Northern Thailand – A Reason to Return

20180305-_DSC3168Among the six children living at Migiwa House, E was a little different than the others. Using a pet analogy, if the other children were like dogs, E was the cat. The other kids reveled in physical play and hugs while E would hang back, occasionally come to grab your hand for a moment or sit on your lap, only to be off again quickly on her own. Though all the children came from lives of varying degrees of difficulty, E’s life was probably one of the most difficult. Her mother was in prison. Her father, when he wanted her around at all, was physically and verbally abusive. One would think E would find refuge in spending 10 months of the year living at Migiwa House, away from her home in the village to attend elementary school, but on the contrary, she often expressed her discontent. She even refused to pay next year’s school fees given to her by her guardians at Migiwa House because she said she wasn’t going to come back.

I have a soft spot in my heart for this little girl, tough on the outside, but broken and hurting inside. The five days we spent with the children at Migiwa House, I tried to make sure E felt like she was a part of the family, to remind her that she was surrounded by people who loved her. Once while we were out walking, E came beside me and grabbed my hand, walking beside me for a few minutes before running off to play. Teru, her Migiwa House “dad” told me later that she never wanted to hold anyone’s hand. Maybe the Lord provided a special connection between us.

Each member of our team lavished a little extra love on E. Kathy talked sweetly with her and gave her extra hugs. Kun-san drew a portrait of her sitting on the chair outside and presented it to her. And on the day before we left, I looked E in the eyes and told her to promise she would be there at Migiwa house when I came back next year. She coyly replied, “I don’t know” with her mischievous smile.

As we said goodbye, there were many tears shed by both the children and our team. We knew only a couple days after we left, the kids would return to their villages for a two month school break. Five of them would happily return to Migiwa House in June. The other…we could only pray for.

A few days later, we received an email from Teru thanking us for ministering to the children, visiting the villages to teach music, and teaching English and photography at New Life Center. I quickly scanned the message for news about E, and was overjoyed when Teru said that he was now confident E would return to Migiwa House in two months. She intended to keep her promise to me.

I always wonder if people think it is strange that as a ministry worker to the Japanese, I take this annual trip to support the hilltribe people of Northern Thailand. But I believe God calls us beyond national borders, beyond people groups and simply to those who need Him the most. People like E, who might slip through the cracks and disappear if not reminded of God’s love for her through our visits. For children with unstable lives, there has to be some consistency from adults in their lives, and in some small way, our little team from Tokyo provides some consistency and comfort to her.

The trip also provided an opportunity for us to have a change of scenery and provide still provide much needed ministry. Later, I will report on the incredible progress we have seen over three years and four visits to New Life Center. And this year, my friend Y who is like a brother-in-law to me, was able to be with us the whole week. Though he is not a Christian yet, he spent the week serving alongside us, using the gifts God gave him the same as us, and gaining a fuller understanding of how God works in our lives and the lives of others. I pray that his understanding of the gospel is much more complete as a result of his experience. Experience can move people’s hearts in a way reasoning and logic cannot.

One day, E will graduate from high school and then from university, and I am looking forward to the day that instead of us going to see her in Chiang Rai, she will come to see us in Tokyo. Until that day, we will continue to nurture and encourage her in the language she best understands from us, just being there for her.

Something Fishy at Ramen Nagi

Last month, a friend sent me a message asking if I had eaten at Ramen Nagi in Golden Gai. He must have realized that I spend a lot of time scouting out the best ramen shops in Tokyo for people who come to visit us. I know, the sacrifices I have to make…

Truthfully, I had never been to Ramen Nagi and I was a bit intimidated about eating in Golden Gai but it turned out to be a good experience. Like many places in Golden Gai, it looked a little sketchy from outside with a hand-scrawled sign in English over the door  (and misspelled at that) and a very steep and narrow stairway up to the restaurant. To be fair, if you can read Japanese, it does say Ramen Nagi, open 24 hours on the sign next to the door.

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Once inside, you are seated at a narrow counter with about 12 seats. True to ramen culture, your goal is to eat your ramen as quickly as possible and get out to make room for the people queuing up behind you. Fortunately, I went very early so there were not many people waiting to be seated and I was able to take a few photos.

To be clear, Ramen Nagi is about the fish. The broth is famously made from dried baby sardines and the flavor is, well, sardine-y. If you don’t like sardines, you’ve come to the wrong place. Even the vinegar used to season your ramen is sardine-infused.

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But Ramen Nagi has the mysterious Japanese umami flavor in abundance, and the soup never seems overpowered by fishiness, but rather a nice balance of the smoky, salty broth combined with the fish and nori sheets. The ramen itself is very thick and wavy, a technique used by ramen chefs who want you to really experience the flavor of the broth in every bite. Broth clings to wavy noodles and the thickness absorbs some of the liquid.

