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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

"I walked into the mountain to pick up sticks, and there I shouted loudly to God, 'Why do I have to suffer so much? I haven't done anything wrong! Where are you, God? Why am I so lonely?' And then I heard him.

"He said, 'Don't be afraid. I'm with you.' "

She married a Chinese doctor in Korea and raised five children, devoting her free time to volunteer work. She finally returned to Japan in 1968 and began studying for the ministry.

Those years may have been the minister's toughest--her eyes still fill with tears as she recalls her husband's sudden illness and slow death. She says she slept only two hours a night at times, as she tried to juggle a job selling cosmetics door-to-door, attending divinity school, caring for her invalid husband and five children, and helping care for the poor.

She heard about Sanya in 1972, a year before she was finally ordained. Her first impression remains vividly etched in her mind--70 or 80 people lying in the streets wrapped in newspaper, reeking of alcohol. Their faces and hands were bleeding; many were coughing. She felt their agony.

"There I saw the mud swamp of original sin," she says.

It was a powerful call to serve, and Morimoto has been in Sanya ever since. In the beginning, the unruly men would come drunk and belligerent, disrupting service with scuffles and fistfights. Once, she faced down a knife-wielding former gangster just out of prison for murder. She grabbed his arm and screamed at him, demanding to know if he wanted to go back to prison. The man fell to his knees and apologized, she says.

These days, Morimoto has her troops better trained. Indeed, the men seem amazingly obedient. "Now, they're all scared of me," she says with a laugh.

Morimoto, who speaks Korean and Chinese as well as Japanese, occasionally proselytizes overseas. But the bulk of her work is in Sanya and a nearby district called Kita Senju, where she has a second church.

She still sells cosmetics part-time, and runs her ministry with earnings from that job and donations. After a Japanese TV station ran a piece on her earlier this year, she got boxes of letters, 100 calls every day and $20,000 in donations. But after two months, the public interest dwindled and she is back to struggling in Sanya alone.

It is 9 o'clock on a Wednesday night and Morimoto is ready to go on what she calls her "patrol." Along with her second husband, two assistants and another visiting preacher, she loads plastic trash cans filled with noodles and broth into the back of a van.

She has already handed out 150 meals at her service that evening, but now she heads for nearby Sumida Park, where another 150 men and two women are already waiting in line for her. As her assistants hand out the meals, she strolls up and down the line, inspecting her flock, inquiring about their health. "Do you have work? Have you been drinking? Have you been baptized? You should be baptized!

"Man cannot live on noodles alone!" she yells.

There will be more stops that night, as, with the unerring instinct of a bloodhound, she finds souls tucked behind bushes and cars, in the narrow spaces between buildings. She rouses one man sleeping on cardboard in the shadows. He wakes up, blinks with recognition and fishes out his gold cross from beneath his shirt.

Together they pray.

Times Tokyo Bureau researcher Chiaki Kitada contributed to this report.

Biography

Name: Rev. Haruko Morimoto

Title: Methodist minister

Age: 62

Personal: Known as the Skid Row Mama of Japan. Born in Japan. Raised by Korean stepparents. Married Chinese doctor in Korea and raised five children. Returned to Japan in 1968, studying ministry and caring for fatally ill husband. Ordained in 1973. Has baptized 1,112 people.

Quote: "I'm not a man. I'm not a woman. After 20 years (as a Methodist minister), I've become unisex."

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