Compiled by The Rev. Ginny Aebischer
On this journey we each experienced grace upon grace and amazing hospitality. We had many opportunities to laugh at ourselves and our cultural learning curves. And we experienced the joy of real fellowship with people who live on the other side of the world and yet are our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Bonnie Bouknight is our new SC Synod Companion Coordinator for our relationship with the JELC. She is in the process of developing and strengthening the JELC Task Force.. Bonnie (email@example.com), or me (firstname.lastname@example.org) at the Synod office for more information. If anyone would like to hear more about this journey and see pictures from the trip, please let one of us know.
This article contains just a sampling of our reflections on the journey. We hope you will enjoy our reflections and ask us to tell you more about our time with the Japan Evangelical Lutheran Church.
“Café de Monk”
Our Lutheran brothers and sisters in Japan are doing the work of the church in a significantly different environment than we do here in our Synod. With only one percent of the population of Japan being Christian they truly exist as a minority. It is with that in mind that I would like to relay the story of “Café de Monk”.
Kumamoto was the last city we visited on our trip. It is located in the most south east part of the country of Japan. It is also the area of the country with the highest concentration of Lutheran churches. It is the location of Kyushu Gakuin Lutheran School, which South Carolina played an instrumental role in starting through the support of missionaries. The school serves senior and junior high school, as well as kindergarten age students. Oe Lutheran Church is the small church near the campus that primarily supports the school and the surrounding community. We toured the school and went to the church for a reception. The reception was held in a small room just off the sanctuary sporting a sign that stated that this was “Café de Monk”. The room itself bore a resemblance to a typical coffee shop with a large table in the middle surrounded by smaller tables and chairs. There was wood paneling that decorated the walls and one wall that had stained-glass. There was also a beverage service area. For our reception there was a gas grill as well as a special device for making takoyaki, also known as “octopus balls”. It was certainly a wonderful place for the reception. What I learned about this space and its peculiar name from talking with my host family and others is a testimony to this pastor and congregation’s creativity and stewardship.
When Pastor Yoichi Sugamoto came to Oe Church the room was a typical church meeting room with bare walls and had a very industrial feel. Through his leadership they decided to convert this room to a coffee house to reach out to those in the community who might want to join them in fellowship. Pastor Sugamoto extended an invitation for Buddhist monks in the area to join Lutheran pastors at the café’. This room became a significant opportunity for outreach in April 2016 when the Kumamoto area was struck by a series of earthquakes that were 7.0 in magnitude. Significant damage was done throughout the region and many people were left dead, injured and homeless. In the aftermath and in the recovery, Café de Monk” has provided for both the Buddhist monks and Lutheran pastors a place to provide counseling services, food, etc. for those impacted by the earthquake. How inspiring! A small congregation that worships no more than 30 or 40 on a Sunday morning had found a way to use their building and their hospitable spirit to create a real opportunity to be the light of Christ in their community. I think it would be easy to remain turned inward as a congregation when you are such a minority in your community; however Oe Church found a way to answer the call to be missional and reach out to serve their neighbor.
On August 6, 1945, life changed forever in Hiroshima, Japan…. It’s difficult with the immense devastation that occurred to see any good or hope. But near the hypocenter, a Chinese Parasol Tree survived the atomic bomb. The side of the tree that was facing the hypocenter was “badly burned and hollowed out”. But miraculously, the tree didn’t die but instead grew around the badly burned part. It was such a gift of hope and encouragement to the people. Looking at the tree, I was consumed with the feeling that this tree offered such a profound statement. Even in the darkest of times, Jesus is THE Light. This tree gave me the feeling that Jesus was with me in the walk…. offering hope and encouragement even when things seem hopeless.
In Nagasaki we were introduced to a Middle School Girls Peace Club who study and talk about the need for world nuclear disarmament. They also host an international youth peace conference each year and were our escorts to the peace park.
That evening we were hosted by the Nagasaki Lutheran church which is a small congregation of 15. They host a community Tai Chi class each week and also offer each Tuesday free coffee and conversation to those who pass by on the streets. When invited to see their upstairs sanctuary, the woman who made our meal lit the candles and said, “we will now worship.” So we did, and it was an unexpectedly holy moment as we read scripture together, shared reflections, prayed together and sang Amazing Grace in Japanese and English. I was deeply moved by this woman’s faith and her deep desire to have us worship in their sanctuary. What an example of a small but dynamic faith community sharing their mustard seed of faith.
Serving and being Served
The Japanese people were amazing! They exhibited unconditional love and service to us. From the taxi drivers to the host families we were treated as if we mattered. One particular incident, that I will keep forever, is the friend I made in Hiroshima. During lunch, as we talked, I realized that he was 7 years older than me and that he enjoyed fishing. But it is what happened after that I will remember for a very long time. I had carried my backpack all over Japan and had various things in it that might be needed for the day. There was too much stuff in it and it was not light. My new friend insisted on carrying my backpack. I kept saying no, that he was older than me and that it was fine, however, he would have none of that. Finally I agreed and let him carry it. I realized that I had to force myself to be served. Jesus serves us today just as He did when he died on the cross. I hope that I am never too pious to be served again.
