Call it a there-and-back-again tale. In her new book, The Power of Change: a Mennonite Girl’s Footprints in Asia, Marcy Ninomiya chronicles the story of how Marcy Weber of Conestogo spent five decades in the East before returning to her Mennonite roots in St. Jacobs.
During the 50 years she spent in Asia, Ninomiya saw and experienced much, including serving as a nurse in Vietnam during the war, and being in Kobe, Japan when the earthquake that struck there in January 1995 killed some 6,000 people. However what stands out to Ninomiya most is the bakery that she helped run while working with intellectually disabled people after the earthquake.
“I learned a lot through that challenge. And they taught me a lot more than I taught them. I think I had close to 15 people assigned to that project. Their capacity was below being able to be in mainstream society, but they could still be productive,” she explained of the experience.
“I had never worked directly with people with autism before, or broad spectrum disorders. They have very deep feelings, and they know when they’re accepted and valued for who they are,” she said.
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Ninomiya decided she wanted to be a nurse in Asia while recovering from severe illness as an eight-year-old growing up in Conestogo.
“After my surgery, one nurse force fed me and I said that I felt I couldn’t keep it down. But she made me drink the soup. And then it came up on the bed, and I got scolded for throwing up in the bed, that’s when I decided and started bargaining with God, I’m not going to die. I want to be a nurse, but not like this nurse, and I want to go to Asia” she explained.
After graduating from KW Hospital’s school of nursing in 1965, she did two three-year terms in Vietnam with Mennonite Central Committee in the tuberculosis clinic at a hospital in the city of Nha Trang.
“The war was very real. It wasn’t in your face all the time. It was always there. It was sort of cat and mouse and it wasn’t like an army moving in. It was just people infiltrating and causing incidents,” she said.
During the war, she and others at the hospital were held at gunpoint and a doctor was kidnapped. While the doctor returned later that same night, two of Ninomiya’s friends were killed in separate incidents.
She married her husband Aki, a Japanese volunteer who was the hospital’s coordinator, in 1971. Marcy and Aki later spent three years in British Columbia working with people who were forced to live in Second World War internment camps in the Kootenay Valley.
“This is where I learned the dark side of Canadian history,” Ninomiya said.
Asia came calling again, however, when through the United Church of Canada they were assigned to Japan to promote the human rights of disabled persons. They were there for 21 years.
Although Ninomiya had wanted to start a bakery before the earthquake, she was initially unsure after being assigned to do so.
“I told Aki I can’t do that. I didn’t feel I had the confidence to do that. My Japanese language was still not what my Vietnamese was.”
Because she struggled to communicate with those working at the bakery, Ninomiya wondered if she was making a difference for the first year of the project.
“We were sitting there shaping the cookies and there was a boy with down syndrome sitting at the other table and shaping the cookies too, and he said, ‘Marcy is Reverend Ninomiya’s wife.’ And this girl sitting beside me, she was getting really agitated, and she said ‘no, Reverend Ninomiya is Marcy’s husband, and Marcy is my friend. And that made all the difference for me,” she said.
Another experience had a similar impact. After Marcy had spent a few weeks in Canada, when she returned, a worker who did not make eye contact with her previously held his attention on her during a meeting.
“I knew I couldn’t look at him or I would cry. And I struggled to keep the tears in my eyes. And after about 10 minutes, he stood up, and he said, ‘You have wrinkles in your face’ I think he was telling me he had missed me,” she explained.
The Ninomiyas also spent 16 years in Thailand while Aki worked in more than 30 countries in the Asia-Pacific region and Marcy volunteered to establish two bakeries once again working with intellectually disabled people.
They are now retired in St. Jacobs, where after being persuaded by her husband and some friends, she wrote her memoir, The Power of Change: a Mennonite Girl’s Footprints in Asia.
“Somebody twisted my arm. I said this is something I would never do, and I meant it sincerely. I did start writing my memoirs, and it just sort of flowed.”
The book can be found on Amazon and locally at Living Waters Book and Toy Store in Elmira.