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Given that Ramen Nagi is open 24 hours, it would be a great choice for those who miss the last train, voluntarily or involuntarily, and want a bowl of something delicious to see them through to daybreak.

As for me, it broke through my irrational fear of eating in Golden Gai and added another notch on my “best ramen in Tokyo” belt.

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Obi of Love

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And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

The Bible speaks of the attributes of our character that should be apparent to those transformed by Christ: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience and forgiveness. Above these things, we are to put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony (Colossians 3:12-14).

In the Japanese translation of this passage, “love” is described as an “obi”, the material wrapped around a kimono to hold the garment on and tied in a variety of beautiful ways. It is a masterful way to describe love in a way that is easy for those familiar with Japanese culture to understand.

Today, I was introduced to a woman who makes clothing and accessories out of recycled materials. Some of her items are made from recycled kimono that are too old to be worn again. She takes these once beautiful garments and makes them new again.

But what touched me the most was when she said she could take old cloth from a person’s history and make it into a new garment. A piece of a blanket once precious to your son when he was a toddler. A scarf from your grandmother who passed away years ago. To do so, she said, was to bring a memory of someone you love close to your heart.

I thought about how our experience informs our personal concept of “love”. Some people experience love from family members, spouses, or friends. But for others, they receive something less pleasant from those same people: ambivalence, neglect, even abuse. Some pour out love into the lives of others, to receive little or nothing in return from them.

Yet when the Bible talks about the obi of love, I believe it describes the state of understanding God’s unconditional love for us. By understanding how God loves us in spite of our imperfections perhaps we can overlook the imperfections in others and love them in a similar way. Without real love for others, our compassion, kindness, and patience toward them is self-serving, designed to make us feel good about ourselves.

We can receive glimpses of God’s love for us through other people, but we can also receive wounds from them. But even those wounds can be bound up and healed by experiencing the amazing love God has for us in Christ.

Colabo: Serving When No One is Watching

 

20180108-_DSC9524At any given moment of the day, Yumeno Nito, founder of Colabo, and her partner Inaba-san may be found quietly doing the work in Japan that few people wish to do. Late at night, they might be patrolling the streets of Shibuya, looking for girls who have run away from abuse or neglect at home, only to find themselves in another vulnerable situation as potential prey for those who would seek to use them for financial gain or more abuse. During the day, they might be teaching girls they have rescued how to cook and take care of themselves, or encouraging them to stay in school so they can get good employment, or counseling them through their many emotional wounds. On top of this, Yumeno spends a great deal of time speaking at various events and venues across Japan, spreading the message that the issues young people, especially girls, are facing are real and growing, though little help is available through the government or even other organizations. She spends countless hours raising money to buy or rent apartments for the rescued girls to live in, money for food and necessities, money for education and counseling sessions.

Once or twice a year, my friend Sheila Cliffe and I, along with others who care deeply about this problem, volunteer to help with events Colabo sponsors. Sheila dresses the girls in kimono or yukata for Coming of Age day or summer festivals respectively, and I take portraits of them. Many of these girls don’t know what it feels like to be treated as someone special, to be dressed like a princess and fawned over. They don’t know how to act in that situation. Most shy away from the camera. Some hide their faces, turning away or hiding behind their hair. But we make them as comfortable as possible and give them photos that can become happy memories of lives that are often filled with only sad or hurtful experiences.

I hesitated for a very long time to write this post because I don’t want this to be about me. What we are doing is a tiny part of what Colabo is doing for these girls as a whole, so insignificant I would hardly mention it if only to explain the connection I have to Colabo. But the fact is, Colabo is doing such important work in Japan, Nito-san and Inaba-san need to be recognized for it.

I’ve known about and worked with Colabo for almost two years, though Yumeno founded the organization years before that. It is only recently that they were able to rent an apartment as a safehouse for a few girls, and very recently they were able to purchase another unit. But the fact of the matter is that there are hundreds if not thousands of young people, girls and boys, in vulnerable situations all over Japan, and nobody is paying attention to the problem. Sure, the government should have a better infrastructure for finding and supporting children like this. And yes, more non-profit organizations should step up to do more where the government is lacking. But we the general public are not innocent in the matter either. When we see these kids hanging out on the streets late at night, in our minds we label them as “hoodlums” or “bad girls”. The reality may very well be that they have nowhere to go. That karaoke rooms or convenience stores might be the only places to keep them from freezing at night. That going to a stranger’s home or hotel room might at least mean a warm bed and a free meal.

It breaks my heart to have to write this, knowing that many of Japan’s children, precious and critical to the survival of the country, are suffering neglect not just at the hands of their parents, but at the hands of society as a whole. Society chooses the easy road: blaming the victims for their circumstances. In this way, they can ignore the problem.

