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Bless your heart to the ECU football team. You played with the fundamentals that I spoke of earlier, and you won. Keep...

Japanese Table Talk

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Kaya Nakamura, 21, and her mother Minori Nakamura make a stir-fry during the monthly Japanese outreach program at Oakmont Baptist Church Friday, March 10, 2017.

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Kim Grizzard

Sunday, March 19, 2017

This is not the typical church potluck.

Lined up on the buffet, along with tea and desserts, are takeout pizza and seaweed veggie wraps.Those around this table at Oakmont Baptist Church appear to be as varied as the menu. There are toddlers and senior adults, Baptists and Buddhists speaking English and Japanese.

The outreach ministry, simply known as Japanese Table Talk, is exactly what the name suggests — Japanese and Americans sitting down for dinner and conversation. For nearly a decade, the two groups have come together once a month for food and friendship, crafts and cultural exchange.

At a recent gathering, a few dozen Japanese residents — mostly mothers and children — joined their American friends to celebrate the coming of spring with marshmallow Peeps and sushi. A few dressed in traditional Japanese kimonos for the occasion. Most arrived early and stayed late.

“They have an interest in getting together and having a sense of community,” said Jimmie Hughes, director of missions at Oakmont. “A lot of these moms stay home; they’re stuck in their home. If they haven’t learned English well, then there are not many people who they could have a conversation with.

“We see there’s a need for fellowship and community and showing hospitality,” she said. “(It’s) being Christ-like, welcoming the stranger.”

When the church welcomed its first group of Japanese visitors in 2008, the idea was to establish a new Christian congregation. Hughes recalls how a representative of the South Roanoke Baptist Association approached Oakmont in 2007 to see if the church would be willing to partner with Raleigh’s First Baptist Church to plant a new Japanese church in Greenville.

Japanese families were coming to the area for jobs at corporations such as ASMO and Fuji Silysia or for positions at East Carolina University. The association estimated that Pitt County had experienced an influx of as many as 300 new Japanese families, most of whom would call eastern North Carolina home for two to five years.

While Oakmont was not a stranger to international outreach, having sent short-term mission teams to several foreign countries, Hughes was surprised at the numbers of Japanese families living within reach.

“I never would have thought about it or had any idea there were that many living here,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about Japan. I don’t speak Japanese.”

But a couple of people at Oakmont did. They were among about a dozen members of the congregation who volunteered to help launch Japanese Table Talk.

David Steele, who was stationed in Japan while serving in the Marines in 1970, had forgotten most of the Japanese he had learned. But he had never lost his love of the Japanese culture. He and Faye hosted the first Japanese Table Talk in their home nine years ago. Nearly 100 people showed up for the cookout.

Simon Yokoi, then pastor of First Baptist Raleigh’s Japanese mission church, gave a message in Japanese. While their children played outside, the visitors snapped pictures on a tour of the Steeles’ house. It was the first time some of them had ever set foot inside an American home.

“I don’t know if they have quote, unquote American friends because they’re going to be here for a short period of time,” David said. “It’s hard to strike up friendships when you’re only here for a few years.”

By the fall of 2008, Japanese Table Talk was a monthly fixture at the church but remained open to anyone with an interest in the Japanese culture. Some American children attended to spend time with their Japanese schoolmates. A Japanese language class from South Central High School visited so students could practice their vocabulary.

Translation isn’t always a necessity; English is commonly taught in schools in Japan. Still, Japanese who are new to the United States often lack confidence in their conversation skills.

Japanese children, who are learning English in school, sometimes help bridge the communication gaps.

“Some of us have a cellphone with a language app on it, so we’ll communicate that way,” Faye Steele said. “And of course (we use) hand gestures.”

For Japanese Table Talk participant Mariko Eguchi, language was no obstacle. A visiting scholar at ECU, Eguchi is fluent in English. But since she arrived in Greenville in August, she had been experiencing a bit of cultural homesickness. Japanese Table Talk seems to be a cure.

“At first, I knew only a few people who are related to Japan, and I felt kind of lonely because I wanted to express myself in my own native language freely,” she said. “I needed people. I needed friends, a social life for myself so that I could keep my sanity.

