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Missionary sees end of missionary era in Japan

New avenues for global connections may open up

By Ed Evans – co-chair of Global Ministries Committee

Long-time missionary Jeffrey Mensendiek sees himself and sister Martha as the last of a long, historic tradition of missionaries, serving the United Church of Christ in Japan.  The son of missionary parents, Barbara and Bill Mensendiek, Jeffrey has lived in Japan, since he was two years old.

Ed Evans and Jeffrey Mensendiek

Jeffrey Mensendiek with Ed Evans at Sequim.

Photo courtesy of Ed Evans

For more than 20 years he served as the director of youth activities at the Emmaus Center in Sendai, appointed by the Common Global Mission Board, a shared ministry of the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Jeffrey was one of seven missionaries to recently visit churches in and around the Pacific Northwest Conference of the UCC and Northwest Region of the Disciples. He met with 11 churches and faith communities from Sequim to Richland and Yakima the first two weeks of December.  During those visits, he shared pictures of the church’s historic work in Japan along with heartbreaking stories about the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown disaster that devastated the northeast coast of Japan in March 2011.

He saw disaster relief open the non-Christian nation

When the earthquake struck in the Sendai region, Jeffrey was meeting with young adults at the Emmaus Center, which was quickly converted to a disaster relief center where volunteers came to be sent out to coastal communities devastated by the earthquake and tsunami.  The tragedy became an opportunity for Japan’s minority Christian community to witness to their faith, he said. 

“The people we served were 100 percent not Christian,” he said.  “The first man we met, who became the contact person, Mr. Sugawara, said ‘we don’t like Christians.’”  The reason he said that was from negative opinions about the arrogance of some Christians that somehow, Christians are better than anybody else. 

“Their opinion changed, and their attitude about Emmaus Center changed,” Jeffrey  said. “That’s the reality I live in.  The minute you say you are Christian, shutters go down, and they back off and are a little distrustful.” 

Volunteers from the Emmaus Center, Jeffrey said, were able to create mutual respect.  Of the volunteers, 80 percent were non-Christian.  So the center became a place for dialogue between Christians and non-Christians doing the same thing:  helping survivors.

“Not only did it offer a wonderful experience for the church to grow,” he said, “but it also offered those who came in touch with the church a chance to gain a deeper understanding of what the church is about.  In many instances, I was the recipient of the people’s gratitude.  They were saying, ‘Thank you, Emmaus Center, for being here.’  It was clear they had been touched in a way they had never been touched before.”

He hopes the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima may open dialogue on nuclear power with people in the United States.

Reflecting on the meltdown of the nearby Fukushima nuclear plant, he said, “It just can’t go back to the way it was.” 

Many people have been uprooted from their homes in areas considered unsafe because of high radioactivity.  In areas people still live, children cannot play outdoors because of the high radioactivity.  

There is fear the suicide rate will increase in Fukushima because people have lost hope for the future. Jeffrey said the implications of the meltdown are “like the loss of your homeland.”  He equates that disaster with the Native Americans’ loss of their homeland or people of the South Pacific whose islands may sink under climate change.

“It’s shocking and sad,” he said.

Following the Fukushima meltdown, more than 50 nuclear power generating plants in Japan were shut down because of safety concerns of the public. 

As they slowly come back on line, a national grass roots movement has grown to call the government to accountability and protest nuclear power. 

Every Friday there is a rally in front of the Prime Minister’s residence in Tokyo to protest the restart of the nuclear industry.  About 15,000 people participate weekly in Tokyo along with similar protest rallies in cities throughout Japan.

Concerns of the anti-nuclear movement have been offset by recent elections, which gave gains to the pro-nuclear party.

After his visits with churches in the Northwest, Jeffrey said, despite small numbers, he felt “a genuine spirit of presence and sharing in God’s mission wherever we live.”

He and his sister Martha may be the last missionaries to serve in Japan unless the church sends new missionaries. 

Martha teaches social welfare at Doshisha University in Kyoto.  Jeffrey, his Japanese wife and three children are living in seminary housing at Lancaster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania until they return to Japan in the fall. 

He will begin serving a four-year term as a chaplain of Kwansai Gakuin University in Kobe, more than 500 miles from Sendai.

While visiting in Richland, he discussed the nuclear issue and hopes to find ways the Northwest can move into a relationship with Japanese people on the nuclear issue.  He hopes to start a blog to do that.

He recently attended a Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience program sponsored by the Evangelical Mennonite Seminary in Virginia designed to help disaster and trauma survivors build awareness of trauma and how trauma leads to violence.  The goal is for people to break free of the cycle of violence and learn resilience so they can work as peace builders.

Mensendiek expect that this training will help him as he returns to Japan.

For information, call 360-683-4704 or email

Copyright February 2013 © Pacific Northwest Conference United Church News


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