I thank God for organizations like Colabo and selfless individuals like Nito-san and Inaba-san who give their lives for the cause, but the number of resources working on behalf of the children pale in comparison to the number of children who need help.

It would be easy to throw up your hands and say “What can I do as an individual person?” Perhaps you don’t even live in Japan. But if you have a passion to serve the vulnerable here in Japan, you are not powerless.

Pray. The prayers of the selfless person are powerful. When we have nothing to gain for our prayers, I believe God really honors our intentions. Prayers sustain those who have little to hope for, so let’s pray for God to bring hope into the lives of these vulnerable young people, to restrain them from doing the unthinkable.

Learn. Unfortunately, there is only so much you can learn about this topic because it isn’t well recognized as a societal problem in Japan. Yumeno is working hard to change that by speaking on the topic to as many people as possible as often as possible. But there are a few articles online you can research to help you understand the problem. In many ways, this problem isn’t unique to Japan except that the lack of response by the government and other organizations to it is deafening.

http://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20160816/p2a/00m/0na/009000c

https://thelily.com/a-culture-of-dates-in-japan-targets-vulnerable-high-school-girls-2ca321875684

Give. As long as there are so few organizations working against this issue, Colabo will always need as much support as possible to fund new safehouses for girls, pay more staff to help, and make themselves into an organization that the government cannot ignore. As long as they are small scale, the government can pretend they aren’t important. But as they grow, they become a force for change, a voice for the powerless.

You can donate to Colabo by credit card or purchasing Amazon goods here:

Support Colabo

God bless those like Yumeno and Inaba-san who are doing the difficult, thankless work down in the trenches, helping people who would otherwise be ignored or even despised by society. Though they are not “Christians” in the traditional sense of the word, they are doing the work Jesus instructed us to do and demonstrated through his life here on earth.

No Small Miracles

We were warned buying a home in Japan as foreigners staying on a work visa would be difficult. Well, difficult may have been a mild description. The real trouble comes when you go to the bank to apply for a housing loan. Our situation was a little more challenging than just the lack of permanent residency.

  • Half of our income is paid from a source outside of Japan and cannot be used in any calculations for a loan.
  • And, well, we’re ministry workers, so our total income isn’t that high to begin with.
  • Both in our 40’s, giving us less time to work than the standard Japanese 35-year-loan period allows.
  • Can read Japanese at a level equivalent to Japanese 4th grader who “ain’t doing so well.”

Miracle #1: Our Realtor

Our pastor recommended Mr. Shirakawa as a former church member who moved to another area of Tokyo who helped many of our members with real estate transactions. The importance of having a realtor whom you can trust completely, who prays for you, and who works tirelessly when the odds are against you cannot be understated. There were times in the process we were so frustrated we wanted to give up. But Mr. Shirakawa never gave up; he just kept looking for ways for us to get a loan. And from dozens of phone calls to banks and lending companies, he did find us two options for loans. And though we ended up not using either one, without them, we would have given up hope much earlier and missed our opportunity to buy the property we finally did.

Miracle #2: The Right House

It’s no secret that Japanese houses are very different from American houses. A large house in our area is 1,000 square feet, the footprint of which can probably fit in some people’s living/dining room area. Storage is often the trade off to allow people more living space, but storage is a pretty important feature to Americans. We looked at about 20 different houses recommended by our realtor and dozens of others browsing the internet real estate websites almost daily. No house was perfect and we were resigned to “settling” for a decent home. In fact, we had settled on a less than perfect house when the house we really wanted appeared in my Facebook feed as an advertisement! Yes, something wonderful came from a Facebook ad! I had browsed the real estate site every day and somehow this listing had eluded me until God put it right in my feed! The layout of the house is pretty much everything we wanted and the fact that building has only just started means that we get to choose the colors and materials used in the house, making it truly our own.

Miracle #3: The Right Location

One thing our family was not going to compromise on was location. It was quite a tug of war in our house because many of the houses that were larger or had better layouts were less convenient for getting to school or the train station by bike or foot. This is the real reason we settled on the less-than-perfect house. The location was fantastic: a little closer to school and much closer to the main train station and to the road we use to get to church. So when the link appeared in my feed for our house, the thing that caught my eye first was that it was in the same neighborhood as the less-than-perfect house. In fact, the location was slightly better, only a few meters from the river path that could take Jayne and the kids almost all the way to school without worrying about dangerous traffic on narrow streets.

Miracle #4: The Right Price

Our price limit varied based on the interest rate and down payment we would need by tens of thousands of dollars, but there was definitely a limit which we could not afford to go over. Because the seller helped us with the process of getting a loan through their preferred bank, we got a much better interest rate than what would normally be offered to people in our situation, which gave us a little more room in the pricing. As it turned out, the price we paid was right in the middle of our target, but with the lower interest rate and the 33-year term of the loan, the monthly payments came in lower than expected. Perfect timing as we determine how much money Jeremy will need our help with when he goes to college next year.

