March 2, 2022

Answering the Call

Chaplains are frontline workers too.

Asa Nemoto

As a chaplain at Loma Linda University Medical Center, I’m often asked why I chose this career. The answer is that God saw the desire in my heart to be a follower of Jesus, and He guided me to where I am right now.

I was born in California to a Japanese Seventh-day Adventist family. When my father accepted a call to serve as a medical mis- sionary dentist—I was three years old—we moved back to Japan.

After I was baptized at age 14, I began to pray to God, “May Your will be done in my life.” I wanted to do something mean- ingful, but I didn’t know what that would be.

From a young age I was sensitive to people’s feelings. Even during my teenage years my friends—both Christians and those who didn’t profess belief in God—would unburden their hearts to me. They said they appreciated that I listened to them. I began wondering what it meant to help someone regardless of their religion. Sometimes, though, I felt overwhelmed by the world’s never-ending misery.

I began experiencing loneli- ness because I was unable to find an avenue through which to express my own struggles and challenges. This led to a sense of guilt because I erroneously believed that if my faith was strong enough, I would always have peace and contentment. This experience pushed me to explore the nature of human struggles and how God’s love could speak to the reality of everyday life.

A Life-Changing Encounter

When I was in high school, I met the chaplain at the Adventist hospital in Tokyo, where my father was working. I was drawn to her peaceful demeanor, and further inspired to learn that she served people of all beliefs in the hospital and offered them spiritual and emotional support. My father explained that even though people experienced physical healing through medical services, the Adventist hospital could not fully achieve its mission if patients didn’t also receive healing for their souls. This thought resonated with me; I wanted to know what spiritual healing means and learn how my Christian beliefs could relate to humans’ experiences in this world. I then decided to study chaplaincy.

A Career Detour

After graduating high school, I enrolled in the theology program at Andrews University in Michigan. The faculty and friends I met there encouraged me in many ways. Being away from my family, language, and culture, however, caused me even greater anxiety and feelings of guilt for not being consistently happy.

Fine arts was my minor, and I found those stud- ies helpful with exploring what I was experienc- ing, so I switched my major and minor. I graduated with a degree in fine arts and religion as my minor. My interest in chaplaincy didn’t wane, but I believed I wasn’t equipped for a ministry that addresses human suffering when I was struggling with my own problems, so I returned to Japan. I promised God and myself, however, to continue the prayer “May God’s will be done in my life.”

In 2011, when I was studying in Japan to become a museum curator, a 9.1 earthquake hit the Tohoku region, followed by a massive tsunami. I joined the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) as a volunteer and witnessed the disaster area. I asked myself how my religious beliefs as a Christian could help bring healing to those who had lost so much.

Three years later I was working in the art industry and was assigned to serve as a member of the earthquake-reconstruction program in Tohoku. Although I believed in the power of art, the more I saw the deep suffering of the people, the more strongly I felt a call to chaplaincy. I tried to ignore it because I thought I needed to be more resilient as a person and a Christian to support other people as a professional chaplain. God sent several people to counsel with me, however, and after much prayer I accepted God’s call to chaplaincy. A year later I enrolled in the Master of Science in Chaplaincy program at Loma Linda University.

Following The Call To Chaplaincy

During the practical training—Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE)—I learned that many of my patients and their families were experiencing feelings of helplessness and guilt. From my own experience I understood how painful and harmful such spiritual challenges could be, so I prayed to God to help me be their support.

Yet, to help others, I first needed to address my own issues. With my supervisors’ guidance, I discovered that my spiritual struggle was rooted in the notion that I didn’t have enough love for God and others and that I myself didn’t deserve to be loved.

With help, I learned that I was seeing my sensitivity toward people’s experiences and my own spiritual struggles as weaknesses—but instead, God is using them as avenues to share His love. God even led me to use art, which I thought I would have to leave behind when I pursued chaplaincy. I find that art is a valuable tool when communicating with children, because it can help them express things that may not easily be conveyed in words.

Just as art can be used as a language in my chaplaincy work, God’s love can be communicated through prayer, Bible reading, singing, crafting, exchanging views on life and death, holding a hand, sitting quietly together, and more. The work of a chaplain is often described as the ministry of presence, and I want to be with people where they are to share God’s love.

In Japan, chaplaincy is not widely recognized as a profession. Spiritual care, though, is greatly needed there. If God permits, my goal is to pursue additional education and training so I can someday contribute significantly to chaplaincy’s future in Japan and other Asian countries.

I don’t know where God is taking me after this, but I continue to pray, “May Your will be done in my life.”

Asa Nemoto is currently serving as a chaplain at Loma Linda University Medical Center.