Waiting for Kairos in Japan
by Melissa Hinnen
The Reverend Paul Shew from the West Ohio Annual Conference has been planting seeds of hope and promise for more than ten years in Japan. "I cannot imagine a place with more opportunity for student ministry than in Japan. We are in a unique position to point young people to a loving God through word and deed." Serving as a long-term mission volunteer through Global Ministries in Japan, Shew is a professor and university chaplain at Aoyama Gakuin, in Tokyo.
Thomas Kemper, the top executive of Global Ministries, recently visited Japan and said, "I see in Paul a true missionary who is leaving his home to fully share the life of people in another culture. He witnesses his faith with respect and humility in a country where the Christian community is less than one percent of the population. In this way he gives continuity to the long Methodist missionary presence in Japan."
While less than one percent of Japan's population is Christian, ten percent of students in Japan are educated at Christian schools. According to missionaries in Japan, children have very little exposure to Christianity in public schools. Students are drawn to schools such as Aoyama Gakuin not necessarily because they desire Christian faith, but because the schools provide an excellent academic education. The opening ceremony is a worship service--for many students it is the first encounter with a Christian tradition. From the first day of classes, Christian principles are woven into the life of the students.
Reverend Satoru Itoh, Aoyama Gakuin's dean of chaplains, recounted a story about a first-year student who recently came to him and asked to be baptized. The student had no previous understanding of Christianity but after seven weeks of learning about the faith in school, he was ready to turn his life over to Christ. Noting that Aoyama Gakuin is a school and not a church, Itoh said, "While students don't usually convert while they are in school, each student is regarded as a precious individual who is loved by God. They carry that understanding with them into the world."
Having a missionary available helps in the daily struggles of student life and provides guidance and support. "Because we are in ministry with people who are unfamiliar with religion, we sometimes find that they do not have the words to pray in certain situations," said Shew. Following the March 11 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis, students were drawn to the chapel for a prayer liturgy that has since been adapted for monthly worship gatherings.
"Many of us lost people in the tsunami," said Shew, who attended high school in Sendai and whose wife is from there. "As an educational institution, we were able to provide psychological counseling; and as a Christian institution, we were able to provide spiritual counseling as well."
Aoyama Gakuin is reaching out to those directly affected by the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident. They are waiving their entrance fees and have raised $2.4 million to provide scholarships this year for students affected by the disasters. In the spirit of servant leadership, the school also helped channel feelings of grief and helplessness into empowerment. Immediately after the quake, the school opened its campus to host more than 9,000 people stranded in the area.
In the days following March 11, students were mobilized to help host refugees and volunteer for relief efforts. They helped run a makeshift refugee shelter at the nearby Wesley Center, which is owned by the Women's Division of Global Ministries, and traveled to volunteer at the Asian Rural Institute supported by Global Ministries through UMCOR.
This past summer, approximately 500 students spent between one and nine weeks volunteering in places affected by the earthquake and tsunami. They cleaned up rubble from the tsunami, repaired housing, provided tutoring for children whose schools were destroyed, planned festivals and pot-luck meals to build community, and offered encouragement. The volunteer opportunities are transformative for the students as they recognize their ability to be agents of change in the world.
Itoh looks forward to Christianity being appreciated for more than volunteer contributions. It is important to him that churches become a source of Fukkatsu (resurrection) in communities, illuminating the hope and light that is offered in the gospel.
Shew believes the schools are laying the foundation for Christianity to be more accepted in Japan. "We are faithful witnesses waiting for our kairos* moment," he reflected.
*God's appointed time, Mark 1:15.
Date posted: Nov 30, 2011