Benjamin Gliniak brings his wife, Izumi, each Sunday to the Japanese International Baptist Church in Tempe.
While Izumi experiences the full service in her native tongue, Benjamin wears an earpiece and listens to the service translated into English by a church member speaking softly behind a folding curtain.
More often than not, religious Americans integrate their foreignborn spouses into their own faith communities and expect those marriage partners to adapt.
But the Gliniaks of Ahwatukee Foothills, married six years, have chosen to connect with a Japanese congregation to maximize Izumi’s worship experience. "You find when you are married, if your wife is not happy, you are not going to be happy," said Gliniak, who adds, "You can worship God anywhere. You come to church to praise God."
He is one of about a half-dozen American men who bring their wives to the church, 25 W. Hudson Lane, which is led by the Rev. Shiro Sasaki. The church meets 10:45 a.m. in one of several remodeled houses, for various ministries, on the south part of the campus of the Church on Mill (First Southern Baptist Church of Tempe), 1300 S. Mill Ave. Afterwards, they share in a potluck and fellowship.
On April 18, the congregation of nearly 50 people went from being a mission work of the Church on Mill to becoming an independent Southern Baptist church.
The Japanese International Baptist Church is the only Japanese congregation in the East Valley. The Valley’s only other known Japanese church is Phoenix Japanese Free Methodist Church, 4143 N. 43rd Ave. It’s estimated there are about 5,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans in the Valley, but a small percentage are Christian, Sasaki said. Typically, Japanese Christians immerse themselves in other existing congregations.
Back in 1997, the Church on Mill invited the Rev. Mike Yokoy, a Japanese pastor in Portland, Ore., to come to Tempe on Friday nights and hold Bible studies and services on Saturdays, then return to Oregon for Sunday services at his own church, said the Rev. Dennis Wood, pastor of the Church on Mill.
Late that year, Yokoy contacted Sasaki in Japan and invited him to preach in Oregon and Arizona. Soon Sasaki was asked to take over the fledging Tempe fellowship and brought his wife, Oshiko, and their three children to the United States. The fellowship had about 25 at the time, and Sasaki held the role of associate pastor for ethnic ministry for the Church on Mill.
Raised a Buddhist in Sendai City, Japan, the 59-year-old clergyman had first gone in 1971 to Texas to study business. A classmate introduced him to Christianity and the Southern Baptist faith. He graduated from Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and was ordained in 1979.
He returned to minister in Japan, where less than 1 percent of the population is Christian. Most Japanese observe aspects of both Buddhism and Shintoism. About 16 percent are identified with other faiths.
To become a Christian, Sasaki said, Buddhism has to be renounced. He said the Japanese culture is receptive to the Ten Commandments, especially the order to "honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long . . ."
Looking back to when she lived in Japan, Yasuko Clark of Tempe said, "We don’t ‘practice’ Shintoism and Buddhism — only on special days we go to the temple."
She became a Christian after coming 10 years to the United States and being invited to a home Bible study. She joined the Tempe fellowship in 1999 and said its smallness, the Bible studies, "great teachers" like the Sasakis and especially the Japanese language make worship there special.
The church’s worship leader and guitarist, Masato Tachi of Phoenix, said he found the church "a kind of community that really duplicates what the original Jewish and Christian fellowship was like in Bible times."
"Japan is a country where having a religion is an unusual thing," said Tachi, who left Japan almost nine years ago. "Everywhere you go, not having a religion is a normal thing."
John Horn of Ahwatukee Foothills married his wife, Natsumi, in Japan and introduced her to Christianity. When they came to Arizona, Horn said he wanted to "choose a place where basically my wife could speak the same language and eat the same food."
The church draws worshippers also from Arizona State University next door where there are about 250 Japanese students enrolled. About 10 children attend Sunday school classes.