How would you describe the mission of our partner in Japan?
I work with the United Church of Christ in Japan. The most important fact about the church in Japan is that it is a minority church. Only one percent of the population is Christian. This means that the dominant culture does not understand you, does not want you to be different, and many times dictates behavior in such a way to disallow for diversity of opinions. In this environment, the church is one of many sub-cultures that is discriminated against because it goes against the norms.
I have been working for the past 22 years with the church (the Kyodan). Now I will be working at Kwansei Gakuin University. Speaking out about peace and justice concerns (ex. For victims of radiation in Fukushima), promoting a culture of inclusion and tolerance (ex. Being an advocate for minorities in Japan), and speaking out against Japanese nationalism (ex. Questioning policies that promote a revisionist understanding of Japan’s history), are all prophetic roles that the Christian church plays.
How do you fit into their mission?
I will be working as chaplain at the university, responsible for organizing programs on campus which instill in young hearts the Christian spirit of the university. At the same time I will be involved with social concerns beyond the walls of the campus, so that the Christian university can have a role and voice in the wider society.
The church in Japan is concerned about passing on the Christian faith to younger generations. At the same time it is concerned with serving society. Through education, the university will aim to teach young people the value of loving God and neighbor. Even as a small minority community, the church can make a difference by being the salt of the earth, and by influencing society.
What led you to engage in this calling?
My parents were UCC missionaries, and I went to Japan when I was two years old. My faith was nurtured in the church in Japan, and I wanted to work with the church in Japan in some capacity. My first assignment to Japan was to serve a congregation with four members. This experience transformed my life and my values. I came to see myself in a radically new way: as serving the small community of believers. I realized how God can make big things happen out of the small and weak.
Is there a passage of scripture that carries special meaning in your daily work?
Matthew 5:13 “You are the salt of the earth” – It reminds me that Jesus was mindful that his followers were a minority of people.
Luke 24:13-35 “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road.” – This Emmaus Story became our story as we responded to the disaster of March 2011.
Micah 6: 8 “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.” – The Japanese church has a history of speaking out for justice. Rural evangelism in Japan has always taken seriously the dignity of those who work the soil. Coming in touch with rural Christians in Japan has taught me a great deal about humility.
What are some of the challenges facing the church in Japan?
- Passing on the faith to the next generation
- Discrimination as a minority people
- Internal division within the Kyodan over theological differences
- The ongoing nuclear disaster (protecting life in the face of powers who deny the dangerous truth)
- Being a prophetic voice against increasing nationalism and militarism
What lesson have you learned working with UCC-Japan that you would like to share with churches in the U.S.?
To find ways to be the church despite the small numbers.
What is a common phrase used in the local churches?
Shuno heiwa (Peace be with you)
Are there books that have shaped your understanding of your work?
- Silence, by Shusaku Endo (a famous novel set in the 1600s about the struggles of holding onto the Christian faith)
- Christianity in Japan,1971-90, by Kumazawa Yoshinobu and David Swain
- Dialogue of Life: A Christian Among Allah’s Poor, by Bob McCahill
- Finding Peace, by Jean Vanier (this has nothing to do with Japan, and yet because Japan is such a competitive society, this book is helpful in its focus on the value of weakness and community)
Which movies have shaped your understanding of your work?
- “Departures” (a recent film about an undertaker in Japan)
- “Rashomon” (a famous Kurosawa film which deals with perceptions and the truth)
- “The Gate” (about Buddhist priests who heads off on a non-violent pilgrimage to take the flame of Hiroshima back to where it came from in the US)
- “Rokkasho Rapsody” (a documentary about how lives are affected by various uses of nuclear energy)
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I have shared a recipe for gyoza (pot stickers) as well as instructions for folding paper cranes, which are a symbol of peace. In Japan people fold a thousand cranes as a prayer for eternal peace.
Jeffrey Mensendiek serves with J.F. Oberlin University in Tokyo, Japan. His appointment is made possible by your gifts to Disciples Mission Fund, Our Church’s Wider Mission, and your special gifts.
More from Jeffrey Mensendiek
- WCC: Armenians fleeing war find open doors as churches offer shelter and hope
- “I Have Observed the Misery of My People”
- A Call for a just and lasting peace in Angola
- Newsletter of the Reformed Church in Hungary – February 2021
- Sabeel Wave of Prayer: Week of Feb. 22, 2021
- Water for life: not guaranteed for the indigenous people of the Navajo Nation
- Pray with Lebanon, February 28, 2021
- Global Ministries is saddened to learn of the death of Evelyn Mae Schroer Kroehler
- Mission Pilgrimages Postponed in 2021
- Urge 3 Senators: Re-enter the JCPOA