Time to Catch Up

It was great to see many of you this summer—if the visit was too short. It’s hard to believe that it’s October already. I had better get a report out or it will be 2015! In all seriousness, please forgive my gross delinquency and tight-lippedness.

Let me start with a summary to bring you up to date for the happenings in 2014 (for those of you who appreciate brevity). I’ll fill in the details further down.

  • Church Plant: The two teenage girls who were baptized last year, Reimi and Ayumi, left for university early in the spring effectively resetting our church plant. We are learning much as a family as we live as quasi-pioneers.
  • Post-Disaster Follow-up: Since last summer, we have been focusing on an approach called Asset-Based Community Development we seeks to help the local community retain their decision-making power by discovering and utilizing local resources first.
  • Finances: For the first time, our family missed two months of salary due to a lack of funds (May and June).
  • Summer Travels: (Partially based on this lack of funds) we decided to combine a fund-raising, reporting, and networking trip with our family reunion. We split the time between the States and Canada. It had been 10 years since we last visited the churches in Western Canada—many of whom support us. I was in North America from June through the end of August.
  • Catching Up: Since arriving back in Ishinomaki at the end of August, we focused on getting caught up with our friends, neighbors, community development activities, and evangelistic outreach activities.
  • Upcoming: Christmas concerts, Alpha course or similarly accessible course introducing Christianity. We also continue to investigate options for meeting and working space.
  • Family: We are all generally healthy. Hijiri and I continue to practice Aikido once a month. I have finished broadcasting my last baseball game for the season.

Now the same thing in more depth:

Church Plant:

Every Sunday, we hold worship in our home. We invite our friends and neighbors to join us. Some have come, some not yet. Our worship is primarily in Japanese, and we try to make things as transparent and easy to understand as possible for newcomers. It is challenging, but it has its rewards. Our children are learning about our faith story and slowly getting to know Christ. Our neighbors know who we are. In a very old and previously unchurched area like this, planting a new church will take time. We have to till the soil and plant first. Later comes the harvest.

For us, this tilling and planting comes in the form of walking alongside this community as they continue to grieve and recover from the disaster in 2011. We are involved in many aspects of this area—PTA, community development discussions, household visits, neighborhood association, etc. Our goal is to gain our neighbors’ trust—more than that, to be worthy of their trust. As we go along, we have the opportunity to pray with friends, listen to their hurts, play, work, laugh and cry together. As of this writing, we are ministering to a friend with a blind child. Michiko visits her frequently. We record songs like “Jesus Loves Me” and give them to her for the boy to listen to. He loves music.

Right now, we are working on a simple format for introductory Bible studies. We are also considering teaching a singing class in the community. We are also in the process of reviewing the Japanese version of the Alpha Course to see if it would be a good fit for this context. You might wonder why we need to start from scratch like this. My answer is that evangelistic programs from outside of Japan tend to assume a respect for the Bible or a basic conception of God as the Creator. Japan is pantheistic and animistic. There is not one god, there are eight million! So we have to back up a bit and ask how best to introduce Christ to these neighbors.

Sometimes, however, there are moments of serendipity. A couple of weeks ago I got a call from a young Chinese man who is living in Sendai. He was converted by Church of Christ missionaries in China and would like to help us as much as he can. This opens some new possibilities for us as there is quite a large Chinese migrant worker population in this area. Please pray for wisdom for us.

Post-Disaster Follow-up:

From March of 2011 through February of last year, our approach to this situation was primarily reactive. We were responding to immediate needs created by the disaster. Now, however, our approach is more proactive. We are working to get ahead of the situation and take the initiative necessary to responsibly help our neighbors (re)create a better living situation. As I mentioned in July, there are three basic phases to disaster response: Relief (meeting basic needs), recovery (returning to some sense of normalcy), and development (building a new future). We are now at the cross-roads of recovery and development. So we have dubbed ourselves TRDI Tohoku Recovery and Development Initiative.

Our goal as we serve the community is not primarily to help folks satisfy their material needs and desires. Rather, as an act of God’s love, we seek to help our friends here recover their dignity and freedom. We are learning that a common mistake in community development or disaster response is to see the primary need as physical. It is not. The primary needs are spiritual, psychological, and social. So we are using an approach called asset-based community development that addresses these needs by helping local individuals and groups: (1) discover and assess their own resources, (2) network and collaborate with each other, (3) brainstorm new possibilities based on these resources and connections, and (4) turn these possibilities into reality.

To help you understand how we came to this point, here is a brief timeline:

  • March 2011 – Disaster happened. We got involved with communication and funding process.
  • May-July 2011 – We spent the summer in Japan. Michiko kept the kids at her folks’ place in Sapporo. I led relief teams around North Eastern (Tohoku) Japan. We were invited to serve in Ishinomaki.
  • February 2012 – Moved to Ishinomaki full time to continue relief work. Managed thousands of volunteers in clean up efforts. Worked alongside the Be One organization.
  • Began hosting a worship service in our home. Up to this point, we had been joining Be One’s service.
  • February 2013 – Realizing that even though volunteers continued to stream in (a relief-phase activity) the time was coming when the focus needed to shift to community development. Began researching and brainstorming development theory and method. This was the beginning of a rough transition with Be One. Development is not always a popular concept. It is harder, slower, less glamorous, and involves a lot of giving away of power and control to the local population.
  • Spring 2013 – Began interviewing our neighbors to learn their stories (a process called Appreciative Inquiry) and identify their gifts and challenges (asset-mapping). We used this information to begin publishing a quarterly booklet which profiled community members and fostered a sense of solidarity and positive thinking.
  • August 2013 – Formally parted ways with Be One in order to focus fully on asset-based community development. Around this time we began facilitating funadamari meetings. A funadamari is a cove or safe haven for small boats—a place where they can retool and repair in order to set out again on the wider seas. Similar we asked some of the folks we had interviewed to host these meeting and we would facilitate. To date, the first funadamari has met around a dozen times, come up up with a number of good ideas, and is in the process of turning one of those ideas (a kind of tourist map of this area) into reality. We are learning much along the way through our failures and victories.
  • Summer of 2014 – We took an extended trip to North America.
  • October 2014 – Our funding is still shaky. But we are here. The kids are back in school and we are back at it with church-planting and community development activities. This is a season of assessment. Based on what we are learning, we want to set a better course for the next few years. I would like to see us take the asset-based process and replicated it throughout the community to stimulate healthy community development and to introduce our friends to the One in Whose Name we act.

