Telling the Stories that Matter: April 27 – Toyohiko Kagawa, Poet, Pacifist, Friend of the Poor

When Toyohiko Kagawa was asked to come and speak to the seminarians at Princeton–one of his alma maters–he went willingly and eagerly. Toyohiko had been displeased with much of his own seminary experience because he found that the students there were far more interested in arguments, rhetoric, persuasion, and the fine points of doctrine and textual study. He repeatedly begged them simply to live out what Jesus had taught in the parable of the Good Samaritan. He knew he was asking for much of the seminarians but he hoped that they would–as far as people go–be the most likely to answer a call to genuinely and sincerely practiced allegiance to Jesus as Lord and Savior. When he finished speaking to the assembled Princetonians he accepted some questions and then dismissed them quietly and gathered his things from the podium. As he was doing so, two of the seminarians turned to each other in their seats and discussed his lecture.

One insisted that it had not been quite what they had expected from a man who was so well respected around the seminary. Turning to his friend, he quipped, “He didn’t have much to say, did he?”They shared their own little laugh knowing that they were better educated than Toyohiko but not knowing that they were still fools. Both of them had heard of his background and how he had been the illegitimate child of a powerful Japanese man and a geisha. He was hated by his mother and liked by his father but soon both his mother and father had died and he was orphaned. He was given over as the ward of the widowed wife of his father. She and her mother struggled not to resent little Toyohiko because it had not been his decision to be a child of infidelity but they failed in their struggle and Toyohiko knew he was hated by them. They sent him away to a boarding school. He began attending a bible study given by a Christian minister so that he could learn and practice his English. Yet while he was learning the language, he was hearing and considering the truths and teachings of the Faith of the minister. When he was a teenager, he converted to the Christian Faith that had gripped him by the heart over a long time of reflection and meditation. Soon after this conversion he knew clearly that he would be a minister of the Gospel that had spoken to him when he had walked in darkness, desperation, and death.

Though they didn’t seem to prize it, those two young seminarians knew that after receiving more education in preparation for the calling he was already living into, Toyohiko had stepped out in faith and moved into the Shinkawa district of Kobe. These slums were some of the worst–if not the absolute worst–in all of Japan. He lived in a three-walled dwelling so filthy and small (only six feet wide by six feet long) that it would be an overstatement to call it a shack. For nearly fifteen years he tended to the sick, suffering, hungry, poor, and dying in Shinkawa. Toyohiko was able to make a little money (not nearly as much as he would have been able to if he had moved out of Shinkawa, though) but he spent it all on medicine, food, and clothing for those who came to him asking for it. He was regularly abused and beaten for his love and compassion. At one point, a band of thugs accosted him knowing him as an “easy mark” who would give over anything to them not out of fear but out of love. They demanded his clothing and mentioned that they knew he was a Christian. He took off his clothing and handed it over to the criminals and they walked away with filthy rags and an increasing awareness of the goodness of Toyohiko’s God and their own inherent sinfulness shown by their willingness to beat and strip a poor and loving man in the slums.


Those two young seminarians probably had no idea that Toyohiko had spent nearly every night for nearly fifteen years tending for the sick and homeless in his own meager dwelling. He gave over his bed to the sick and filthy people he loved and slept in the cold with little to protect himself from the elements. He gave over his food and drink with such regularity that he was regularly ill from hunger. He did not have intense theological debates but he regularly lived out the teachings of Jesus in a way that granted him an inherent understanding of the Gospel that Jesus brought into this world. Every night for four years he held the hand of a murderer as that murderer drifted off into a fitful sleep in Toyohiko’s own bed. The murderer could not bear what he had done any longer but Toyohiko still spoke of forgiveness to and refused to abandon the poor man who feared isolation and judgment. He organized workers in the slums and shipyards all while fighting for increased voting rights in Japan. Eventually, he was arrested and held in prison for two particular crimes: 1) he organized the voiceless so that they might speak in unison to those with power and be heard, and 2) he apologized to the Chinese for the Japanese occupation of portions of China. Toyohiko’s commitment to peace–one he felt compulsory for all who hoped to follow Jesus even if it cost them their lives–made him a dangerous criminal in the eyes of Japan.

