Yesterday I took my bike out. 10 am I was on the road with a basket full of fruit and a pocket of encouragement cards. I was on my way to Usuiso, a hour long journey or so. I wasn’t really sure, as I’d never ridden that direction before. The fruit was for handing out, giving away, and randomly blessing those I passed. Why not? Ha. My friend here at the GMC helped me write cards in Japanese that read, “I hope you have a good day. You are loved.” So there I went peddling down the road with an assortment of fruit and an ample supply of anticipation.
I road for 4 miles before I gave my first mango away. To be honest the I was praying in desperation that little mango would find a home asap. I’d ridden over quite a bump that catapulted my styrofoam wrapped fruit out of the basket, over my head and several feet behind me. The Japanese wrap most of their fruit in a soft individual cushion, but probably not to protect them from violent bike accidents
After the mango was delivered to my first unsuspecting middle aged woman I peddled on with assurance. She had smiled, surprised and grateful. To my knowledge the mango was still in edible condition after it’s rough fall. Thank you styrofoam. As mile 5 was approaching the land smoothed out and I found myself in wide open country. Beautiful countryside stretched out before me and I prayed for my next recipient, asking God for guidance.
She was outside the 7/11, maybe 65, 70 years old. A smiley woman, already, she was greeting a neighbor who happened to stroll by. I was attracted to her gracious demeanor and wanted to bless her. So out came the oranges. I was eager to get rid of them because they were so heavy. She thanked me loudly, smiled so big, and bowed so frequently. The card helped. She read and received the gift so beautifully and took them boldly, put them in her basket and rode away. “That’s right!” I thought, “you take those oranges, you be proud of them”, ha! She had no shame in receiving.
I was getting close my destination now. The ocean was visible and I knew Usuiso was just 2 or 3 miles down the road. I wanted to save the apples for the local official, and the bananas for whoever I came across on my way back. I had just begun to pick up speed and get back in the groove of riding when I saw an elderly woman approaching, her back level with the ground and her head hung low, perpetually looking at her toes. She walked ever so slowly with a wheely-seat-contraption that helped her shuffle along.
I stopped and made my apologies for interfering with her day. I went to my bag and started to pull out the bananas, but then felt a check in my spirit. Apples cost more and are more of a treat here than bananas, but this woman must be 90 years old. Maybe she doesn’t have teeth for chomping these massive apples. I pulled them out anyway. When you’re surprising strangers with a Holy Spirit led fruit attack you might as well obey the nudging of your gut. It’s not like banana’s would make the situation more normal for either of us. Out came the little card with the memo, “you are loved”, and I didn’t bother handing her the apples, just places them in her walker. Her reaction was more than I was ready for.
If she was already walking at a 90 degree angle then she bowed down in half, folded like futon. In a shakey voice she said slowly and repeatedly, “arigato gosiamasu”. You would have thought I’d given her back something she’d lost, something precious, something she never thought she’d see again. I knew in that moment it wasn’t about the apples, it was about being remembered, being called out and being seen. I favored her. I chose her, and she knew it.
I hated to leave her, but I also knew there would not be power in whatever broken words I might try to speak. I prayed that the Lord would follow up my apple delivery with a vision, with a dream and an explanation. He does that, you know. He’s quite able to convey his love, so I entrusted her to Him and went on my way.
With my IPOD blaring, “joyful, joyrful” I made my way to the shore, winding through construction and road blocks, shouting out “konichiwa” as I went, brainstorming ways to deliver doughnuts to the workers next time. As I made my way around the bend for my final stretch the lyrics played in my ear, “Death where is your sting? Shame, where is your victory? He’s alive! He’s alive! He’s alive!”. I thought about all those who’d died in this valley, over 150 who drowned or were taken out by debris. I thanked the Lord for his victory, that death is never the end of the story. He is writing a new story for Japan called everlasting life.