Finances:

To be quite honest, sometimes I hate money. I don’t mind fund-raising, but I do mind the distraction from our work here. This year we are about $12,000 behind on our personal support (so far). That’s a big chunk. In some ways this slump is typical of post-disaster situations. A lot of money moves around right after a disaster when TV cameras are on and hearts are open. Then the news changes, and people forget. So over the last year or so we have had to transition back to a more traditional missionary model. Not a bad thing. But it can get a little complicated to try to start this while we are on the field.

Summer Travels:

Our trip across the States and Canada was good. We visited with hundreds and hundreds of folks and representatives of around 30 churches about our work. Now we are in the process of following up with letters. Time will tell what the result will be. In any case, God is good. He always takes care of us—just not always on our time-line or in the ways we expect.

We had three goals in mind with this trip. One was thanking and reporting to many of the people who helped support us and our Japanese friends just after the disaster. Another goal was fund-raising. Yet a third goal was to network with other missions leaders and thinkers regarding best approaches to post-disaster development work. I was able to meet with the representative missions leaders from Harding University, Abilene Christian University, Oklahoma Christian University, White’s Ferry Road Church of Christ, Mission Alive, Missions Resource Network, Christian Relief Fund, and Global Samaritan Resources. These were rich discussions. My prayer is that they will lead to future opportunities and improvements in the ways that Churches of Christ think about long term responses to disasters.

Catching Up:

I don’t have much to add here. We spent September plugging back into the community, touching base with development activities, following up with leftover details from the summer’s travels. It’s easier to describe actions than relationships. But a lot of this catching up is about plugging back into peoples’ lives. We have a friend who is struggling to remain faithful to her husband, several who struggle with depression, many who have money problems—several of whom are selling their businesses. Life is rich. Life is hard.

Upcoming:

The main upcoming changes for us are the perennial concerts that come with the Christmas season and our planned changes in terms of explicit evangelism. As my reputation as a singer gets out, I usually end up with opportunities to sing for various groups in the area—schools, community centers, the occasional wedding or dinner. These are great opportunities to build relationships, share faith, and plant seeds. Since we are also considering teaching a singing class, these make for natural settings to advertise.

In terms of evangelism, we now have a good reputation in the community and a little over a year under our belt hosting Sunday worship and conducting community development activities. It’s time to go public. We haven’t been hiding anything so far, but we have made individual relationship building a priority over public invitation.

We are also still exploring possibilities for facilities. It would be very helpful to have a place outside of our home for hosting people and small events, conducting worship, facilitating development discussions, and taking care of office work.

Family:

As I mentioned, we are all generally healthy and happy. The kids are doing fine at school—with the regular ups and downs. Michiko and I are well also. We are, however, tired. The trip took a lot out of me—as does stressing about money. I’m still kind of grieving the geographical distance from my parents who are 79 and 81 years old this year!! Rich study, wealth of Christian friends, and ease of communication we enjoyed in Abilene. Michiko works hard for our home and also very hard in the community. She is really an amazing partner! You may be able to tell that there is no shortage of potential for ministry/funding/whatever. Our primary challenge is that there are only Michiko and myself to tackle so much of this. We work together with our local friends and alongside other Christian groups in the area to share the weight. But in terms of the minutia of logistics and details, there are only two of us. It can get overwhelming! So pray that we can be diligent in the many tasks set out for us, but also find time for rest and renewal.

And on that note, I will close. I’m working on gathering and captioning a bunch of photos for you. What I want you to see in pictures and not just words, is our relationship with this community. We love these people. And we love you all and are thankful beyond what words can adequately express for your multifaceted support for us.

Yours always in Christ,

Jonathan (and Michiko, Hijiri, Minori, and Shiori) Straker

Ishinomaki, Japan

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2 Responses to Time to Catch Up

  1. Billy & Jan Berny says:

    Strakers – thank you for the wonderful update, information on the family, and work activities. I have some ideas for the ABCD work, and will send to you in separate email. We love you!
    B&J Berny

  2. Jon and Michiko, thanks so much for squeezing in a visit with us while you were in Abilene! We enjoyed every minute of it–loved seeing the children and how they are growing. Preston enjoyed talking politics with you and I was flattered that Shiori chose me as his playmate! Your Minori is so pretty and so intelligent–really quite charming. Sorry that Hijiri was feeling bad. : ( . Wish I could have talked more with Michiko; some day, somewhere we’ll get a chance to catch up. –We think you are on the right track in your work. –I was delighted that one of our featured speakers at Summit this year was Barbara Brown Taylor! You gave me one of her books before you left Abilene; I have enjoyed it very much. All blessings from us to all of you. Marsha and Preston

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