The Blessed Little Ones

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne of the greatest blessings for ministry workers in the field is the gift of expertise: lending your life experience, training and education in an area where it is most needed. This past month, a family from our home church did just that. Pam Y. came with her husband (the associate pastor of the church) and three young girls to serve us in a very unique way: providing her expertise on working with children with special needs. Pam taught a workshop to the elementary school teachers at the school my wife works at and helped my wife teach a seminar for parents of children with special needs at the preschool where our pastor is the chaplain. For the latter, we were hoping a few parents might show up so we wouldn’t be lonely; in reality, almost 20 parents came, underscoring what we believed to be the truth. Resources for Japanese parents with special needs children are so scarce they will make use of any opportunity they can to get help.

Japan lags behind most first world countries in terms of providing resources for children with learning and behavioral challenges. The reasons probably lie in the structure of the Japanese educational system and are reinforced by the expectations of Japanese society. Did you ever wonder why Japanese students are famous for their uniforms? The Japanese educational system stresses uniformity, being part of a group and contributing to the success of the group. Everyone learns at the same pace, so those who cannot keep up are considered a burden to the entire class. It’s no wonder the typical Japanese classroom can seem hostile to a child who is a slower learner or has attention deficit disorder, dyslexia or is on the autism spectrum.

The Japanese “solution” to these types of children is to place them in special schools where they are not hindering the progress of their classmates. Of course, once you have been tracked into one of these schools, the doors slam shut on your chances for a bright future. At best, most students in these types of school may end up in vocational school, if they are able to continue their education beyond secondary level at all.

For this reason, any loving parent will avoid getting any sort of diagnosis for their child that might label them as “special”. In America, special needs children get special attention and help. In Japan, the same children get swept to the side, into the shadows. Therefore, if parents want to try to ensure a future for their children, their main option is to help their children by themselves. Unfortunately, there are few private resources available that can help them.

My wife has a burden to help children and families like this. We have prayed even before we arrived in Japan for a chance to use her skills and experience working with special needs children in ministry. Finally, the doors opened up to us to help the parents of children at the local preschool, and in God’s perfect timing, He brought Pam to us at that exact moment to co-facilitate a seminar for them.

We don’t know exactly where this path leads us. We do know that there is a lot of interest among the parents for help. One mother is working on forming a support group for families with special needs children. Another Japanese man who has training and expertise in this area is anxious to lend his help. There is momentum building, a momentum driven by the Spirit for this time.

Please pray with us as we determine how this ministry will develop and how to best use it to show the love of Christ to families and children who often feel alienated, alone, or frustrated by their situation. The church has always been a place for those who felt cast aside by society, and we want to be here to welcome them to the family of Christ.

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.

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.

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.

 

“The Holey Church”

Yesterday, Mr. S., a man from our church, left from the local train station on his way to his new home in Osaka. Our pastor was there to see him off and snap a photo together on his phone which he kindly posted to Facebook so we could all wish Mr. S. well on this new season of his life.

I didn’t call Mr. S. a member of the church, because he wasn’t. Mr S., as far as I know, is not yet a Christian. But for the past year, Mr. S. has been faithfully attending church, prayer group meetings, and volunteering his time in different ministries the church is involved in. He was a wonderful helper at our English Summer Camp program last year and we invited him to return from Osaka to help us again this summer.

I don’t know the whole story about Mr. S. except that he lived in the neighborhood near our church for decades, and one day, he decided he wanted to come to church. Unable to come to Sunday service, he joined the weekly prayer meeting instead and faithfully prayed for the people of our church and others. He made friends with our pastor and several others in the prayer group.

When Mr. S. realized the needs the church was helping to address, he didn’t stand by and observe. He jumped right in and began to help. When we were short on helpers last year for our first English Summer Camp, Mr. S. was there every day volunteering.

This past Sunday when it was announced to the congregation that Mr. S. would be moving to Osaka, he was recognized for his generous heart of service with a hearty applause. This quiet, unassuming man who simply stepped into our church building one day had made such an impact on the work the church was doing.

At the risk of sounding boastful, this is how church should be done. I’m grateful that our pastors and staff have promoted the idea the “holey church” where people from the community can come into church not just to attend service but to participate in ministries of the church traditionally considered “Christians only”. The idea is that one doesn’t just need to come to church through the front door directly into worship service, but they can come into the church through any number of doors that lead to different ministries and activities, not only as participants but as volunteers and leaders. After all, rare is the person who answers the altar call who hasn’t first experienced the love of God through relationships with Christians through church ministry.

What if prayer meeting was reserved only for church members? What if volunteering for English Summer Camp was restricted only to Christians? Would Mr. S. have even stuck around at a church that appeared exclusive to its members?

Church isn’t a country club that requires membership to join and participate. In fact, I have heard it explained that “the church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members”. But at times, the church as a whole sometimes forgets this directive, and the result is that we miss out on opportunities to minister to people.

Over 40 ministries and activities use our church facility on a weekly basis. Some are church affiliated and some are independent. Most are meeting some need of a group that is in need: young families, single mothers,  the mentally or physically disabled, students who need a safe place to hang out. About 1,500 people come in and out of the church building during the average week to attend or volunteer with one of these activities. That is the opportunity for 1,500 people, the large majority of whom are not yet Christian, to experience the gospel through interaction with Christians in the church.

Mr. S. is just one recent example of those opportunity people, who came out of curiosity, but stayed because they were loved and accepted by Christians. When we think outside the box and treat non-Christian people not as “projects” but as peers, we make it possible to build honest and genuine relationships with them that reflect the love Christ has for us.

Please pray that this attitude of inclusion would permeate the church in Japan and people would see the Christian church as a safe haven where they can be accepted and loved as well as be free to serve without first having to “become Christian”.