Perhaps the two young seminarians knew that a terrible earthquake hit Tokyo and Yokohama in 1923. The ruins of those cities were flooded with the sick, suffering, hungry, poor, and dying. The government was overwhelmed by the need and was uninitiated into taking care of its citizens since it had been so long practicing power and control and forsaking compassion and mercy. So they came to Toyohiko in prison and released him. They knew he had made a difference in the lives of those needing help and they also knew that it was Toyohiko who would be able to do it again. They made him Chief of Social Welfare and offered him a home and a sizable salary. He rejected them and insisted that he could neither help the poor from a position of comfort nor allow his Christian duty to be purchased. He slowly helped rebuild cities devastated by earthquake, neglect, and need. For this he was lauded and honored even as he insisted that he was only doing the bare minimum of what God had called him to do.

As the two seminarians continued to share their own criticism of Toyohiko they ignored that Toyohiko was struggling to see the steps he was trying to descend. He had acquired a serious eye disease because of his practices of offering hospitality even in the slums. Those he lived with were sick and soon so was Toyohiko. As the two men missed the point of all they had heard and continued to pass the drug of intelligent pride back and forth an elderly lady overheard them and interrupted them. She leaned forward to interject one simple sentence into their conversation while pointing at Toyohiko as he carefully descended the stairs: “You don’t need to say much when you’re hanging on a cross.”

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Telling the Stories that Matter: April 23 – George of Nicomedia, Martyr, Beloved of Diocletian, Hero


Geronzio had been a servant of Diocletian before Diocletian had risen to the status and rank of emperor in Rome. He had served Diocletian loyally and had gained his respect and admiration. He was, however, a Christian and though Diocletian knew this he did not expect Geronzio to change his allegiance as long as Geronzio did not openly betray him. Geronzio was also married to a woman named Policronia. The two of them had used their connections and influence to elevate themselves to a noble status and to shore up possessions and wealth. They used this wealth and status to provide comfort and aid to their brothers and sisters in the Faith and to prepare their newborn son–whom they named George, meaning “worker of the land”–for his life and whatever it might hold. As George grew in age and education he also grew into the faith of his parents and his many new brothers and sisters that came to his family’s home for services of worship and communion.Tragically, Geronzio died when George was fourteen and within three years Policronia had taken that fateful step beyond mortality and into life more ideal and true. George was among many who were like family to him and he was the inheritor of his family’s considerable wealth but he was without direction and no longer had his father as his mentor. So, George went to the man who had so loved and favored his father: Diocletian.

George became a soldier under Dicoletian’s watchful care and guidance. Diocletian was heartbroken when he heard of Geronzio’s death but was overjoyed at the prospect of guiding George’s career and continued service to Rome. He was aware that George was a Christian but underestimated George’s allegiance to his faith. Eventually, George was promoted to the rank of Tribunus and set upon a career that would likely end up with him in a powerful political position within the Roman empire. Further, he served as one of the Emperor’s personal guards and soldiers–living into Geronzio’s favor with Diocletian. While in this position he had many opportunities to use his wealth and influence to better the lives of those with whom he came into contact. At one point he arrived in a village of non-Christians who had taken to a bloodthirsty ritual of human sacrifice. They would cast lots and the young woman who was indicated by the lots would be sacrificed to appease the dark god they feared. When George arrived he was stricken at the ruthlessness of such a ritual and stopped them in the midst of their ceremony of slaughter. He spoke at length with not only the leaders but the assembled crowds and told a story of a God who did not demand blood and death but had, instead, given blood and died so that we might be forgiven. At his words, their hearts turned and they abandoned their ways of death and many came within the fold of the Christian faith. They gave over their allegiance to a slaughtered and risen Lord and gave up faith and hope in slaughter and domination. For this he was labeled a hero because he had slain the dark beast that dwelt within them and brought them into the way of life more abundant and free.

