ANDERSON — Surrounded by the close friends of a regular small group Bible study, Ann Smith told the tale of “a trip of a lifetime.” She animatedly conveyed the message of her month-long stay in Japan: God can use anybody.
“The thing that most blew me off of the map was realizing what an incredible God we serve that can do such amazing things through imperfect missionaries like us and the ripple effect of it all,” said Smith. She and her husband, Nathan, had planted five churches in Japan in their youth and she was invited to speak at the 50th anniversary celebration of one of them last month. “We didn’t always do the right thing,” she said. We made mistakes, but we were always trying to share the love of God in any way we could.”
Nathan, now deceased, and Ann left Anderson in 1951 — only one year after their marriage. They traveled to Tachikawa, where they helped a captain’s Bible study with young Japanese men form a church. Five years later they moved to the island of Kyushu, where they planted two churches and worked with two others.
“Offering a kindergarten program was often part of a new church plant,” said Smith. “It was a good way to get involved with the community. Christian kindergartens had good reputations in Japan and it was a way to get to know people.”
She and Nathan made many friends over their 26-year missionary experience. Thrilled to touch base with so many of them, her visit was one delightful reunion after another.
“One man rode a train three hours to have lunch with me,” she said with wonder in her eyes. “It was incredible.”
She tried to find her former home, an old farmhouse in the middle of a rice paddy. What was a village of 5,000 is now a metropolis with an elevated train. Certain she had found the correct street, she started asking strangers if they knew where her house was. One startled her by knowing her name. He called his sister, who pulled out old pictures of Nathan. He had graduated from one of their kindergarten classes.
“Former students amazed me over and over again,” said Smith, who also taught at the university for 10 years. “They could tell me exactly what I said and the stories I told — verbatim. Many of the young women became teachers. They are a wonderful group.”
Even families that were at first reluctant to the Gospel message sought her out to tell their story. One mother was completely opposed to her junior high son’s desire to come to a Bible study. She told Smith that because he did, four generations have become Christians — including herself and her husband.
Another man who had been accepted by the group despite mental difficulties brought Smith to tears. Out of his pocket he pulled a letter she had written him 50 years ago telling him that God loves him and that she is proud of his faith. The letter is falling apart because it has been carried and read so often.
“I stand in awe before God, who can take such feeble efforts and multiply them,” said Smith. “I learned so much on this trip.”
Group members expressed concern because they knew she would to be sleeping on the floor during part of the journey.
“I only had to sleep on the floor five days,” answered the 88-year-old woman, as if it was no inconvenience at all. “Most of the time I had a bed.”
During the trip, Smith spoke six times at large gatherings, but also spoke in small groups. During one of the engagements she talked about choices.
“I’m 88 years old and I’ve made three choices that have enormously impacted my life,” she repeated for the local group. “I would make every one of them again. Follow Jesus, marry Nathan and go to Japan. It has so shaped my faith journey.”
Not one to sit back and take the rest of her life in stride, she used the only 45 minutes she had alone during the trip to plan for the future. She often picks a theme for the upcoming year, but this time she picked a goal for however much time she has left on earth.
“I want to stand like a mountain and flow like water,” she said. “Many people stand for things in a way that is not life-giving water and I don’t want that for my life. You need to give people space to grow. I want to stand for those things that are foundational but in a way that I’m at harmony with others.”