Say unto them, As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel? —Ezekiel 33:11
From the cracked exterior paint to the crumbling wood trim, the “snack” club June Bride has the rundown look of just about every other watering hole in Kawaguchi, Saitama. Impressions change, however, when you step inside and see the sketches of Jesus Christ taped to the silver wallpaper and the wooden cross propped against the back wall.
June Bride’s proprietor is Tatsuya Shindo, and he is not a barman. From the age of 20, Shindo peddled stimulants in and around Tokyo for a gangster family under the nationwide Sumiyoshi-kai yakuza syndicate. After several stints in jail, he decided to start offering something else entirely: the gospel.
“I know how bad I was and the bad things I have done,” says Shindo, 39, thin-framed and sporting a devilish bit of chin stubble. “At the same time, I know how much I was forgiven by God. So I wanted to engage myself in God’s work.”
Now, inside this converted bar, the former gangster presides over the Friends of Sinners Jesus Christ Church, where he takes the pulpit and preaches to former troublemakers on the mend. “They are seeking divine intervention,” says Shindo, a Kawaguchi native, of his congregants. “They want God to help them with their problems.”
Services are held on Saturdays and Sundays and accommodate roughly 100 parishioners, including former gang members and the parents of current prisoners. Red felt chairs—cigarette burns intact—act as pews. The bar counter remains in place, with stools rimming its edge and glasses arranged on shelves behind. Just to the left is the pulpit, where Shindo stands decked out in a robe and gripping the Bible.
The scant accommodations seem to make no difference to Shindo. A peek inside one of his services will reveal the minister standing, head bowed, arms outstretched and reaching towards the ceiling, not far from where a gaudy glass chandelier hangs. Followers sit beneath, listening intently, as he seeks guidance from above.
Such a scene would have been unbelievable two decades ago. With his parents separated, Shindo began using crystal meth when he was still a teenager. Not long after, he joined a yakuza gang and began selling on the street. By the age of 28, he had become a full-fledged gang boss, running credit-card fraud rackets and collecting "mika-jimeryo"—protection money due on the third day of each month—from sex clubs.
But troubles mounted. First, he grew addicted to shabu, using it three to four times a day. Then he got in a wreck with one of his gang’s vehicles while intoxicated. As a means of atonement, he trimmed the tip of his left pinkie. All told, Shindo was arrested seven times, three of which led to prison stays. Women began to give up on him, and his gang finally asked him to leave.
Things started to change during his second prison term, when he came across the writings of Hiroyuki Suzuki, a mobster-turned-minister who leads a congregation at the Siloam Christ Church in Funabashi, Chiba.
What could be considered the real revelation, however, occurred following his arrest in May 2001, when cops in Nihombashi searched his BMW and found 130 grams of stimulants. While behind bars for the final time in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, he read the Old Testament’s Ezekiel 33:11, in which the Lord does not wish death upon the wicked, but rather encourages them to reform.
“That is my driving force, my gasoline,” he says of the passage. “I don’t have to read the lines any longer; it is all inside me.”
Upon his release, Shindo began to correspond with Suzuki. He entered the theological school Jesus To Japan in Taito-ku, and two years later, when he founded Friends of Sinners Jesus Christ Church, he began meeting with—and preaching to—society’s dropouts.
Being low on funds, Shindo found that holding services in the snack was not easy. Still, he knew that if he performed the duties of God, he would receive all that would be necessary.
“In the beginning, it was only me,” he recalls. “So I was preaching to the walls.” (It helped that June Bride is owned by his mother.) But he steadily found followers, and has gone on to pen two books: the autobiographical "You Can Always Start Over," released in January, and "The Mafia Minister’s Street Talk," a compilation of lectures that came out in April.
For decades, Japan’s criminal underworld largely operated in the open. Now, following the scandal that arose after gangsters were found to have assisted sumo wrestlers in betting on baseball games, society is showing less tolerance for organized crime, and some initial attempts are being made to exclude gangsters from industries where they have historically thrived.
Shindo hopes to convey the message that there is another option available for those wanting to escape a life of crime. “I wanted to show people that anyone can do this,” he says, although he also admits that he could have easily been killed by gang members who opposed his decision. “Especially, I wanted to show people with a similar background to mine.”
One avid follower is Yoshinori Ishido, 27, formerly a specialist in "yami kinyu" (loan sharking), whose turf included Otsuka, Takadanobaba, Nakano and Ikebukuro. He exchanged letters with Shindo while in prison.
“Little by little, over the years, his correspondence with me caused my heart to change,” says Ishido, who today works at a wine bar and attends services regularly.
With Suzuki as his predecessor, Shindo believes that it’s perfectly logical for gangsters to seek a path towards Christ. The rigid, top-down hierarchy of criminal families, he says, is similar to that of a church. “And in both cases, you have to listen to your boss.”
Shindo realizes, however, that there are some things he cannot change. His trimmed left digit and the colorful tattoos of mythic creatures that crawl over his upper torso and biceps offer vivid reminders of his past.
He also acknowledges that there will be critics who say he’s exploiting his background to win attention—a point that he finds understandable, but one that he’s ready to challenge.
“If I take a poll of ten people and one or two people criticize me but another one or two stand by me,” he says, “then it is worth it.”
Friends of Sinners Jesus Christ Church. 4-13-4 Kami-Aoki Nishi, Kawaguchi, Saitama. Services take place Sat at 7 p.m. and Sun at 2:30 p.m. Nearest stn: Nishi-Kawaguchi (Keihin-Tokohku line), east exit. http://tsumibito-church.org
This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp)© Japan Today