Upstate Ministries Serve a Growing Japanese Community
Three major Japanese companies will open industrial plants in the upstate over the next year.
Along with creating thousands of new jobs, these industries will move hundreds of Japanese executives, workers, and families into the Moore, Greer, and Simpsonville areas. Local English as a Second Language (ESL) groups, and other South Carolina Baptist ministries, are preparing for the opportunity to reach this community.
“For decades, Spartanburg County has had the highest foreign business investment per capita for any county in the United States. We see that God is bringing Japanese people here through business and industry, which makes them more accessible to the gospel,” says Jim Goodroe, director of missions with the Spartanburg Baptist Network.
Goodroe says most Japanese people come from polytheistic or atheistic backgrounds. The plan is to begin reaching this community by meeting basic needs, including free language classes, building friendships, and helping them navigate in American culture. There is already a growing Japanese community in the upstate, and Goodroe reports many have begun to assimilate into churches as they learn English. Many have also heard about Jesus because of having met Aki Shigemi, a Japanese pastor and hospital chaplain living in the upstate.
Born in Nagasaki, Japan, Shigemi began visiting Nagasaki Baptist Church as a teenager, but, along with this family, wrestled with the idea of Christianity for nine more years. Shigemi says Nagasaki is the center of Christianity in Japan, yet many in his family questioned how God could also make their city the site of the atomic bomb explosion in 1945. He credits the testimonies of bomb survivors and other believers with helping his family make peace with many of those questions. Shigemi was baptized at the age of 26, went to the Baptist seminary in Japan, and pastored a church there for six years.
“My commitment is to create world peace. I learned from Japan’s history of the Pacific War, and I am convinced of the need to make friends beyond the walls of the race, culture, and language,” he says.
Shigemi came to the United States 18 years ago. He has been instrumental in starting ministries to Japanese students at Anderson University and new worship services for Japanese people living in Anderson, Greenville, and Columbia. He also worked with the state in mental health services and continues providing counseling bivocationally in Greer where he currently lives.
In October 2015, Shigemi partnered with area churches to begin reaching the wives of the Japanese executives already living in South Carolina. First Church Greer is the host site for five ESL classes during the week, including one that teaches hymns to the ladies to further help with language skills. This fall new classes began, including an evening class for Japanese middle school students, a Japanese class for Americans, and one about American culture. Recently the ESL ministry reported its largest attendance – 25 Japanese and 10 volunteers – and that it is seeing lives changed.
Last August, Mika placed her four-year-old son in First Church Greer’s childcare while she took ESL classes. Her child began to talk about what he learned at church and told his parents about Jesus Christ. Now Mika brings her friends to ESL classes and encourages them to put their children in the church’s program.
Goodroe says more churches are preparing to reach the Japanese community. Center Point Baptist Church in Moore has an ESL ministry, and a member of Poplar Springs Church in Moore is working with Shigemi to be ready to minister when families arrive.
Joyce Cook served four years as a missionary to Japan, trains ESL volunteers, and has a deep love for Japanese people. She helped organize a summer program with Shigemi and says she has grown very close to students she has taught in a Monday morning language class since March.
“Pastor Aki also wants to start a choir to show how music can be used as a tool for learning English with easy songs. His dream is to have a choir singing old church hymns,” Cook says.
According to Ryan Dupree, part time multi-ethnic church consultant with the South Carolina Baptist Convention, Shigemi’s presence in the Japanese community is critical to successfully sharing the gospel. He says in Japan, less than point two percent are Christian, and many see Christianity as a cult so they are unwilling to engage.
“Aki is very persistent in reaching the Japanese and will go to where they are and build relationships. We find that building a friendship first opens the door for a Japanese person to return for more than just learning English,” Dupree says.
According to Goodroe, language ministry also provides a window of opportunity internationally. “When we reach people groups that come here, we are fulfilling the Great Commission. It’s especially strategic and effective when these people groups are from closed countries that we can’t send people to. We can reach the individuals who are here, and some of them may take the gospel back to their own countries,” he says.