The whole experience reminds us of two important things that have been a theme since we began this journey. One, if you let the Lord lead (and at times, we did so only because we had no idea what we were doing), He’s going to lead you exactly where you need to go. And second, the Lord’s blessings are better than anything we could imagine. When we arrived in Japan, the idea we could purchase a new home here in an ideal location, basically custom built for us and with a mortgage lower than our current rent would have been laughable. Even six months ago, it seemed like only a dream. Yet today, it’s our reality.

So yes, it is possible for non-permanent residents to buy their dream home in Japan. But we had a Big Guy working on our behalf.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
    his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.

Lamentations 3:22-23

Reflections on CPI 2017

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This was our first year at  the CPI (Church Planting Institute) conference and to be honest, I never felt the need or desire to go in the past. After all, we are technically not church planters, but church supporters, working with an existing church and following the vision of the pastors. We went this year because our organization, JEMS, used CPI as an opportunity to bring together all of our JEMS co-workers in Japan for the first time.

Now I have never been one to love this type of event from the start. As a staunch introvert, the idea of spending the whole day with a large group of people and not even having my own room to decompress at the end of the day sounded more like torture than rest. But God always knows what we need and I was one of the lucky few who was able to secure an individual room for the duration of the conference, which put me much more at ease about going.

The time spent with our colleagues was precious. Two summers ago, we were fortunate enough to be in California for the Mt. Hermon conference with a large group of us, but there were still many who were not able to attend. And in the past couple of years, our executive director has worked hard to add to our numbers, so there were many more team members whom I had never met even on social media.

It was great to catch up with old friends and meet new ones. There is a special bond between ministry workers that doesn’t even need to be established; we simply relate to the kinds of trials that are common to our occupation. So it is easy to pray for and with one another and feel the support of those who have and continue to walk in our shoes.

As for the conference itself, the message really struck a chord with me this year. As basic as it seemed, we were simply reminded to take time to experience the love of God, and given ample opportunity to do so in worship and prayer. And for the first time in what seemed like a long time, I really felt I was able to let the Lord draw near to me and be embraced by Him with His unconditional, infinite love.

As ministry workers, we can talk for hours about God’s love and faithfulness. We drill it into our heads and we try to drill it into the heads of those who want to know it. But we don’t always give people the opportunity to experience it, largely because we may not be experiencing it on a daily basis ourselves. This is the challenge of what we do: maintain a respectable level of work for the Kingdom while nurturing a relationship with God so that we truly can understand the importance of the work we are doing for others.

Coming out of the conference, I’ve been prayerfully pondering how to make the love of God real in my own life and how to relate the experience, not just the knowledge, to those who desire to know God more. I feel there are no easy answers, but at the same time, I also feel that God provides answers to those who earnestly seek Him.

Little Voices Magnified

Yesterday, as I watched the mini-bus full of our Redwood team pull out of the preschool on their way back to California, I felt the tears welling up. For a week, we had transformed the rooms and halls of the preschool, normally unused during vacation periods, into places of joy and laughter for over 200 children. They danced like no one was watching, sang at the tops of their lungs, and gave praise to a God they were only just beginning to know, but One who knew and loved them before they were born.

Their little voices echoed in the hallways of my memories, their little footsteps literally running into the chapel excited to sing and dance their hearts out for Jesus. In those moments, it wasn’t difficult to understand the joy God feels for us, His creation, and what He intended our relationship to be with him: children running with joy to spend time with their Father.

Dozens of volunteers spent hundreds of man hours preparing for and participating in English Summer Camp this year. Many people, most who didn’t even attend the event, gave time and resources to support this event: prayer, financial, labor. And many volunteers here in Japan sacrificed their vacation time to spend time with these children.

I’m so thankful for the breadth and depth of our local volunteers this year. Some came from other churches to help, some from other ministries, like a great group of young people from YWAM. Some were local university students who love children. Some were mothers of participating children who wanted to be more actively involved.

Some of our volunteers said that by participating in camp, they came to a fuller knowledge of who Jesus is and what Christianity is about. A parent said that she had never seen her child as full of joy as they were during English Summer Camp. On the last day, there were already requests to do a mini-camp in the Fall, maybe with a few members of the Redwood Team returning to lead it.

This is all we pray and hope for; the opportunity to build deeper friendships and relationships based on the foundation of God’s love. Through our friendship, we hope to help our Japanese friends gain a clearer understanding of God’s great love for them. We want to stand with them in their times of joy and times of sorrow, their triumphs and trials. For Jesus called us to live out his love in the world in action, and not just words.

Sharing some of the beautiful moments of this year’s English Summer Camp: children worshiping their Heavenly Father and being loved with the love of Jesus through our leaders and volunteers.