I grew up in Finland in a very fundamental Christian home. We attended church several times a week. I went to Sunday School as a toddler and, when a teenager, taught classes myself. I played the piano and organ for most every service and was an active member of the youth group. I was saved at 10, baptized at 13. My grandmother held prayer meetings in her home and grandpa, when visiting people’s homes, would bless the home with eloquent prayers. We were deeply engrossed in our faith, and it ruled every aspect of our life and the decisions we made. Doing God’s will and living a life pleasing to Him was all that really mattered.
My last year in high school was a time for making major decisions. What would I do? Where would I study? Did I want to focus on music or languages? And, what about going to America? I had always wanted to do that since American English was my favorite variety of the language, and I felt I could relate to it. But, most of all, what was God’s will for my life?
Trying the typical Finnish route first, I applied to the University of Helsinki to study philology. Although I was on top of my graduating class, I was, nonetheless, denied entry. In those days, there were few other universities to choose from, so that was that. In some ways I was relieved because I did NOT want the average Finnish life with an average Finnish man, living in an average home, playing an average piano, and doing something average for my life.
My aunt Kirsti, who was a missionary-nurse in Nepal, had broadened my horizons early on by bringing interesting and beautiful – I thought – brown guests to our home. Dad also traveled on business, so our home was visited by his clients from Europe, who eventually became our friends. I felt curiosity about the “world out there”, wanted to see it and experience it.
It then made sense to try to get to the US to strengthen my English skills. Out of the five languages I knew and had studied, English was my very favorite. There were some exchange programs, but The Christian Youth Exchange was my preferred route to get to my destination. On the application form, there were three lines to indicate where I wished to go. I wrote: the US, the US, the US.
All accepted candidates were invited to a weekend event to learn about their destination. I was excited to learn where in the United States I would go, not if. When my turn came, I heard the proclamation: “Marjo Kormu, Fukuoka, Japan”, as if it were a prize
What? No, no, no! This is a mistake. What happened to the US?
After the initial shock, I was told why Japan would be a good fit especially for me; besides, I was the only one selected to go there. There would always be time to visit the US later., they said. This was a great opportunity to learn about a very different culture, and I was mature enough to take on the challenges Japan most certainly would offer.
I was sure my parents would be against their decision for me. Mom was already struggling with the idea of me going to the US. Surely, Japan would be a firm no. I called home. My parents were both at the other end. They listened closely to what I was telling them. I was hoping they would intervene and fix my problem. But they said this was a wonderful chance to explore a very unique culture and that I should do it.
Was this also what God wanted? What a stunner! I NEVER would have guessed. Wow.
So, a few months later I was on a plane to Tokyo, Japan, for an orientation camp, subsequently to take the bullet train to Fukuoka to meet my new family. All the sights, sounds and smells were new to me. Never before had I seen such beautiful shops, eaten new and amazing food, and experienced the precision with which everything was done. At that point, I felt like Alice in Wonderland. Initially, I was very happy to be living in a culture where I was a head taller than everyone else. All the not-so-great things that happened during that year can wait retelling until later.
The most momentous event took place during that Christmas. I spent it with American missionaries I had befriended (or vice versa) during the fall there. They were hosting a guest from the US – the Dean of Anderson University in Indiana. Lo and behold, he took an interest in me and offered a scholarship at his school should I wish to apply. He later said I was his one and only recruit ever.
Hm. Wow. Was this the way to get to the US, my ultimate dream and goal?
I decided to apply and sure enough, I was accepted with enough scholarships to study at least for one year there. My parents sent me off the following summer with hugs, kisses, prayers and well wishes. They felt this was God’s will in my life. My one grandmother, the missionary aunt’s mother, found my departure much to her dislike and consequently tore up all of my pictures. Ouch.
I turned 20 on Anderson campus and started looking for a boyfriend like my many cohorts. I wanted more than a Mrs. degree for sure but also felt quite lonely in the midst of my American friends. I had been taught that there was no sex outside of marriage. No other advice had been given as to how to deal with normal sexual feelings, except to ignore them. Sex was a taboo topic both in church and at home. It was surrounded by mystery and heavy silence.
It was this silence and feelings of shame that kept me from sharing with anyone that in high school in my very own hometown I had been courted for marriage by my married pastor and that I had been raped by a Christian Jewish evangelist while playing the piano for his services in Japan. With this background, who would love me – who could love me – since I had lost my purity, the one and only thing I should have guarded with all my might? I felt dirty, unworthy, riddled with guilt and shame. Surely, I must have done something to bring all this upon myself. What in the world was wrong with me?!
By my freshman year, I had decided to leave music study aside and focus on teaching languages. I took classes from a visiting professor from Japan, Mr. Yamanaka. He advised me to consider teaching English as a foreign language, which fit my goal of eventually returning to Japan perfectly.
When Bryan, who was two years my senior, started showing an interest in me, I wondered whether he could be the man God had intended for me. I had a checklist for the qualifications of my future husband. He needed to be
- Christian (a must)
- Partner for Japan (who would go?)
- Tall (absolutely)
- Handsome (wouldn’t hurt)
- Singing talent (to do duets with me)
- Acceptance and forgiveness towards me
And was there something else? Well, it would sort itself out over time. I was half a person and needed to find the other half to be complete. The sooner the better.
We dated for less than a year and got married at the Anderson Seminary Chapel to begin our married journey together. That began a 17-year saga with many turns and twists. I will share about that later.