For the first couple of years after he became a Christian, Dickson Yagi, born in a Buddhist family in Hawaii, could hardly contain his happiness at the thought of going to heaven.
Then, as his new religion took hold, he began to worry about his non-Christian relatives and friends. Were they headed for hell? Was there no hope even for devout Buddhists, such as his beloved grandfather, should they die without accepting Christ as their lord and savior?
Yagi went on to become a Southern Baptist minister, spending 27 years as a missionary in Japan, but he never forgot the way that question ate at him. It shaped the style he used in trying to bring Christianity to Japan, a style he calls "yellow theology": evangelism that is sensitive to the religious and psychosocial history of people of Asian ancestry.
The third-generation Okinawan American's personal experiences convinced him that the "good news" of Christianity can become alienating "bad news" to potential Asian converts.
"Many missionaries have ignored, condemned and ridiculed marvelous elements in Asian culture through ignorance and misunderstanding," said Yagi, 64, who retired from missionary work in 2000 because of prostate cancer, returned to the U.S. and eventually settled in Los Angeles, where he specializes in Buddhist-Christian relations.
Take ancestor worship. For centuries, Christian missionaries warned potential East Asian converts that they would no longer be able to engage in a practice Christians considered idolatry.
Telling tradition-minded Asians that they can no longer bow in front of the images of their ancestors at a memorial table, laden with choice foods, was tantamount to condemning their way of life. It clashed with one of their most cherished precepts--filial piety.
Eventually, the Catholic Church dropped the prohibition. But Protestant churches have not, creating frictions within Asian families with Christian and non-Christian members.
Yagi, a graduate of seminaries in America and Japan, counsels Protestant missionaries to interpret ancestor worship less literally.
"Worship in the Western context brings images of a weak man standing before an omnipotent God," he writes in "Christ for Asia: Yellow Theology for the East" in the faculty journal of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
"In ancestor worship in Japan, however, the opposite is true. Although the dead can haunt and harm the living, it is the dead who are so utterly dependent on the living for rituals that guarantee their well-being."
Thus, ancestor respect, not ancestor worship, would more accurately describe what takes place, Yagi said.
"Japanese speak to the dead in the funeral service, at the home Buddha altar and at the grave. They report family events. They talk as if the person were still alive," he said. "This is not prayers of adoration or prayers of supplication. They just say it feels good to get their feelings out."
Not Preaching a 'Terrible Message'
It is the task of yellow theology, he said, "to squeeze the Scriptures and see if any kind of minimum survival hope will ooze out to soothe the agony of Asian Christians." In this case, the biblical command to honor one's parents should take precedence. Working in Japan, where Christians constitute less than 1% of the population, Yagi could not bring himself to preach that only one in 100 Japanese would go to heaven and the rest to hell. That sounded like a "terrible message."
So he delved into how to deal with the separation of a handful of Christians from their loved ones and made it his life's work.
He had been the first member of his Shingon Buddhist family to convert to Christianity. As a small boy, he heard a visiting American missionary from Japan speak at his church in Hilo, Hawaii. He was so impressed with the missionary's knowledge of Japanese culture and language that he felt as if he were hearing God himself.
But an issue the missionary raised during his exchanges with youngsters at Kinoole Baptist Church--whether their families kept a butsudan (Buddhist altar) and his unequivocal stance that such symbols of idolatry must be destroyed--troubled young Yagi.
His grandfather kept a butsudan in the living room. He sat in front of it every morning and prayed.
The missionary's command to the boy that "You must tear it down as Gideon did," reciting the Old Testament story of prophet Gideon, touched him deeply. When he talks about it now, he explains it as part of a concern in Asian and Asian American churches: In becoming a Christian, does a convert sever ties with his non-Christian loved ones, who will be banished to hell?
"I'd rather go to hell and be with my family than go to heaven and spend the rest of eternity with white people I don't even know" is a familiar comment heard by Asian American pastors.