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  • Writer's pictureMark Bocanegra

"We just need more guts."

In the city of Osaka, Japan, Yoshinobu Hirohashi was born in October 1939. For those who do not know Osaka, it is the 2nd largest metropolitan area (Kansai) in Japan. Compared to those from Kanto (Area around Tokyo), those who are from Kansai are usually known to be outspoken, friendly, warm, and people who know how to have a great time. For those who know World History, two years after the young Yoshinobu was born, World War II in the Pacific began. Hirohashi sensei remembers how the entire Japanese society engaging in Emperor worship (even after the war in a different form). As the Pacific War came to a close, in the months of March, June, and even on the last day of WWII, American bombers dropped 1,733 tons of bombs in urban areas of Osaka, which took nearly 10,000 civilian lives. After WWII, droves of missionaries from the United States entered into Japan with the hope of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ to this war-torn and defeated country. One of those missionaries was named Catherine Iwasa, a 2nd generation Japanese-American from Hawaii. She met 16-year-old Yoshinobu and led him to Christ. He did not know it at that time, but his whole world completely changed into a life of bearing the Cross for His Lord Jesus Christ. Approximately a year later, when he was preparing for life after high school, he felt the call to ministry after reading Isaiah 6:8: And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” When he asked for his devout Buddhist parents of the Souka-gakai sect for their blessing, his father replied: "I would never allow any member of my family to be a pastor of the most false Christian religion." From that moment on, young Yoshinobu was disowned from his family. No contact with them since. He applied to Japan Christ Seminary in Tokyo--a "start-up" seminary with a 6-year training program. It was not accredited by the government and had no history; It was the equivalent of an informal 'trade school' which was taught by Presbyterian missionaries with Japanese translation. He essentially risked six years of his formative life to these American missionaries he did not really know. He would later joke with me that he is now pastoring a congregation with folks with college degrees, master degrees, doctorates, and professorships with merely a high school degree. In my (Mark) casual conversations with him, I remember him recounting how much he risked to become a pastor. He said that because his parents wouldn't support his application to seminary, as a highschool student, he had only enough money to buy a one-way train ticket from Osaka to Japan. He went anyway. And God miraculously provided his return ticket through a Christian brother. He would also say that the seminary did not have comfortable dorms, but multiple young men with similar stories would be cramped into a small apartment. Many of them worked to pay for their tuition and dorm fees, while they studied for six long years.  He would always say to me that seminary students these days (in Japan and US) have it so easy. At that time, seminary students did not have churches to apply to for a job and expect a livable salary. Essentially, seminary students were expected to plant their own congregation or minister at financially unstable congregations while they were studying in seminary and working side jobs. He recalled how Professors would rotate through the congregations their students would preach at in order to administer the sacraments. Hirohashi-sensei recounts how many people dropped out of the seminary program because it was too difficult. In 1964, Hirohashi-sensei graduated from seminary and became a licensed Evangelist (not pastor) of a non-denominational church. The pastor was a bivocational pastor who was also a medical doctor. Hirohashi-sensei would work with the pastor during the week as a medical assistant and then serve as a Evangelist on the weekend. For the first sixteen years of ministry, he had to be a bivocational pastor; he worked as a medical assistant, a salesman of encyclopedias, the head of the administrative office of a seminary and even taught several Bible-based correspondent courses.  Two years later, in 1966, the Church Presbyterian Church in Japan (denomination) called him to be a church planting pastor. He successfully planted, particularized, and after 16 years handed it off to another pastor. This church (Chofu Minami Church) still exists today. He then succeeded a respected pastor (Dr. Rev. Uda) and expanded Kugayama Church. In passing, he would also say that he was the first pastor in the denomination to have proposed to build a church building--many people thought it was an unwise use of resources. In a culture of overwork, he would also say that he was one of the first pastors to take a two-week vacation as well. He was a pastor who was unafraid to work against the wind or swim upstream. He also worked (most likely for free) as his presbytery's moderator (1 year) and clerk (5 years), his denomination's clerk (4 years) and moderator (10 years). On the side he worked on the board for Wycliffe Japan for 34 years. In 1992, the denomination called him as the head of domestic missions who was to coach and to help develop 10 church plants. However, at the age of 60, at the seeming end of an illustrious career, he felt called to church plant in a new town called Bay Town.  He would say to me that after coaching pastors to church plant for 11 years, he felt like there were not enough young people or experienced people called to plant healthy churches. And instead of waiting for or coaching other people to do it, he felt called to do it himself.  Now this church he planted in 2001 is a healthy church of 50-60 people, named Kaihin Makuhari Grace Church. Under their session, they are in the process of planting another church in Shin Urayasu (currently about 40-60 people). Furthermore, it wants to start a new congregation as their neighborhood expands even more. When I first talked with Hirohashi-sensei, I asked him the question: What do you think the Presbyterian Church of Japan needs to expand or go to the next level of growth? He gave me the most unexpected answer. (I will paraphrase him from memory.) "You know the Presbyterian Church of Japan has good solid doctrine. We have good Reformed books translated and published in Japanese. After building two church buildings in my career, I know that Japanese Christians are generous. We have several seminaries that we can send our candidates to. We have multiple presbyteries and a solid book of church order. To a certain degree, we have the tools, the money, the education, and the theology to do what we need to do. (It doesn't mean we don't need outside help, we still do!) “But after coaching 10 church plants and doing 3 church plants on my own, my conclusion is that we (the PCJ) simply don't have the guts to do the things that we need to do. My feeling is that many pastors are either scared of risking certain things or are too complacent. Pastors are simply not going all out. I believe if we truly work with expectation and vigor, the LORD will not forsake us. I know it for a fact, as I reflect on my own life." As a pastor of Kaihin Makuhari Grace Church, I am working with the session so that Pastor Hirohashi can retire at the age of 85. After hoping to retire after a 60-year career, he even requested the session to still have him on as an 'honorary member' so that he can still serve churches who need help. (He even jokes that he will die more quickly in retirement if he doesn't have anything to do--this is his Kansai humor kicking in). However, as I am furiously preparing for the transition and terrified of church life after Pastor Hirohashi, he assures me (and the session) with a big grin, "I am not worried one bit."

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