Missions in the Midst of Covid-19 (by Damien Cheong)
Updated: Aug 26
The English Presbytery Japan Mission (EPJM) began as the English Presbytery’s response to the tsunami disaster which hit North-East Japan in 2011, March 11. Since then, EPJM has partnered with local Japanese churches in disaster relief. Later on, it expanded the work of ministry and social outreach to these areas, and also to inland areas which may not be necessarily affected by the disaster. This is done by sending monthly short mission teams to partner the churches in Iwate prefecture. 2020 marks EPJM’s 9th year of God-sustained ministry to Japan. This was made possible not by a single EP church, but by many, coming and working together, including inter-denominational church members who have the heart for Japan.
WHAT IS HAPPENING
This year, the first 2020 EPJM January team departed on 27th January. With the looming news of a possible worldwide corona virus outbreak, the team took extra precautions by wearing protective masks. Upon the team’s arrival, the first two cases of community spread in Japan were announced. Much of the team’s original schedule then had to be reorganized, and a few activities, especially those involving the elderly folk were cancelled as social workers erred on the side of caution.
On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. The virus outbreak has taken a significant toll on people across the world. Normalcy in many areas have been disrupted. Many countries declared restrictive travel measures of travel in an effort to contain the spread of this virus. In Japan, the annual memorial service for the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami was cancelled. Subsequently, EPJM trips after January were inevitably cancelled. This decision to cancel was a struggle – many elderly folks who took part in EPJM activities over several years had become accustomed to the team’s monthly presence, now wait for the next visitation. One such elderly gentleman left a message through the local pastor saying, “He would be patiently waiting for the teams to come again.”
The other challenge that hit the ground is that pastors and workers are now left short-handed, without the mission teams' monthly support and a number of long-term missionaries due to leave the field by the middle of the year. In Japan, the total percentage of Christians is below 1%, thus many small churches depend on external support. Many of the churches in tsunami-hit areas are also isolated from the big cities; fear of being forgotten and left alone are among the anxiety expressed by pastors and missionaries on the ground amidst the lockdown. Global economic recession and uncertainties have also greatly diminished overseas and local financial support for missionaries and churches (some are newly-planted).
Other than short term mission teams, EPJM's objective has been to raise long term workers to Japan. In 2019, a few of the former trippers were sent out. Although these new missionaries are still seeking meaningful ways to reach out while settling down in their local communities, we still thank God. Where meeting face to face is impossible, long-term missionaries fill the significant gap as the “link bridge”, connecting the local and global churches. Yet, amidst our physical absence, God continues His mission work. With technological advances birthed creative approaches in doing ministry. A virtual English café collaboration with a Japanese church in Morioka created a new opportunity to share one’s testimony and interact with others through simple conversational English lessons. While this “café” grew in its participation bringing people together from neighbouring cities over the past four months, it also provided much needed emotional care and further strengthened the relationship with the outreach community, which was disrupted suddenly due to meeting restrictions.
The author of Hebrews exhorts us writing, “And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.”(Heb 10:25 NLT). Encapsulating this essence, a pastor in another city gathered his elderly members to do a video conference call over “Zoom” as he understood their difficulty with technology. Seeing familiar EPJM faces on screen brought joy to his members. Despite being physically far apart, our hearts are still ever close to our brothers and sisters in Japan. These are all made possible by the relationship that God has enabled through the years of ministry. Back in Singapore, EPJM has continued its monthly prayer meetings since April by gathering online over “Zoom”. Japanese pastors and missionaries have been invited as our monthly guests to share their struggles. Through this, we have brought encouragement, empathy and support by standing together in prayer with our brothers and sisters in Japan. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to us the reality that we need each other, that the Great commission cannot be fulfilled just by ourselves.
While mission teams have been cancelled, EPJM continues to mobilize and raise greater awareness about the needs in Japan. Ongoing, EPJM desires to foster a deeper sense of unity, collaboration and mutual learning between Singapore churches and mission agencies.
Please pray for God to direct our efforts in this season of waiting, and for us to be sensitive to what He wants us to do and prepare during this season. Indeed the harvest remains bountiful in Japan, and we hope that God would continue stirring the heartbeat of missions, that fellow Christians would respond and long-termed missionaries would be sent out. Even amidst the pandemic, let us continue striving to do God’s work, God’s way and discern His leading, be it directing resources towards training and equipping, or even virtual ministry. We invite you to partner with us in prayer for all these needs.