Thai-American couple find, feed those with open hearts in Fukuoka

Jack Wattanawongsawang and his wife, Prinna Puakpong, watched the news on March 11, 2011, documenting the triple disaster unfolding in Japan — the earthquake, the tsunami and the nuclear power plant meltdown.

In the aftermath of the disaster, when Japanese people lost their loved ones, possessions, houses and vehicles, many felt they had no hope and chose to take their own lives.

Jack Wattanawongsawang, front left, and Prinna Puakpong, back center right, eat Japanese food prepared by the Yoshida family before beginning their Bible study. The Yoshida family became Christians in 2020 and are now hosting a Bible study in their apartment. IMB Photo

Jack and Prinna watched as the suicide rates rose. With no intention to go, the couple prayed and asked God to send someone who wasn’t them — they had lives, careers and ministries in Tennessee — to tell the Japanese they are loved by the God of the universe.

As the scenes of people with no hope and no god flashed on their TV screen, God asked Jack, “Were you not the same as them before you met Me?”

“That pierced my heart,” Jack said. “You are right. I had nothing before I had You,” he prayed.

Jack had grown up as a Buddhist in Thailand and moved to the U.S. for school and work. He described himself as antagonistic toward Christians — he was Buddhist, and no one could change his mind. But three things drew Jack to put his faith in Jesus: the crumbling of years of striving for success and his dream of working as an engineer, a group of Christians who chose to sit on the smoking side of the restaurant where he worked and the patient persistence of Christian families.

Prinna Puakpong, left, teaches Japanese women attending her Bible study how to cook Thai food. IMB Photo

Prinna also had grown up as a Buddhist in Thailand and moved to the U.S. to further her education and career. Like Jack, Prinna grew up desiring to succeed and climb the corporate ladder as a computer scientist. The kindness of Tennesseans piqued her curiosity in Christianity, and she began attending their small group Bible study. When her world crumbled — because of financial losses in the stock market and a termite-ridden house she’d just invested in, along with loneliness and confusion about the real purpose of her life — she called out to God. Jesus appeared to her in a dream which affirmed in her heart that God exists, and Jesus is God.

As Jack prayed for the Japanese, even as he tried to push his calling aside, the day came when Jack could not bear to be in the U.S. anymore. He told Prinna he felt the Lord calling them to serve as missionaries in Japan. She immediately said yes because the Lord had already been working in her heart.

Not long after, Jack and Prinna found themselves on a plane to the land of the rising sun.

Finding and feeding the 15,000

In Japan, a country of 125 million people, less than 1% of people are evangelical Christians. Those numbers are sobering. Jack and Prinna could have chosen to focus on the lack of Christians in Fukuoka, their city of service. However, being optimists, they chose to look at the tremendous opportunity.

“What if we choose to have the opposite kind of faith to believe that in a city of 1.5 million, there is at least 1% whose hearts the Lord has prepared for us to meet?” Jack asked.

This means 15,000 people are waiting to hear the gospel. “No matter across the street or across the continent, we all have the calling to go and make disciples,” Jack said.

The Yoshida family study from a bilingual Bible with Prinna Puakpong, third from left, and Jack Wattanawongsawang, second from right. IMB Photo

Making disciples who can teach others is the focus of their ministry. But how would they find people to disciple? They started their ministry with prayer and then prayerwalked around the city. They invited local churches and ministry partners to join them in prayerwalking and every aspect of their ministry.

In Japan, as in Thailand, when someone becomes a Christian, they often experience persecution. This is why Jack and Prinna prayed, and continue to pray, that God would save entire families.

God answered that prayer in 2020. Three generations of the Yoshida family — the grandmother, parents and their children committed their lives to Christ. After the Yoshidas became Christians, Jack and Prinna invested their lives in the family, utilizing the three steps they use in their ministry: equipping, encouraging and empowering.

As the Yoshidas’ knowledge of God expanded, they understood the purpose of their lives is to love Jesus and share Him with other people, so they have a chance to have eternal life through Jesus.

Learning from Jack and Prinna how to practice hospitality changed the trajectory of the Yoshidas’ life and equipped them to be bearers of the good news.

Prinna said inviting people into one’s home breaks down barriers and allows the Japanese to relax, lower their guard and release the formality characteristic of Japanese society.

Jack Wattanawongsawang, front left and Prinna Puakpong, center right, and their teammates, Drew and Morgan Williams, center, prayer walk and meet neighbors in Fukuoka, Japan. IMB Photo

Japanese people love Thai food. Jack was a chef, and Prinna quickly became the sous chef as they made food for the Yoshidas and others who came to their house. Over plates of spicy basil chicken, green curry and Pad Thai, their group grew. And the Yoshidas watched Jack and Prinna host and lead a group.

“How do we start?” they asked.

Their offer to host was significant for several reasons — Japanese people don’t often have people over to their apartments but prefer to meet in public places, and Japanese people tend to want everything to be perfect before they host.

The group began meeting in the Yoshidas’ apartment. The family invited their friends who were young Christians but who weren’t growing in their faith. They also invite non-Christians. Through the members of the Yoshida family, people are committing their lives to Christ.

Another Christian couple joined the group and are supporting the Yoshidas as they minister in a subdivision of 2,000 households.

Jack and Prinna are currently visiting family and churches in the U.S., and it gives them joy to know the Yoshidas continue to meet with their group.

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“Entrust it to faithful men so that they can teach others,’” Jack said, paraphrasing 2 Timothy 2:2.

Your giving to the Cooperative Program and the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering supports missionary presence in Fukuoka, Japan.

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