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Disaster opens doors for missionary

Disaster opens doors for missionary

When you’re far from home, communication can be everything. For Jonathan McCurley – a General Board of Global Ministries’ missionary who serves in disaster-torn northern Japan – staying in touch can be a lifeline for hope and prayer.

McCurley’s roots are in Central Florida: He is a candidate for elder’s orders in the Florida Conference and a member of the Ocoee Oaks United Methodist Church.

While the series of disasters precipitated by Japan’s March 11 earthquake yielded hundreds of hours of media coverage, stories of hope and long-term recovery are few.

Beginning the work day, Jonathan with 3 ARI participants

But McCurley and his wife, Satomi, live such a story of hope. Their work with the Asian Rural Institute (ARI) in Tochigi Prefecture is located in the earthquake region and just 80 miles from the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant. The ARI trains individuals for future leadership in their communities.

Earthquake damage around the ARI campus, and the ongoing repairs, caused the school’s services to be relocated for a brief period, McCurley said.
“We temporarily moved the school to Tokyo (on) May 2, because of the renovations and the fallout,” McCurley said in an interview with the Florida Conference Connection. “We recently made the decision to return to the Tochigi campus at the end of July.”

The decision garnered mixed reactions from students.

“It has a lot to do with radiation, their families, churches, and the sending bodies (such as agencies or sponsors) back home,” McCurley said. “But we’re doing our own check now, and we’re as confident as we can get. We need to be careful, but we can go back.”

‘God placed me here’

When the tragedy first hit, McCurley’s supervisor in New York said the mission agency would support and understand if the couple wanted to return home.

“Our first instinct was to run,” he said. “I thought, ‘OK, we can be safe.’ But then I saw what other missionaries did. God called me and God placed me here. This is where we should be. The witness of the people around me has made it natural.”

Fellowship rises in aftermath

McCurley’s personal focus with ARI has been community life, and it’s an aspect of ministry that has been both challenged and enhanced by the disaster and the ensuing uncertainty.

“People here are being very open about their feelings,” he said. “They’re sharing things that were hidden before. But at the same time, struggles are going on within people.

“I’m learning it’s more urgent to listen. I’ve realized God gives us opportunities. The way ministry happens is very natural, but I’m learning to recognize the opportunities when they come along.”

The young missionary said that having a close-knit community has been hard to avoid in their temporary Tokyo quarters.

“It’s definitely a smaller area here,” he said. “We’re all living together and eating together; there’s nowhere to go from each other. But the community we’ve created in just two months would have taken five before.”

The current crop of students represents 15 nationalities, rural leaders being trained for leadership growth, sustainable agriculture, sound ecological practices and community development.

“I knew this coming in,” McCurley said. “But now I realize just how much food and prayer and conversation contribute to what koinonia really is. I’m experiencing it.”

Residents claim hope

While the ARI suffered significant structural damage from the earthquake, another challenge for local residents came from the threat of radiation.

“Earthquakes happen for a moment, then there’s quietness,” McCurley said, “It’s still again. But you can’t see or measure (the) radiation, and you don’t know what’s going on. People didn’t know how to react.

“This area has slowly not so much returned to life as it has began to rethink, ‘What is life?’ ”

Just as the disaster was unprecedented, so has been the opportunity for ministry.

ARI community event, post-tsunami

“Now we’re meeting with people we never had the opportunity to reach before,” McCurley said. “We have been working with the ‘Toride Project.’ Toride means, literally, to take back – to claim the hope for this land.”

Additional opportunities for sharing the gospel message have emerged with so many people relocated to shelters from the worse-hit areas, McCurley said.

“One non-Christian public school has been singing ‘Joy to the World’ from the movie, ‘Sister Act,’ ” McCurley said. “They asked our gospel group to sing with them at an evacuation center.

“People who want nothing to do with Christianity, yet (they’re) singing gospel songs,” he said. “They wanted us there, and we had this chance to share testimony. People are coming to church and getting baptized who hadn’t even thought about it before. People have ears that are open now.”

Earth, culture feel shifting force

McCurley is conversant with the local culture and said that the March 11 earthquake shook the island nation to its philosophical and spiritual core.

“These are a people who thought they had control,” McCurley said. “Extreme safety precautions at the nuclear facility, reinforcements, and then a 10-meter tsunami wall – but they did not work. Japan is a culture of ‘do-our-best’ – a culture of ‘you try hard, try hard.’ Now a lot of people can’t deal with this.

“But we want them to know there is hope and there is help and that God is there. We have this opportunity to be salt and light in many, many ways. It’s really unbelievable that this is happening.”

United Methodists can help

The McCurleys rely on the support of covenant churches, and can receive new partners. They also want faith communities to begin thinking ahead for work team opportunities in the New Year. But number one on their wish list is “a lot of prayer,” McCurley said.

“Not only that we be sustained, but for the hearts of people to be opened and to hear what we’re sharing, the opportunities God has given us. Satomi’s heart has been broken for people around her to be able to hear and know the gospel.

“Our real hope is not to see Japan recover so much as to see Japan transformed,” McCurley said. “This area has not been open to new things. But this is a time for change; may the gospel be part of that.”

Read updates on Jonathan and Satomi McCurley’s work at his blog Also, for more about the Asian Rural Institute, visit

Financial support for Jonathan McCurley may be made through GBGM Advance #3021131. Donations for relief efforts can be made to Japan Emergency, United Methodist Committee on Relief Advance #3021317.