April 3, 2018
During his time at Saint John’s School of Theology and Seminary (SOT/Sem), Toshihiro Takamura (Toppo) was continually asked by his spiritual director, ‘Where do you see Christ?
Toppo didn’t understand this question at first, but as his time at SOT/Sem was wrapping up, he knew his answer.
“I said when I was praying with monks, I felt the presence of Christ through these monks praying together and I saw Christ in them.”
It took Toppo two years to achieve this consciousness, but Toppo is no stranger to challenges.
Toppo experienced a range of diverse challenges throughout his life and studies, which he has turned into opportunities. These opportunities have taken him to experiences that are not only geographically diverse: including studies in the US, Japan, and Germany, but also across diverse ideologies as he has experienced many varied Christian denominations.
These unexpected experiences seem to have originated from an early age for Toppo. As a young, 16-year-old boy living in Urawa, Japan, he took an unconventional route of dropping out of high school to become a Christian and later study in the US.
This was no easy path in a country that sets standards of uniformity and perpetuates reputations of honor and shame.
“I think that dropping out from high school probably resulted from the fact that I didn't feel comfortable with that kind of social pressure,” Toppo explained. “So it was good for me to come to the states to experience that I can be myself without worrying about how I'm being perceived.”
From that one unexpected turn, he never looked back. Toppo came to the US in 1997 and has since studied at numerous schools across various programs and denominational backgrounds.
Coming from Japan as a Baptist, he attended Lutheran Bible Institute in Seattle—a Lutheran institution. Soon after, he converted to a Lutheran (ELCA) and transferred from LBI to earn his Bachelor’s degree from Bethel University in St. Paul, MN in 2001—a Baptist school. After these studies, Toppo chose to attend Saint John’s SOT/Sem for his master’s degree—a Catholic community.
This was a difficult route to take as Toppo had to study, in his non-native language, the theological traditions of both the school and his own. He put forth a greater effort in learning about both traditions and engaging in classroom discussions in a meaningful way that broadened his personal understanding of theology.
“I think it really expanded my horizons,” Toppo remarked on being a minority in both culturally and denominationally-diverse classrooms. “There's always a multiplicity in opinions or positions that has to be there because there is more than one tradition represented in the classroom. If I were at more of a Baptist institution, then I wouldn't have to question anything, or have to exercise my imagination to think that there are other possibilities.”
He started at Saint John’s in the Monastic Experience Program in the summer of 2001, where he learned about monastic spirituality and life directly from the monks of the Saint John’s Abbey. After this summer program, he attended Saint John’s School of Theology and Seminary and graduated in 2003 (MA). Upon graduation, he began another summer in the Monastic Experience Program at the Abbey. After beginning studies for the Master of Divinity degree at the SOT/Sem fall of 2005, he returned to Japan in spring of 2007 continuing his studies at a Lutheran seminary successfully earning a degree in 2010 and became ordained the same year. He then served as a pastor for a Three Point Parish in the Japan Evangelical Lutheran Church until 2013 before returning to the US working toward a PhD degree at United Lutheran Seminary (formerly Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia).
Through all his educational experiences, though, one in particular always stands out.
“I have attended LBI [Lutheran Bible Institute], Bethel, my seminary in Tokyo, my current seminary in Philadelphia, and Saint John's, but Saint John's is almost the only place where I feel at home. I think that has to do with the presence of monastic community. At SOT/Sem, because of the monastic community and the monks that are always present, they provide some sense of stability that continues on.”
Toppo himself continues on in the Saint John’s community as well. He is currently a resident scholar through the Kilian McDonnell OSB Fellow in Faith and Culture program at the Collegeville Institute, is an oblate of Saint John’s Abbey, and presents lectures on campus. In January during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, he was invited to preach at the Abbey Church.
Toppo will leave to go back to Japan in the fall to serve as a pastor and teach in Tokyo. He plans to bring what he has learned in the US, both in the classroom and in intrapersonal reflection, with him.