Stories: Hiroshi Sasayama
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|A Missionary Success Story - As you will see, the following story is written for a non-LDS audience.
When I was 19, I was called on a mission to go to Japan to teach the gospel of Jesus Christ and baptize as many Japanese people as we could. I say "we" because it was always a team effort. We went in pairs or companionships and were NEVER alone. It was a time of great trial and learning for me. I think most of my deeply held values and beliefs were formed during this time.
A little over half way through my two year assignment, I was based in a city near Osaka called Sakai. I was the senior companion and district leader which means that I was responsible to lead the small group of missionaries that were assigned to that area. This town's nickname was gomi-gomi shi. (trashy-trashy city). Japan is a relatively homogeneous society, but it does have its lower class areas. This was one of them.
It was our practice to make contact with the people through a variety of methods including door-to-door canvassing ("tracting"wink, teaching English classes, holding street meetings in busy places, member referrals, putting on entertaining programs at local gathering places, on-board train contacting and street contacting.
In the city of Sakai, I had fallen into the pattern of doing mostly street contacting near the Sakai Higashi train station. We would simply stop people on their way to or from the station, saying something like, "Excuse me. May I talk to you for a moment? We are here talking to people about happiness. How do you feel about your life? Are you happy?" Then, depending on their answer, we would engage them in a conversation about happiness. "What is happiness to you? Would you like to be happier?" Then we would invite them to meet with us and view a film strip entitled "Man's Search for Happiness" that was made from a movie that had been shown at the 1970 Osaka World Fair.
On one hot summer day, my companion and I had been street contacting unsuccessfully all morning at the train station. One after another, the busy businessmen would answer, "I'm busy" or "I'm not interested". If we did manage to engage one in a conversation, the typical answer from these typically agnostic Japanese was, "happiness comes from money" and they would hurry off in hot pursuit of their happiness.
Lunchtime rolled around. Hot, tired and a bit discouraged, we began our walk back to our apartment. As we left the station area, I looked up the sidewalk and saw a young man walking toward us. He was unkempt. His hair was dirty and matted. Mucous streamed from his nose. His eyes were dull and clotted with sleepers. His clothes were dirty. His posture was slumped and he walked without enthusiasm. Now, as missionaries, we believed we were there to build up the church. We needed and were particularly looking for strong leadership types. As we drew near, something inside of me said, "Contact this man". In my head, I replied, "no way, he's a loser" and I kept walking. As I passed by, I brushed his shoulder on the narrow sidewalk. Again the voice said, "Talk to this man". Again I ignored it. This was definitely not the kind of person I was looking for. Besides, we had worked hard all morning. It was time for lunch. My throat was dry from talking and we were hungry. As we continued to walk, the distance separating us grew. At perhaps 30 or 40 yards, the voice in my head became louder to the point I could no longer ignore it. "GO BACK AND CONTACT THAT MAN." I looked over my shoulder and saw that he was nearing the station and would soon disappear inside. I wheeled around and jogged back a bit sheepishly. We were used to doing socially awkward things, but this was a bit ridiculous. I caught up with him and tapped him on the shoulder. "I'm sorry to bother you, but I need to speak with you. Are you happy?"
"No", came the resolute, yet resigned reply, "I'm not."
"What do you think happiness is? Where does it come from?"
"I really don't know. All I know is that I'm very unhappy and I want it to end."
"We have a message about happiness and a short film that teaches about it. Would you like to see it?"
"How about right now?"
We walked about a quarter of a mile to the 4th floor space in an old office building our church had rented where we held meetings and activities. This young man's name was Hiroshi Sasayama. I think he was in his late teens. We showed him the filmstrip and began the process of getting to know him. We discovered that he came from a large, lower class family. He had few prospects for success in his life. He was not doing well in school and saw little hope. He was so discouraged that, when I met him on the street, he was literally on his way to commit suicide. I don't know what means he had chosen, but a common method in Japan was to throw oneself on the train tracks in front of one of the faster trains that would not stop at that particular station.
That day began an amazing transformation in his life. The simple principles we taught him took hold. The next Sunday, he came to church and soon he committed to be baptized. I remember suggesting that he might want to wear a suit and tie. He cleaned himself up and gradually, with each visit, he became less stooped and his eyes a bit brighter. His clothes were clean, if not always new or fashionable and his personal hygiene improved. He introduced us to his family, who not only gave their consent to his baptism, but soon his sister was baptized, followed by others in his family.
Soon after that, I was transferred to another area, a completely different island in the Japanese archipelago, Shikoku. I was devastated. We had come to love Sasayama San and many others in that area whom we had had success teaching. My new assignment was as a traveling zone leader. This meant that I spent most of my time teaching and helping other missionaries. Occasionally, though, we had an opportunity to travel to missionary/member conferences where I would catch a glimpse of Sasayama San and some of the others. Now, separated by distance and weeks or months, the transformation was startling. This young man had accepted positions of leadership in the church. His confidence was growing and it showed in his radiant face. He was, is and will likely always be introverted. His basic personality remains the same. He is still a humble, introspective man. But he is now a powerful one.
Several years after I completed my mission, I returned to Japan as a businessman. When Sunday came, instead of attending the English speaking branch in Tokyo, I sought out a local Japanese ward. To my surprise, I found Hiroshi Sasayama there, as a full-time missionary. Along with him was another young man I had baptized in the Sakai branch. This other young man was in the final months of his mission. Hiroshi's new companion was a young man who had just started his mission and had been taught early in his mission by the other missionary who was almost to finish his. I remember it was a "Fast and Testimony meeting" where members are encouraged to stand before the congregation and testify of their faith and their experiences. All this came to light in that meeting. My heart nearly burst with joy.
Years passed and again I returned to Japan on business. I called Sasayama San and arranged to get together at the Tokyo Hotel where I was staying. This time, he brought his wife. She was also a member of the church. Their marriage had been sealed for eternity in the temple. He proudly presented me with a large 8x10 portrait of them and thanked me for the role I had played in his life. It was wonderful to see him again and I have thought of him and told his story over and over through the past 30+ years. Sometimes I have felt discouraged and thinking of him gave me hope.
I learned that Sasayama San has served as a high counselor in the church and since then, probably many other high callings. I know little of his professional development, but I am sure that he brings the same leadership qualities to the rest of his life.
After many years of no contact, out of the blue last week I received a letter from Japan from Elder Sasayama. Dated August 1, 2002, it reads (in his original grammar and spelling):
Dear Brother Miller
I'm glad I could to write you this letter.
My name is Takashi Sasayama.
When you were missionary, you found a man named Hiroshi Sasayama. he is my father.
Now, I'm a missionary in the Tokyo South Mission.
I'm so thankful that I'm working as a servent of God right now. I really think that missionary work is so wonderful.
And I'm really really greatful for you.
Thank you for teaching my family the gospel of Jesu Christ. It has brought us lots of happiness.
And now I want to tell lots of people about the gospel of Christ like you.
I know that this church is true.
I know that the Lord lives and he loves each of us.
I hope that God will always bless your family and there can always be peace and love in your home.
Love, Elder Sasayama
Although this is the end of my story, for now, this story continues to write itself every day. It is said that a great ship is turned about with a small rudder. So, in life, such a small thing that I did in giving hope to a hopeless stranger rolls across generations changing lives in amazing and profound ways. We know so little of the consequences of our actions. Often, we roll along, self-absorbed and oblivious to our impact on others, feeling completely powerless. I am very blessed to have had this experience and to know of some of its outcomes. Still, I don’t do enough today that will bring this kind of joy in the future.
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