“What does your faith mean to you?” The young Japanese man sitting next to me showed me this question on his cell phone. I wasn’t in a Bible study or a philosophy class; I wasn’t even with someone who spoke English. I was on a highway bus on my way to a town in northern Hokkaido, and had Google Translate to thank for rendering this unexpected question into English.
I had woken up before six that morning to catch the bus. After ten months at language school in Sapporo, I knew enough Japanese to reserve my bus tickets, talk about my hobbies, and order dinner (though I always conveniently forgot the word for “bill” at the end of the meal) but I still found daily life in Japanese drained me. This weekend was my chance to put down my language textbooks and experience more of what God is doing in the land. I would stay with a missionary family for the weekend, visit their church, and experience a bit of their daily life—with its challenges and joys. While I was thrilled to be going up there, I also looked forward to the bus ride itself. For over three hours I could forget about conjugating verbs, recalling last week’s incredibly useful and immediately forgotten vocabulary, or navigating levels of politeness. I sank back in my seat with a contented sigh and sipped my coffee. Time to rest.
Rolling through a gray and sleepy Sapporo, we came to our first stop. With the bus half-empty I didn’t expect anyone to sit next to me. To my dismay a young man had been given the seat next to mine. I muttered an apology as I moved my bag off the seat and tried to make polite conversation. In basic Japanese, we chatted about our jobs and about the rain and low clouds, and how we couldn’t see any of the beautiful mountains that must be just beyond the highway. Our short conversation over, I turned gratefully to the two pieces of reading material I had brought to pass the time; a Bill Bryson travel book (in English) and a manga about Jesus (in Japanese—it had furigana) and settled into a quiet journey.
After a while, I started thinking about the young man next to me, Suzuki-san. He was from an even smaller town than the one I was headed to, and although he was Japanese, he had only been to Honshu twice in his whole life. He rarely made it down to Sapporo but said he liked to come at least once a year to have a change of scenery. I wondered if he had ever heard about Jesus. Did his town have a church? Did he have anyone in his life who knew Jesus? Finally, I prayed: Lord, open a door for me to share with Suzuki-san, even to give him this manga, which tells Your story in his own language.
The gray-shrouded, peaceful countryside rolled by, but our conversation did not resume. However, I no longer wanted my quiet, solitary journey; I wanted God to open that door. I kept reading, praying, and repenting for my earlier grumpiness. About 30 minutes from our destination, Suzuki-san asked me what I was reading. Yes, the door was opening! I was so excited. In garbled Japanese I tried to explain what the manga was about, “It even has furigana!”
“I see . . . but what’s that other book, the English one?”
The door of opportunity was closing. “Oh, this is just a travel book about Europe.”
Suzuki-san turned back to his cell phone and our conversation was over. Well, Lord, it seems the door is closed. I don’t see how I can give him this manga now!
An unexpected question on a bus leads to an amazing conversation
Just then, he held up his cell phone. He had translated a question into English: “What does your faith mean to you?” Thus began an amazing conversation. Suzuki-san shared that he trusted in himself, in his own strength and goodness, but sometimes he felt that was not enough. I did my best to share my story of being in a similar place in my early 20s, when I realized I needed something stronger, better, and more stable than myself to trust. That’s how I had found Jesus.
I went back to his original question and tried to explain how my faith in Jesus meant everything to me. That faith is like a window I see every part of my life through; or a journey I am on, where each step of the way I am holding on to Jesus’ hand.
“Could I give you this manga? It explains much more about Jesus, in much better Japanese than mine, and it even has furigana!” He laughed at that last bit and said he would gladly take a copy of the manga. When we got off the bus, I introduced him to the long-term missionary that works in his area. He invited Suzuki-san to the church.
Long after that bus ride ended and we parted ways, Suzuki-san’s question still rings in my ears. What does my faith mean to me? What a beautiful question. God opened that door of conversation in a surprising way—he used an initially grumpy and sleepy person with very little Japanese ability to talk with someone from a remote region of Japan who, maybe hidden deep in his heart, had a hunger to know more.
I pray Suzuki-san will read that manga. I pray that he will connect with the long-term missionaries and visit their church. Above all, I pray that he will encounter Christ, and when he does, that he will discover for himself what faith in the living God can mean.
I pray, too, for myself and others like me, who feel weak, inadequate, underqualified, or under-gifted. May we experience God using us in our weakness. May we see God’s power and beauty moving through our fragile and flawed selves and sense God’s joy in us as we walk hand-in-hand with Him.
Christina Winrich (US) is a new member of OMF. She hopes to help equip the Japanese laity to reach their own people. You can often find her drinking coffee or eating sushi, though not at the same time.