Jeffrey Mensendiek – Japan
My work involves the continual dialogue with young people here in Japan. Just the other day, one college age young man approached me and told me that he had recently overcome some of his prejudiced feelings toward Christianity. This young man had first come to our Emmaus Center three months ago to take some of the classes we offer for young people. He had had no encounter with Christianity to that point, and thus had his reservations about the religious background of our Center. But with time he began to realize that there was something genuine about our spirit of serving the community. So he decided to speak up. He said, “Jeffrey, I don’t know much about Christianity. But I now realize that some of my ideas about Christianity have been misinformed.”
I was very pleased that it was he that approached me, rather than the other way around. As you may know Japanese people are very reserved. Often it is the foreigner who has to make the first move in a conversation. So this simple gesture was like a small miracle. I recognized in this moment an expression of his trust in me.
He continued by saying, “Tell me. Is religion necessary? I cannot imagine believing in anything, any philosophy or belief system that surpasses my own mind.” Needless to say, this inquiry led to quite a long discussion. And it was not conclusive in the least. But it was a beginning; a beginning of a dialogue between two people so different, and yet so similar. Dialogue for me has always been the process of recognizing differences, and yet keeping open to finding common ground. Japanese young people challenge me with their searching questions, and their trust. They help me to keep an open mind.
I shared two things with him that day. First, I told him that the media often creates an impression of religion as narrow-minded, judgmental, and self-righteous. That the wars that we fight are often caused and supported by religious beliefs. But I told him that is not the whole picture. Rarely does the other face of religion find expression on the news show. The other face is nurturing, quiet, trusting, and life creating. It is like our Emmaus Center that tries to serve the community as Christ would have us serve. It silently works for peace and reconciliation between peoples. It is the salt of the earth.
I also shared with him my personal story of how God tapped me on the shoulder one day. When I was seventeen, I had the opportunity to travel in India for a few days. There I met a leper begging for money. I turned my back on him. And that was the beginning of my faith journey that led me to be embraced by the love of God. This story always has a strong impact for young people. I tell young people to travel, and do new things. I tell them to encounter people with different backgrounds; people radically different from themselves. It is only through these encounters that you begin to see how small you are in the face of humanity. And in my case, that is when I earnestly started to seek out the ONE who leads us on the path toward reconciliation between peoples.
This conversation was deeply satisfying for both of us. I ask myself why? Why is it so satisfying to share like this? It is certainly not because we argued our case well, but rather because we were able to listen with a genuine heart. We found the space to be ourselves, in the presence of the other.
Tomorrow (Feb 11) is National Founders Day in Japan. A far more difficult conversation to share with young people is about the political changes that are sweeping across this land in the past three years. There is a cloud of nationalism and totalitarianism beginning to develop, and most young people are not at all concerned. 2005 marks the 60th anniversary of the end of the Asia-Pacific War. I will be traveling with a group of young people to Okinawa in March. The challenge before us is to open up a new conversation about history – not only about the past, but about the history we are about to create for ourselves.
Jeffrey Mensendiek (Sendai, Japan)
Jeffrey Mensendiek serves with the Council on Cooperative Mission, assigned to the Gakusei (Student) Center in Japan. He serves as Director of Gakusei (Student) Center in Sendai, Japan.