Japanese Family Comes to Gardner-Webb, Finds Ministry in America
Written by Jackie Bridges
A friend and mentor convinced Akihiko “Aki” and Yoko Shigemi to leave their home in Yamaguchi, Japan, 20 years ago and come to America. With support from the Gardner-Webb University family, Aki earned his Master of Divinity in 1998. When his wife decided to attend divinity school in 2012 and their son, Isaac, started looking at colleges, Aki’s first and only recommendation was Gardner-Webb.
“I love Gardner-Webb and I love Boiling Springs (N.C.) and Shelby (N.C.),” Aki affirmed.
The Shigemis came to America after experiencing a series of life-changing events in 1993. Married for more than a decade, they celebrated the birth of their son in February. But in March, Aki’s father was diagnosed with cancer and passed away in October. During his father’s illness, his mother became further debilitated from rheumatoid arthritis.
While dealing with the changes at home, the church that Aki pastored more than doubled in membership. Overwhelmed by responsibilities to his family and the congregation, Aki was hospitalized with depression. Yoko felt alone as she cared for a 7-month-old baby, her husband, mother-in-law and the church. “At that time, I cried out, ‘God, what should I do?’” Yoko recalled.
She sensed the answer was to call Jean Teague Cabaniss, a Gardner-Webb alumna who had served as a missionary in Japan. Cabaniss taught English at Seinan Gakuin University and led a Bible study at the church where Yoko worked as secretary. The Shigemis became good friends with Cabaniss and visited her in America before Isaac was born. After leaving the mission field, Cabaniss was working as GWU Director of International Student Programs.
Hearing Yoko and Aki’s despair, Cabaniss advised the couple to come to America, so they could be surrounded by friends, and Aki could enroll in the GWU School of Divinity. The Shigemis started making plans and in 1996, arrived with two suitcases, a few other belongings and 3-year-old Isaac.
“Gardner-Webb family and friends helped us to settle down,” Yoko shared. “Dr. Sheri Adams (Professor of Theology and Church History) was concerned for our situation, especially for my son who did not bring books and toys with him. She shared her daughter’s toys. When my husband was stressed out at the divinity school, Dr. Adams and her husband, Dr. Bob, welcomed me and listened to my story kindly, and provided care like God’s care—like under the wings of the hen (Psalm 91:4).”
Although he was only 3 years old, Isaac remembers how the GWU family helped his parents for two years while his father was a student in the School of Divinity. “The Christian background and caring for one another was one of the main reasons why we were able to survive,” Isaac shared. “One of the churches gave us a place to stay, and gave us some food sometimes and helped us grow so that we could live in the United States.”
When Aki graduated with his Master of Divinity in 1998, Dr. Bob Lamb, the founding dean of the School of Divinity, suggested he send resumes to the state Baptist conventions in North and South Carolina. Aki was hired by the South Carolina Baptist State Convention as a Japanese minister and started a congregation in Greenville, S.C. His ministry has expanded to include groups in Anderson, S.C., Greer, S.C., and Columbia, S.C.
While helping her husband with his ministry, Yoko studied psychology at a local college and chaplaincy at the area hospital. “I realized that I needed more theology and spiritual formation,” she assessed. “I decided to come to Gardner-Webb.”
She graduated in May with a Master of Divinity in Pastoral Care and Counseling and is working part time as a chaplain. Isaac graduated from GWU in July with degrees in violin performance and music business. He is pursuing a Master of Arts in Music Performance at Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C.
As they look back on their lives, Aki and Yoko are thankful for the ways God has provided for their family and allowed them to minister to others. “Every time we got into a crisis, God led ahead,” Aki explained. “Everything is just like a miracle.”