E-pistle April 8

Overcoming Evil with Good – the example of the Dekasseguis

When my Brazilian pastor friend wrote a couple of weeks ago to say that he was on his way to post-earthquake Japan, I wondered what in the world he was up to now. Maybe I should have asked what God was up to.

In the early Twentieth Century tens of thousands of Japanese citizens migrated from Japan seeking opportunity elsewhere.  They settled in the western United States where many became farm workers and the parents and grandparents of the Nisei who were interred during the Second World War.  But the largest group made their way to Brazil where they worked on the coffee plantations under oppressive conditions and were slowly, but never completely, assimilated into Brazilian society. The huge Japan Town in Sao Paulo is the largest Japanese community outside of Japan.

In the 1980’s there was a reverse migration of Japanese Brazilians back to Japan. Brazil had just left over 20 years of military dictatorship and was in the midst of a time of hyperinflation and economic stagnation. Japan was booming and needed labor for its auto factories and other manufacturing plants. Over 250,000 Japanese Brazilians returned to their ancestral homeland, but it was no longer home. Most of them spoke little or no Japanese and like other foreign workers in Japan, they were welcomed for their labor but not for their contribution to Japanese society. Their wages were low. Promotions were rare and prejudice strong. And they had become Christians and were shunned for being different.

They were called the Dekasseguis Brasilieros. Dekasseguis Brasilieros is a hybrid Japanese-Portuguese word that is roughly translated as Brazilian foreign workers.

For the past thirty years the Japanese Brazilian church has thrived as the center of the Dekasseguis Brasilieros community in Japan. But its ministry was to its own.  It is hard to reach out to those who care nothing about you except for the long and productive hours you put in on the assembly line.

Within days of last month’s earthquake, my friend Robson and two other Brazilian pastors were on their way to Japan to work with the Dekasseguis Brasilieros church in responding to the disaster.  They are part of an organization called MAIS.  Mais is the Portuguese word for more and is an acronym for Missao Apoio Igreja Sofredora – Mission in Support of the Suffering Church.

In Fukushima they met Pastor Akira Gomi a Japanese Brazilian who has ministered to the Dekasseguis community for over twenty years. Ignored, shunned, sometimes persecuted by the local population, Pastor Akira’s church has become a major distribution center for relief supplies. People who would have refused to talk to members of Akira’s congregation one month ago, have found among them a graceful help in time of need.

The MAIS team reports that material support is being provided by the Japanese government. Food is available in most areas and reconstruction of roads and public buildings is already underway.  But many people remain in shelters in schools and elsewhere and it is there that the Dekasseguis Brasileiros are making a difference – they’ve organized recreation and games for the children, provided listening ears for adults and a warm embrace – physical touch – something at which Brazilians are particularly adept and which is often lacking in Japanese culture.  Quietly, simply, they are sharing the gospel.

What is God up to in Japan? Among other things, giving a devastated population a glimpse of grace through the Dekasseguis Brasileiros, foreign workers long ignored, shunned and persecuted. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” is how the Apostle Paul puts it. (Romans 12:21)