Louis and Christina Lau OMF Japan

Louis Lau, 65, and his wife, Christina, 62, started Lazarus Ministry in Ikebukuro, Tokyo, 12 years ago to feed the homeless. Photo courtesy of Louis Lau.

In a back alley in Ikebukuro, a busy Tokyo neighbourhood that sparkles with the lights of commercialism and entertainment, 40 homeless and destitute locals stood in the shadows in three neat rows.

Each clutched an A4-sized paper with Bible verses written in Japanese characters, listening with rapt attention to the Gospel message being delivered.

When the speaker wrapped up, the group moved swiftly and noiselessly into three lines to collect food packages prepared for them. Then they left as quietly as they had come – except one man who hung back to seek prayer.

In 20 minutes, the alley was quiet again.

In the shadows of a back alley in shiny and sparkling Ikebukuro, the Word of God is dispensed each Thursday with food at the Lazarus Ministry, named after the poor man in Luke 16. Photo courtesy of Louis Lau.

The scene was repeated 10 minutes later, this time under the glare of a street lamp in the middle of a public park elsewhere in Ikebukuro.

Another group of 40 men and women waited in orderly rows for a message to be delivered by the speaker for that evening.

Some passers-by on their way home from work slowed down and looked on with curiosity, while others stopped to listen. Still others walked through the park without batting an eyelid at this motley crew of people.

After the message was delivered and the food distributed, one of the women among the group of poor pulled out a bag of candy and distributed it to the volunteers, chirping “Hallelujah!” to each.

The group then quickly dispersed into the night.

Offering physical and spiritual food

This was a typical Thursday night for Lazarus Ministry, which was started by Singaporean Louis Lau, 65, and his wife, Christina, 62, who have been serving in Japan as missionaries for 32 years.

Under this ministry, which was named after the poor man in Luke 16, the couple has fed some 80 to 90 destitute locals in Ikebukuro without fail every week for the last 12 years.

In winter, spring, summer and fall, and even during the COVID pandemic when many shunned social interaction, they have faithfully provided not just physical food, but spiritual food through the Word of God.

A man hangs back for prayer after the Gospel message and distribution of food. Photo by Peck Sim.

According to official government statistics, there are about 3,000 homeless people in Japan, with about 600 of them in Tokyo.

However, the actual number is higher, said Louis. Many turn down government welfare, which requires official registration, as they choose to remain hidden from debtors or escape from the pressure of having to get employment.

Unlike the homeless in other countries, many homeless people in Japan are well-educated, have had jobs, even homes, when they were younger. “Like most Japanese, they are polite, respectful and approachable,” Louis said.

However, many fell into homelessness through various reasons, the chief of which was job loss when the economic bubble burst in the 1990s. Others fell into debt from gambling at the pachinkos, an arcade that provide gambling machines.

“What’s your story? I want to hear it”

The ministry had started about a decade into the couple’s time in Japan. At the time, they had been pastoring and planting churches, and happened to host a short-term missionary, James Goldspink, at their home.

Each time James passed through the Ikebukuro train station, the third busiest in the world, he was moved with compassion for the many homeless people he saw.

“Should we do something?” he asked Louis and Christina one day.

“Why not?” Louis responded.

Louis and Christina Lau, founders of Lazarus Ministry, came to Japan 32 years ago as missionaries with OMF when their elder son Justin (far right) was just three months old. Jeremy (left), 29, is their younger son. Photo courtesy of Louis Lau.

Three days later on a blustery winter night in 2012, Louis and James hit the streets of Ikebukuro with 10 to 15 food packages prepared by Christina, which included bottled drinks, bread and onigiri.

“In reaching out to the homeless and the poor, the right thing to do as God desires is to feed them,” said Louis, quoting James 2:15-16 which guides the Lazarus Ministry.

Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? (James 2:15-16)

After the shutters came down on the malls, when the homeless typically converge outside them, Louis and James approached the homeless one by one that night, offering food and a listening ear.

“It’s so easy to walk past them,” Louis said. “But it’s so important to say to them ‘Hey, what’s your story? I want to hear it.’”

According dignity to the homeless

Louis and Christina continued their visits every Thursday after that.

They, along with other volunteers who came along, became familiar faces among the homeless, who also started to gather and build a community among themselves.

As more and more people flocked to them, they began distributing food at different locations: outside the train station, near Starbucks, beside convenience stores.

Lazarus Ministry morphed into the current format when the group of homeless burgeoned from around 10 to 90. Louis (second from left, in black) is pictured here preaching with a volunteer to the homeless and the poor at a park in Ikebukuro. Photo by Peck Sim.

The ministry also extended beyond the streets.

When the group was still small enough – less than 20 – Louis and Christina sometimes took them out to Saizeriya, a Japanese chain of affordable Italian restaurants. Their homeless friends would clean up, dress up and turn up.

“We wanted to give them dignity, which is so important.”

The Laus, with the help of volunteers, also threw parties for them at a church that opened up its space for them. They bought clothes for them as well, scouring stores and secondhand shops for shirts, jeans and thermal wear.

“We wanted to give them dignity, which is so important,” said Louis, who is currently the Dean of Asian Cross-Cultural Training Institute (ACTI).

In 2016, Louis changed the name of the ministry to Lazarus Ministry. It had previously been called Homeless Ministry @Ikebukuro.

