My Missionary Great-Grandfather Led Me to Christ

But only after I went to Japan in search of his life story.
My Missionary Great-Grandfather Led Me to Christ
Image: Athena Lonsdale

I couldn’t believe it when I opened my email.

Inside my inbox was an invitation to the 120th anniversary celebration of a church in Osaka—a church founded by my great-grandfather, a 19th-century Presbyterian missionary. The minister had Googled my great-grandfather’s name, and apparently my own name had popped up, along with the text of a speech I had given in Tokyo a few years earlier just after leaving my job as a top official of an international organization in Paris. The topic was “National Identity and International Pressures: Are they compatible?”

I had given hundreds of speeches during my diplomatic career without mentioning my great-grandfather, the Reverend Thomas Theron Alexander. But the challenge of maintaining a cultural identity in the face of a rapidly shrinking world was something he and his adopted countrymen surely would have understood. My hosts posted the speech online, forever linking my name with my great-grandfather’s in cyberspace.

When I read the email, I felt something pulling me toward Japan and the story of my great-grandfather’s struggles and triumphs there. Before long—and against all odds—his example would help launch my own journey of faith.

Shunning Religion

I was born in the flat lowlands of Texas, in the far southeastern corner near the Gulf Coast and Louisiana. My family moved often, going wherever my father’s career as a chemical engineer took us.

Although not particularly religious, my parents occasionally took my brother and me to church. Both had been raised in the church and felt they should expose their children to the Bible and religion.

I remember sitting with my parents in the sanctuary during the beginning of each service, which I didn’t mind. But soon, all the kids were herded down to a basement room filled with pictures, books, games, and colorful objects designed to appeal to young children like me.

I hated it.

Sitting in a semi-circle on the floor, we would crane our necks up at our teacher, who tried to pique our interest in stories of Jesus and his miracles. But what stood out for me in the picture books she held was the barren wasteland of desert sand, camels ridden by one-dimensional figures in heat-trapping robes, and a sprinkling of palm trees, seemingly incapable of offering cooling shade to nomadic travelers. The books’ messages were lost on me.

Only when I was 13 or 14 did I feel any longing for church, but by then we lived too far away to walk, and my parents had no interest in taking me.

From then on, my life was occupied by college, graduate school, and a high-flying career as an international economist and trade negotiator in Washington, DC. Eventually, I became deputy secretary general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which offers policy advice to member governments. Stationed in Paris, I was the first woman and youngest person to serve in that role.

During those years, I held religion firmly at arm’s length. When I considered its divisive impact on human affairs, as well as the hypocrisy that flourishes even among the so-called faithful, I felt it wasn’t for me.

Like so many in modern secular society, I considered myself spiritual but shunned most of the practices and beliefs associated with organized religion. Sometimes, though, I longed for an outlet for spiritual feelings harbored deep inside.

Journeys to Japan

After receiving the surprise email from Japan, I flew to Osaka to take part in Sunday worship and an afternoon anniversary celebration at the church founded by my great-grandfather.

As I listened to the minister’s preaching, my gaze fell on the organist. I thought about my great-grandfather’s struggles to control his emotions during Sunday services following the sudden death of his 14-year-old daughter, Ella, who had played organ at the same church.

The day before the church’s anniversary celebration, I had visited Ella’s grave, guided by the church’s minister, an elder, and the elder’s husband. Driving into the cemetery, we passed by hundreds of well-tended graves from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. France, Spain, Russia, England, America, and other countries were represented, poignant evidence of the many sojourners who had died so far from home. We recited the Lord’s Prayer and sang “Amazing Grace” as a final tribute. Afterwards, we washed the headstone in Japanese tradition, carefully scrubbing moss and dirt from the crevices of Ella’s name and epitaph.

I fought to hold back tears.

More visits to Japan followed, bringing new friends and further discoveries. I spoke at the anniversary celebration of another church my great-grandfather had founded in Osaka and delved deeper into his work as a writer and theologian at Meiji Gakuin University. Over time, I gained a clearer picture of how he had influenced the people he served.

Change of Heart

My life in Paris was great in many ways, yet something was missing. A feeling deep inside pushed closer and closer to the surface, nagging me with thoughts of a more “normal” life: of community and day-to-day rhythms focused more on family and friends than on international travel and high-level diplomacy.

So in 1999, I traded chauffeured cars and dinners with ambassadors for cowboy boots and life on a 240-acre farm in the Rocky Mountain Northwest region of Montana, not far from the university where I now teach part time. And I finally embarked on a book about my great-grandfather.

I knew that if I hoped to understand what drew him into ministry in Japan, I needed to learn more about Christianity. So, for the first time, I began to read the Bible in a meaningful way, under the guidance of two devout relatives. A long-suppressed inner flame burned brighter as I read and contemplated the Scriptures. Several verses in particular spoke to me.

In Luke 17:20–21, when Jesus is asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God is coming, he replies: “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed; nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.” And in John 14:9, Jesus says, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”

For the first time, I felt I understood the true meaning of faith, as hope in things unseen. I understood, too, how Jesus taught us what it means to be God’s people, loving one another as we love ourselves. Only through love can we help bring God’s kingdom to life on earth as it is in heaven.

When I further considered the enduring faith of Japanese Christians whose ancestors were taught by missionaries like my great-grandfather, the spiritual yearning I had felt much of my life gained a new focus. My great-grandfather’s hand, still for over 100 years, seemed to beckon, and I followed. In 2007, I joined a small Presbyterian church in northwestern Montana. For the last six years, I have served as a ruling elder, keeping the same vows my great-grandfather took: to trust in Jesus Christ my Savior, acknowledging him Lord of all and head of the church.

You might say I’m the latest convert of a man whose work clearly was not done when he died more than a century ago.

Joanna Reed Shelton is the author of A Christian in the Land of the Gods: Journey of Faith in Japan (Cascade).

December
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My Missionary Great-Grandfather Led Me to Christ