Let's Go, Etsuko!
By Ruth McDonald
“Let’s Go, Etsuko” is the rhyming way she introduces herself to Americans. Miss Etsuko Asahi is a Japanese Christian and an invaluable member of the church planting team at Good News Chapel in Western Tokyo, where she has served since 2003. She came to faith in Christ as a young adult and is still the only Christian in her immediate family. Her family claimed no religion at all;
she says she was best described as an atheist before coming to Christ.
After earning an undergraduate degree in Japanese literature at a well-known university, Etsuko spent several years teaching Japanese to American missionaries and serving various roles in her church. As her desire to teach the Bible to Japanese people grew, she decided to enroll in Columbia Graduate School of Bible and Missions (now CIU) in South Carolina. Her hard work paid off when she graduated in 1993 with a Master’s degree in Old Testament.
During those four years of graduate school, one of her required texts was a little yellow book by Leroy Forlines entitled Systematics: A Study of the Christian System of Life and Thought. As she read, her beliefs about infant baptism, the role of Israel and the Church, and the doctrine of “free will, free grace, free salvation” solidified. The words of Mr. Forlines rang true in her heart, even though they differed from what she had been taught by the group that discipled her. Etsuko determined to find a church with those beliefs when she returned to Japan.
Though she had a deep desire to teach the Bible to Japanese who knew so little about it, she found limited opportunities through the next few years. She taught English as a Second Language and worked as an interpreter for an international church in the Tokyo area. But her longing to share the Word of God in her own language to her own people never went away.
Some years later, burned out and looking for new opportunities, she came across a newspaper article featuring Tetsuo Kazama. He came to Christ under the influence of Free Will Baptist missionaries and was helping a new church plant called Good News Chapel (GNC). At his invitation, she visited the new church. The initial GNC church-planting team included Ken and Judy Bailey, Donnie and Ruth McDonald, Mirial Gainer, and Brenda Wendlandt (now Carney). Her first impression was “Oh, no! There are way too many foreigners here.” Fearing she would be roped into interpreting again, she pretended she spoke only Japanese. After several Sundays, missionaries discovered not only was Etsuko completely bilingual but also seminary trained.
She was relieved the team didn’t expect her to translate but encouraged her to engage in teaching the Bible in Japanese. Since then, Etsuko has taught home and church-based Bible studies, spoken during Sunday worship, ministered to children in Sunday School, and helped produce written communications like bulletins and printed schedules. She also has graciously assisted various missionaries with sermon preparation and corrected language mistakes when needed.
She also fills a vital role as she offers advice on cultural issues and counsels church members through difficulties and doubts. This is not her favorite task, since she is often put in the uncomfortable role of sounding board. She says Japanese people offer a more polite “cover story” to the American missionary, while reserving the raw truth for her. She has especially grieved over interpersonal conflicts within the church as she provides counsel and guidance.
Overall, though, Etsuko is thankful for the years spent ministering at Good News Chapel. As a lay leader, she’s received only minimal financial compensation for her service and realizes not everyone can do that. God has provided for her living expenses as she lives with and cares for her elderly father.
Etsuko’s cross-cultural experience and past dealings with missionaries uniquely equipped her to work with a missionary team. She enjoys the hope, encouragement, and fellowship she receives from her missionary family. Though her mother passed away many years ago, her church family joins her in praying fervently for the salvation of her father and younger brother.
Etsuko's most cherished time at GNC is the opportunity to teach the Bible to Japanese people. She loves to see others get excited about the Word of God and watch understanding dawn in their hearts. She has found a place where she is welcome to use her gifts.
A few years ago, she especially sensed the Lord placed her in exactly the right place at the right time. After the funeral of a church member, the family and church staff rode in a small bus to the crematorium. Casual conversation with a young relative of the deceased turned into a question-and-answer session about the Bible. Like the Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8, the young man had been reading the Bible but needed someone to answer his many questions. He occupied the seat beside Etsuko and just in front of Pastor Kojima of a sister church, both Japanese believers who came to Christ as adults from non-Christian families. Both have equipped themselves through study of the Word and were prepared to answer this seeking man’s questions.
Like many in ministry, Etsuko wishes to devote herself to the teaching of the Bible without the burden of “church trouble.” Her advice to others getting started in lay ministry is to “be prepared that difficult people are part of the package.” However, she testifies trials have refined her faith and helped grow her love for others and her understanding of the grace of God.
The emotional healing she has experienced by serving Christ and other people has surprised Etsuko. Her childhood home was devoid of physical affection and touch. But as she taught the kids at church, she delighted in receiving their hugs and affection and found God filling an empty spot in her heart. She has also found great healing in being able to care sacrificially for her father in his old age. Though they had a troubled relationship during her young life, Christ has flooded Etsuko’s soul with forgiveness and genuine love for him. She gives God the glory for restoring relationships once broken by sin.
Etsuko is a blessing to her church and to everyone who meets her. Many who visit Japan from the U.S. fall in love with her contagious smile, her sweet spirit, and her enthusiastic welcome. They all remember “Let’s Go, Etsuko!”
About the Writer: Ruth McDonald and her husband Donnie
have shared the gospel with the Japanese for over 35 years. Want more from Ruth? Follow her blog at ruthnasia.com as she seeks to intentionally find joy in her journey or visit iminc.org to learn more about her ministry in Japan.