Do you see him?
The gift of the homeless ministry at Praise Community Church
In Japan, he may be hiding inside a makeshift blue sheet tent in the woods. Or he might be blending in. Maybe you’ve seen him several times at the Ichibancho shopping arcade in Sendai, wearing the same outfit or carrying his valuable possessions with him at all times. Maybe you’re like me; you noticed him, remembered Jesus’s words to care for the poor, and wanted to do . . . something but didn’t. Then you said a prayer as you passed, asking God to help you respond better next time.
At Praise Community Church (PCC) in Sendai, thanks to the tenacity of one brother, the church family is learning together how to seek and save the lost.
Following a call
Travis Lear came to Sendai in 2009 specifically to find and care for the homeless. Through his own experience of God redeeming his life from addiction and homelessness, Travis has been passionate about serving those who live on the streets. He explained, “I was broken and hopeless, and I sought the Lord. He told me to love the broken and hopeless.” Travis built his life around this mission.
That same year, Travis came to PCC and connected with Pastor Takahiro Ami and his wife, Frances. “At the time, it was mostly Travis doing outreach,” Frances said. “Taka would sometimes go to visit the homeless with Travis in Aoyama Park. At the very beginning, only one or two people came to church regularly, and we only gave out food and let them be part of the community.”
One of the men Travis befriended was Mr. Suzuki. Suzuki was not originally from Sendai but years ago had visited Pastor Taka’s father’s church in Kuroiso, Tochigi. When Suzuki first came to PCC and recognized Pastor Taka’s uncommon surname (阿見 Ami), he shared that he’d met the pastor’s father. Suzuki’s heart was open, and he became the first homeless brother to accept Jesus. Suzuki made PCC his home until the Lord called him to his eternal home in 2015.
The homeless community has become a characteristic trait of PCC. Makiko Takahashi, a visitor to PCC wanting to learn more about Jesus and the church, recently recalled meeting Suzuki years ago: “I remember being so touched. He told me about being homeless and sick. He had stomach cancer, but he was so content, so at peace, and at home in the church.”
Travis and Suzuki built something into PCC that is vital for serving the homeless: a trust relationship. Pastor Taka didn’t have the same experiences as Travis, so had to gain their respect and trust through repeated acts of faithfulness over many years. By God’s grace, PCC earned a reputation of trustworthiness in this community.
Building a new community
God has used different seasons in the church to grow this ministry. When it first began, PCC met in a bar. Frances said, “It was dirty, and we had to cover up the alcohol bottles. But it was an easier barrier for them [the homeless] to overcome coming to church.” This nontraditional church environment allowed the homeless to let their guards down.
Then in 2017, PCC moved out of the bar on the third floor of the building and rented the fifth floor. The church began to share fellowship meals every Sunday after the service. “The church space was open for anyone, with eating and fellowship,” said Pastor Taka. “Through the fellowship, the homeless people started to feel like they belong here.”
As the homeless attendees started to grow in number and become more regular, God put it on the hearts of Pastor Taka and Frances to do more. In 2019, they started a monthly Bible study and gave the homeless a new name and identity at PCC: Aozorakai (Blue Sky Group). This was a key shift. They were no longer identified by their homelessness, but instead were given a community and a place to be known.
Hiroshi and Michiyo Yokoyama joined PCC in 2018 and began serving with their gifting in the ukulele. Michiyo remembered how God called her and her husband into the ministry, saying, “I wanted to share the power of worship. I took my ukulele to Pastor Ami and asked if this was something I could offer. People who don’t know Jesus yet, through worship, slowly feel something stirring in their hearts.”
In 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced Japan’s churches to go online, a curious thing happened. Instead of losing connection with these largely “offline” men, God shifted the once-a-month ministry into a weekly Bible study outside in one of the most well-known places in Sendai: the Green Belt of Jozenji-dori. “I really like the Green Belt,” said Hiroshi Yokoyama. “You’re in the middle of the city, and it feels like you’re in a forest.”
His wife further explained the spiritual significance of using the Green Belt, saying, “We are in a place where we are seen by everyone, singing worship, and studying the Bible. Jozenji-dori is a famous place for warlord Date Masamune; many Christians were persecuted during his time.” It is believed that Jozenji-dori is named after a temple built by Masamune during his reign from 1600-1636.1 And while Masamune seems to have originally opposed Christian persecution, he eventually gave into pressures from the shogun.2
Michiyo continued, “But today there are also three big Christian universities in Sendai, and many graduates who are familiar with hymns might overhear our worship and wonder what’s going on.”
Seeing growth and change
Aozorakai has become a place for everyone to grow, both servants and participants. Iris Wong, a missionary from Hong Kong, has been serving at PCC for a little over a year. She said the ministry “makes me reflect about the pride I am holding: I am well educated, I am a ‘good Christian.’ When I got to know the Blue Sky members, I realized there’s no difference. We are all chasing the love of Jesus. I thank Jesus for the chance to know them.”
Another member at PCC, Moeka Adachi, started serving by making meals for the Aozorakai members last year. She said, “There might be people who think, ‘I have to do something really big for the Lord!’ But in my experience, doing something small like making bento meals, can be used by God to give many people the power to live. We have Jesus’ words—love your neighbor—and this is a chance for us to put God’s words into practice.”
God has been using these “loaves and fish” offerings. Over the years, six men have been baptized, three of them in the last year alone. Many more have open hearts, and God is giving them renewed hopes and dreams of getting off the streets and restoring their relationships.
One of the men, Enomoto, said, “My heart was saved through PCC. I was able to discover and recognize my true self. It’s a place I can learn the facts about myself and grow.” Enomoto recently joined in baptizing Ojima, our most recent brother. Ojima had been coming for only a few months when he gave his heart to Christ.
Ojima said, “I couldn’t believe it. In such a short time, through Pastor Ami and everyone, to be with people and to be connected like that. I had a lot of cares and worries that I couldn’t tell people, but when I came to PCC . . . I began to change. And I began to wonder, is this the real God?”
“What I felt through this journey,” said Pastor Taka, “is that God’s mercy has always been for these people, for me, for all of us, and mercy changes people. I can see through their smiles, through their talk, through their relationships, caring for one another. They found their true selves in God’s mercy and how he is transforming them.”
About the challenges of reaching men in Japan, Hiroshi shared, “Japanese men don’t have a place for their true self to be known. They don’t have many opportunities to open their hearts.”
Frances added that the stereotypical image of the church in Japan is that it’s “only for losers. That is difficult for men who are in the world of winning and losing. Recognizing your own weakness is difficult. That is why it’s hard for men to come to church, but they are looking for relationships. And we have that.”
The openness and honesty of the Aozorakai men have shaped and encouraged our church community. This reminds me that we serve a God who uses the weak to shame the strong. It humbles us. My brother Travis likes to share how God uses all things, saying, “I can’t believe he uses a jerk like me to share his love.”
1. “Jozenji Street,” Live Japan Perfect Guide, https://livejapan.com/en/in-tohoku/in-pref-miyagi/in-sendai_matsushima/spot-lj0012223/ (Accessed August 14, 2021).
2. Hubert Cieslik, S.J., “The Great Martyrdom in Edo 1623: Its causes, Course, Consequences,” Sophia University Media Center, http://pweb.cc.sophia.ac.jp/britto/xavier/cieslik/cie_greatmartyrdom.pdf (2010).