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Debbie Pixley at the summit of Mount Fuji.

“Coincidence” Becomes Calling: Debbie Pixley’s Journey From Automotive Engineer to MTW Missionary

Debbie Pixley never planned to become an MTW missionary to Japan. Originally, she wasn’t particularly interested in Japan as a country. Growing up in Detroit in the 1980s and during her 19 years working at Japanese car companies, she just wanted to have a successful career as an automotive engineer. But God had other plans, and He lined up one “coincidence” after another to pave her path to ministry.

Coincidence #1: While Debbie was studying mechanical engineering in college, her university required her to take a humanities elective. The only class that fit her busy schedule was “Japanese History and Culture,” a reluctantly-pursued foreshadowing of what was to come.

Coincidence #2: When Debbie graduated in 2001, she hoped to land a job with an American company. Instead, after dozens of dead-end interviews, she was hired by a major Japanese car manufacturing company.

Coincidence #3: More than 10 years ago, Debbie decided to learn Japanese—not to become a missionary, but to grow and thrive in her burgeoning international career.

“I had a lot of Japanese bosses and coworkers and spent a lot of time on business trips in Japan,” Debbie explained. “I started learning a little bit of Japanese just to get by.”

But enough Japanese “to get by” wasn’t enough for someone with Debbie’s ambition and drive. When she was assigned to a job with less travel and overtime, Debbie decided to get a master’s degree. She had always planned to get an MBA at some point, but when the time came, she discovered a program offering a Master of Engineering degree in technical Japanese. It seemed like the perfect fit: a chance to hone her Japanese skills while also getting an advanced engineering degree.

For the next three years, Debbie learned how to translate technical language from Japanese into English. Even though vocabulary about semi-conductors and physics doesn’t translate directly to ministry conversation topics, that training provided a solid foundation of Japanese, ultimately equipping her with the skills to communicate fluently in relational ministry and translate for the local church in Tokyo.

A Gradual Calling

Her first turning point came in 2011, when a massive earthquake and tsunami barreled into Japan, wreaking vast amounts of damage and killing around 20,000 people.

“I really felt that God was saying that I should go to help with cleanup, disaster relief, handing out food, whatever they needed,” Debbie said.

Two years earlier, Debbie had visited an MTW church plant in Chiba, establishing an initial connection and meeting her first MTW missionaries. When, in 2011, she heard that a new MTW church plant in Tokyo was sending people to take supplies and serve in the disaster area, and that they desperately needed drivers who could speak Japanese, she immediately volunteered. She stayed for three weeks, driving volunteers and serving however she could. There, too, she met MTW missionaries Roger and Abi Lowther.

“I expected it to be just a short-term thing,” Debbie said. “But during that trip there were some beginning thoughts of: ‘Where is God leading me in this?’”

In 2013, Debbie’s employer transferred her to Yokohama, Japan, and her ministry calling began to unfold. Already connected with the Lowthers and other MTW missionaries, Debbie began attending Grace City Church in Tokyo.

“It’s a Presbyterian church, its bilingual, and they have a lot of passion for faith and work in business,” she explained. “It matched on every level for me.”

She spent the next four years working in Japan. On weekdays, she managed the automotive company’s quality strategy department. But on weekends, Debbie’s life was about the church. Every Friday night, she would leave work and head into Tokyo for her bilingual small group, a diverse gathering of Japanese and expat professionals from across the globe. At first, she simply attended—studying God’s Word with her community. Over time, she moved co-leading the group with several others.

Group

At Grace City, Debbie put her language skills to work, translating PowerPoints, sermons, prayers, and announcements from Japanese into English. Every so often, she and others from the church would take trips up north to continue relief efforts—rebuilding and forging gospel connections.

“Through those four years, my passion for the Japanese people, and for supporting and working with the church, really grew,” said Debbie. “I didn’t want to leave. I would have loved to stay in Japan, but it just wasn’t possible. ... While I was there some things changed with the company and they asked me to move to Nashville.”

“On my street in Nashville there are six churches of varying denominations—thousands of people who worship within a few minutes of my house,” said Debbie. “In Japan there’s almost no one. Every Christian there plays a vital role. I became really convicted that I’m just a drop in the ocean in Nashville. And yet, God has given me the language ability, the connection with the Japanese people, the heart for missions in Japan. Why would I throw all that away in Nashville if I can go back?”

In October 2018, Debbie was visiting Grace City Church while on a business trip to Tokyo when she had lunch with the Lowthers, along with Pastor Fukuda from Grace City Church. The three were right at the end of a decade-long effort to plant 10 churches in Japan. Debbie could see their excitement at the work that God was doing: Churches were being planted, people were baptized, and the number of Japanese Christians was growing. But she could also see that they needed more support.

Debbie with teacher

“The next week, I had a meeting with my mentor at my company who is also a Christian,” Debbie said. “We had been talking through these things for a while, but that was the point where I told him: ‘God is telling me that this is something I need to do. He’s calling me to long-term missions.’”

It took another year of conversations with Roger, Abi, and her mentor to finally make the mental shift. But in 2019, Debbie decided to become a full-time MTW missionary in Japan.

No Coincidences

Though the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted and slowed her transition, Debbie is nearing the end of raising support to serve in Japan. When she returns, Debbie will put her organizational management skills to work for the local church and the MTW Community Arts Team in Tokyo: running logistics for large meetings and outreach/ministry events like concert series, art exhibits, and seminars. With nearly 20 years of professional experience working in Japan, and her pre-existing language skills, Debbie will be able to hit the ground running.

“Looking back, God used all those things,” Debbie said. “Sometimes missionaries have a heart for a certain country from the beginning; maybe they’ll apply to work at a certain company because it’s Japanese. For me it wasn’t like that. God had to intervene and open that door for me.”

No coincidences, just a calling etched out by providence. Over the years, God has uniquely guided Debbie’s path and crafted her character and gifts for a particular kingdom purpose. It’s what He does for all of us, if we just take the time to listen.

Andrew Shaughnessy, Chiba Tokyo Japan Nov 2, 2021
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Pray for MTW Japan as they grow and expand, transitioning some churches to new leadership and planting in new areas. 

Pray for God to break through cultural barriers to draw Japanese men and women to Himself. And for God to call more missionaries to serve in Japan.

Pray for Japanese college students wrestling with new faith. Pray that they would have the courage to give their lives to Christ and not fear their family's reaction.

Pray for children in Japan who are attending Christian school and influencing their families for Jesus. 

Pray for the U.S. church to send workers to Japan where less than 0.5% of people are Christians.

Pray that God would use our Japan teams to open the hearts of the Japanese to God’s presence and love for them.

Pray for youth around the world to come to faith, and pray for missionaries who minister to the next generation. Young people often impact their whole familes for Christ.

Pray for the relationships missionaries are developing with Japanese men and women. Pray for common interests and connections to be a bridge to the gospel.

Pray for the men and women in Japan who have been attending church to make a public commitment to Christ and to express their faith through baptism.

Please pray for the rebuliding efforts in Ishinomaki, Japan, and for church planting efforts in the region that have begun since the 2011 tsunami.

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