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Serving at-risk migrants

The room was bright, clean, and cozy. Outside the window, flowers bloomed in pots. To me this is a little bit of heaven, and to the residents this is a safe home. This is a place where residents are taught to appreciate the finer things in life. It also provides an atmosphere in which it is impossible to keep from thinking of God.


This is the crisis center for women victims of domestic violence. I was there to meet Nikki (not her real name) and her eleven-month old boy, who became residents of the home for a couple of weeks before they moved to long-term housing. Many tragic things had happened to her family back in Poland—her dad was killed in a car accident and they lost all their family possessions. For years, she and her younger brother, with their elderly mother, lived on money provided by a nephew, but it made her feel like a pauper.

She came to Japan with a university scholarship. Soon after graduation, worried about her visa status, she married a Japanese man who was emotionally unstable. She ended up enduring physical abuse. For years the abusive relationship created a feeling of hopelessness and threatened her ability to escape.

But God is good; he connected her with us. Her first and most important desire when we met her was for her and her baby’s safety, for she feared for her life. Mother and child were brought to safety within twenty-four hours of connecting with us. We provided post-traumatic counseling sessions, though it may take a long time to re-adjust and cope. At the time of writing she had been approved for welfare assistance from the government, providing a mother and child allowance, as well as help for housing and medical care.

I remember in one of our sessions, she asked me: “Sensei, can I ask you a question?”

“You can ask me anything you want.”

She took a deep breath and nervously began scribbling notes. “Why did you help me?” she asked. “I’m such a mess; I don’t belong to the same faith group as yours. Will you require me to join you in church?”

I smiled, reached for her hand, put her pencil down, and told her, “I am not going to require you to come to my church. However, you are welcome to come anytime. I helped you because you needed help. I didn’t assist you just to be a ‘do-gooder’ but because service is tied to the meaning of our faith in God. God desires to see everybody loved and safe.”

Nikki grew up in a family who taught her not to “air our dirty laundry” for fear of being unlovable. But one day, in the session, she realized she couldn’t keep her secrets any longer, so she bared everything and I assured her that she is loved. That moment became faith-shaping as she began to understand that our love for her is an extension of Christ’s love—freely given despite knowing the truth about her. Slowly, she began to believe that Jesus loved her, and finally, she felt worthy and lovable.

Ministry with at-risk migrants

My ministry includes case management with dysfunctional migrant families, women and child victims of physical abuse, and asylum seekers. It is often difficult for me to relate to these people who struggle so much. But helping them through the process has helped me appreciate life.

Ministry with this group of people is tough. Some days I go home to my family and feel like a superhero, while on other days I wonder if I’ve accomplished anything good. This used to bother me, but then I became a mom and I learned that the small victories in life are actually some of the greatest. When a refugee family gets a special visa to stay in Japan, that’s huge. When a woman who is the victim of abuse is able to decide for herself confidently—it’s huge. When you are able to translate the conversation for someone in Japanese—it’s also huge. Rejoicing over small victories helps us recognize God’s hand at work. May we never tire of being grateful.

God’s gifted me with a compassionate heart. But still sometimes I get exhausted from caring so much. Constantly taking care of the needs of others is draining, and my compassion bucket sometimes feels like it’s becoming dry. But then just when I thought I was out of compassion, God always fills it back up again. He’s always leading me on to maturity in Christ. I love these words in 2 Peter 3:17-18, “You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, be on your guard so that you are not carried away by the error of unprincipled men and fall from your own steadfastness, but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity” (NASB).

If you are serving people who are emotionally struggling, let me encourage you. You are doing a great job. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like it, but you are. May your involvement in the church and mission grow you as a follower of Christ. And may you be surprised at how he is using your situation to better equip you to love and serve those around you, just as he is with me.

Devorah Umipig-Julian was born in the Philippines and moved to Japan with her husband in 2001 with the United Methodist Church, USA. She’s a social worker and her husband serves with Mission to Seafarers. They have two middle-school-aged boys.

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