ODAWARA, JAPAN (September 16, 2017) – In a nation where mental illness is still highly stigmatized, the Japanese Covenant Church operates a coffee shop staffed by people who might not otherwise have a place to feel accepted.
Yoshinobu Katsumata, a pastor and the denomination’s president, said through translator Covenant missionary Gary Carlson that the idea for the coffee shop originated when he tried to help a woman with schizophrenia. She came to him each week for Bible study and counseling, sessions that often lasted two hours. “To be honest,” Katsumata says, “I was getting really worn out.”
So when the woman told him that she needed to be hospitalized in order to get help for her illness, he wanted to help. “I tried contacting hospitals in the area to see what would be helpful for her,” he says.
But the woman didn’t show up for an appointment, and she never came back to church. Katsumata says he realized, “Really, what this woman wanted was to be able to tell her stuff to me.”
That experience, he says, “showed me I had no knowledge or experience to help someone like that, and the people in my church had no understanding of mental illness.”
So Katsumata, who had been a social worker prior to entering ministry, set about learning all he could and gained an even greater awareness of the psychological and social challenges people with mental illnesses experienced. Not only was there little help available, but they were shunned.
“There is a tendency to think that when someone acts out, it is a character issue so there is a tendency to blame people with mental illnesses,” Katsumata says.
The few sheltered workshops that existed didn’t put clients in contact with other people. Katsumata recalls, “I thought, what if there was some place for people who didn’t feel comfortable going out, a place they could go for even a couple hours and work a little bit, some place that would welcome them as they are. I thought, that would be a great place.”
That’s how he came up with the idea for the Elim Cafe coffee shop. When it opened, he says, “Most of our church people didn’t understand fully the needs of people with mental illness, but still they knew there was a need and they were excited to help. So we weren’t necessarily growing in knowledge and understanding, but we were growing in love for people with special needs.”
The clients hold a variety of jobs in the café. Some interact with customers. Others only want to work in the kitchen. Others might do some cleaning or pack lunches that can be sold outside the café.
“For some clients, it’s just enough for them to get out of their home and arrive,” Katsumata says. “That’s as much as they can do, and that’s OK. There is a lounge where they can hang out to talk or play games with other clients.”
The café doesn’t advertise itself as a place staffed by people with mental illnesses, “but people in the area know,” Katsumata says. “The customers seem to connect well with the clients. They’re very accepting and understanding.”
Not only do customers get good food and coffee, the clients are able to have a safe space as well as learn job skills. “Some of our clients go on to hold regular jobs because they took that first step to come to the café,” Katsumata says.
The restaurant is open for customers Monday through Thursday. It’s also open on Fridays just for clients. That way they have one day a week to just enjoy time with each other, Katsumata says.
Because the café accepts some government funds, it is difficult for volunteers to initiate conversations about their faith, but Katsumata says customers and clients see the love the volunteers have for them, and some begin to ask questions.
One volunteer started a Saturday morning worship service called The Oasis of the Heart.
Others attend services at a local Covenant church. “The clients who come to church have a whole new set of relationships so their world opens up for them even more,” Katsumata says. ”Those clients have been in situations where they have found it difficult to form relationships.”
Family members of individuals with mental illness often care for them 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That can lead to extreme stress, Katsumata says. The church also has set up an organization to help families of individuals with mental illness.
Family relationships also can be strained when members share much of society’s view that the illnesses are just character flaws. “We want them to better understand mental illness and minister to them in their own struggles.”