It is easy to forget how good we have it here – how deceptively simple it can be to join a church, absorb teachings of the Bible, and live within Christian circles without much thought. Regardless of what the media might have us believe, a basic acceptance of Christianity is woven into the fabric of our culture.
What, then, would it be like to find yourself meeting Jesus head-on outside of that context – to have the weight of centuries of culture pulling you in a different direction?
Imagine what it might feel like to make a decision to turn your back on the very things that give you identity and a feeling of belonging and follow Christ instead.
Sarah grew up in Austin, and has been a part of Austin Ridge for as long as she can remember. She studied education at Texas A&M University, where she found fulfillment in the type of activities that those in the Bible Belt pray our children would naturally gravitate towards – Baptist Student Ministry, Bible studies, and weekly worship gatherings on campus with Breakaway Ministries – places that were safe, where students could be discipled into adulthood.
But what does it look like when you are suddenly called to be the one doing the discipling?
Erika grew up about as far from the Bible Belt as one can possibly be. Osaka, Japan, is amongst the world’s most ancient cities, with evidence of inhabitants dating back as far as fifth and sixth century BC. While there is religious freedom in Japan, upwards of 96% of the population subscribe to some version of Shinto or Buddhism, or a mixture thereof. And while the Shinto religion is often described as having as many as eight million gods, belief in one God is culturally looked down upon. Christianity makes up less than 1% of their population.
Erika found herself coming from this culture - ancient and modern and spiritual and humanistic, all at once - and entered a year-long program at A&M to study sports psychology as part of a study abroad partnership with her school in Japan. The cultural jolt would be enough - different food, big skies, all of A&M’s unique student traditions, cheese on everything - but it was even more of a jolt due to her lack of English language skills. So, she started attending English classes at the local Baptist Student Ministry, where it just so happened that Sarah volunteered as a teacher.
It’s funny how God can show up in unexpected ways. Through the English classes, Sarah and Erika began getting to know one another. After class one night, Sarah invited Erika to a coffee shop to study. It was then that their conversation turned to things other than school, like religion. Sarah was genuinely curious about Shintoism and Japanese culture and beliefs, but began talking about her own beliefs as well. She asked Erika if she could pray for her, and if she would like to start reading and learning more about the Bible. While the thought of doing so scared her because it is so abnormal in Japan, her curiosity was piqued as well and they set a date to start reading together.
It was slow going at first. Sarah asked Erika questions, and Erika asked Sarah other questions. They discussed, they wrestled.
As they inched closer to winter break, Sarah asked Erika in one of their meetings, “Do you think this is something that you could ever believe?” Erika was polite, but told her, “I don’t know that I could ever see myself believing this.”
And yet, Erika wanted to keep reading and studying. There was something about the Bible stories that kept engaging her.
Over winter break, Erika even began reading the Bible on her own.
Erika had always been the type of kid who asked big questions: Why are we here? What is my purpose? What does it take to be happy? She had read many books in search of these answers but had yet to find anything that felt right to her. As a curious child, her parents had even told her to stop thinking about and asking these questions, but her curiosity never ceased.
Despite this feeling of wanting more, however, was the pull of her old, familiar life. She felt anxiety over what other Japanese people and friends would think of her if they knew she had been studying the Bible. She worried about what her parents might think. It all became too much for her, and she had resolved to reject the idea of God.
Two weeks later, though, alone in her room, it all came to a head for Erika. She was tired and sad and still anxious about what her friends at home would think of her when she returned at the end of the semester. For the first time since she had come to the States, she cried. It was then that she realized she needed Jesus. She didn’t know if she believed in Him yet, but she wanted so deeply to. She wanted to know Him more.
So, she decided to start reading and studying the Bible again with Sarah.
Erika had never known what it meant to have faith like a child. Up until that point, the only way she had felt connected to what she was reading in the Bible, despite all of her discussions with Sarah, was if she looked at it as though it were a history book or some kind of mythology.
But in early February, she began learning about childlike faith – that there wasn’t anything she could do to make God love her more, and nothing she could do to make God love her any less.
And slowly, it all began clicking into place. Erika knew she would always have some questions. Those would never go away. But she learned that just because she had questions, she could still simply believe in the love of Jesus and what He did for her.
A few days later she told Sarah. They prayed together, hugged, and prayed again with gratitude.
Erika finally felt true peace.
Sarah walked alongside Erika for the rest of the semester. They went to church together. They went to Breakaway together. And they continued to read the Bible with one another.
Erika still didn’t know what things would be like when she went home at the end of the semester, but she held onto hope. She was baptized in the spring by Sarah, and another friend from Japan was there to watch. Erika had been nervous to tell her about all that had happened, but her friend gladly accepted her.
Erika gained confidence and knew that if that first friend accepted her with her newfound beliefs, then maybe the rest of her community back home would also. If not now, then maybe one day. Sarah was a vessel to proclaim the Good News to Erika, and now Erika was equipped with the same power to do the same when she returned home.