Tragically for both George and Diocletian, Diocletian began to be swayed by Galerius and his own fear of a loss in power. Having heard so many lies about the Christians, Diocletian issued a command throughout the army. All soldiers were to give a sacrifice to the roman gods and values to demonstrate their allegiance and deny any faith in the Christian God. Those who refused were to be executed as Christians and traitors to the Roman army. Diocletian was stuck deciding between his beloved friend George whom he knew as a Christian and the power he hoped to consolidate with this bloody edict. He begged George to renounce his faith and offered him great gifts of land, money, and slaves if he would give his greatest allegiance to Diocletian and Rome. George refused and still Diocletian begged. Diocletian still offered him his most persuasive gifts but George did the incredible by giving away all that he already owned to the poor and to the Church that he had served so eagerly and willingly. He was tortured and finally he was beheaded so that Rome might make a statement about power. Eventually, George was turned over to the executioners with many other Christians for torture and death.However, Rome and Diocletian also made an unintentional statement about the faith of the Christians of whom they made martyrs. George died in good company and died so that others might know there was more to death than a grave and more to life than comfort.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: April 15 – Damien of Moloka’i, Priest, Missionary, Leper

The kingdom of Hawaii had one particular advantage when it came to the spread of disease since they were a chain of islands they were quarantined from the rest of the world. Of course, this boon carried a danger with it: the inhabitants were especially susceptible to infection and disease when ships began bringing more and more merchants to the Hawaiian islands. The influx of commerce and foreign visitors was accompanied by crippling outbreaks of influenza that weakened and killed many. But whereas influenza was a fast killer and survivors were able to develop a fairly sufficient immunity in a little while, there was another disease that proved to be a slow and torturous killer. This killer was “Hansen’s Disease” but it is also known as leprosy and those who contracted it were known as lepers. It was hard to hide and soon the king–Kamehameha the Fifth–decided to quarantine those affected to protect the rest of his people. They were forcibly detained and sent to live on the island of Moloka’i at a place called Kalaupapa. Contrary to common assumptions, leprosy does not cause body parts to fall off and isn’t especially contagious but it does cause extensive nerve damage and can cause permanent damage to the skin, eyes, and lungs. The other–perhaps intentionally forgotten–damage it does is the relationships it crushes by fear of contagion and threat of quarantine.

Damien de Veuster had been ordained a priest in Belgium but due to the coaxing of his brother he became interested in becoming a missionary. He became determined to travel abroad in service of the Church when it was determined that his brother would be unable to go himself. Damien stepped into the opportunity and was sent to Hawaii shortly before the outbreak of leprosy there. The lepers had been sent to their isolated place and given little in supplies, though, and Damien began to worry for them. They had been given some help in growing their own food–having been fully divorced from their land and people–but this support also proved to be insufficient. They were disconnected from those they loved and made to feel as if the world didn’t want to–couldn’t afford to–associate with them. There wasn’t any semblance of community and the 816 lepers outcast to Moloka’i fended for themselves. Damien couldn’t stand their abandonment and petitioned the vicar to be sent to them as their priest. The vicar made sure that Damien knew he was likely signing his own death warrant but Damien insisted and was sent by boat to the people. By becoming one of them, he was effectively exiling himself as he would no longer be able to leave once he lived among them. He went without hesitation for his Lord had called him to take up his cross and follow. In this case, it meant going to Moloka’i.

Damien built a church with the help of the lepers there and organized them into a community around himself. He treated their pains and lesions with his own hands. He conducted services of worship. He heard confessions and gave spiritual direction to the willing. He built furniture and homes. He painted houses to give their place another measure of comfort. He built coffins, dug graves, and performed funerals. In short, he became a devoted member and leader in the community at Moloka’i. Because of his involvement, the people gathered around him and joined together as one people to share in their suffering and carry each other’s burdens. Because of his leadership they were able to work together to sow and reap crops each year and sustain themselves in their exile. One night he went to soak his feet in hot water–as he did every night after a hard day’s work–and was frightened to find that he could not feel the heat of the water. He had contracted the disease but he kept it as his secret for a little while he worked hard to prepare the citizens of his community to go on without him when he was forced to leave them by death. As he got more and more sick the Church sent three people to take over his duties and one to care for him as he died. They carried on his legacy of love and compassion while he slipped out of this life and into the arms of the Lord who had called him from before time began. Damien died on the fifteenth day of April in the year 1889 after serving the people the world wanted to forget for over sixteen years. He was buried where he belonged: Moloka’i.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: April 5 – Agathopodes and Theodulus, Martyrs, Preachers, Unafraid

