In the backseat of our eight-passenger van, I was quietly contemplating all that I’d seen and heard during the day when a thought — a quiet one — stuck in my brain like humidity sticks to my skin in the middle of a Florida summer. As I watched the city lights blur past my window, I vocalized the thought: “I think I heard Jesus tell me today, ‘This is how church is supposed to be.’”
Without turning around in his seat, a colleague said: “He told me the same thing.”
Our team from Wycliffe USA had come to Yamagata, Japan, to meet with Japanese Deaf believers and learn their stories. We’d been in the Tokyo area earlier in the week, watching the ViBi (Visual Bible) team translate the book of Daniel into Japanese Sign Language.
But when we arrived in Yamagata, the most surprising thing to me wasn’t the city’s cool weather or picturesque mountain views: it was the impact of the local Deaf church.
In the U.S., churches are often big buildings with crowds of people who gather on Sunday mornings. There are choirs and organs, communion glasses, offering baskets, podiums and stages, expensive sound equipment and state-of-the-art technology. People sit in pews or chairs and listen for an hour as a pastor tells them three (usually) alliterative takeaways from the sermon. They might attend Bible studies on Sunday mornings, send their children to “kid’s church” or meet with their church friends throughout the week in their homes.
That’s how church has always been for me, at least: show up, worship, maybe go out to lunch and then go home. Rinse, lather, repeat the next Sunday. There’s nothing inherently wrong or bad about church fitting seamlessly into my weekly routine; it’s often a much-needed break after a stressful work week or busy weekend. But that’s how I’ve always thought about church — as a fixed point in time on a Sunday and then another smaller, fixed point in time on a Wednesday night when I meet with my Bible study. Two events on my calendar.
But I think Jesus always intended for church to be something more, something better than just a calendar event or a few hours carved out on a weekend. And when I met the Yamagata Deaf Christ Church congregation in Japan, I saw how church could be.
The Yamagata Deaf Christ Church is over 30 years old. It sits in the middle of a tiny, steep hill whose gravely road continues to wind upward into a small mountain and outlook that provides incredible panoramic views of the city.
When you step inside the church itself though, you won’t find pews. Instead you’ll find tables arranged with padded folding chairs facing a small stage with a wooden pulpit. The carpet is pale pink, and there’s an entire wall of VHS tapes which the congregation never uses anymore. Everything from the carpet to the bookshelves reminds me of the first ever evangelical church I’d attended in the U.S., and I immediately feel nostalgic.
Two fans buzz and whir in different areas of the room because even though we’re in the mountains, it’s still hot and the afternoon sunlight streams into windows that frame the walls of the room. Some of the women fan themselves as they focus their attention on an old television set in the corner that’s playing a portion of the Japanese Bible.
But this isn’t Sunday morning service; it’s a Friday afternoon and almost a dozen of the congregants have gathered for a Bible study and prayer meeting.
The group sits around a circular table where there are freshly sliced apples, crisp and sweet, in a bowl for guests. More plates and bowls with food are crowded in the center of the table; novelty mugs with Peter Rabbit and Snoopy are filled with hibiscus tea made by Pastor Eiji Matsumoto’s wife, Kumiko. Slices of Japanese pumpkin (which tastes like a sweet potato) and pickles in containers are passed around as the group converses.
I don’t know what to expect, engaging with a Deaf church. I naively assume the Bible study and prayer meeting will be quiet. But the room is full of laughter as the small group dives into their fellowship. The Bible study officially begins with the group sharing praise reports but this group has already been meeting for an hour over lunch. They’ll meet for two hours to study Scripture and worship, and then they’ll continue to sit in the chapel and converse after Bible study has ended.
The group signs worship songs and then then moves into a lively discussion about their passage, James 3:13-18. There are animated moments and times of misunderstanding as the group exchanges ideas of what it means to live purely and seek righteousness. Pastor Matsumoto, a kind, bespectacled man who leads the discussion, encourages the group to truly work out what Scripture means. At one point, he explains to the group that memorizing Scripture is good, but that it’s only effective when you understand and apply it for yourself. So he challenges each person to try and figure out, in their own words, what the passage is saying.
Later, I asked some of the congregants why the church is so important to them — why it’s necessary to meet together. A man named Tadashi signed: “We can help and encourage each other. Whatever we can do, we do it; and when someone doesn't understand or cannot do, we help them. … We have this place called church where we can help each other, and that's important for me.”
As I sit, mesmerized by the group’s discussion, I think about my own Bible study at home. We all grew up in different church backgrounds and don’t even realize, until we debate a passage or a verse’s meaning, how much of our past is ingrained in our understanding of God and Scripture. As my group discusses and debates words and meanings, we’re pulling out our hard copies of Scripture or switching between different versions of the passage in YouVersion.
Comparing my Bible study in the U.S. to this one in Japan, I realize that these men and women have never had the option to flip between different versions of Scripture. They still don’t have that option.
