It’s been called the graveyard of missionaries, hard ground, unreachable.
It’s said that the cultures of Buddhism and Shintoism run too deep, and the idea of a single, almighty God is too foreign for comprehension.
This reputation, however, is no barrier to the will of God, and the Holy Spirit moved mightily as Jesus made Himself known through a pair of events this past weekend.
Over the course of three days, the Celebration of Hope in Fukushima and the Celebration of Love in Tokyo saw 5,181 people hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ, with more than 180 surrendering their eternity into His loving hands.
Celebration of Hope Fukushima 2013 with Will Graham
On March 11, 2011, the prefecture of Fukushima became known to the world. A 9.0 magnitude earthquake rocked the area, followed by a deadly tsunami which swept away homes and claimed the lives of more than 15,000 Japanese.
As if these two tragedies were not enough, the subsequent meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant released radiation into the air and water, driving people from their homes. Temporary housing sprung up in cities like Koriyama as thousands were pushed from the dangerous restricted zones.
The accumulated disasters only deepened the sense of hopelessness that was already present.
“There are 150,000 people that have escaped the coast line to this area here. They want to go home but they can’t go home,” said Pastor Ken Sato of the United Church of Christ in Japan. “Nobody has a purpose. What are they going to do? The heart is very empty right now.”
Rev. Yoshio Sanga of Grace Garden Chapel added, “In Japan there are a lot of people like that [without hope], but especially in this area. Economically it’s not stable. There are a lot more people who are hopeless because of the radiation and because there are no jobs.”
In the midst of this darkness, the churches of the area banded together to shine the light of Jesus.
Seventy area churches – many from outside the city of Koriyama, in the greater prefecture of Fukushima – partnered together with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) to host the Celebration of Hope Fukushima 2013 with Will Graham inside the College Memorial Hall on the campus of Koriyama Women’s University.
The entire prefecture of Fukushima has only 4,100 Christians in it. However, over the course of two days, including a special event for children, 3,181 Japanese attended and were told that they were loved by the Savior.
“I know that you’ve experienced a lot of turmoil. I can tell you this, there’s a God that understands. He sees you and knows you right now,” said evangelist Will Graham to the amassed crowd. “There may be some here who are considering suicide. God wants to give you something to live for. He wants to fill that void in your life.
“Tonight I want you to know that Jesus Christ loves you. He wants to give you a new beginning; a fresh life.
“This will be the most important decision you’ll ever make, and the reason it’s important is because eternity is at stake,” said Graham. “You no longer need to be separated from God. You can know Him personally tonight. Come to Him through Jesus.”
As the invitation was given, people streamed forward to surrender their lives to Christ. They filled the area in front of the stage, and lined up along the aisles. Ultimately, 188 Japanese found the hope for which they were searching.
At the conclusion of the Celebration, Pastor Sato wiped tears from his eyes. He held out his hands and began counting on his fingers.
“When I got saved many years ago, you could almost count the people that were saved,” Pastor Sato said. “I’m really moved by how people have come to know Jesus. In this land, this many people accepting Christ is unthinkable.
“God never disappoints us. He did over what I expected.”
Unprecedented Unity of the Churches
As they travel the globe, partnering with local churches in proclaiming the Gospel, representatives of the BGEA are often told that one of the most positive outcomes developed through the process is the newfound unity in the churches.
Such was the case in Koriyama, Fukushima, as the Celebration of Hope brought together 70 of the 120 area churches.
“There are two million people here in Koriyama. The Christian population is about 4,500 people. It’s a very small Christian population,” said Rev. Sanga. “Through this BGEA Celebration, the churches that are here have really united. There’s a ‘Let’s work together’ atmosphere happening in Koriyama City, and it is a big atmosphere change in this area. I believe that as we continue this unity in Koriyama City, the Christian population will grow.”
Pastor Sato marveled at the unity, which he said is unprecedented.
Sato explained that he was in the choir and was a counselor when Billy Graham held a Crusade in Tokyo in 1980, and he was excited to invite Will Graham, personally bringing the letter of invitation to Tokyo to hand to BGEA officials.
“First there were only 15 churches, and now there are 70 churches,” he said. “The best thing is the number of denominations. Before it was like, ‘I don’t know you.’ Because of this Celebration, the churches have held hands. Seventy churches gathered together; that’s the most amazing thing.”
And it’s Rev. Sanga’s prayer that this is just the beginning.
“First of all, please pray for the unity of churches. This is probably the first time in Fukushima history when churches have really come together in unity to do something together,” he said.
“Pray that we would keep that unity going and maybe grow also. A lot of people have suffered through the earthquake, but mainly through the radiation problems here. It says in the Bible that darkness cannot beat the light. They were in darkness through the earthquake and the radiation, so we really want the light of Jesus to shine into these people. We want the light to shine into this area.”
Celebration of Love with Will Graham
In the United States, even unbelievers recognize that Christians believe in Jesus Christ as the one true God. This idea is foreign and hard to understand in a polytheistic culture tied to Shintoism. This has been a challenge for Japanese Christians as they try to share the love and hope of Jesus with those around them.
Rev. Makoto Hosoi, general superintendent of Japan Assemblies of God, said, “In Japan, it’s not ‘who are those gods?’ but ‘what are these gods?’ So that’s why we need to introduce Jesus Christ – Jesus is the only God – so that way people can believe in Jesus Christ.
“I think many Japanese have a good attitude about Christianity, but they don’t know what Christianity is all about,” said Rev. Hosoi. “So we are focusing on who the Lord Jesus Christ is. That’s a focal point to let them know.”
In the face of this confusion, Christian leaders joined together with the BGEA to host a one-night Celebration of Love in Tokyo on Sept. 30, following the Celebration of Hope in Fukushima. They designed the program specifically to introduce the person and truth of Jesus Christ before evangelist Will Graham ever took the stage.
“Of course, artists will sing songs, but we want to make these songs connect to each other to make the story of Jesus Christ all the way through from beginning to end,” said Rev. Hosoi prior to the event. “There’ll be songs and Bible reading and there will be video presentations, and then we’ll continue the story to the cross and the resurrection. That way we can introduce the Japanese to who Jesus really is, because many Japanese don’t know who Jesus really is.”
The strategy proved effective as a sold out audience of 2,000 heard the Gospel inside Tokyo’s Shinjuku Culture Center.
“Jesus wants to give you joy and life and purpose and meaning,” said Graham. “He wants to take the guilt and shame and bitterness out of your life. Ask God to forgive you of your sin, and ask Him to come into your life; to be the ruler of your life.”
Ministry in the Land of the Rising Sun
While the events in Fukushima and Tokyo have reached their culmination, they – along with Franklin Graham Festivals in Sendai (2012), Osaka (2010) and Okinawa (2006) – represent just the beginning for ongoing partnerships with churches in Japan.
Already, Will Graham is scheduled to return to Japan next spring to hold a Celebration in Fukuoka, and Franklin Graham will hold a Festival in Sapporo.
“Japan is an amazing place, with some of the most kind and polite people you will ever meet,” said Chad Hammond, BGEA’s Director of Asian Affairs. “Thank you for joining us in prayer as we continue to introduce the people of Japan to Jesus.”