By Chad Berry
Sanae and Hidetaka Honma might not be the first people you’d expect to leave all they have ever known and go to a tsunami-ravaged area for the sake of gospel. But God thought differently.
Fifteen years ago, Sanae Honma was a cook at a missionary boarding school in Hokkaido, Japan. Though not a believer, Sanae and her husband Hidetaka grew an interest in Christianity after they followed the trend of having a “Christian” wedding, despite not professing faith in Christ.
One day, a new couple, Mike and Rowena McGinty arrived in Hokkaido. The McGintys’ children attended the boarding school and the McGintys had been asked to serve at the school for a short time while also leading a nearby church plant.
Some of the first spiritual fruit from the McGintys’ ministry there were the Honmas. Mike led the couple in a Bible study. Soon, the Honmas had more than a passing interest in Christian religion; they had a passion for Jesus Christ. They were baptized at the church and became dedicated members of the body. They were known for their sacrificial commitment and how they served people in quiet ways. Without a doubt, God was using them in Hokkaido …
On March 11, 2011, a 9.0 earthquake struck off the east coast of Iwate Prefecture, south of Hokkaido. A 133-foot tsunami traveled six miles inland at speeds of up to 500 miles per hour, destroying everything its path. The toll was immense: 15,850 people dead, 6,011 injured and 3,287 missing.
Shortly after the earthquake, OMF International asked Mike and Rowena to move to Iwate and lead the Iwate Relief Project. After more than 20 years in Hokkaido, it was hard for the McGintys to think about relocating. But they did. They just wondered who they should ask to join them.
“Going to serve in such an isolated situation, working in adverse conditions and setting up a ministry no one had done before placed a huge importance on who we recruited for our team,” said Mike.
The McGintys soon approached the Honmas about joining them in moving to Iwate. Imagine: a couple in their mid-50s who had never lived outside of Hokkaido. She was now an accountant. He was managing a public bath after having spent several years working in the tourism department of a resort town.
But God uses the willing. The question was would the Honmas be willing to leave everything they had known to serve in a disaster area among people reeling from the shock of losing loved ones, homes and life as they knew it?
Although a “risky” move and challenge to their faith, the Honmas said yes. Like many others, their lives, too, were turned upside down by the quake, but in a different way. In Luke 9:23-24, Jesus issued a radical call to discipleship: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.”
The Honmas followed in their Savior’s footsteps, resting in a sovereign and good God who called them to use their gifts, talents and love for him among people in great need. In need of practical things like food, clothing and shelter. In need of emotional healing that a listening ear or a word of encouragement could provide. And in need spiritually—lost, without hope, dead in their sins. Churches are scarce in Iwate.
“They just heard the need and responded in faith and obedience,” Mike said. “Not a day has gone by that I don’t give thanks for their being here, as they have done all and more than I expected. I have been a part of many teams over the years but ‘team’ has taken on an entirely different meaning in these new ministry circumstances.”
The Honmas serve as the Iwate relief project’s coordinators. They help set the schedule, communicate with the Japanese volunteers, deal with local officials, manage finances, organize the project on several levels, provide a sounding board to Mike (as project manager) and do anything that needs doing.
Watching the Honmas steps of faith has been quite rewarding for the McGintys. When they first met the Honmas, they never thought they would be teammates in an disaster area as part of a Christian relief project. Mike is hopeful that the Honmas’ example could lead to a redefinition of what “ministry” means in Japan.
“Ministry in Japan is largely viewed as the domain of the ‘professionals,’ such as trained clergy, but the disaster relief is empowering lay Christians like the Honmas on an unprecedented level and will in turn potentially change the whole dynamic of the church in Japan in my humble opinion,” he said.
God is in the business of bringing beauty from ashes and death from life. He makes bad days better. He uses tragedy for his purposes and the good of those who are called according to those purposes (Romans 8:28). He passionately loves the Japanese people, considered to be the largest unreached people group in the world with less than one percent Christians.
He’s in the business of calling normal, everyday people—cooks, accountants, businesspeople—of all ages, even those in the final decade of their working career, to do his work.
The Japan earthquake was a disaster of epic proportions. It shook the foundations of buildings and of people’s lives. Yet, as seen in the Honmas, God is at work in powerful ways.