Homeless people are a hidden minority group in Japan. They are found everywhere, but are frequently not acknowledged. While the number of homeless people appears to be decreasing (the government seems to be assisting as much as possible—the 2020 Tokyo Olympics may be a motivation), those of us who work with homeless people realize that even though fewer homeless are visible, their number may not have changed. Those caught in the cycle of homelessness find it difficult to escape—while it is possible, the road is long and hard.
Ministry with homeless people is challenging and yet ever so rewarding. There is satisfaction in seeing the soul beneath the soiled clothing, and that only happens when you spend time with them. Sharing a hot drink or meal is one way of loving them. But more importantly, through this ministry we are seeing homeless people coming to faith in Jesus Christ. Unlike most Japanese people, homeless people have time, and since their life is a lonely one, most are willing to chat. Most are open to anyone who will take the time to sit with them, listen, and converse. They are even receptive to new ideas and faith. We plant God’s Word in their lives, and God brings about the harvest into his kingdom. They gain not just faith, but also the promise of a home with God forevermore.
The reasons for homelessness in Japan are many, but each individual has a unique story. Here are three.
From despair to joy
Ryu came to Tokyo from Kyushu in March to commit suicide. His partners and family had let him down, betrayed him, and caused him to lose his business and all hope. He planned to take a bus from Shinjuku to Mount Fuji, climb as high as he could in the snow, and then freeze to death. But God had other plans for Ryu. When he went to buy a bus ticket, he was informed the bus wasn’t running because of snowy roads. He ended up in Yoyogi Park, where he was told that there were food distributions and Bible studies. He decided to join one of the groups as he was hungry. I met Ryu on March 16 last year, and he became a regular participant in the Bible studies and Sidewalk Chapels (twice weekly gatherings for worship on a sidewalk near Yoyogi park).
Ryu was filled with anger and hate. He had been hurt and was looking for a way out. But he was told of the love of God, the forgiveness of Christ, and how he could have abundant life. He began with simple prayers and continued to study the Word. He asked lots of questions and became a genuine seeker. He was even asked to pray at the end of one Bible study in April and, though he doubted his ability, was able to say a simple prayer. The grace of the Lord broke down the barriers of hate and hurt, and I baptized him on May 1.
Ryu has since read the whole Bible. He attends Bible studies almost every day, volunteers weekly at the Sidewalk Chapels, and is filled with joy. He always has a witness on his lips and a smile from his heart. Even after being transformed by God, he was still homeless, although recently he has been provided shelter for six months.
From Sōka Gakkai to Christ
When he was only six, Yu was abandoned by his father. He was raised by his mother, who was a devout adherent of the Japanese Buddhist movement Sōka Gakkai. He too became a dedicated follower. He attended Sōka University and prayed earnestly many times a day, seeking enlightenment and healing for his broken heart.
The final blow came when Yu’s mother was dying from a stroke and dementia. He cared for her and prevented her from committing suicide many times. Yu even considered killing his mother to relieve her suffering. When she died of a stroke, he was alone in this world. He felt abandoned and hopeless. Yu became homeless and contemplated suicide.
Finding his way to Yoyogi Park, Yu joined the Sidewalk Chapel that meets every Saturday morning. There he heard of the love, forgiveness, and family that could be found in a relationship with Jesus Christ. He accepted Jesus as Lord and followed him in baptism.
In just a few years, Yu’s English ability increased dramatically as he spent time in Bible studies and worship with people from many countries. Today, he is my partner—both leading and translating. He readily and boldly shares his testimony with homeless people. And yet he is still homeless.
Immersed in the Word
When Mr. Masuda first attended Sidewalk Chapel in January 2015, he received a copy of John’s Gospel. He read it that week and returned for more. This time, he was given a small New Testament, which he read in a few weeks. When he again asked for more, he was given a Bible, which took him about three months to read. Throughout this time, he participated in Bible studies in the park and attended Sidewalk Chapel and a church. Mr. Masuda said, “When I joined the Bible study, I could share my thoughts and questions. I was so happy.” He continued, “Pastor Bae told me if I wanted to understand the Bible, I must pray . . . so I did.” He not only prayed for himself, but also rose early to pray for others.
About this time, Mr. Masuda developed a severe skin allergy. No medicine or doctor seemed to help, but he prayed, and after three months of prayer God healed him. “This is when I truly began to believe and came to faith in Jesus,” he testified. Mr. Masuda was baptized on December 24 last year and now attends Bible studies and serves others at Sidewalk Chapels. He is always ready with his highlighted and annotated Bible. He always has a positive answer and uses the Word to speak for him: whenever he is asked a question, he searches his Bible and reads the answer from it. And yet Mr. Masuda is still homeless.
Three transformed lives
Ryu, Yu, and Mr. Masuda are all members of the R2B (We are to Be) ministry team. They have been redeemed and seek to serve the Lord, and to love and serve others. They attend Bible studies (almost daily), serve at the twice-weekly Sidewalk Chapels (where they read the Word, pray, lead music, distribute food and facilitate small-group leadership), and boldly testify to God’s greatness. JH
Mark John Bennett (D. Min., Fuller Theological Seminary) has been with the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention since 1990 with his wife Sharon. They have served in various roles and are currently ministering to homeless in compassion/mercy ministries.