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, the companies will move hundreds of Japanese executives, workers and families into the Moore, Greer and Simpsonville areas.

Groups that teach English as a second language, along with other South Carolina Baptist ministries, are preparing for the opportunity to reach the transplanted Japanese community.

“For decades, Spartanburg County has had the highest foreign business investment per capita of any county in the United States,” said Jim Goodroe, director of missions for Spartanburg County Baptist Network. “God is bringing Japanese people here, which makes them more accessible to the gospel.”

Goodroe said most Japanese people come from polytheistic or atheistic backgrounds. The plan is to begin reaching them by offering free language classes, building friendships and helping the Japanese people navigate American culture.

There already exists a growing Japanese community in the Upstate, and Goodroe said many have begun to assimilate into churches as they learn English.

Aki Shigemi

Some Japanese people have also heard about Jesus because they met Aki Shigemi, a Japanese pastor and hospital chaplain living in the Upstate.

Born in Nagasaki, Shigemi began visiting Nagasaki Baptist Church as a teenager, but, like his family, wrestled with the idea of Christianity for many years because he questioned how God could 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 26, went to the Baptist seminary in Japan, and pastored a church there for six years.

“My commitment is to create world peace,” he said. “I learned from Japan’s history of the Pacific war, and I am convinced of the need to make friends beyond the walls of race, culture and language.”

Shigemi came to the United States 18 years ago. He has been instrumental in starting ministries to Japanese students at Anderson University and organizing worship services for Japanese people living in Anderson, Greenville and Columbia. He also has worked with state mental health services and continues to provide counseling services in Greer, where he lives.

In October 2015, Shigemi partnered with area churches to begin reaching the wives of the Japanese executives already living in South Carolina. First Baptist Church of Greer hosts five ESL classes during the week, including one that teaches hymns to the women, which helps with language skills.

New classes began in the fall, including an evening class for Japanese middle school students, a Japanese class for Americans, and a class about American culture. The ESL ministry recently reported its largest attendance — 25 Japanese and 10 volunteers.

Last August, a woman named Mika placed her 4-year-old son in Greer First Baptist’s childcare program 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 childcare program.

Goodroe said 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 Baptist 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. She trains ESL volunteers and has a deep love for Japanese people. She helped organize a summer program with Shigemi and said she has grown very close to students she has taught.

“Pastor Aki also wants to start a choir to show how music can be used as a tool for learning English. His dream is to have a choir singing old church hymns,” Cook said.

According to Ryan Dupree, multiethnic church consultant with the South Carolina Baptist Convention, Shigemi’s presence in the Japanese community is critical to successfully sharing the gospel.

“Aki is persistent in reaching the Japanese and will go to where they are and build relationships,” Dupree said. “Building a friendship first opens the door for a Japanese person to return for more than just learning English.”

According to Goodroe, language ministry also provides an international window of opportunity. “When we reach people groups that come here, we are fulfilling the Great Commission,” Goodroe said. “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.”

— Julia Bell writes for the South Carolina Baptist Convention.