The year 303 AD brought with it an edict of persecution against Christians within the boundaries of the Roman empire. Diocletian was confident that such an edict would not only restrict but reduce the practice of Christianity within the empire. In many ways, he was correct. Many Christians left their faith behind when confronted with the harsh reality of imperial expectations. Others would not deny their faith but fled from Roman scrutiny at every turn–in effect, they hid their faith away so that it might not cost them their lives. Others, like Agathopodes and Theodulus, were unafraid of what imperial Rome could do but well aware of the cost associated with ceasing to preach the message and story their faith had infused into their lives.Theodulus, who once woke with a ring in his hand from a dream where an angel gave him a sign of his calling, was a young man associated with the Church in Thessalonica. Agathopodes was an elder and respected deacon in the same congregation as Theodulus. While others denied their faith and hid it away, Agathopodes and Theodulus boldly proclaimed the story to all who would listen. Thus, it comes as no surprise that they were eventually arrested, beaten, and dragged before the governor of Thessalonica–Faustinus.

Faustinus had interrogated and tortured Christians before and was familiar with what methods seemed to be most effective. So, first he spoke with Theodulus alone while Agathopodes was held in a cell away from the proceedings. Faustinus tried to flatter Theodulus at first but was surprised to see that Theodulus was unswayed by the governor’s words. Typically, a young man would jump at the chance to be highly regarded by those in power–Theodulus was the exception. Then, Faustinus presented Theodulus with a choice: wealth and influence within the embrace of imperial Rome or death at the hands of the same. Theodulus responded without hesitation that he’d much rather die than to make sacrifice to Rome and forfeit his soul for momentary material gain. Faustinus tried to reason with Theodulus by saying, “Theodulus, do not choose death!”

Theodulus responded, “I don’t! I choose life in a way that you don’t seem to understand. It is you who daily choose death by following after yourself and your sin.”

When Faustinus had decided that Theodulus was unlikely to be swayed, he sent him away to another cell and brought Agathopodes in for questioning. He assured Agathopodes that Theodulus had already denied his faith and he encouraged Agathopodes to do the same. Agathopodes shook his head and called Faustinus a liar. Agathopodes knew Theodulus well and knew what that miraculous ring meant about his calling–Theodulus would be a martyr and now Agathopodes knew he would join him in that baptism of blood. Having convinced neither of the two men, he had them beaten once again and jailed. The next day they were forced to listen to a crowd of former Christians who urged them to deny their faith yet they were once again unswayed by Faustinus’ methods. Theodulus insisted, “Yes, you have conquered some of the weak but you will never conquer Christ’s strong warriors–no matter what tortures you devise.” In response, Faustinus determined to test their faith by immediately taking them to the place of execution and raising a blade above their necks. Theodulus cried out, “Glory to you, O God, the Father of my Lord Jesus Christ, who deigned to suffer for us. Here, by His grace, I am coming to You, and with joy I die for You!” Faustinus’ bluff failed and the faith of Agathopodes and Theodulus remained steady. They were once again beaten and jailed.

That night they prayed for quite some time before eventually falling asleep and having the same dream. In the dream they were on a ship in a vicious storm that threatened to capsize the vessel and eventually to beat them against the rocks of the nearby island. When they awoke, they conferred and gave thanks for what they expected to be their impending martyrdom. Finally, they were condemned by Faustinus to die for their faith. So, they were cast into the sea and brought by the waves against the jagged rocks of the shore. Shortly before dying, Agathopodes yelled to the assembled crowd, “This is our second baptism, which will wash away our sins. We shall come to Christ in purity.” The two men died as martyrs and their bodies were eventually recovered by Christians on the shore and buried.

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