The Rev. Bob Byrne has returned home to St. Paul Lutheran Church after a six-month stay in the Far East.

Byrne and his wife Chris left Aiken on Oct. 1 bound for Japan, where they spent six months working as missionaries through the Japan Evangelical Lutheran Church, headquartered in Tokyo. The Byrnes returned home on March 31.

The couple were the first missionaries to serve in all five of the Japan Evangelical Lutheran Church's districts, spending two months in the Tokyo area, a month on the island of Kyushu, a month in the Kamagasaki slum district of Osaka, a month in Nagoya and the final month on the island of Hokkaido.

Byrne said his most profound experiences on the trip came while working with the homeless, alcoholics and drug addicts in the Kamagasaki slum, which is reputed to be the worst slum district in Japan. The couple, their translators and Japan Evangelical Lutheran Church pastors went out on night patrols from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. each night.

"We'd be checking on the homeless sleeping on the streets, basically checking to see if they were still alive," he said. "We'd be pulling a cart with pieces of cardboard, donated blankets, tea, soup and onigiri - rice balls - which we'd made that afternoon. We'd go through the district and make a note of where the homeless were; if they were awake, we'd make a note of what they already had. If they were asleep, we'd wake them, ask them if they were not sleeping on cardboard and give them some if not, ask if they needed medical attention and take them to where they could get some."

"It's impossible to tell about the impact that experience has on your life and your theology," he continued. "It's beyond description, but it changes your outlook. What got my attention was that the first thing we'd do when we came in after night patrol was gargle with a strong antiviral mouthwash - it tastes horrible, it's like iodine - to prevent contraction of TB, which is very much alive and well in the slums."

Living in the slum with those to whom they were ministering was essential, he said. It gave them a chance to get to know their neighbors and a basis on which to build trust.

Byrne said he delivered approximately 45 sermons and presentations in 21 weeks, all through a translator, at churches and social organizations with ties to the Japan Evangelical Lutheran Church such as schools, orphanages, senior homes, homes for the abused and homes for children with disabilities. Most of his audiences were made up of non-Christians; less than 1 percent of Japan's population is Christian, and all are converts from Japan's cultural religions, mainly Shintoism and a Japanese variant of Buddhism.

"There was no recognition of Jesus, of course; Shinto is a belief system of purity and nature, and Buddhism generally involves ancestor worship, in many different versions. Within both, there are literally thousands of gods - the idea of one God in Jesus Christ is a totally foreign concept," Byrne said.

The experience has had, what Byrne thinks, will have a lasting effect upon his preaching style.

"When you're not fluent in a foreign language, no matter how many degrees you have, you're illiterate. You have to listen more than you ever do in your own culture," he said. "It's very humbling. So I'm bringing back an expanded sense of humility. Because I preached with translators, it demanded a great clarity of thought and imagery, and the sermons had to be shorter. I learned to preach with the same or greater clarity in 10 minutes, because however much time you're given, you need half that for translating. It caused me to relearn what is most crucial in parish ministry, the Bible and clearly proclaiming its truth to people."

This was Byrne's third and longest trip to Japan. He spent six months prior to the trip immersed in study of the language and culture.

"All the study was useful, especially the cultural study. What was wide of the mark was the idea that any level of study would be enough to speak the language. They say it takes two years of intensive study to hold even simple conversations," he said.

"I would do this again, but I don't know if the experience could ever be repeated," Byrne said of the extended mission trip. "But given the right set of circumstances and the feeling of God's calling to me, I would do it again."


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