Police officers, restaurant workers and university students are just some of the people who gather every Wednesday night at Good News Baptist Church in Jacksonville for a lesson in Japanese language and culture.
But teaching Japanese is not the only reason for the class; the weekly class provides an opportunity to share Jesus with those who come.
Born and raised in a Christian family in Japan, Sugishita learned about Jesus from his father, an evangelist.
As a child Sugishita and his two siblings were the only Christians among the 600-800 students at their school.
“In Japan less than 1% of the population is Christian,” said the pastor.
Three decades of ministry
At age 26 Sugishita came to America and enrolled in The Baptist College of Florida in Graceville, where he earned two bachelor’s degrees.
For the past 33 years he has led a small Japanese fellowship that meets at Good News Church, and he serves as the mission pastor for both the Anglo and Japanese congregations.
After COVID, attendance was down, and he wondered how he could help his church reach new people for Christ. He then had the idea of offering weekly Japanese lessons at the church, and in October 2021 classes began.
To get the word out in the community about the free language classes, he created brochures and took them to local Japanese restaurants and Asian grocery markets and also asked his son, a student at the University of North Florida, to post and distribute the brochures on campus.
Prayer, Scripture, lesson, hymn
About 12-18 students attend class each Wednesday evening. Sugishita opens the class with prayer, shares a Bible verse that he writes in Japanese and translates into English, and then leads about a 40-minute Japanese language lesson.
“They can learn to sing in Japanese,” said the language teacher.
According to Sugishita, most students are single and in their 20s.
“I make sure they are accepted, loved unconditionally. I have the freedom to say what I believe, and we have a very warm atmosphere in the class,” said the mission pastor.
‘Students and friends’
One evening after class a student left his key in the classroom. Sugishita went back to open the church door for the student and saw several other students were with him in the parking lot, not wanting him to be by himself.
“I was surprised; I cried to see that they care for each other. If they really love and care for each other, they have a good reason to come to class and communicate,” said the teacher.
His wife Satomi, church pianist and organist, helps her husband teach the weekly language classes. The couple also use their home to host the students for gatherings and parties.
“They are our students and our friends,” shared Sugishita.
With only 100-200 Japanese living in the Jacksonville area, Sugishita’s mission field is no longer just the Japanese population; he now sees unlimited opportunities to reach all people in Jacksonville by offering language classes.
Sugishita has heart set on reaching out to the thousands of U.S. Navy personnel at Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville.
“Some of them may go to Japan; I want to let them know that they have the opportunity to study Japanese language and culture before they go to Japan,” said Sugishita.
“Makoto and Satomi are reaching out to people who may not otherwise engage with a local church by offering the opportunity to learn Japanese free of charge. I can’t wait to see the impact this ministry will have on the lives of these precious souls,” shared Steve Bailey, pastor, Good News Baptist Church.