“I was lost, but now I am found.”
Imagine being in a country where most of your group does not speak or understand the language. You are told that someone will be meeting you but you don’t know who or where. That’s exactly the situation our SC group found when we arrived in Osaka, Japan. We exited our train and wandered to what we hoped was a visible spot and there we waited, hoping to be found. After a few uncomfortable minutes, we saw the smiling face of the one who was seeking us out. It was Pastor George and he had come to escort us to our hotel.
Have you ever wondered what that lost sheep must have felt like? Pastor George warmly welcomed us and took us to Hotel Luther. He was a good shepherd to us that night. Everywhere we went, there was someone from the JELC who found us and showed us the way to where we should be going. We saw the face of Jesus in our hosts.
Our visit had created excitement with our Japanese brothers and sisters in Christ. They were thrilled to see us and to welcome us. They embraced us with hospitality.
Each couple was scheduled for two home stay experiences. This was the part of our trip that made me most apprehensive. The Japanese culture was unfamiliar to me, and the language was extremely difficult. I was concerned that I would innocently be offensive and hurtful simply because of lack of familiarity with the culture and the barrier setup by language differences.
We, as guests, and our hosts had to navigate through cultural divides and language barriers. And yet, all of us experienced hospitality in each home stay—perhaps even radical hospitality. Our hosts opened their homes to strangers who became guests. Our hosts were committed to feeding us, making sure we were clean and rested, and transporting us to our next designation. Our Japanese hosts were kind and gracious while guiding us through these experiences. As their guests, we were committed to being respectful and open to learning about a new culture– bathing was different, eating fish for breakfast was challenging, sharing information was humorous at times.
I searched for ways to relate to our host family; they also worked to find the same common ground. All of us searched for a thread to cross the language and cultural divide. After struggling to get to know each other, Philip and I noticed a piano and we asked who played it. It was obvious the piano was played and cherished. Immediately, Satoshi, the father, leaped from his chair and summoned his youngest daughter to sing with him as he played. On Sunday morning before we left for church, we gathered around the piano and sang several choruses of “Seek Ye First”-in English. Singing this hymn together reminded us that regardless of the all that divides us, we are one in Christ. Suddenly, the divisions were not so noticeable.
In Japan, we were welcomed and cared for by strangers, and I realized that all that divides us pales in comparison to what unites us—the radical love of our Christ.
Unexpected Joys and Challenges
On our second day in Kumamoto our hosts served as tour guides for a journey filled with unexpected joys and challenges. We began with an hour-long ride to the summit of Mt. Aso. Our group was in two mini-vans, each with an English speaking guide to help us with landmarks and history. But March weather in Japan is unpredictable, and at the higher elevations we found ourselves in a snowstorm! At the summit we were unable to see anything but a performer in the parking lot doing tricks with his pet monkey!
The next significant stop on this day’s journey was lunch in a “Dengaku” style restaurant in a converted centuries-old farmhouse. Dengaku food is cooked at each “table” over an open hibachi fire pit. Each of us was given three skewers – one with a whole fish, one with a local type of potato, and the last with a small brick of tofu. Skewers were stuck into ground near the fire. Another skewer of beef and vegetables was laid over a metal cooking grate. Salads and other vegetables were brought as well. We sat on the floor, Japanese style, at the edge of the fire pit. The food was excellent; the experience unforgettable!
From there we continued our tour of the countryside surrounding the city of Kumamoto. For this part of the journey we visited the area closest to the epicenter of last year’s devastating earthquake. We stopped at the site of a quarter-mile long bridge that had spanned a canyon between two major highways. Both the bridge and a significant chunk of the land on either side disappeared into the valley when the earthquake struck. The day of our visit marked a significant anniversary for the family of a young man who was killed on the bridge. News reports and memorials were happening at the site of the overlook.
We passed countless ruined homes and buildings on our way to a local camp and retreat center. While the devastation there was extensive, they were hopeful that repairs could be made and the facility could reopen.
With the limits of communication we were never entirely sure what each day on this trip would bring. This day in Kumamoto was an excellent example of the daily joys and griefs that accompanied each of our days in Japan.
Connections across Continents
It was an honor to preach at Kumamoto Lutheran Church; to share in worship in various places throughout the land. It was a delight to see the many ways they are commemorating the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. It was a pleasure to hear their hopes and dreams for the church’s mission. It was heartwarming to visit the JIAIEN, a unique community of multiple generations who live and move together. The children are delightful and came right up to meet us. It was heart-wrenching to stand at the place where a major roadway was washed out by the Earthquake of 2016, and to listen to the prayers of a Buddhist monk who mourned with one of the families.
It was important to listen and hear the people of the JELC’s hopes and dreams for this Companion relationship. And above all it was a blessing to be with the people. On this journey I was reminded of the deep roots of our connections to one another in Christ. Regardless of physical distances, and even when we do not speak the same language, we share the same body and blood, and we are connected as community centered in Christ.
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