Straight paths in a pandemic
Unsure how to serve returnees in a pandemic, we asked the Lord for direction. By his grace, an online ministry has developed.
I looked at the coaster, reading again the familiar words:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make your paths straight.
(Prov. 3:5–6 NIV 1984)
We’d recently returned from a fifteen-month home assignment, intending to continue and expand the returnee ministry we’d been doing before we left for the UK. Previously our work had involved much hospitality and traveling, encouraging Christian returnees, and reaching out to non-Christians. Now, due to the pandemic, we could neither reconnect in person with old returnee friends nor meet new ones.
“Lord, what can we do when we can’t meet people?” I prayed desperately.
An initial idea
A few days later, I shared with my husband, Mike, an idea that I thought might be from the Lord: “Could we start an online English outreach? With the government telling people to stay at home, there must be lots of isolated returnees. And our locked-down friends in the UK have plenty of free time. We could bring them together for English conversation with a short Bible time at the end.” It turned out he’d been thinking along similar lines.
We continued praying, and the idea grew. A trial meeting we called “English Gathering” worked well, so we asked friends around the world to invite their Japanese friends.
We’ve been meeting twice a month ever since. We choose a topic such as “wisdom” or “community” to discuss in small groups, led by native English-speaking volunteers. At the end, Mike shares a Bible verse and explains how it relates to the theme.
Gradually numbers have increased, including returnees who were previously too busy to travel across Tokyo to join our events, some from other parts of Japan, and even a few who are currently overseas. Some have only attended once or twice, and others are now regular attendees who are developing relationships with our volunteers.
Feedback shows attendees feel loved and accepted. After attending his first online meeting, Hitoshi said, “Thank you for really great time yesterday. This opportunity makes me happy. I appreciate your kindness and supports. I’m looking forward to meet you next month.”
One thing leads to another
Our hope was that, as well as providing community for isolated returnees, we would be able to share Jesus with them. So we were delighted that several attendees showed clear interest in the Bible. However, we realised they would learn more from a Bible study in Japanese, so we started praying for at least one Japanese Christian to help us lead. Unknown to us, Satomi,* a friend living in the UK, had been praying for ways to serve the Lord during lockdown, and this Bible study was the answer to her prayers. Even better, her non-Christian mum wanted to join too!
This was just the beginning. Out of English Gathering, we’ve started a number of other online groups. Reiko was interested in English Gathering but had recently had a baby and found evenings difficult. At the time, I had to say no, since Japanese morning corresponds to nighttime in the UK when my English-speaking volunteers would be asleep. Then Momoko also asked about a daytime group. I could think of other returnees who might be interested. “But where can I find native speaker volunteers?” I asked the Lord. The answer came through a New Zealand colleague in Japan and a friend in Australia, who were both in the right time zone. We now meet with a number of Japanese ladies twice a month for English conversation and Bible study.
Ayako came to English Gathering and heard about the Bible study, but she told me she couldn’t join because of another commitment. She was delighted when I offered to read the Bible with her one-on-one. Kanako was also interested but didn’t want to use Zoom, so we started meeting one-on-one on Skype.
Yukiko expressed a desire to know how and why Satomi had become a Christian, so we ran an online “Story Time” event where Satomi shared her testimony. We’re hoping this will become a semi-regular event with other Japanese Christians sharing their testimonies.
We’ve also started a fellowship group for Christian returnees.
God gently led us
When we returned from home assignment, we had no idea how we could continue ministry in a pandemic, but God knew and gently led us step by step.
Although online isn’t for everyone and has its challenges, it works well for us as we seek to minister to people across the greater Tokyo area and now in other parts of Japan too. Even when the pandemic settles down, we expect to continue much of this online ministry while also returning to face-to-face ministry.
*All Japanese names except Satomi’s have been changed for privacy.