It began about thirteen years ago in Winnipeg. My older sister, Stephanie, had started living downtown with a group of Christ-followers who were intentionally building community with the poor.
My wife, Masami, and I were fascinated, and eventually we moved into the same neighbourhood. During the next while, we watched the growth of a movement in Winnipeg that became a network of house churches known as Many Rooms Church Community.
That experience changed us. Living and ministering downtown transformed our attitudes toward people who were surrounded by poverty, crime, violence, addiction, mental illness and discrimination. God gave us compassion. Then God called us to Japan. It was a very dramatic experience for us with many risks and rewards along the way, but we trusted in God’s faithfulness. When we arrived in Osaka two years ago, we wondered about how our experience in downtown Winnipeg would affect our ministry in Asia.
Within months, I met an elderly woman on the street who invited me to a prayer meeting at a church from another denomination. Sensing the leading of the Holy Spirit, I went several times to the meeting and eventually met the pastor who invited us to join him as he served among the homeless in Osaka.
Since then, Masami and I not only took every opportunity to serve alongside this pastor and support his church’s ministry among the homeless, but we have also introduced our brothers and sisters from the Ishibashi MB church to the work.
In the ensuing months, we brought church members to help out at the soup kitchen and to do street evangelism. We brought a group of young people to learn about poverty issues in Osaka and another group to work in the earthquake-affected area in Kumamoto. We saw Jesus at work within us and within our church community, and we found some unexpected partners along the way.
Toshiko is a woman in her sixties from our Ishibashi church family. She has an amazing story about how she overcame a life of poverty, abuse and addiction. Recently, she wrote out her testimony and started giving out copies to people on the streets. Many of the homeless have identified with Toshiko’s struggles and been impacted by her simple faith and humility. She is an example of Jesus’ saying, “The last will become first.” Although she may not be recognized as a leader in the church, Toshiko’s faith and courage are the envy of even the strongest among us.
Ryu also joined us, a man who came from a background in the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia. Although his past was filled with pain and brokenness, he found healing through Jesus. After hearing the Gospel in prison, Ryu’s life was changed forever and, when he was released, he began to serve others in the inner city. Although he still suffered from flashbacks to his violent past, Ryu said that the only thing that helps him fall asleep at night is singing his favorite worship song. God has used Ryu to bring hope to many others.
Ayako, another woman from the Ishibashi church, recently brought a non-Christian friend downtown to work with the poor. When they first arrived at the soup kitchen, they were afraid to go inside because everyone working looked like street people – even the volunteers! But slowly they overcame their surprise and began joining in with preparing food and distributing it at a nearby park. As well, when they were invited to stay for lunch, they questioned whether the food was actually safe to eat! Despite these initial hurdles, Ayako and her friend have showed interest in being involved on an ongoing basis – a clear sign to me that Jesus has worked in their hearts.
Alongside people like Ayako, Ryu, and Toshiko, we have been learning and serving. Together we have helped each other become more aware of the needs around us and more like Christ in his love and compassion.
Just recently, I felt prompted to take another step – to spend a cold night on the street with the homeless. I wasn’t sure why God was calling me to do this, but it became very clear afterward. I learned more in that one night than I could have in months of ministry. I identified with the homeless in a way that I hadn’t before, and I came away from that experience with a clear conviction that I was a member of two communities – one rich and one poor – and I was called to bring reconciliation between them. The two communities have very different needs. I wanted to help the poor see their wealth and help the rich to see their poverty.
I know that I will not eliminate poverty in Japan, but I hope to see more Jesus-followers in Japan better equipped to engage a needy world and thereby to be a part of God’s transforming work in this nation.