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From Mafia to Christ

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He was a ruthless gangster who became a street evangelist and co-founded Prison Fellowship Japan.

By all accounts, Hiroyuki Suzuki was considered unredeemable. 

A street gangster when he was just a teenager, he demanded “protection money” from business owners, threatening to injure them or their property if they did not comply. It wasn‘t long before he became a member of the infamous “Yakuza,” known as the Japanese Mafia. “I shot and killed or wounded many,” he confesses, “I stole, robbed, and committed many crimes.” A heavy gambler with a high-priced lifestyle, Suzuki accumulated a debt of more than $2 million dollars (US). After breaking the rules of Yuzuka by befriending the boss of another gang, Suzuki was forced into hiding, fleeing to Tokyo and abandoning his wife and young daughter. Fearing that the “Yakuza” would discover his location and kill him, Suzuki felt desperate. “My anxiety of being killed at anytime drove me to heavy drug consumption,” he recalls, “I was terribly depressed and suicidal.” 

One day, feeling despondent and alone, he sought refuge in a church that was sandwiched between a brothel and a gambling parlour. He remembered the power that prayer had on his wife years earlier when her pastor prayed for healing of her broken kneecap and she made a full recovery. Once inside the church he collapsed in front of the cross, weeping over the wrongs he had committed, convinced that he was not worthy to pray to God. When the minister approached, Suzuki cried out that he was beyond redemption. The minister told him that regardless of his background and the atrocious deeds he may have committed, God still loved him. “The Bible says you are precious,” the pastor assured him. Suzuki was incredulous, but he says, “I wanted to believe it as truth.”

Eventually Suzuki gained the courage to return to Osaka to find his wife and daughter. Although they had both moved to Korea, his wife and daughter happened to be visiting Osaka during the very time Suzuki came looking for them.  “Surprisingly, my wife warmly received me,” he says, something that profoundly affirmed his new faith. Suzuki brought them to Tokyo to begin a new life together.  His new life led him to theological school and eventually he founded Mission Barabbas, a Christian outreach to juvenile delinquents, gang members, and people in trouble. Like the group‘s namesake Barabbas, who was freed from punishment in place of Jesus, Mission Barabbas is comprised of former Yakuza members who have been set free by Christ from their lives of crime. Though he was expelled from the Yakuza, Suzuki has not feared their retaliation. “Now God is protecting me,” he proclaims. Following several years of contact with Prison Fellowship International, Suzuki and his former Yakuza colleagues founded the Prison Fellowship ministry in Japan. It was officially recognized as the 100th chartered PF ministry during the PFI Convocation in August 2003. Still bearing the extensive tattoos that once marked them as Yakuza members and the scars of past street fights, Suzuki and his colleagues are uniquely able to identify and relate with gang members, prisoners, and ex-prisoners, alike. Among the various programmes they have implemented is a support programme for victims and the families of prisoners, and an employment programme for ex-prisoners. Suzuki also serves as pastor of Siloam Christ Church in a suburb east of Tokyo. He estimates that about 50% of his congregation are ex-prisoners  and former gang members.  Recently, the Japan Ministry of Justice authorized Pastor Suzuki as an official prison chaplain, making him the first ex-prisoner to hold such a position in Japan.

Suzuki has spread the Word in many unique ways. On one occasion, he and his colleagues took their message to the streets by carrying a large wooden cross all the way from Okinawa to Hokkaido. Pastor Suzuki is using his second chance in life to help others make a new start. “I am thankful for God‘s mercy on my life, and the honour to follow Him all the days of my remaining life,” he exclaims. 

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