were the housewives’ classes. We usually taught them in the morning and afternoon. They got that informal designation because when the husbands went off to work their wives were free to study English. Compared to the classes of university students, those housewives were the most enjoyable to teach. And when we had our end-of-term potlucks, those ladies were the ones who introduced us to amazing Japanese food.
Missionary Life & Spiritual Habits
Although we spent many hours teaching English, everything else we did was about missions and, therefore, had a spiritual focus. We used every opportunity to introduce our students to Jesus. During the week, in addition to language classes, we offered Bible classes—in English, of course.
We were free to conduct those classes as we chose. I liked that they were small and intimate. We tried our best to unpack the mysteries of the Bible. Because I couldn’t sing well and did not play the guitar, my classes weren’t as musical as some of the others. That didn’t mean they weren’t popular. They were. All those thoughtful hours each day contemplating the life of Christ helped me bring the story of Jesus to life. It should be no surprise that I put a lot of thought and energy into those classes and that they were the high point of my week.
On occasion, someone would express a greater interest in the Bible and wanted to learn more about Jesus. When that happened, we suggested studying together privately. Those private Bible classes were the most precious hours I spent with people. Whether it was one of my students or that of another teacher, we were pleased when someone decided to study in Japanese with the local pastor.
In addition to our weekly Bible classes, we went to church each Sabbath with the Japanese Adventist community. We wanted to be there in case line-height: 22px;a student decided to attend, as well as to participate in worship ourselves. For most of the year, we understood little of what was said during church. Our ears would perk up, however, when the melody of a more traditional hymn filled the sanctuary. No matter what language they are sung in, Amazing Grace, Rock of Ages, or Blessed Assurance are recognizable and heartwarming hymns.
On Saturday afternoons, we had our own fellowship at the school. We taught students our favorite contemporary Christian songs—in English, this time. We shared our favorite Bible stories and tried our best to answer “simple” questions like the nature of good and evil and the meaning of life. The best part was sharing our personal testimonies of faith in Jesus. By the time we were finished, the sun had usually set on another Sabbath. Then our socializing began. If we didn’t play games at the school, we would head out for pizza or bowling—even skating. There was no shortage of things to do in Tokyo.
Every year, we had the honor of attending the baptism of someone from the language school. They were often the first in their family to become Christian. With less than one percent of Japan’s 130 million people identifying as Christian, becoming Christian was no small decision and did not go unnoticed. It was an inspiration to know how courageous they were.
On a side note, I learned a lot about “witnessing” in Japan. Back home, sharing one’s faith often seemed contrived. So much of my faith-sharing experience had been about debating doctrinal differences. It felt like we associated with people only to make converts. In Japan, we became friends and remained friends whether interest in Jesus was present or not. That experience had a lasting impact on me.
Because our life had a mission focus, I was more conscientious about my personal devotions in Japan than I had been when I was in school back in Canada. I enjoyed getting up early and heading off to the language school before anyone else. The school was quiet and those old wooden houses with their large sunrooms were the perfect place for long periods of reflection. Along with my
Bible, I had my weathered copy of The Desire of Ages by my side. I methodically worked through both during the year. I cherished those hours of solitude.
I needed lots of time for prayer because my prayer lists were longer than ever. I sent lists of names back to Canada asking friends to pray for students. A number of friends, including my roommate Kelvin, received a prayer list or two. Those extended periods in prayer were no burden.
To my chagrin, my Bible study and prayer didn’t alter my sexual orientation. It did not diminish because I was a missionary. On the other hand, neither did it appear to limit God’s presence and blessing in my life. The evidence of God’s spirit in the lives of LGBT people is often a conundrum for some.