“I am someone who seeks to know who Jesus is,” a woman named Sayoko signed. “I have been saved. I learned that Jesus is for me and that I need him through the Bible and through preaching. So I can’t even imagine not going to church.” Truly, Sayoko, Tadashi and countless other Deaf in Japan would be very limited in their knowledge of Jesus if it wasn’t for the Deaf church and Scripture in sign language.
THE LOVE OF GOD IN SIGN LANGUAGE
The Yamagata Deaf Christ Church brings Acts 2:42-47 to mind:
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (ESV).
I’ve referred to people I know through church as my “church family” and you probably have too. But that phrase takes on a whole new meaning as I witness a Sunday at the Yamagata Deaf Christ Church.
Women and men trickle through the church’s front door around 10 a.m., customarily slipping out of their shoes in the entryway, placing them delicately into cubbies and sliding their feet into slippers. They greet each other, smile and fill cups with coffee or tea.
I take my seat at the side of the room and watch with interest as a woman is guided into the church. Not only is she deaf but blind too. I learn that each week, members of the congregation take turns serving as this woman’s interpreter. It is Sayoko’s turn this week and she signs that she’s a little nervous, afraid she’ll mess up. But she takes the woman’s hands gently in hers to sign Pastor Matsumoto’s message about the prodigal son into her palms.
Pastor Matsumoto was actually born hearing but became deaf when he was little because of a fever. “I would sign at home but outside, I didn’t sign. [I’d] stay quiet. … When I went out shopping with my parents, I would communicate with them with my voice.” A lot of the Deaf church members shared similar experiences with me; they were told that they needed to speak in school, not sign. They were told that they had to read the Japanese Bible to learn about God. Imagine how people like Pastor Matsumoto felt, trying to prepare a sermon using a Bible he couldn’t truly understand.
“When I was preparing for my preaching before the JSL Bible, I would read the Japanese Bible and exegetical research books in Japanese. It would always stress me out and I [wondered] why. Preparing for Sundays and reading the Word of God should be something joyful to do,” he recalled. “But with the JSL Bible ... I can understand what the Scripture says and I can truly enjoy watching and preparing for the message. There's no stress like I feel when I read the Japanese Bible and books.”
Pastor Matsumoto signed: “Through being in Deaf community and working for ViBi, I learned that signing is not something I should be ashamed of; rather it is something that I should be proud of and that I should be proud of my identity as Deaf.”
I’ve been a Christian since I was 12 years old, so I’ve heard the story of the prodigal son countless times, but tears form in the corners of my eyes as I watch Pastor Matsumoto sign about the incredible love of God. “His love is just so big,” he signs. “Incredibly big.” Pastor Matsumoto continues on, affirming that there is no discriminiation in God’s kingdom.
Everyone deserves to know God through his Word.
HANDS AND FEET
After service ends, Kumiko and other women in the church rearrange the tables, set platters, and bring in salads, lemon bars, rice and a large pot filled with beef and potato stew. As I watch the flurry of activity, food and hospitality, I’m amazed that the congregation does this every week. “Not always with as much fanfare or food,” one woman signs to me. Sometimes, she explains, they bring their lunches from home or heat up cups of noodles in the microwave.
As I sit at a table with two older women, we try our best to communicate using what little words I’ve picked up in Japanese Sign Language. Throughout our conversation, they tell me about the history of the Yamagata Deaf Christ Church. They tell me about how the congregants raised half the money they needed to purchase the building, while expats supplied the other half.
My tablemates point out a man eating at one of the other tables in the room and then gesture to the pulpit and bookshelves. “He built them,” they sign and then tell me that he also crafted the beautiful wooden front door of the church. When I ask the women about the pictures I saw of children on their bulletin board, they tell me that the church sponsors Deaf children in the Philippines; they had even sponsored one child until he turned 21.
A few church members meander home after lunch is cleaned up, but for some, lunch turns into late afternoon and then into early evening as people continue their conversations and help clean dishes in the church’s tiny kitchen. The remaining church members gather around one table and explain Japan’s train system to me and my colleagues. There is always food at the table, and they pass around bowls of freshly made popcorn and chips as they show us which lines to take and how to read the train schedule.
And in between logistical conversations, Pastor Matsumoto and Kumiko continue to tell us about their church — about how they see one another as a family and how some of the congregants spend a few days each week helping a 73-year old woman who’s had a stroke and brain tumor learn Japanese Sign Language. She never went to school, but she wants to learn to study the Bible. So they visit often, offering their time and care.
The sun is already dipping low in the sky and we’ve finally figured out the train schedule. Pastor Matsumoto gathers the remaining church members and our Wycliffe USA team to determine where we all are going to dinner. Over pork cutlets, sticky rice, salads and dessert we learn even more about our new friends: their hobbies and interests, who among them are introverts, inside jokes and which one of them owns and rides a motorbike. (It was not who we expected.)
We know we won’t see most of the congregants again, and I try not to let the older Japanese women who’ve treated us like their grandkids all weekend see my tears. They’ve taught me something I wouldn’t soon forget: the church is more than a building. It’s more than a placeholder on the calendar.
We are the church.