And there is was, just an hour and a half after I started out, 3 new friends later and only a bunch of bananas left in my basket, the Pacific Ocean. I rode in reverence through the flattened land, honoring the grief-stricken place and praying for restoration. As I came around the corner I spotted a man, crouched down and busy working on something.
He was painting the concrete barriers, flowers and colorful trees, all sorts of designs and things. I stopped to find out if he was friendly, reminding myself that if he was painting daffodils he can’t be that intimidating. To my surprise he spoke decent English. He told me the story of losing his job up north and coming to Iwaki to be help however he could. “This is my way of volunteering”, he said, and motioned towards the mural that stretch across the seaside. I stayed with him for some time while he helped me paint a sakura tree and we did our best to get to know each other.
“Please bring your friends”, he said. I could hear the sting of loneliness in his voice and I knew that in this situation my presence was the gift. None the less I left him with my final fruit offering, the bunch of banana’s and continued on my way. “All of them!” he said, surprised. I laughed. I took my time exploring the nooks and crannies of the devastated city before heading home. I was quieted as I explored the ruined city decorated in brilliant color. This man took his job seriously.
I came across 4 types of people on my journey. The first, a woman who the world passed by. She stood on the side of the highway, outside her derelict storefront, waiting for customers, always being passed. Very few stopping to shop, maybe no one coming just to see her, just to bless her. She needed to be stopped for. The Lord stopped for her and gave her a sweet blessing, a sign that he prioritizes her when no one else does.
The second woman I stopped for was radiant, a hardworking woman, probably mother and wife, grandmother, maybe. Living just a mile or so from the ocean, she’s a survivor, though she doesn’t get the constant support and encouragement from volunteers as those who live in temporary housing. She’s continued to hope, continued to believe in goodness when all was lost. If the first woman needed to be seen, this one needed to be affirmed. “Thank you for loving, thank you for hoping”, I could hear the Lord say as I handed her the oranges.
And then there was the old lady, the one who’s experienced more than any of the others, seen more, hurt more, loved more and loss more. She needed to be remembered, she needed to be honored. When I gave to the other I felt that they responded in humility. When I gave to this one, though, I felt her dignity being restored. “I know what you’ve been through. I know your suffering. I remember you”, said the Lord, when the apples made their way to her walker. Although I only had fruit to give her, it was as though it were the body of Christ himself. I didn’t have bread to signify his death for her, but the apples said it all. “You are not forgotten. You are valuable”, the same message of his body broken on the cross was wrapped up in the sweetness of a simply gift.
Lastly was Watanabe-san, a man on a mission to restore beauty and joy. He’s painted the town and decorated it’s broken walls with promise for a future. Where he didn’t paint, he pulled together volunteers, people from around the world who’ve agreed with his vision and with the Lord’s heart and said, “yes, Usuiso, you will never again be put to shame. You will be the praise of this nation.” Watanabe knew he was seen. He knew he was doing good, knew that his little part was important, but he needed company. He needed presence. All the others received a gift and the rest fell into the Lord’s hands. This man, though, needed friendship. “I am with you”, said the Lord to this former fisherman. I know that after you commit to a project, the strain of everyday labor can take its toll. The vision looses it’s flashy appearance. I’m sure there are times when Watanabe-san gets tired of painting flowers on torn up cement. He needs a team, people who can take up the work when he gets tired. The bananas were a nice compliment to his lunch and a warm way of showing gratitude, but I could tell the 30 minutes we spent together was really the gift the Lord had me deliver that day.
The ride home was easier. My bike was lighter and my heart full. I was glad for the opportunity to meet a couple locals and pave a familiar path to the shore, where I hope to return to often. Thank you, Lord, for giving me a bike. Thank you for giving me fruit. Thank you for sending me to Iwaki and for putting people around me who will receive the little I have to give. I pray, Lord, that you would teach these cozy rural towns to receive from you, just as easily as they received from me, that they would bear eternal fruit.