Tzu Chi Mexico: Ken Nomura’s Story of Unchanged Faith

TIMA  |  September 16, 2019

Author: Audrey Cheng
Editors: Monique Kuo & Dilber Shatursun
Photos by Dennis Lee & Mary Keh

In September 2017, the Puebla earthquake, measuring 7.1 in magnitude, struck Central Mexico. Then, Tzu Chi volunteer Ken Nomura was working as a history teacher in Monterrey, Mexico. He immediately contacted Tzu Chi to join in its relief efforts. He soon received a reply about an assessment that would be conducted of the situation, with a formal disaster relief mission slated for December. Nomura requested time off from his work and flew to Mexico City to join the Tzu Chi Mexico and Tzu Chi USA team in December.

He accompanied Stephen Huang, Tzu Chi’s Director of Global Affairs, as they surveyed streets flanked by broken walls and collapsed buildings. He was both an interpreter and a guide: wherever Tzu Chi volunteers went, Nomura would follow to help translate between Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, and English.

Such an experience encouraged Nomura to devote himself to Tzu Chi’s development in Mexico. He also hoped to encourage more locals to join in this mission of compassion in action.

Unconditional Love and Support of Parents and Inspiration of Tzu Chi

Nomura was born in Taiwan and moved to Malaysia as a baby. As an only child, he was active and constantly curious about the world around him. Nomura cites his mother as his greatest role model.

While raising her child, Mrs. Nomura made numerous accomplishments as a volunteer for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (through which she rescued hundreds of stray cats and dogs and found homes for many of them), the Malaysian Association for the Blind (for which she recorded Buddhist stories), and an orphanage in Cheras, which she visited. Through her selflessness, Nomura learned the virtues of empathy, generosity, and compassion from a young age.

During elementary, he began to participate in local Tzu Chi recycling activities on Sundays. As Nomura got older, he’d tag along with mom to go on Tzu Chi charity case house visits. But, a few days at a summer camp in Banciao, Taiwan, inspired a deeper awakening in him.

At the camp, Nomura learned about water scarcity, world hunger, filial piety, and Tzu Chi’s disaster relief missions. Though he was only 14, it became clear to him then that joining Tzu Chi was part of his lifelong path.

Nomura’s mother aside, his father, too, was a great source of inspiration. A former engineer, his father financed their family’s entire journey across the globe, and investing much of it into Nomura’s education. This, in great part, served to prepare him with a global mindset and deep understanding of the world around him.

Moving onto higher education, Nomura began studying at the University of Minnesota, majoring in international education. Determined to teach history, he received his teaching certificate in social studies. During his time in college, Nomura continued to walk the Tzu Chi path as the university’s- and Minnesota’s- only Tzu Ching. Still, Nomura’s global upbringing primed him to master four distinct languages: Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, English, and, later, Spanish.

A Fruitful Destiny in Mexico

After completing his military service, Nomura completed his Tzu Chi commissioner training. He vowed to Dharma Master Cheng Yen that he would act as the seed of Tzu Chi in a new country before he turned 30. Upon giving Nomura her blessings, Master Cheng Yen asked him: “do you feel your shoulders getting heavy?… Before becoming a leader, you must be a sincere person.”

Taking this to heart, Nomura signed up for his first teaching job in Durango, Mexico. During that time, he learned so much about the Mexican people and culture. While working, he fell in love with Marnie Anderson, a young Canadian woman, who not only came to support him in his work for Tzu Chi, but also helped coordinate logistics for Tzu Chi’s medical outreach missions.

Though the two were looking to expand their horizons beyond Mexico, they both took jobs in Monterrey, Mexico. Then, on September 19, 2017, the Puebla earthquake, measuring 7.1 in magnitude, struck Central Mexico. Nomura immediately got in touch with his contacts at Tzu Chi and inquired about a potential international disaster relief mission.

An assessment team was deployed, and Nomura and Marnie joined the first disaster relief mission scheduled for December. It was an experience to remember.

Within a short period of six days, Tzu Chi distributed cash cards and eco-friendly blankets to over 10,000 households. At the closing proceedings, the Mexican national anthem was sung, Nomura teared up. He had heard his students sing it a thousand times for the past three years at school, but this time was different.

Nomura thought about his contributions thus far and realized the impact he could have on a grand-scale. He resolved to stay in Mexico and work with Tzu Chi Mexico for the long haul.

A fellow Tzu Chi volunteer once told Nomura that “when you make a vow, you’re at your most sincere moment; because of that, vows are heard and they come true.” He was very surprised to see many incidents and encounters in his life that had brought him to make such a determined and resolute promise to himself.

The vow he made to himself and the Master five years ago had come true: until 2019, with the support of Marnie, and local and international volunteers, Nomura has carried out over seven international medical missions in Mexico City and the state of Morelos. On all occasions, students from bilingual schools, including his own students, helped out as translators.

Having completed the vow he made at 14 well before turning 30, Nomura reflects on his life and his new outlook. Commenting on Tzu Chi from a historian’s perspective, Nomura said, “one day all sentient beings will walk down the Tzu Chi path. It’s only a matter of who gets there first.”