“Anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Kaito Tanaka* did not expect to learn this Bible verse. In fact, he had never heard of it before coming to the University of North Dakota (UND) in Grand Forks as an English Learning School (ELS) student from Japan last September.
Instead, he expected what most ELS students expect: to learn English, make friends, and explore the United States.
While meeting these expectations has been transformational for Tanaka, they do not compare to how the unexpected has radically changed his life.
Tanaka, 21, came to UND from Osaka, Japan, for an eight-month study abroad through Kindai University. His childhood dream was to learn English and come to the U.S., but within a week of arriving at UND, Tanaka learned his mother had been diagnosed with a potentially cancerous brain tumor.
“I was thinking that if my mother died . . . , how would I live without her?” says Tanaka, who has a close relationship with his mother. “I wanted to go back as soon as I could.”
A fellow Japanese exchange student recommended that Tanaka check out Freedom Church in downtown Grand Forks. Even though Tanaka considered himself an atheist, the recommendation caught his interest.
“[My friend] told me church was a good place to make friends in the U.S.,” Tanaka explains.
Tanaka visited Freedom Church with four other Japanese friends.
“Everyone sang songs, everyone lifted their hands, I felt strange, different from Japan,” he says. “I felt strange, but I felt their power. I felt their faith.”
At that church service, Tanaka and his friends met Naoto Ashino, an aviation flight instruction graduate at UND. As a Christian from Japan, Ashino took Tanaka under his wing, along with his friends.
“To my surprise, Kaito was the one who asked me about God, and I realized he was seeking God,” Ashino says. “I noticed there was no doubt in his heart and his face was shining with hope. I was hoping to share the gospel with him even before he asked me about God.”
Afterward, Ashino met with the group of Japanese students two to four times a week to cook Japanese food, play Nintendo 64, and practice English, as well as to read the Bible and pray for one another. As Ashino continued pouring into the group, Tanaka saw something different about Ashino.
“Whatever we said to Naoto, Naoto accepted,” Tanaka says. “He is very patient and I wondered how he was so patient. The difference between (Christians) is patience and how they treat people.”
Additionally, Ashino introduced Tanaka to UND Chi Alpha Campus Ministries, a student organization and a ministry of AG U.S. Missions. Through the ministry, Tanaka got involved in a small group and was embraced by a welcoming community.
“The typical American is not willing to speak to international students, but people at Chi Alpha are willing to do that,” Tanaka says. “Every time I go there, I feel warmth, belongingness. I connect with people very deeply, and I feel they are genuine and authentic friends.”
The community at Chi Alpha and Freedom Church especially helped Tanaka through his mother’s health crisis.
“The atmosphere at church and Chi Alpha made me not pay attention to the case of my mother,” Tanaka says. “I felt when I was in church or anywhere involved with Chi Alpha or Christianity, she would probably be good. She would get healed and the tumor would be gone.”
The sense that his mother would be OK increased after a small group gathering in October. Tanaka told the group about his mother’s condition, and everyone circled up for prayer as the leader, Judah Negron, prayed for his mom.
Two weeks later, Tanaka’s mother underwent successful surgery to have her tumor removed. Although the tumor was previously declared non-cancerous, doctors were concerned that it could lead to cancer. However, they found no signs of cancer during the operation.
“I felt relief,” Tanaka says. “It was literally healing given from God.”
From there, Tanaka and his friends continued going to small group on Monday nights and learned more about God and how to live as a Christian. They also developed close relationships with Americans in their group, but especially Negron.
“He’s one of my best friends in the U.S.,” Tanaka says. “Without him, we wouldn’t improve our English skills and we wouldn’t have many friends in the U.S.”
Nevertheless, after almost a month of going to Freedom Church, Chi Alpha, and small group, Tanaka still had questions about Christianity.
“I was wondering if Jesus exists or not,” Tanaka says. “When I spent time with Naoto, he taught me that living with Jesus is good for our life and then that made me accelerate my feelings (for Jesus).”
But all his doubts were about to disappear shortly after during a service at Freedom Church.
“I was singing a song and I was about to cry and then I felt like God touched my heart,” says Tanaka, who was emotionally struggling with his girlfriend in Japan breaking up with him. “I got healed and cured from him. Then, I talked about it with Judah and Naoto, and then that night I went to Naoto’s house and I decided to be a follower. I wanted to be a believer.”
“I was super-pumped when he said he wanted to pray to receive Jesus into his heart,” Ashino says.
While Tanaka did not expect to become a Christian in the U.S., the decision radically changed his life.
“He (God) has been changing me a lot. He’s a great, perfect Father,” Tanaka says. “Before, if my friends did something I didn’t like, I would lose my temper quickly or ignore that person completely, but after I became a follower, I don’t do that.”
As Tanaka continues to grow in his newfound faith, he is preparing to head back to Osaka, Japan, before the end of April. While he is excited to be reunited with friends and family, he is also concerned about going back as a Christian.
“The number of people that believe in Jesus is just 1 percent in Japan,” Tanaka says. “Japanese culture and tradition doesn’t like minority. I may not be able to tell people that I am Christian. I may have a difficult time finding a church and connecting with a community like Chi Alpha.”
Even so, Tanaka does not see anything changing his love for God.
“I go back to Japan with belief,” he says. “Even when I go back, I will still be a Christian.”
Editor's note: we were able to provide Kaito with the name and email address of an AG missionary from Japan who knows of numerous churches in the city that Kaito lives, and is happy to help him get connected. Kaito has said he plans to reach out to the missionary.