1. Vandenberg, Helen
  2. Grypma, Sonya

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When I [Helen] began my doctoral nursing studies, I was interested in understanding how nurses conceptualized culture and race relations. I desired a better understanding of history to gain insight into how concepts like cultural competence became important in nursing. I did not anticipate finding the most intriguing insights in the development of healthcare services related to missionary history.


One surprise was discovering Canadian missionary work that occurred during the late 1800s to early 20th century, inside Canada as well as overseas. The Methodist Church termed these "Home Missions." At the time, missionaries were sent to evangelize and provide charity to the early immigrant communities of the newly formed country. The missionaries worked among non-Christian groups, like the primarily Buddhist Japanese fishermen in British Columbia. Racial tensions between White and non-White workers shaped the missionaries' work. In the fishing, mining and forestry industries, non-White groups were marginalized and paid much less than their White counterparts.


The Japanese Home mission in British Columbia began through the work of Japanese Methodist Churches of San Francisco and Seattle. Japanese Methodist missionaries (mostly American-based Japanese immigrants) were sent to Japanese communities along the Pacific coast up into Canada (Kawano, 1998). By 1896, the missionaries convinced the Canadian Methodist Church to oversee and fund a Japanese Methodist mission in Vancouver. They hired an American-educated Japanese minister who would serve the Japanese communities. The first Japanese Methodist Church was built in Vancouver and charitable works such as schools, rescue homes, and hospitals were established. White and non-White Christians worked in partnership within these charitable organizations. For them, charity and Christianity went hand-in-hand.


The Japanese Methodist missionaries helped establish a mission in a small fishing village in Steveston, British Columbia, on the grounds of the Phoenix cannery. Many of the missionaries were well-educated and could speak both Japanese and English. Due to a typhoid outbreak, the mission building was converted to a make-shift hospital soon after it opened. At first, the hospital was staffed by untrained Japanese volunteers, but soon the mission obtained a trained physician to work during fishing seasons. Plans were made to build a modern hospital with 30 beds, a surgery suite, and birthing services.


Methodist Home Missions missionaries felt God did not differentiate people based on race (Osterhout, 1929). The Canadian Methodist Church encouraged Japanese men to become ministers and work within their communities. As their congregations grew, they worked to defend Japanese communities in Canada against racist attitudes and exclusionary policies. They established hospitals and English schools.


A diary of one of Vancouver's Japanese Methodist ministers, Rev. Kosaburo Shimizu, reveals divisions within Christian churches regarding inclusion of non-White ministers (Arai, 2005). Kosaburo was appalled by the racism directed toward the Japanese. Although continually pressured by his family to work and send money home to fulfill his duties, he deeply desired to become educated and make a new life for himself. Kosaburo's cultural identity was challenged and shaped by the opportunities and relationships he built working within the church.


The story of Japanese missionaries in Canada exemplifies how a small group of Christians acted as a countercultural force against racially charged healthcare inequity. It challenges Christian nurses to consider ways in which we both accept and challenge societal norms about who "deserves" and can provide care. Luke 10:25-37 illustrates how Jesus challenged racial inequity when both Jewish and Samaritan religious leaders preached abhorrence of the other. The Good Samaritan in Jesus' parable was "good" not just because he showed mercy to an injured man, but because the man belonged to a cultural group he was taught to despise. It is when we show mercy to those framed as our foe that we, like the Japanese missionaries, best fulfill Jesus' command to "love your neighbor as yourself" (Luke 10:27).


Arai, G. (Ed.) (2005). Kosaburo Shimizu: The early diaries, 1909-1926 (T. Arai, Trans.). Anchorage, AK: AT Publishing. [Context Link]


Kawano, R. M. (Ed.). (1998). A history of the Japanese congregations in the United Church of Canada (E. Yoshida, S. Ariga & S. Kawano, Trans.). Scarborough, ON: Japanese Canadian Christian Churches Historical Project. [Context Link]


Osterhout S. S.(1929). Orientals in Canada. Toronto, ON: Ryerson Press. [Context Link]