June 20, 2007

The Path of Transformation

2007 1517 page28 capHEN I WAS IN MY 30S I DID PIONEER evangelism in Koza, now Okinawa City. God blessed my efforts, and many people came to know Christ. Individuals who faced a variety of life challenges were drawn to the church. One of them was a 60-year-old woman.
A Woman With a Past
It seemed that every Sabbath an older woman with a young child strapped to her back would peer over the fence into the church grounds, but she would not come in, even when invited. After a while she’d go away. Every Sabbath it was the same scenario—she peered over the fence then went home. This went on for a month or so.
When I asked who the woman was, a church member told me she was the madam of Yoshiwara Brothel, in the nearby red-light district. I realized this woman must be facing some kind of struggle. The next day a church member and I visited her.
2007 1517 page28I learned that her name was Tama Shimabukuro and that her brothel served Okinawans, foreigners, and American soldiers. About 10 prostitutes worked day and night there. It was a thriving business, but Shimabukuro-san confided to us that she couldn’t sleep at night. Her overall health was beginning to fail, but her doctors did nothing but prescribe sleeping medication.
Each morning Shimabukuro-san took the brothel’s previous night’s profit to the local bank with a sense of shame. It reminded one of the old saying, “Ill gotten, ill spent.” The bank employees seemed to frown upon her. No one in the neighborhood looked upon her kindly.
I realized that what Shimabukuro-san needed most was the peace that comes from having faith in Christ. Without hesitation I suggested she start studying the Bible. “I was waiting for you to say that,” she replied. “I’m ready.”
In the Beginning
I began Bible studies with Shimabukuro-san twice a week. She began to attend church faithfully. We witnessed the remarkable and steady growth of her faith. A half year later Shimabukuro-san asked to be baptized. With joy I presided over her baptism.
Following her baptism Shimabukuro-san embarked on a new life journey. Her sins redeemed, she lived a joyful life of testimony, witnessed by all around her. She passed management of the brothel into the hands of her daughter, and Shimabukuro-san began to pray for the salvation of her daughter and granddaughters. She asked our congregation, too, to join her in praying for them; and we did, many times.
One day, Shimabukuro-san approached me. “Pastor Arakaki, please help me convince my daughter to leave this dreadful line of work,” she said.
I gladly accepted the challenge and knew that I must first pray about the matter. After two weeks of earnest prayer, I visited Shimabukuro-san’s daughter. “Your mother wishes you would leave this line of work,” I said. “Isn’t it time you give up this way of life?”
“Mother has asked me to do so many times already, but surely you can see that I can’t give up this business,” the daughter replied. “What about the future of my family? We have no other means of income.”
I shared with her God’s promise that if we follow Him in faith, He will preserve us. We may not live luxuriously, but we will have a life filled with peace. The daughter would hear none of it.
Nevertheless, I continued to pray for her. Whenever the opportunity presented itself, I encouraged her to leave her line of work, but to no avail. A year and a half later, however, something incredible happened.
A Not-so-sudden Change
Shimabukuri-san’s daughter came to me with these words: “Pastor Arakaki, I’m sorry I’ve rejected your advice so obstinately. I began thinking about the future of my two daughters and realized that I must indeed give up my line of work. My daughters will soon enter middle school. If I remain in this environment, I’m afraid of the impact it would have on my daughters’ upbringing.”
When I heard these words I knew without a doubt that God’s grace had changed her. Together we praised God in prayer.

Questions for Reflection

1. What's the most amazing story of transformation from immorality to faith you know personally? Relate it briefly.

2. What individuals in your congregation have stories of dramatic conversations? How well do others in your church know them?

What types of people are Christians tempted to disdain, believing them too unworthy of God's grace? List at least 10 (it won't be hard).

Based on your answers to the previous question, what ministries or outreach methods might you use--as a congregation or as an individual--to reach out to those who haven't yet responded to God's invitation to be part of His family?

The person most overjoyed by this turn of events was Shimabukuro-san. “God’s power is indeed amazing, isn’t it?” she said through tears of joy.

Soon after this, the Shimabukuro family closed down the brothel and gave the prostitutes their share of the profits. A flood of prospective buyers bid when the brothel was put on the market; after all, it had been a lucrative business. The family was able to sell the building and property at a substantial profit.
With the money the family purchased a piece of land near the Koza church and built a new home where they began their new lives. In hopes of launching a new career, the daughter began attending sewing school. Shimabukuro-san did menial labor. Dressed in laborer’s clothes, she sold kerosene from a cart she pulled through the streets and recycled empty bottles and cans.
“Look at that crazy Christian woman!” people said behind her back. “If she had stayed in the brothel business, she would have made good money and could have had a comfortable life. Now look at her, pulling a cart behind her and doing such degrading work.”
Shimabukuro-san kept at her work despite the barrage of insults. Rather than lose heart, she witnessed to those around her, saying, “When I was involved in that filthy work at the brothel, I couldn’t sleep at night. I had absolutely no peace in my heart. Now, with faith in Christ, my sins have been forgiven, and every day is filled with happiness. I’m healthy, and I sleep like a baby at night.”
The salvation of Christ was the source of her joy, peace, and strength. “Without Christ, I could not live through even a single day,” she often said. “Christ is my strength.”
The Ripple Effect
Shimabukuro-san’s daughter began studying the Bible with me. Six months later, she too was baptized. The two granddaughters were enrolled in a Seventh-day Adventist middle school. Through the grace of God, the entire family became Adventist.
Some 20 years after Tama Shimabukuro entered into this life of faith, she shared something extraordinary with me: “Pastor Arakaki,” she said at the age of 85, “all the elderly people who ridiculed me when I worked in the red-light district have passed away. Not one of them is still alive. However, through the grace of God, I am somehow still alive and well, thanks be to God!”
Saburo Arakaki is a retired minister in Okinawa, Japan. His transformation from World War II assassin to pastor is chronicled in the book Rainbow Over Hell, by Tsuneyuki Mohri and translated by Sharon Fujimoto-Johnson (Pacific Press, 2006).