Running as a ministry
What started out as a morning jog to stay fit turned into something so much more.
Almost every weekday morning I jog past five schools (a middle school, an elementary school, a kindergarten, and two nursery schools). I experience a variety of reactions and comments from the children and others.
One little boy stops me and says, “Good morning. What did you have for breakfast?”
Two boys throw their hands in the air and loudly say, “Why, Japanese people?”
Many children call out, “John-san!”
It all started when we moved to Iwakiri in Sendai. I jogged to maintain fitness and learn my way around the neighborhood—I never envisioned jogging would become a ministry.
However, I’ve now been invited to the two nursery schools and met the principals of the junior high school, elementary school, and kindergarten. I’ve heard from a Japanese pastor and from some neighborhood mothers that I am well-known in the area. Even people who live far from the area have said to me, “You’re the guy who runs in Iwakiri.” When a policeman was called to our house because several guests had parked on the street nearby, he laughed on seeing me and said “You’re the runner!”
Finding a route
Over several months, I tried to find a time and course that fit my schedule. When I took the garbage out, I saw grade school children walking to school. “Hmm, I think I’ll follow them one morning and find out where their schools are.” I said “Ohayō!” and “Good morning!” to some of them. I noticed their smiles and excitement when they saw me. I thought: I should do this regularly to make their walk to school more fun.
Connecting with children and staff
Some of the children stopped me to ask questions—to practice their English or to find out about the foreigner. Some joked, “Money, please,” and I responded, “Sorry, no money.”
Several times during the year, the students and staff at the elementary and junior high schools stand outside the gates in the morning for a week. When I asked why, I was told they were doing greeting duty. With this line of students on both sides of the sidewalk, I held up my hands like a basketball player being introduced before a game and high-fiving his teammates. Some of the greeters gave me a high five. So I incorporated that into my jogging—holding up my hands for any child to high five me. A couple of times small children surprised me and actually jumped up into my arms! And yes, I’ve also had to fend off some attacks to my more sensitive regions (I very much dislike this aspect of Japanese culture).
Getting into the schools
I began to pause in my jog to talk to staff on greeting duty. During our second Christmas in the area, I went to the elementary school and asked the principal if I could dress up as Santa and greet the children. He gave me his permission and blessing (he’d already heard about me). At one of the nursery schools, the children would run to the fence to see me and I would stop and greet them. They asked questions or challenged me to janken (rock, paper, scissors). Teachers came to the fence, too. For a while, I carried business cards in my pocket and gave them to staff. I told the nursery school teacher I’d be willing to come do an English program if they were interested. They invited me, and I’ve been there multiple times.
Most surprising was how many of these children just want to be held. I’ve been there with my wife, daughter, and short-termers, and each time we’ve spend the last several minutes just giving hugs to children. (Some of the nursery children are now in elementary school, and they say, “You came to my nursery school.”)
We’re now heading back for home service. During my last week of jogging, I told many students and staff that I would be gone for several months. “Write to us!” “Bring me a souvenir!” “I’ll miss you!” they responded.
My desire is to take this further. I helped a local pastor hand out some flyers in front of the elementary school once because I’m well-known there among the children. When we get back to the area I’d like to work with the local church to hold some periodic special events at the community center for children. I’d like to get into the schools to talk about American culture (and the Christian influence on much of it).
Jogging as a ministry is still a new concept for me, but in less than two years I’ve become a widely-known and trusted member of the community with just a one-hour investment each weekday morning before breakfast.