A hand covered with black soot stretched out for a handshake. James and I grasped his hand straight away and a bright smile greeted us. It took a while before he was willing to loosen his grip on our hands and we knew that he wanted to convey his gratitude for the kindness shown through the food received, the care and concern given.
Ministry to homeless people at Ikebukuro Station in Tokyo, began in the cold wintry month of January 2012. James, a compassionate Serve Asia worker from UK on a 2 months programme, suggested that we distribute food and reach out to the homeless scattered around the station. The station is the third busiest in the world, with nearly 2.5 million people using it each day. But at night over 30 people sleep in and around the station.
Most people cannot imagine Japan having any homeless people. During the 1970s and 80s, when the Japanese economy was thriving, many migrated from rural areas to Tokyo for work. However, when the economic bubble burst in the early 1990s, many lost their jobs. So they ended up sleeping on streets, parks, river banks, train stations, etc as they could no longer afford to pay rent or mortgage payments for their apartments. In addition, some ended up on the streets due to gambling debts and so on.
So three days after James’ suggestion, the Lord laid on our hearts a simple ministry. Chris, my wife prepared 15 bags consisting of a hot nikuman (meat bun), bread, a banana and a bottle of Japanese tea and we started distributing them. With every package of food delivered to them, we would sit or squat on the floor to chat to them, oblivious to the thousands of commuters passing by us. We made it a point to remember their names. We added a one-page Bible story to engage with the people we met. That was the start of the homeless ministry, which has now been going over six years.
Fast forward from the pioneering days of the ministry with whatever help we could get from short-term workers plus some Japanese Christians, today, we have an average of 10 volunteers each week. They include pastors, missionaries, local believers as well as homeless friends who faithfully reach out to the 35 homeless people.
Seasonal clothes are also distributed to help them during the extreme cold and hot weather. McDonald’s gift cards are given in extreme cold conditions and during typhoons. Events such as dinners are organised when short-term teams from abroad come over for ministry. And the greatest joy is seeing many turning to Christ, many attending two homeless-friendly churches and most powerfully, the image of the Christian homeless becoming volunteers to reach the homeless.
Here are some stories from people God has touched through our ministry:
Niko-san: the keen reader
Niko-san was the first one to pray for salvation in April 2012. Within eight months, he had finished reading half the Bible! In 2017, he disappeared from the streets and we found out that he was hospitalised and has since passed away, into a better place in heaven from the merciless cold he had to endure for years.
Arai-san: a servant-heart
Arai-san believed in October 2012 and started going to Nakayoshi Holiness Church. He got baptised there, worked his way out of his homeless situation and is now faithfully serving in the church. He is always the first to lay out the food and clean the tables during meals at church and give spiritual help to other people in the church.
Kei-san: engineer-turned-caring social work volunteer
Kei-san was an engineer from Fukushima, who made his way to Tokyo in 2012, exactly one year after the Tsunami and nuclear contamination in March 2011. His fiancé and mother perished in the tsunami. A divine appointment, we met when he was looking for a place to lay his head at Ikebukuro station. With his social and admin skill sets and a big heart, Kei has been helping in the Homeless ministry for many years till today, sharing the gospel and helping the homeless through care and giving support. He even started a farm to grow untainted vegetables to be sent to Fukushima schools so that the children can have safe food to eat. God has indeed called him to care for others and he is doing exactly what God has called him to do.
Reflections on pioneering ministry
Pioneering work is exciting. You can start one but it can vanish immediately if there is no perseverance and a heart to believe in what you are doing. You can see the homeless people as snapshots of failures and hopelessness without winking an eye or you can sit down with them and hear their stories of them being made redundant by their companies, their struggles with divorce and family chaos, gambling addiction and the like. We chose the latter.
The Lord is our Provider. From the start till now, God has provided the means for us to feed the poor, whether through giving by the volunteers, individuals and churches. The Lord even provided a former professional chef who cooks for the poor and the homeless!
As we reflect on what the Lord is doing through us, we realised that this ministry has taught us 4 key things:
- Make it personal – each one is precious
- Make it consistent – build trust by being there regularly
- Make it spirit-centred – share Jesus openly
- Make it connected – network with others, whether individuals or churches, to serve the homeless
There are many pockets of homeless people throughout different parts of Japan. They need practical help and the love story of our Lord. May the compassion of Christ be a catalyst for us to reach out to them so that they will have an eternal home in heaven.
- Pray that homeless people would see God as their sustainer, trusting him as their Saviour in the midst of their difficult days.
- Pray for churches and Christians in Japan to reach out to marginalised and disadvantaged people through social works and outreaches to these disadvantaged people.
- Wisdom, perseverance and provision for the ministry team in our outreaches to the homeless.