In Jesus Parable of the workers in the vineyard found in Matthew 20, we get to hear the voices of those who complain that those who were hired at the 11th hour received the same wages as those who worked all day long. Unfortunately, we don’t get to hear the voices of those who were hired at the last minute. Last month, I found myself in the shoes of those who show up in the final hour and get compensated for work which I did not do.
In the final days of 2011 a group of nine people from the district we serve in Tokyo went to Sendai to volunteer with the Emmaus Center (a ministry of the Tohoku District of the UCCJ) helping a community which was devastated by the Tsunami of March 11th and our group made up the bulk of the volunteers on the final day before the New Year’s holiday began. Although we are approaching the one year anniversary of the disaster, much work still needs to be done to help in the recovery – there are homes which are still in disrepair, rice paddies which remain inoperable, and clean-up of debris which has yet to be finished. During 2011, over 1,500 volunteers have worked with the Emmaus Center.
The people from the community in Sendai where they have been focusing their efforts were so appreciative of the work of the volunteers that they organized a special thank-you celebration on the final day of the year. Japanese Sake, soft-drinks, and a variety of snacks and delicacies filled the table of the community center. About half the people in attendance were members of the community and the other half were the volunteers who worked on that final day – which largely comprised of our group.
Toward the end of the gathering the leaders of the community began to give speeches. They shared about the many tragedies that happened in the neighborhood when the waves came crashing in on them. They shared also of their hardships during the first weeks and months which followed. Then they spoke of the volunteers from Emmaus Center. They were grateful for all the hard work and long hours which they put in. However, it was not only the physical labor but the fellowship for which they grateful. The disaster had left them feeling cut-off, isolated and hopeless. The volunteers gave them a sense of connectedness and hope.
At the beginning of the event I was feeling somewhat awkward. Our group had shown up at the last minute and had hardly put in as much work as all the other volunteers who had come before us. And we were being given the feast that those others deserved. However, as things progressed I realized that our presence there that day was, in fact, very important. These people wanted to give something back to all who volunteered – they wanted to demonstrate their appreciation. If we had not been there, the room would have been very empty. The volunteers who came before us needed us to be there and the people of the community need us to there as well.
The final speech came from the president of the community organization. He began by mentioning that fifty years ago his parent’s sent him to private elementary school which happened to be Christian. For him there was a time long, long ago when he heard the words of the Scripture being read but over time he had forgotten all of it. However, his experience with the volunteers from Emmaus caused him to recall a passage he had learned as a child and he quoted from memory Matthew 5:13-17
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.
“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.
He went on to say that the work of the volunteers gave him an understanding of what Jesus was talking about. And the words which he heard so long ago finally had meaning. His speech was a powerful reminder to me that our words speak loudest when they supported by our acts of kindness and love.