“We protect their dignity if we use less of the ‘homeless’ term in Japanese,” he explained. The new name also reflected the shifting demographics of those they serve to, not just the homeless, but the poor and needy as well.

The 90-year-old ministry partner

From some 10 people, the group burgeoned to close to 100 people. But God kept providing.

“They are, in a sense, rejects of society. Yet, Ogura-san openly welcomed them.”

Less than two years after the ministry started, Louis and Christina had to return to Singapore for their younger son, Jeremy, to serve his National Service. In their absence, God brought along both volunteers and finances.

“We always have a group of people from different places coming and helping out,” Louis said. “As for finances, I don’t know how money came in,” he chuckled.

As they were seeking a place to disciple their homeless friends who had accepted Christ, Louis and Christina happened to walk into a building that housed Nakayoshi Church.

It turned out that Nakayoshi Church, led by 90-year-old Ogura Susumu, has been ministering to the poor and homeless since 1979.

God provided Nakayoshi Church to welcome new Christians from Lazarus Ministry. The church was founded in 1979 by 90-year-old Ogura Susumu and his wife, Yoshiko (third and fourth from left). Yoshino (far right), a professional chef, cooks all the meals at the church. Photo courtesy of Louis Lau.

“We knocked on the door of the church and asked if we could introduce the new converts to the church. And he said ‘Yes’,” Christina recounted. “They are, in a sense, rejects of society. Yet, Ogura-san openly welcomed them.”

The couple and Ogura-san have since become tight friends and ministry partners.

The stories of the homeless

In the last 12 years of Lazarus Ministry, Louis and Christina have seen the Word of God bear fruit.

The first convert that came through the ministry was Niko-san, who received Christ in April 2012, just three months after the outreach started. He received a Bible from Louis and Christina and read half of it within six months.

Niko-san has since gone home to the Lord.

“The last time we saw him we were just giving him a Bible … and the next time we saw him, he was getting baptised!”

Another convert, Arai-san, found his own way to the Nakayoshi Church after he accepted Jesus in the early days of the ministry in October 2012.

“We gave him a Bible and said to him, ‘Read the Bible, and if you have time go to this church, go’”, Christina recalled. “It was a brief meeting and then we had to go back to Singapore for two years and didn’t know what happened.”

The first Sunday the Laus attended Nakayoshi Church after their return to Japan was the day Arai-san was getting baptised.

“It was such a privilege to witness this,” Christina exclaimed. “The last time we saw him we were just giving him a Bible and telling him to go to church, and the next time we saw him, he was getting baptised!”

Today, Arai-san serves as a lay leader in the church and manages the logistics of the Lazarus Ministry each Thursday.

Nakamura-san was another who found his way to Christ through the homeless ministry.

He once had a job, a house, and was married with children. But the marriage broke down and he left everything to his wife and children. Homeless for various reasons, he came to Christ through the Lazarus Ministry and now attends Nakayoshi Church.

Like Arai-san, Nakamura-san serves as a lay leader in the church and arranges the speakers for the Lazarus Ministry each week.

Nakamura-san (far left) and Arai-san (second from right) were one of the early converts that came through the homeless ministry at Ikebukuro. Today, both are lay leaders at their church and manage the weekly outreach on Thursdays with Louis and Christina. Photo by Louis Lau.

When Louis and Christina became better acquainted with Nakamura-san, they encouraged him to reconnect with his family. When he did, he discovered his wife had passed away but managed to connect with the younger of his two sons.

His daughter-in-law was pregnant then, and Nakamura-san is a happy grandfather today. He is looking to connect with his other son.

God always provided volunteers to run Lazarus Ministry, even when Louis and Christina had to return to Singapore for two years. Photo by Peck Sim.

Another key member of the Lazarus Ministry is Yoshino-san, a professional chef who came through Nakayoshi Church. 

“Every week, he makes at least 80 onigiris and every three weeks, 80 bento boxes for the homeless ministry,” Louis said.

Yoshino-san had been on the verge of opening his own restaurant in Tohoku with a friend when a tsunami swept the business and his dreams away. Empty-handed, he came to Tokyo and happened to walk into Nakayoshi Church.

After encountering God there, He gave his life to Jesus and his cooking skills to the church.

Seeds of love bearing fruit

Through the Lazarus Ministry, the homeless and poor of Ikebukuro have been well-fed with the Word of God with week after week, year after year, Louis noted.  

Recently another 24 of them, hands over their chests, prayed to believe in Jesus for salvation and healing.

The ground of their hearts are soft and the seeds planted have borne fruit, he added. In one instance, 28 of them indicated that they believed in and wanted to follow God.

Recently another 24 of them, hands over their chests, prayed to believe in Jesus for salvation and healing after they heard the account of the woman who bled for 12 years but was healed (Luke 8:43-48). A short-term missionary from Singapore had shared the message that night and challenged them to be freed by Jesus.

“That is the power of connectedness with God, whom they dare to trust, and in the loving Christian community whom they have been accepted as family,” Louis said.

“These helped them out of their psychological paralysis of powerlessness and hopelessness, into a life of giving hope and help to others.”

If you would like to partner Louis and Christina in the Lazarus Ministry, you may reach out to Louis at: [email protected].


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About the author

Peck Sim

Peck Sim is a former journalist, event producer and product manager who thankfully found the answer for her wonderings and a home for her wanderings. She now writes for Salt&Light and also handles communications for LoveSingapore.