Shortly after hearing this news, I found a map and began to ponder the implications of this change. As I looked at the map, the island of Awaji continued to come to mind. Awaji lies between Honshu and Shikoku, two of the four main islands of Japan. Awaji sits in the Inland Sea and connects Shikoku and Honshu with two wonderful bridges located on opposite sides of the island. Near the center of Awaji, lies the town of Sumoto which is home to the Sumoto Branch of the Kobe Stake.
Early February 2010, Sister McIntyre and I took trip to Sumoto to see the town and confirm my feelings regarding re-opening the area. We immediately fell in love with the island. The people were kind and the scenery beautiful. We hiked up to the castle ruins and took some pictures. From the mountain we could see much of the island and across the ocean to the Kii peninsula of Wakayama. We visited a little shop on the mountain and talked with an elderly lady there. We gave her a tract. As we hiked down the mountain to the car I told Sister McIntyre we have just opened this island up again for proselyting and she was our first contact.Later that month we had the opportunity to attend the Kobe Stake Conference. I had the opportunity to speak at one of the sessions. In my remarks, I told a story about President Monson when he served as a mission president in Canada. When President Monson first arrived in his mission, he visiting a small branch and had a meeting with the branch president. The branch president showed him a picture of a beautiful large chapel and told President Monson he wanted to build one like that for his branch. President Monson told him he would need about 400 members attending to justify such a large chapel. At the time there were only about 10 members attending that branch, largely consisting of the branch president’s family. Not at all discouraged by President Monson’s remark, this wonderful branch president told president Monson that if he would send him 6 missionaries, he would find 400 members. As the story goes, President Monson sent him those missionaries. Upon arrival, the missionaries and the branch president knelt down together and offered a prayer. In the prayer the branch president said that today was the day they would begin to build their new chapel. After the prayer, he reached up and pulled the phone book off the shelf. He said if we are going to build a chapel we need a carpenter. So he began to call every carpenter in the phone book and invited them to his house. He did the same with electricians, painters and so on. Everyone who came to his home he would introduce to the missionaries. President Monson said that by the end of his mission, that branch built a beautiful new chapel and there were several hundred members attending the branch. I shared this story with the members of the Kobe Stake and testified to them of the great power that comes from members and missionaries working together and of the great blessings that come when members open their mouths and share the gospel.
I then told them that I wanted to send missionaries to Sumoto. I had heard that Sumoto had a goal of one convert baptism for that year. That seemed like a good goal to them as there were only a few members attending and no missionaries assigned. I told them that if the branch would raise their vision to 5 baptisms for the year we would send missionaries and work with them to build up the church on Awaji.Immediately following the meeting, President Kasai of the Sumoto Branch approached me on the stand. He had tears in his eyes and he embraced me. He said please send us missionaries. He then pulled from his suit pocket a piece of paper with a long list of names on it. He told me, "we have friends and we want to share the gospel." I promised him we would send him missionaries.
A few weeks later, Sister McIntyre and I went back to Awaji to find an apartment for the missionaries. We finally found a nice place only a few minutes from the church. The church was located on the first floor of a small and very old building. It was not attractive and would only hold around 15 people comfortably for sacrament meeting. I remember telling Sister McIntyre, we got to have a nicer and bigger church here.We officially opened the area in April and sent two of our finest missionaries, Elder Ito and Elder Budge. President Kasai and his family helped us move the missionaries in and purchase necessary appliances. That very same day, President Kasai had set up appointments for the missionaries to meet people. I had very high hopes for the area.The missionaries were excited. They received many referrals and worked hard contacting as many people as they could. While I expected and hoped to see a baptism there within a month or two, we saw nothing. The elders focused their efforts on less actives and part member families. Several times they had baptisms scheduled, but they always fell through. Then finally after a thorough trial of our faith and after we had been sufficiently humbled, something began to happen on the Island of Awaji.
Baptisms!In September (2010) the missionaries baptized Sister Akita. She was found by the missionaries as they went house to house contacting. In November, Brother Uchitani, who was referred by the members was baptized. In December, Mikey Simmons was baptized, a referral from a part member family (his parents are members). In February 2011, Sister Hosoda was baptized. She was referred by her daughter who is a member in the branch. Then things started to really accelerate.
By this time, church attendance was already over 20 members every week, more than doubled from a year earlier. Efforts to find a new church location were accelerated. Missionaries had not only been baptizing, but helping with re-activation efforts as well and it was clear that the branch had outgrown the current accommodations.In April (2011), the branch saw two more families join the church. First, the Tachibana family was found housing by the missionaries. They introduced the Ebisu family and both families were all baptized on the same day. Ten new members (7 over the age of 8 were baptized). Then in May, another member referral, Torii Shimai was baptized. The church could not accommodate any more members! A new building was finally located as attendance at the Sumoto Branch exceeded 30 people each week. But it has not ended there. This last week in Sumoto the Kawakami Family was also baptized, adding four more new members to the branch. Just about one year after re-opening the branch, average attendance is now over 40 people.
The new chapel will hold 40 members comfortably, but it has room for expansion. When the missionaries heard they had found a new building, they called me and expressed their excitement and joy. But they also told me they had a big concern. They said, "President, the new building is great, but it only holds 40 people. It is not big enough! What should we do?" I told them to keep doing exactly what they have been doing and we would work it out.Perhaps in the near future Sumoto will have its very own building and not rented space. I am sure it can happen. When missionaries and members work together, great miracles can and do happen. The miracle of Awaji is not over. They are several more people scheduled for baptism in the coming weeks.
The memory of that little branch will always be a special part of my mission. It is a testimony of what is possible with a big vision, unity with the members and a lot of faith and hard work.When we have faith and works and are obedient to the Lord, we can see miracles. We will never forget the miracle we witnessed on Awaji and the wonderful members of the Sumoto Branch.