The trip to Japan fit Yuko Hirayama’s schedule perfectly. As a substitute teacher, she’d be on spring break. Formerly reluctant to do short-term missions in her parents’ native country, she felt called to this one, going as a member of Newsong’s prayer ministry team to encourage Japanese Christians. In January, she made plans to leave March 17 with a group of 10 people from the Irvine, Calif., church.
“We didn’t know the earthquake and tsunami would happen a week before our departure, but God knew,” Yuko says. “We prayed — and the church prayed — and we decided the timing was right. This was meant to be; God was calling us to go. We were offering a healing ministry, and the whole nation needed more healing than ever.”
The prayer team had accepted an invitation from a Japanese church to teach tools and techniques for healing prayer. “Japan has a high suicide rate and a performance-oriented society,” Yuko says. “I grew up in the Japanese culture, and we believe we’re not good enough. It can be hard for us to freely receive God’s gift of grace because we think we have to earn it. The prayer team wanted to share God’s grace with the Japanese church.”
Wearing bright blue shirts that said “Hope,” the team drew a lot of attention when they arrived in Tokyo. “Why are you here?” people asked. “What does hope mean?” “Why are you coming to Japan when so many others are leaving?”
“We told them, ‘God loves you and hasn’t forgotten about you,’” Yuko says. “‘You can always pray to this God who loves you and died for you.’ We gave them cross necklaces to remind them that God exists.”
The first day a young woman wanted to know what Yuko was doing. “We asked if we could pray for her,” Yuko says. “She agreed, and we learned the Japanese were willing to receive prayer. It was the first time I had ever prayed in public in Japanese for someone. I’m fluent, but I don’t know Christian language in Japanese, yet if flowed out of me. We prayed for many after that. Pastors in Japan see it as a time for revival and an opportunity to minister by sending relief supplies and showing Christ’s love.”
Traveling in Japan was unpredictable; flights were cancelled, and trains didn’t run. “Things were chaotic,” Yuko says. “But it was a huge blessing. It was worth going to express God’s love and plant some seeds — we trust God to take care of the rest.”
Yuko graduated from Westmont in 2008 with a major in political science and an emphasis in international relations. She led the Asian Student Association for two years and stayed a fifth year to earn a secondary teaching credential in mathematics. Europe Semester gave her a new perspective on education.
“Being exposed to so many opportunities to learn just by walking around and living was exciting,” she says. “I want to share that experience with high school students so they won’t take their education for granted. I want to share the joy and freedom of learning.” She is substituting until she gets a full-time job.
“Teaching has been rewarding,” she says. “Every day I pray that God will let me be a light in the classroom. I can’t talk about my faith, but I spend time with students and let them know I care. I go to their games, eat lunch with them, talk with them. It’s more than just teaching math – I want them to know that adults in their lives care about them.”