TOKYO — For 29 years, the Franciscan Chapel Center’s rice ministry has distributed onigiri daily to the homeless living in the Shibuya Ward. But this important service was disrupted last week by the Tokyo Metropolitan Police, who ordered volunteers to halt their deliveries.
The food service has operated for seven years beneath a railway bridge, where there are no commercial or residential buildings. Distribution takes place at 5:15 a.m., when pedestrian traffic is low. On April 13, a volunteer was giving out onigiri there when a police officer approached and told him that “the operation would no longer be tolerated at that location,” according to The Japan Times.
“I thought it was the perfect location,” said one of the volunteer coordinators. “The police are not bad guys. They don’t care (as long as) we are not leaving behind garbage or making noise. But as soon as someone complains, they have to ask us to leave.”
The volunteers were not informed of the nature of the complaint and the Tokyo Metropolitan Police declined to comment on the matter when contacted by The Japan Times. The ministry was able to resume the next day at a nearby location, according to the chapel center’s Facebook page.
Called to Serve
Between 70 and 80 people receive onigiri from the Franciscan Chapel Center each day. Volunteers occasionally distribute fruit, T-shirts, underwear and other essentials with the rice.
Most of the volunteers are foreigners from Catholic, Protestant and Mormon communities, as well as expatriates working with corporations, according to pastor Russell Becker, OFM.
“We’re in a difficult position because we’re guests in somebody’s country,” he explained. “We’re foreigners and we see things that people who live here don’t see or don’t want to see, and we want to help.
“We’ve made the homeless a member of our family, and you can’t take a day off from feeding your family,” added Russell who has been stationed in Tokyo since 2010. “It’s part of your onward commitment.”
In other news from the Franciscan Chapel Center, on April 12, the community celebrated a joint confirmation and First Communion ceremony, where 29 children received both sacraments. The mother of one of the children was also received into full communion with the Church.
“We were incredibly fortunate to be able to live stream the entire ceremony online for any family members who could not travel to Tokyo,” said Melissa Gay, information coordinator for the FCC. The video will be available for the next month.
Earlier this month, a journalist wrote about her experience at the chapel center during the Easter Vigil. From the cantors, the parishioners and the friars, she found “examples of acceptance and the warmth of inclusion.” Her column was published in Asian Journal.
In March, Callistus Sweeney, OFM, spoke to The Japan Times about Christianity in Japan, in reaction to Pope Francis’ recent comments about the resilience of Japanese Christians in the face of oppression.
The friars of Holy Name Province have been ministering in Tokyo through the Franciscan Chapel Center for nearly 50 years.
— Maria Hayes is communications coordinator for Holy Name Province.