An Unexpected Question: How ESL classes led to caring for children with autism

There are many misconceptions surrounding Christianity in Japan. 

Some view it as a cult while others see it as a mostly western religion with little reason to be in the country at all. In the 17th century, Japan’s efforts to root out all Christianity meant thousands of Japanese Christians were killed, tortured, or eventually renounced their faith. Since then, Christianity has remained a fringe religion with only about 1% of Japanese people claiming to be Christian.

But through persistence and patience, I’ve seen God open up new doors for Kingdom Workers to serve.

My work with Kingdom Workers in Mito, Japan began by using English language classes as a way to share the gospel with kids, teens, and young adults. Many of the students, nearly 70%, told me that the English classes were the first time they had ever read a Bible.

It is always a joy to watch students’ faces light up as they start to grasp just how good God’s grace really is. As I get to know many of my students, they open up and ask me questions about faith. One mother asked if her son could be a Christian and still practice karate. Another wanted to know how God could really forgive bad people, like criminals.


Pastor Haga, leads a bible study at Megumi Lutheran Church in Mito, Japan.


Sometimes, a group of students will stick around for over an hour after class is done to talk more about the Bible. For each question asked, Pastor Haga (pastor at Megumi Lutheran Church in Mito) and I are usually able to provide an answer. But then came a question I wasn’t expecting. 


How could I help their child with autism?


In the United States there are many resources available to parents of children with autism. But in Japan that is not the case. Children in the United States are also often diagnosed with autism around age three while in Japan, diagnosis doesn’t happen until a few years later. One reason for this delay is that parents don’t want to have the issue become a reality. They don’t want to have to face the difficult truth that their child may need help.

Without a diagnosis, Japanese children don’t receive the care, education, and attention they need during key developmental years. This puts an enormous amount of pressure on the mothers who feel they must be a mom, teacher, and disciplinarian.

Slowly, more mothers came to me asking about help for their child with autism. I realized that God was presenting a huge opportunity for us to show His love to a new group of people who were really hurting.

Kingdom Workers then set out to find a specialist to help us serve the families in our English classes who have a child with autism. Right before the pandemic hit, we hired Kim Zehfus. Kim had spent the last four years working as a behavioral tech doing in-home work for kids with autism in Washington state. She has a clear passion for helping children on the spectrum and is looking forward to serving in a foreign country.


Kim Zehfus, Japan Program Coordinator & Behavioral Analyst, talks with two families in Japan who have children with autism.


While waiting for Japan’s borders to open, Kim has been meeting with several of the families here in Japan via Zoom. Pastor Haga translates so that Kim can develop a relationship with the families. She understands that establishing trust between herself and the families will be vital if they are to share their full worries and concerns with her. Kim shared that during one of her conversations a mother opened up and said, “It is nice to have someone to share the burden.”

When Kim eventually does arrive in Japan, our hope is that she can organize a family support program for parents of children with autism. She also hopes to provide insight on how to make some of the English language classes more inclusive for children with autism.

If you were to ask me a few years ago what I thought the future of our work in Japan would look like, I don’t think I would have said autism outreach and support groups for parents. But that’s where God has led us and I am looking forward to seeing how this new avenue of service opens up opportunities to share the gospel in new ways.


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