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.

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A Christian in the Land of the Gods: Journey of Faith in Japan
A Christian in the Land of the Gods: Journey of Faith in Japan
Cascade Books
306 pp., $63.00
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Christianity Today
My Missionary Great-Grandfather Led Me to Christ