Bio of Joanna Shelton

My family moved frequently 
as I was growing up, from one 
coast to the other and to states 
in between. But we’d managed to visit my grandparents every few years in a Washington, D.C., suburb. During those visits, my grandmother, Evie, daughter of a missionary, had shown me how to use chopsticks, taught me a few Japanese words, and told me stories about her childhood in Japan. Evie also had told me I had a relative buried in Japan, or was it two? Details of these stories faded into dim memory, as if not quite real.

Those stories flooded back into my mind early in my career, when I served as the Japan economist at the U.S. Treasury Department – the first woman to do so – and struggled to learn the difficult Japanese language. Before my first official trip to Japan in 1980, my aunt gave me a copy of my great-grandfather’s diary covering his twenty-five year service as a Presbyterian missionary in Japan in the late 1800s. His life’s story had fascinated me and I’d longed to know more. I vowed then that I would write about his experiences one day.

During my twenty-year career as an international trade negotiator and diplomat, I served not only at Treasury but also on Capitol Hill’s House Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee, as deputy assistant secretary for trade policy at the U.S. State Department, and as deputy secretary-general (the number two official) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, France. During those years, I traveled to thirty countries on nearly all continents, including numerous times to Japan.

After a fast-paced life at top levels of government and international organizations, my husband and I moved to Montana in 1999. We wanted to pursue new interests while we were young and healthy enough to make such a radical change in lifestyle. We now own and operate a 240-acre hay farm in Montana’s Rocky Mountain Northwest. I’ve taught undergrads and adults at the University of Montana and have won plenty of ribbons in show jumping competitions with my chestnut thoroughbred horse, Danny Boy (above, at left, with Billy). And, when we moved to Montana, I decided the time had come to start working on the long-delayed book about my great-grandfather. I had no way of knowing that my quest for knowledge about his life’s work would launch me on a new path of my own.

Just as I began work on his life’s story, I received a surprise e-mail from Tokyo - inviting me to visit Japan to help celebrate the 122nd anniversary of one of my great-grandfather’s churches in Osaka. How had the writer known about my relationship with the Reverend Thomas Theron Alexander? How had he found me in Montana? This unexpected invitation was just the first in a remarkable series of events over the course of several years that made me rethink my previous belief that there is no such thing as coincidence. 

Today, after multiple trips to Japan tracing my great-grandfather’s footsteps and opening myself to a new way of thinking and believing, I’ve joined him on my own journey of faith. After long holding religion at arm’s length, I joined the Presbyterian Church for the first time in 2007. Some people might say I’m the latest convert of a man whose work clearly was not finished when he died more than a century ago.