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Local author brings faith, family, Japanese history to readers

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MISSION VALLEY — Each life matters, and the repercussions of our actions resound in ways we may never know or imagine. “A Christian in the Land of the Gods: Journey of Faith in Japan” tells the story of one man, his family, and how his choices in the late 1800s resound today, both close to home in Montana and in a place half a world away.

After a successful career as an economist working for the government both in the U.S. and abroad, Joanna Shelton moved to the Mission Valley in 1999, exchanging the busy life of global economics for the quiet of rural Montana.

Sitting in her living room in 2005, looking out toward the peaks of the Rocky Mountain Mission Range, Shelton began the work of keeping a promise to herself, 25 years in the making. She would tell the story of her great-grandfather, missionary Reverend Tom Alexander. 

Prior to her first visit to Japan in 1980, Shelton read Alexander’s diary and committed to tell the story of how the Presbyterian missionary brought Christianity to Japan in the late 19th century. Shelton describes her book as a “… personal story set in history, leavened with faith.” Her great-grandfather’s diary tells not only of his adventures, great perseverance and enduring faith, but also illustrates important aspects of Japan’s past, including how the conversion of Samurais to Christianity created the backbone of the Presbyterian faith in Japan. 

The novel is “… written like a fictional book through his eyes,” Shelton explains. In it, Alexander shares values of honor, education and truth with the Japanese people through a very ecumenical outlook. He was reported to have said, “A good Buddhist is as likely to go to heaven as a good Christian.”

As a fortuitous coincidence, within a few weeks of beginning research for her book, Shelton received an invitation to the 120-year anniversary celebration of the founding of one of Alexander’s churches in Osaka, Japan. This occasion and many other serendipitous events associated with the telling of her great-grandfather’s story changed the path of Shelton’s life.

Never comfortable with organized religion and often troubled by its history, Shelton’s spiritual longing finally found a wanted outlet in the Presbyterian Church. 

“Some might say I’m (Alexander’s) latest convert,” she said, smiling. Now in her sixth year as a church elder of the Presbyterian Church, her great-grandfather’s story has brought the family faith full circle. Her local church helps support a homeless feeding program in Osaka, Japan.

Shelton says she still enjoys her great-grandfather’s story.

“It’s good when you aren’t tired of your own book,” she said.

A book launch party including wine, appetizers and dessert is planned for Friday, Feb. 26, from 5-7 p.m. at the Bickford Building, 220 Main Street, in Polson (the former bookstore). Shelton will read from her book at 5:30 p.m. Books will be available for purchase with book signing throughout the evening. 

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