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Through OMF’s Serve Asia programme, I served for two months in winter 2019 under veteran OMF missionaries Martin & Ruth Ghent at the church they work alongside and support in northern Japan.
The particular region I went to, Aomori, is famous for its record amounts of snow. Aomori City, in fact, has the highest snowfall of any urban area in the world. When I wasn’t engaged in my daily practice of shovelling snow and digging cars out, I helped clean and set up the church for various activities, and sometimes joined in with the English class outreach.
A memorable English class
One of the most memorable moments I had was during an English class with a local surgeon and his wife, in which we read about Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. Japan is more formal when it comes to social interactions; the recognition of status is heavily embedded in Japanese grammar, with both honorifics and humbler forms of verbs and polite and casual registers. For the surgeon, Jesus’ act was astonishing. For a sensei (mentor/teacher) to not only praise his pupils, but to humble himself and perform such a low and unpleasant task was, for him, totally unheard of and utterly extraordinary. The surgeon’s wife and two daughters are all Christians and much loved in the church and they are very eager to see him come to know Jesus.
My main task, however, was to produce posts for OMF Japan’s social media accounts, along with some longer articles. I reported on OMF’s activities in the region, interesting cultural differences, and current affairs, such as the new trade deal between Japan and the EU. I also had the chance to travel around and interview various OMF missionaries and Japanese Christians, during this time I discovered the following story:
Exploring in the Snow
“Deep in the snowdrifts of a remote peninsula in northern Japan stands a famous shrine. Mediums visit this shrine each year so people can get in touch with the dead. Partly obscured down a steep path to the rear, are a multitude of small statues. They look like children but are in fact representations of Jizo, a divine figure believed to protect deceased children. The caps and toys that decorate these statues are often left by parents in memory of their lost child.
Mutsu, a local woman from a nearby town, once had a shrine for her son, Shinobu, at this site. Shinobu died when he was just three years old. Mutsu used to walk her daughter to school, and would often take Shinobu with her. On the way, they had to cross a bridge over an irrigation ditch. One day, Shinobu, impatient to see his sister, left the house without his mother. His body was found later that day in the ditch, drowned. Mutsu, having lost her son so suddenly, became uncomfortable around children because it made her feel incompetent to care for the child she loved.
She met Martin & Ruth soon after they helped start a church near her home. Mutsu observed how, despite being from North America, they were raising Micah, a little Japanese boy, and loved him as if he were their own. She and Ruth became friends, and, after many long conversations, she finally had the courage to tell Ruth about her own little boy. She told Ruth about the temple; where the priest had told her that her son was, and how she had been dutifully making the payments required to ensure her son’s welfare.
Moved by Mutsu’s story, Ruth shared the gospel with her. She accepted Christ, and soon afterwards had her son relocated from the temple precinct to a town grave. Martin held a small service, attended by close family. Having become aware of the teachings at the temple, Martin and Ruth sought out the priest. Their efforts to discover just what he believed and taught were frustrated. They found him, and he answered their questions, but they were prefaced with ‘it seems’, ‘probably’, ‘it’s thought that’.
Meanwhile, Mutsu’s faith in Christ grew and she became a quietly courageous Christian. Her funeral a few years ago was an amazing witness to hundreds of people.
Micah, who had become Mutsu’s pastor, led the service, which celebrated her life and faith, pointing to the gift of eternal life in Christ.
Praise God that Mutsu found rest for herself and hope for her son in Jesus.”
Serve Asia worker