The House of Hope in Ishinomaki, Japan
Meiwaku. It’s such an annoying word, but it carries a lot of weight in Japanese culture and everyday relationships. Meiwaku can be used to refer to anything that bothers someone else. Don’t practice the piano late at night because it might bother the neighbors. Don’t park your car on the street because it causes meiwaku to those trying to drive by it. A lot of it is common sense, but…somehow, in my still at least partly western mind, it goes beyond that. And now, this pesky word shows up in our rental agreement. What does it mean exactly?
Maybe it’s nothing to worry about. After all, we have made a lot of progress! Back in December 2013, the owner was saying NO religious activities. Our coffee-drinking relationship began and, although there was no guarantee of being able to reach a point of agreement, work began on the house in mid-May. The friendly carpenter reappeared and we carried on pleasantly all summer. We were even invited out with the whole family for drinks and a gorgeous platter of expensive raw fish. In reality, the missionaries only drank ginger ale and not a word of the conversation came close to being business-related, but something about our relationship was sealed anyway.
More months went by. Construction stalled again. Our phone calls went unreturned. At the end of September we found ourselves eating raw fish together again, this time at a funeral hall. Sadly, the owner’s father (and original owner of the house) had lost his battle with cancer.
In mid-October we gathered around our dining room table, coffee cups in hand, to discuss the rough draft of a rental agreement and the word meiwaku. The pre-rental contract stated that we should refrain from any religious activities that caused meiwaku in the neighborhood. Since everyone has a different concept of what is bothersome, we were hesitant. A rather lively discussion ensued regarding our request to put a “House of Hope” sign on the property. The owner was also uptight about having his house decorated for Christmas. We were thoroughly disheartened. Ten months of talking, coffee and raw fish (which I don’t even like!), and things are going to end NOW?
As it turned out, the owner had envisioned neon signs, lots of blinking Christmas lights and brightly colored crosses decorating his roof… This was not what we had in mind. After viewing some photos our meeting ended in calm agreement.
At the end of November, when we met with the real estate agent to go over the final contract, we were astounded. The meiwaku phrase had been replaced with a sentence saying we could hold “mass” and prayer meetings!
Speaking of meiwaku, the streets in our neighborhood are extremely narrow, and parked cars are a legitimate complaint. God answered our prayers about that issue one day before we received the keys. A neighbor took it upon herself to phone the owner of the land across the street from House of Hope. She then reported that we could use that lot for parking—FREE—in exchange for cutting down the weeds and maintaining it.
No doubt about it, acquiring a ministry house in our neighborhood has been a time-consuming process. The tsunami was a terrible thing, but in his mercy God is using it to bring the gospel to those who live on the coast of northern Japan. In a way, I see the long process with the house as being his mercy, too. Our God is not limited by culture. He knows exactly how to work in the hearts of our neighbors and has prevented us from rushing in with our typical American values of speed and efficiency.
“…In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope…and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:3-4). We believe these words will one day come to resonate with the people in our neighborhood who have already experienced the spoiling of their physical belongings. While we anticipate the process taking time, we have experience to remind us: God is never too early and never too late.
Thank you for keeping the House of Hope in your prayers.
Dean and Linda Bengtson are currently serving with Lutheran Brethren International Mission in Ishinomaki, Japan.