Monday, August 5, 2013

Stranger in the Graveyard



I suppose meeting a stranger in a graveyard and inviting him to church is not the strangest evangelism story. The man my brother and I saw was young, curious, and even though he followed us into the cemetery that foggy October afternoon, we weren’t spooked.

At first, we ignored him. There was no malice in our behavior; it was simply our way to cope with what we had to put up with each day—being different. Caucasians in an Asian country stand out, and from our birth, we’d gained the attention of the locals. We adapted to that gaijin (foreigner) role, and learned how to carry it, like an actor plays his part.

On this afternoon, we made the trek up the stone steps to the edge of the graveyard. The tombstones were arranged closely together on tiers, like the way tea grows on the mountainside. Japanese cremate their dead and often the burial plots are squeezed near each other. Trees fenced in the area, and although the subdivision we’d just moved to was new, it was obvious that this cemetery had been around a long time. The gray markers were tinted in green moss, the earth around them clumped with decaying leaves and blades of grass. We felt secluded at this location, as though we were in a make-believe world. Wandering around in this world, we never saw another person.

Until that afternoon. That’s when we met the stranger.

He wore a flashy beret which struck me as odd. Old Japanese men wore hats and young kids wore school caps, but the whole little French look on a young man was a bit peculiar. Slung over his left shoulder was a lumpy black camera bag and in his hands was a Nikon. He looked like he belonged on a set for a movie, not in the silent resting spot for the dead.

Perhaps we’d found ourselves the cemetery photographer.

When he approached us, I refrained from pretending I knew no English and that I could only speak French. My fellow missionary kid friend Jo and I once spouted off fake French to try to deter a man wanting to converse with us in English on a train.

Vince had plopped down on a stone in the shape of a Buddha.

Even though my parents’ work included bringing people from the enlightenment of Buddha to the redemptive light of Jesus Christ, I motioned for Vince to stand up and move away from the stone. I always believed disrespect should not be tolerated inside a cemetery.

The young man smiled and said, “Hello. Do you live in Kuzuha?”

His English wasn’t too bad. I said, “Yeah, we do.”

“Where do you go to school?”

“Kyoto International School,” I said.

Vince said little. While I was the talkative one, my brother was subdued.

The conversation continued, with the textbook questions in English until I finally responded in Japanese.

The stranger’s eyes grew wide. “You speak Japanese,” he exclaimed in Japanese.

After that, one thing led to another and this man learned why we were in Japan. Our dad was a pastor.

“Which church?” he asked. “Catholic?”

It seemed that many Japanese associated churches with Catholic.

I told him the church was protestant, gave him name of the language school where the church met and explained that we didn’t have our own sanctuary yet.

When there seemed like there was nothing else to say, I told the man we had to go home now. Vince and I weren’t really finished with our trek among the dead, but it was obvious we wouldn’t be able to amble freely over the ground in seclusion anymore.

In public, we were like characters in a movie and our audience, depending on the time of day, was the commuters on the packed morning train, the shop owners sweeping their front stoops with bamboo brooms, and the drunks teetering home after too many bottles of Asahi beer. With so much fanfare at our presence, there were days I thought of myself as a celebrity. Men and women, even children, acted as though I was not in earshot or couldn’t understand Japanese. But I usually heard every comment. “Here comes the American.” “Isn’t she tall?” “She looks like Princess Diana.” “Look at her blond hair. I would like to touch a strand of it to see how it feels.”

The next Sunday while the small congregation sang a hymn, in walked the man.

When it came time for introductions, held after the nearly two-hour long service, he said his name was Nakayama.

“How did you hear about our church?” my dad asked him in Japanese.

He smiled. “I met your children the other day.”

When Dad asked where, the man said, “In a graveyard.”

He became Vince’s friend. It wasn’t creepy to us even though he was ten years older than my brother. Friendship meant he took Vince out to eat, bought him ice cream and a badminton set. Of course, he practiced his English with Vince, but mostly they spoke in Japanese when out together. He continued to attend our church services.

I'm not sure whatever became of this man but even to this day the story of our encounter continues. It has become part of the remembrances told in our family. “Remember the man you met in the cemetery who came to church?” Mom might say.

We fondly recall that time in our lives, and so many days from our quirky Asian childhood.


~ Alice J. Wisler grew up as missionary kid in Japan in the sixties and seventies. She now writes novels and articles for various publications in Durham, NC. Her first novel, Rain Song, has a Japan connection and is free on Kindle and Nook until the end of this month. Her lastest book is a devotional, Getting Out of Bed in the Morning: Relfections of Comfort in Heartache (Leafwood Publishers).

8 comments:

Jeri Fink said...

Lovely story. I would like to read more!

Jeri Fink said...

Lovely story. I would like to hear more!

Caroline said...

Alice, what a sweet story. My family wasn't missionaries, but since married, my husband and I've worked out west w/some of the Native Americans. There desire to touch your clothes, to be close, and to associate with you in a quiet way always touched my heart.

What a remembrance you can cherich! Bless you.

alice wisler said...

Thanks for your comment, Caroline!

marilyncelestemorris said...

I share your life as I was (am!)an Army Brat. We "Brats" include in our circle oil patch kids, diplomats kids, and missionaries kids.
You might be interested to check out Overseas Brats, a group for what we call "Military Brats" and those who grew up as "Third Culture Kids." I don't have the links handy, but if you are interested, a google search will get you there.
I lived in Korea before the Korean War, after WWII, where my father was stationed with the Occupation and I could visualize your meeting with the Japanese man.

Anonymous said...

You might be interested in a group of Third Culture Kids, Military Brats, or Overseas Brats. I was (am!) a Military Brat with my first overseas station in Korea, right after WWII. We lived outside of Seoul in a military compound. Your story reminds me of those days.

alice wisler said...

I am part of the Third Culture Kids group! My husband is a military brat, so we have lots to talk about in our house!

alice wisler said...

Jeri, my agent thinks I should write a memoir . . . I am in the process now.

Also, I posted here at Geezers at least two other articles on growing up in Japan. If you scroll through or do a "Wisler" search, you might find them.

Thanks for reading!