“My professional identity was validated by ECU people, but my ‘Japaneseness’ was kind of at risk because I was able to speak only with my family members.”

At Japanese Table Talk, Eguchi found friends she could talk with about family matters. She also found comfort in familiar foods from home.

“I was at first apprehensive meeting new people, but as soon as I came here, everyone was so welcoming,” she said. “They really wanted me to belong here, so my apprehension just disappeared because they were so friendly. They started conversation; they are interested in me. That was really amazing, so I felt very at home.”

Eguchi, who said Japanese often view religion in an unfavorable light, was initially hesitant to attend a meeting at a church.

“Generally speaking, Japanese don’t like religions at all,” she said. “We believe religions are not really good because we see world wars and conflicts always occurred by religious fundamentalism. Islamic fundamentalists, terrorists. There is a tendency to think religions are kind of dangerous. Here my apprehension toward Christianity totally disappeared.”

Eguchi has even been attending a local English as a second language Bible study, which is offered to, but not required of, Japanese Table Talk participants.

Signs of the Christian faith are evident throughout Japanese Table Talk. A prayer is offered before meals, a devotional message afterward. At a recent dinner, children were invited to color a picture of a cross or to use colored tissue paper to create art that looked like stained glass. Song lyrics for “Jesus Loves Me” were available in English and Japanese.

Much of the Christian teaching centers on holidays, with American volunteers explaining the religious significance of Christmas and Easter. Japanese residents have helped to pack donation boxes for Samaritan’s Purse’s Operation Christmas Child and have been invited to bring their instruments to join in the playing of Christmas carols.

Kimmie Ishikawa, who is Buddhist, is not bothered by the displays of the Christian faith.

“They’re not pushing you to be a Christian,” she said. “I feel that people are very warm … That’s why I came here; I can feel that.”

Ishikawa moved with her husband to Greenville three months ago for his job. But this is not the first time she has lived outside her native Japan.

“Actually, I was a little bit afraid to move here because when I lived abroad before I got so much discrimination,” she said. “People said ‘I hate Asians’ in front of me, so I was afraid of living abroad. But people living here are so kind. It’s very surprising to me.”

Ishikawa, who plans to stay in Greenville for four years, cannot work in the U.S. She has begun volunteering to help students who are studying Japanese and is encouraged by their interest in her language and culture.

There were fewer such opportunities when Shizuko Hoff moved to Greenville more than 25 years ago. Back then, she hardly saw anyone else from Japan.

Hoff, who watched soap operas to try to improve her English, remembers being questioned by a stranger at the mall who was hoping to connect with a Japanese community.

“At first, you feel kind of isolated,” she said. “You’ve got to have a car. You can’t go anywhere. In Japan, we have transportation, buses and subways.”

Though Hoff had lived in Greenville for 15 years before Japanese Table Talk was established, she was eager to bring a dish and join the group.

“I said maybe I can make a pineapple upside down cake. … maybe I can make some casserole, but they (Japanese and Americans) really like Japanese food,” she said, laughing.

While the outreach ministry has not proved to be a recipe for launching a Japanese congregation, volunteers believe it helps to satisfy a hunger for friendship and belonging.

There is a hope that faith will follow. Some former members of Japanese Table Talk have continued in Bible study after returning to Japan.

“When we talk about Jesus dying on the cross for our sins, the need for salvation, that’s a totally new concept for most of them,” Hughes said. “Some have continued to seek it out.

“I think that’s a good thing because it is such a new concept,” she said. “Them converting to Christianity after a couple of months is not impossible, but it takes a long time to hear this message and see if these people are for real.”

The Steeles agree. While there is no longer much talk about planting a church, they celebrate the friendships that have blossomed during the time the Japanese families remain in Greenville.

“Some of them have wanted to take a picture with me before they would leave,” Faye Steele said. “It just gives me the impression that us being here and (us) being with them has really meant something to them.

“We may not ever know what comes from this as far as faith,” she said. “But we do have opportunities sometimes to have some of those conversations, just planting seeds and leaving it up to God as to what may grow one day.”

Japanese Table Talk meets monthly at Oakmont Baptist Church, 1100 Red Banks Road. For a meeting schedule or more information, call 756-1245 or email jimmie@oakmontchurch.com.

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