On My Journey: Japan

I left Kansas after a year with military orders to go to Japan. I took a long leave back to the town of my birth. Reentering the church of my youth was not the same. I was there physically but not there. After the month, I left to go west to San Francisco, where I met up with my first roommate Woody Morrison from Forbes, who became my lifelong friend, to fly to our new duty station in Japan. We flew in a small plane with the seats facing the back of the plane to the first of two stops on the way to Japan. First, we landed in Hawaii and had several hours of layover and dinner. We were not allowed to leave the base and it was evening. So, actually, I didn’t see anything of Hawaii. Our next stop was Wake Island Airfield, just a dot in the middle of a vast ocean. It was on the other side of the International Date Line. We arrived there for breakfast the next morning. The stay was short. We continued our flight and landed in Japan hours later in the late evening. As I recall, the flight was about twenty-three hours of flight time, not including ground time. At arrival, we were shuffled off to overnight accommodations, a fancy word for open barracks. The next morning we were delivered to our different duty stations and introduced to our new home. The barracks were single rooms with two men assigned to each room.

While Woody and I made the trip together from San Francisco, when we arrived at Tachikawa Airfield, which was closed at the end of the Viet Nam war, we were separated. He was stationed at Johnson Air Base. I was stationed at Tachikawa. Before we left Forbes in Topeka, we had talked to several of the airman that attended the church in Topeka that he and I attended and discovered that there was an Assemblies of God mission station about half way between Tachikawa and Johnson, sitting right outside of Yokota Air Base. It was named the Far East Servicemen’s Home (FESH).

FESH was to be the “church” that I participated with for the next year. My formation continued. The “church” was a mission station sponsored by the Assemblies of God. When I arrived it was being directed by an ordained Assemblies of God minister from Southern California that had just arrived from SoCal with his wife and daughter. FESH was open to all the servicemen from any base in Japan, but was largely populated with servicemen from the three bases in which it was centered geographically. Some of these servicemen had their wives and families with them and some were single and a long way from home. Other missionaries and their families also attended.

This was my first experience with a group of Jesus followers that were all representatives from their own denominations. The group was made up of folks from Assemblies of God, Pentecostal Holiness, Foursquare, Church of God, and Church of God in Christ. The latter two are denominations made up of white folks and black folks. I don’t remember any folks from non-Pentecostal denominations attending. What I observed immediately was that when there was a Sunday service, the folks that were in attendance were all sitting with their friends from the same denomination, which was apparently staked out by each group in a certain part of the meeting room. I found that curiously odd. Another thing that I observed was that the order of doing things was the same identical order as I had observed in the church of my youth, with some minor exceptions. A third observance was that at the conclusion of the service, there was a meal in a separate building that almost everyone stayed for. In the church of my youth, and in the previous church in Topeka, when the service was over, folks would go home or to restaurants with family members for their Sunday meal. Finally, I noticed that here we all were in Japan complete with missionaries and there were no Japanese folks attending the church and over time, I realized that there was only one activity (see below) to reach into the Japanese community. Yep, there were missionaries; one was in charge of the publications for his denomination, while another was in charge of the radio ministry of his denomination, but none of them had any hands on experience with the people in whose country we lived.

Several things occurred that continued my formation. One was the missionary who was from SoCal discovered that I could sing and so he appointed me to be the “Sunday morning song leader,” compete with directorial hand motions. Second, he also selected me to help him teach a group of Japanese folks how to speak English. I found that intriguing, I only had a high school education, spoke English with a distinctive Southern drawl, and there I was in front of businessmen, lawyers, and doctors teaching them English. Another amusing thing is that we were using the King James Version to teach them how to speak English.

  • In conversations with the missionary-in-charge, I would ask questions. Here’s a sample:
    Why don’t the folks intermingle in the service, i.e., why do they all sit in their different church groups?
  • Why is there not anyone attending here that comes from a non-Pentecostal denomination?
  • Why does the service follow the same routine every Sunday, i.e., opening prayer, song service, announcements, sermon, and altar call?
  • What’s the deal with missionaries who are sponsored by a denomination that have no contact with the folks in whose countries they are missionaries.
  • Why do we use the King James Version to teach spoken English?

The missionary-in-charge was really patient with me, but he never had any satisfying answers. Usually, he would just shrug his shoulders and tell me that when I was older I would understand. I got older and I still didn’t understand, but I began to understand!

Overall, the experience of that year was enjoyable and the “church” was a welcome oasis of familiarity in a place far away from home. My greatest regrets were that I did not learn more about the host country and its inhabitants and that I didn’t get my questions answered.

I was sent to Japan to spend the rest of my service time in the Air Force, which was about two years, but at the end of the first year, the air group I was assigned to was being disbanded. Folks attached to it were being shipped off to different places. The Air Force gave us a choice where we wanted to serve. Well, I thought I had a choice. I had three choices presented to me.

  1. I could go to Korea and serve for six months and be discharged from the Air Force six months early.
  2. I could go back stateside to an undisclosed air base and serve the rest of my enlisted time.
  3. I could go to Hawaii and serve out the rest of my enlisted time.

The Korea choice was tempting because of the six month early out idea. But, I was homesick to see my family in the states and being on the same continent would at least allow me to take a leave and visit with them. The Hawaii selection was not even considered. So, my selection order was: first, state side, second, Korea, and last, Hawaii. When my orders came through they were for Hawaii, Go figure!

So, here are some of the things that formed me along the way in Japan.

  • Living in a multicultural church was interesting, but like most churches the segregation was never a topic of conversation. Silence gave place for it.
  • I found it interesting that you could be a missionary from a major denomination to a people group and the only face time with that group was the maids that were hired to clean the missionary’s homes. BTW: That’s my local learning experience and not a condemnation of missions work everywhere.
  • I had reinforced in me that the church service had a pattern and plan that seemed to be trans-denominational.
  • I discovered that I liked teaching. I even liked leading music, but I felt detached from the ones that I was leading. In the church of my youth, there was no “Sunday morning song director” because there was no congregational singing. Instead, the pastor would call for folks in the congregation to come join the ad hoc choir and he would then direct them on the platform as part of the choir. The ones remaining in their pews were observers. The Sunday morning song leader was a part of the Topeka church experience where the song leader stood on the platform separated from the congregants and led the hymns from the hymn book.
  • I saw fellowship with others of different groups around a meal as vital. It was in those times that we talked about a lot of the differences that we had in our different religious backgrounds. I began to learn to stay in a conversation with folks who thought, looked, and believed different than I did.
  • Some of my provocateurism began to take shape in the form of pushing back on why folks believe what they believed and with the missionary in charge by giving him a barrage of ongoing questions?
  • I learned that we are not always in control of where we go in life. During the years of my military service, I was at the end of the leash of the military. I went where they told me to go and did what I was instructed to do when I got there. But, as you may see in the next part of my story, sometimes God just simply has a different plan for us than we know about.

Next stop: Hawaii. Stay tuned.

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