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Profile : 'Skid Row Mama' Tends Tokyo's Poor : Christian minister goes where angels fear to tread, dishing out food and moral fiber to alcoholics and criminals.

August 11, 1992|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — A gathering dusk shrouds the sunken eyes and leathery faces of the men of Sanya, where drunks and drifters gather and die, lying naked in parks in the summer, freezing to death as they sleep on the mean streets in the winter. The stench of booze and the dead weight of despair hang heavily in the sultry summer heat.

But also in the air is a sense of anticipation. And suddenly, a voice pierces the night, ringing out a loud and joyful refrain.

"HALLELUJAH!"

The voice booms out, many times larger than the person who owns it. She is a tiny woman, standing all of 4-foot-10 and clothed in black from tip to toe.

The men stir. They have filled a narrow room converted from a cheap girlie bar into a house of God, spilling into the street. The woman strides into the midst of these former gangsters, crooks and flimflam men; some murderers, many alcoholics. They tower over her, but there is no question who is in control.

"Don't smoke. If you're planning to smoke, go to the next town. OK, how many of you got baptized last Sunday? I have pictures. Hey, have you been drinking? CUT IT OUT OVER THERE! I'M GOING TO SLAP YOU! OK, Let's give God our thanks. Praise the Lord. HALLELUJAH!"

The Rev. Haruko Morimoto, a 62-year-old grandmother known as the Skid Row Mama of Japan, has come again to tend her flock.

"I'm not a man. I'm not a woman. After 20 years (as a Methodist minister), I've become unisex," she says cheerfully, her face perspiring from a night of bellowing out Bible passages, hollering out hymns, serving up 150 meals, passing out clothes and medicine, keeping order in lines and enforcing her bans on booze and tobacco while worshiping God.

Twice a week, Morimoto brings nourishment to the men of Tokyo's Sanya district: noodles for the stomach and passionate sermons for the soul. She snaps and scolds, bullies and brays, sometimes even slaps a wayward soul across the face for going back on the bottle.

But these men who scramble just to survive in rich and powerful Japan seem to sense that her tough words mask a maternal heart. Indeed, the diminutive minister has been coming to Sanya, where government officials dare not tread, for nearly a third of her life, sometimes braving knife fights and death threats, dressing rotting wounds, and cleaning the excrement off grown men. Where others recoil, she reaches out. Where others see dirty, fearful, untouchable men, Morimoto sees a soul to be saved.

She keeps a mental scoreboard of those souls and can rattle them off like baseball statistics. All told, 1,112 people baptized. The last two years have been exceptionally fruitful: 94 in 1990; 118 last year. She baptized 65 more last June and has two more mass baptisms scheduled, in September and December.

"She's winning the spiritual war," says the Rev. Tetsuya Kazama of the Revival Christian Center in the Tokyo suburb of Chiba, who visited Morimoto's church on a recent summer evening. "In Japan, one church may get five or six baptisms a year, but she is getting more than 100."

"She's tamed men I couldn't," says Kenny Joseph, an evangelical preacher who has lived in Japan for 41 years.

Some may wonder if the men come for God's message or the free meals. During a recent summer service, as Morimoto sang out, "Amen," one worshiper cried back, "ramen" and another, "somen"--both types of noodles. But the minister insists that she counsels her converts for two or three months before baptizing them to make sure they understand what they're doing.

Indeed, on one recent evening at her skid row mission, several men wore gold crosses they received after baptism--albeit, self-consciously tucked beneath their shirts. One older man, who refused to give his name, said he was baptized by Morimoto five years ago and since then has come to read his Bible every day.

The man said he has stopped drinking, although he still lives off the street and can't find steady work. "My standard of living hasn't changed, but my heart has," he commented.

Although Morimoto spills out words in waterfalls of emotion, painting vivid pictures from a seemingly bottomless reservoir of experiences, her answer is succinct when asked why she chose such a tough congregation.

"These people have been abandoned by their families and society," she says.

It is a pain she can readily understand, for her own life is a study in sorrow and resiliency. Morimoto's father died before she was born, and she wound up being raised by Korean stepparents.

It was an unhappy, abusive childhood, which may help explain her youthful attraction to Christianity. Her conversion, however, only caused her stepmother to abuse her more.

Sent to Pusan, Korea, to live at the beginning of World War II, she became more unhappy and withdrawn--until, she says, she heard the voice of God while gathering wood in the mountains.

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