From Buddhist to Believer

What happens when you can’t get Jesus off your mind.

by George Hara as told to Sylvia Grosh

Two candles glowed in front of me, illuminating the fancy black-lacquered altar in our home. I grasped the rosary beads and twisted them mechanically into the prescribed figure eight. Dark pictures of my ancestors stared at me. Pungent smoke from burning incense infiltrated past my nostrils, past my lungs into my very being. It was a part of worshipping Buddha; it was a part of me.

I shifted reverently on my knees while my mother chanted some unintelligible Japanese, but my twelve-year-old mind wondered Why are we doing this? What is the purpose?

Buddhist beginnings

Buddha was my mother’s god; therefore Buddha was my god. I learned to perform ritual worship to Buddha and to fear him. I was born Japanese and raised Buddhist in California.

When I became an adult, I began to pursue a career in art. I studied at California State University in Long Beach. It had a large student body, but I was a loner. I spent my time with artwork, studies, and a part-time job. Twenty-five years old, I didn’t have much hope or feelings for the future. I felt nothing was worth pursuing. Despite my career goals, I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Tension at home

One cold day in January 1980, I drove to my parents’ home for the weekend to spend time with my family. I noticed increasing tension between my mother and my twenty-two-year-old brother, Tom.

I quietly pulled Tom aside. “What’s the problem here?”

He hesitated. “Well . . . I’ve become a Christian, and Mom doesn’t understand or accept Christian ways.”

This interested me, so Tom went on more boldly. “You see, I am a sinner, but God sent Christ to die on the cross to pay for my sins.”

I was astonished to hear my younger brother saying things like that. Tom had always seen himself as number one. He needed no one; he was independent. He had worshipped Buddha along with the family. Yet here he was, admitting weakness and saying he needed Christ — that he was a sinner!

Questions and pride

I listened intently for hours as Tom shared about Jesus and being saved. When he finished, I wanted to hear more. Who is this Jesus Christ? I wondered. What is repentance? God’s grace? God’s mercy? Righteousness? How can Tom have such a personal relationship with God? I struggled to understand these concepts because of my background in mysticism.

I was swimming in questions, but pride kept me from asking my younger brother for answers. After all, I was older and should know more.

Searching the Bible

Yet I couldn’t get Jesus out of my mind.

Driving home one night, I stopped secretly at a Christian bookstore. Tom had spoken highly of the Open Bible, so I bought the cheapest one in stock and headed home.

I propped open the Bible on my drawing board at home and began to read. I started in the Gospels because Tom had mentioned that they were a good place to start, rather than at beginning of the Bible. I gave it the textbook approach. I could not possibly let Tom know more about the Bible than I did. As the elder brother, I had to be more knowledgeable.

By the time I finished reading the Gospels, I had more questions than ever — not just ones about the Bible but about my religious beliefs: Will Buddha punish me because of my unfaithfulness if I got interested in Christ? My greatest fear was that he would punish me with an unknown, sudden death.

Secret prayer

One night, months later, I sat at my drawing table in my apartment working on art projects and thinking. I had read the Gospels and couldn’t make any connection that the good news about Christ was for me. It was for the people two thousand years ago, not for today, I thought. I admired Jesus for actually living the life He taught. But what did that have to do with me? I believed that since I was Japanese, I was naturally supposed to be Buddhist. Why, then, was I no longer doing ritual worship to Buddha?

About midnight, I finally said a little prayer to Whoever was listening. “If You will help me answer these questions and make me understand what all this salvation business has to do with me, then I will consider taking a chance and being open to what the Bible claims about Jesus Christ.”

Friendly stranger

Two days later, I went to study in the university’s library. About noon, I sat down on a bench outside for a break. A cheerful-looking student approached and sat down on the bench with me.

“Hi! How are you doing?” he greeted me, and began chatting.

I was puzzled. No one acts that way in a big university. Strangers are strangers, and they don’t act like buddies.

“I’m Tom Smith,” the student offered. “Call me Smith.”

“I’m George,” I said reluctantly.

Smith continued chatting. Soon he rolled the conversation around to God. At that moment, I remembered my Friday night prayer. It was scary to actually have a prayer answered! I didn’t know you could ask for something and God would do it.

Perfect match

I tested Smith to see if he would tell me the same things about God my brother had. I played ignorant and asked him question after question. Smith answered from the Bible, oblivious that I was testing him. “John 3:16 says Jesus died for you and me.”

I found that everything matched up with what I had read in the Bible and with what my brother had said. Smith even emphasized the one point that bothered me: “You must realize you are a sinner, George.” We talked for over an hour.

Prayer in the park

Finally Smith asked, “Would you like to receive Christ?”

I thought I’d like to do that some day, so I answered, “Yeah, sure. That sounds like a good idea.”

Smith responded, “OK, just repeat this prayer with me.”

I was inwardly horrified. We were on a public park bench in full view of everyone. What if someone sees me? I thought.

But Smith didn’t make a big deal out of it. Without any self-consciousness, he led in prayer right there. I plunged in with him: “God, forgive me for my sins, renew me, and make me one with Christ.” At first I felt nervous, but as I prayed, the nervousness left.

I unloaded myself of the former deeds and ignorant beliefs and started trusting Jesus for everything. Besides the relief, I didn’t feel much different when the prayer was over. What have I done? It was too simple. I didn’t have to go through any formal ritual as I did in worshipping Buddha. I only had to pray a prayer.

But I believed what I prayed had really happened.

Brotherly bond

Soon afterward, I called my brother on the phone. “Tom, I’ve done it! I’ve become a Christian just like you!” Tom began weeping and praising God. I had never known him to cry for happiness before.

Beginning then, I went home every weekend and waited for Tom. We spent hours conversing through the night, sharing in Jesus. We had never talked like that before, but now we had so much to cover. We shared what Jesus meant to us and how different Bible verses made us think. A close bond developed.

Spiritual growth

At first, I had a rough growth. Because of my background in Buddhism, I did not initially get into a church because I didn’t want to be stuck in a religion like my old one. I just wanted to get to know God better. I was still proud and independent, thinking I could do it on my own.

A year or so later, I finally got involved in a group that was full of healthy, growing Christians and found the stimulation and fellowship I needed. Eight years later, at age thirty-three, I began volunteering for building projects for Wycliffe Bible Translators. I rubbed shoulders with missionaries and was a missionary in my own right. It was there I met Ruth Jackson, the daughter of Wycliffe missionaries. In God’s timing, we fell in love and today are married with two children.

Christ can do for anyone what He did for me. The world needs to know of God’s love for all people. There is real, living power in the goodness of God!