By VIVIENNE KENRICK
Marina Gruenhage quotes Mother Teresa: "Each of us has a mission to fulfill, a mission of love."
Marina took this statement to heart when she become a missionary 30 years ago. She said: "I believe everyone's greatest longing is to be truly loved unconditionally. My mission is to go to those with emptiness in their lives, those who feel there is something not complete, who are looking for answers. I want to share with others what I have found. It is my way of life."
Her story tells of a couple in a bicultural marriage who want their lives to achieve meaning and fulfillment. Both of them, separately, have had major troubles, and have come through. Both believe their religion saved them when they needed it, and they devote themselves now to succoring others.
Marina named herself when she was 4 years old. Her parents called her Maria. She was born an only child in the north of Germany in 1951. Her mother, a nurse, was 40 when Marina arrived, and her father, a Methodist preacher retired from banking, was 17 years older than her mother.
"We moved to a small, narrow-minded town in Hessen," Marina said. "I was glad to leave that town as soon as I finished high school. I studied psychology, pedagogy and sociology at the Johann Wolfgang von Goethe University in Frankfurt. While I was a student I was involved with a rehabilitation program for young drug addicts. As I searched for a purpose to my life, I experimented with political activities as well as Eastern philosophies and religions."
Marina says that a "miraculous and life-changing encounter with the love of God" turned her into a missionary. She left Germany for mission posts, at first in Switzerland, Portugal and Spain. There she was trained as a child-care overseer and teacher. She worked also as an illustrator and layout artist for Christian literature.
From Europe Marina moved to India, where she met Mother Teresa. "It was at the inauguration of one of the Bombay hospitals," she said. "That day we had a lot of music, and set up songs and dances and fun for the children." Then she went to the Philippines. Her team there was assigned to "uplift the moral standard of military personnel." In 1987 she was invited to Japan, where she met her husband, Koji Sasaki.
Koji founded the organization Side by Side International. The son of a rice farmer in Akita Prefecture, Koji came from a home broken by alcohol and violence. When he was small he was passed around to relatives and neighbors to look after. A scarred teenager, he came on his own to Tokyo, where he found employment at a restaurant. In 1983 he joined a missionary team, and two years later established SbSI. After he and Marina married, they began a ministry for the homeless and an outreach program.
To keep expenses down, Koji and Marina and like-minded people who have been recruited into SbSI live and work together in a community. Marina calls it a family circus, but adds: "It's a concept like that of the early Christians. Being a small team allows us to be flexible and to act quickly." For many years they have been working for the relief of Cambodia. They reported: "In 1998 the whole country had only two ambulances. Since then, SbSI has supplied eight more, also medical supplies and equipment, computers for schools, orphanages and hospitals, and many other needed items." In this work, SbSI has cooperated closely with Bernard Krisher, well known for his outstanding initiatives on behalf of the devastated country.
Martina faced her personal crisis six years ago when she became very ill. "I was quite desperate," she said. "It was a big ordeal. I had to discipline myself to keep my mind on hope. At one point when I was in hospital, a little poem came to me. Later I entered it in a competition, and it was published. For my health I am now following an alternative, holistic method, and try to remain positive."
SbSI members dedicate themselves to making the world a better place. They say their hearts and homes are open for those looking for counsel, encouragement or simply companionship. They comfort the lonely, cook for around 2,000 homeless people every month, and prepare humanitarian aid shipments to send abroad. They aim to build a network of compassionate people who communicate, cooperate and coordinate their efforts for the benefit of those in need. They labor, they say, "to put love into action."
The Japan Times: July 12, 2003