Reflecting on English Summer Camp 2019

This past August, we wrapped up our 4th year of English Summer Camp. It was significant, in many ways, as from the beginning, we didn’t know if there would be a 4th year. Our partners in California committed to 3 years and after that, it would be up to the Lord to lead us. Well, the Lord led us to continue, and we could tell by this year that where He leads, He leads with great blessings.

About 370 children attended camp this year, about 100 more than last year. From the start, the camp had a different feel to it. Instead of wondering if there would be enough kids to have camp, we started wondering if we could fit all the kids who were coming into the rooms we were using. Instead of the friction we had with various authorities, there was just kindness. Instead of the burden of bearing the cost of sending a huge team put on one church from California, we had team members from three churches (and a special guest from Chicago).

I want to share two stories that really demonstrate what the Lord is doing through this ministry.

Transforming A Family

The M family have been an integral part of our church for many years. A couple with 3 children from elementary to high school age, they are active in several ministries of the church. Last year, while Mr. M was on leave from work recovering from surgery, he used his free time to serve at ESC for the first time and enjoyed the experience. He met many of our partners from California and developed friendships with them.

Last fall, the M family took a trip to the Western US, visiting with many of the friends Mr. M had made during the ESC week. They even had a chance to visit Redwood Chapel, the partnering church that enabled us to start the program here in Tokyo. It was during this trip that the M’s realized the people who came to help at ESC were just regular people like them. They had regular jobs and busy lives and they sacrificed their time and money to spend two weeks every year to put on the ESC program.

So this year, it was the M family who sacrificed their vacation time to serve at ESC. For the entire week, the family served and at the end of it all, Mr. and Mrs. M testified in front of many church members about their wonderful experience, and how they are looking forward to serving again next year. I believe their moving testimony will inspire others in our congregation to give their time sacrificially for this ministry.

Sharing The Load

The first two years of ESC, almost the entire team from California was from Redwood Chapel. The first year they sent 20 people to help us. As you can imagine, that is a huge financial burden for a church to bear year upon year, so over time, we prayed other partner churches would be willing to help share the load by sending team members.

This year, Pathway Community Church of Pleasanton and Lord’s Grace Church of Mountain View sent team members to compliment the Redwood team. This greatly reduced the number of people Redwood needed to send to staff the core leadership roles. Above and beyond that, we got to share the blessing of the ESC experience with two new churches.

We had some wonderful new team members with skills and experiences that complimented the Redwood team. Though all were blessings, I will mention a few specifically. A couple of the Pathway team members had studied Japanese and were able to have good conversations with people, especially the Japanese university students who volunteered as helpers. Building friendships with university students is an important part of our church ministry apart from ESC, so we were grateful for that. The Leong family from Lord’s Grace Church were so versatile and flexible, they served in anyway they were needed and stepped into roles they had not planned to fill.

Of course, we always appreciate the veteran leadership of the Redwood Chapel team and their experience is critical to making the camp run with such precision and ease. And the friendships the long term members have built with people here in Japan is so important and precious. But it is great to see other churches joining up with Redwood to serve under their leadership and make it easier for Redwood to continue to send a team every year.

Looking to the Future: 2020 Olympics and beyond

Next year will be a challenge with the Tokyo Summer Olympics scheduled at exactly the same time as our camp. Though we discussed changing our schedule to avoid the Olympics, there is simply no way to do it based on the Japanese school schedule and the availability of our partners from California. So we are pressing forward, trusting in the Lord to help us navigate the giant obstacle that is the Olympic games.

With the momentum we now have, we know children and their families are already looking forward to next year’s program. With several other programs launched at churches in our community, we realize now hundreds of children and their families are able to hear the gospel message each summer. Every year, new seeds are sown, watered, and soon will be sprouting. At our church, we are strategically planning on how to engage the children and families who want a deeper understanding of the gospel.

Was It Worth It?

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A special entry by Jeremy Fong.

Time. As children, we are taught how to tell the passage of time through a clock. The passing of each big hand, a minute, and the small hand, an hour. But as an adult I’m starting to realize how little I truly understand about time. A minute is made up of sixty seconds. 1, 2, 3…60. Yet there are moments when each second is an eternity, and time refuses to flow. And there are other times when each second is so fleeting, time seems to flow right through me. What is time, and what makes it valuable?

Only a few days ago, the narrative of this newsletter would have been completely different. On December 21, my mother and I were involved in a solo car crash. As we approached the freeway from the onramp, we lost control of the car. Perhaps it was the worn out tires, the freshly wet road, or driver miscalculation, it didn’t matter. All I could think about at the time was, ‘Well this is it. This is how I die’. We bounced off the meter high wall dividing us from the thirty feet drop from the overpass, and spun around until colliding with the other side of the lane’s wall putting us facing towards oncoming traffic. It was one of the most terrifying moments of my life. The danger was immediate and threatening, and my life was not the only one at stake. Once the car had stopped, my eyes quickly shifted to my mom. Was she injured? Could I help her even if she was? We both looked at each other, examining one another for injuries. But we were both unharmed.

The rest is mostly a blur. I made sure to hold my mom’s hand while going through the conversations with first respondents, family members, and inevitably insurance companies. I’m not sure if I thought I was doing it to prove I was strong to my mom or the other way around. All I could do at the time was focus on force I could feel on my fingers as I tried to ground my body once again. Whether I was actually going to or not, as we approached the first wall, I thought I was going to die. And now I’m not going to take my life for granted again.

My life could have ended right then. Time slipped right through my fingers, as my mind struggle to keep up. It happened all within a matter of seconds. Yet even days later, I have still yet to process such a tiny percentage of my life. Of course, being the person I am, my most pressing thoughts have nothing to do with the actual event, but the philosophical implications of it. The majority of those thoughts stemmed from the idea of human frailty. Even if I was unaware, I felt entitled to this life, a future that God had planned out for me. I thought of all the things that I would accomplish, of this life I envisioned for myself. It could have been taken from me, except for the fact that it doesn’t exist. I’m not guaranteed anything in this life. I can have all these elaborate plans for my future, but I am only kidding myself if I think I can discern the plans God has for me. Albeit, this is the lesson that God has definitely placed on my heart while on this gap year, and what I can only hope, cemented, through the car crash.

Christmas marks five and a half months since arriving back. That’s a total of 240,480 minutes and 14,428,800 seconds and counting. I will be the first to admit that I hated the idea of  spending a gap year living in the States. I was not in a good place with myself, and most definitely not with God. At the end of Senior year, I had tried build my life back together on my own. But it had come crashing down. I was hurting, but I was determined not to let it happen again. I needed to find God, and find Him I did.

Honestly, at this point I can’t even remember all the times I’ve seen God working in my life. Whether it be through simple conversations, cultivated relationships, or opportunities that have suddenly presented themselves, I’ve truly been blessed each day here. I distinctly remember a conversation with someone from church that has stuck with me all this time. I don’t recall the exact wording, but she said something along these lines, “Jeremy, you’re in a season of receiving. I know that may be a hard thing to accept because you have given so much to others. But God has placed you in this season for a reason…”. That was during my first month back, and looking from the mountains I have overcome, she was so right.

There are some days that I wish didn’t happen while I was here. But they pale in comparison to all the joy that has entered my life. I will always remember my time in California fondly. There’s just so much to be grateful for. I’m speechless just trying to process it all. I know I’ve grown so much here and I’m thankful for each and everyone who have helped me along the way. In a matter of months, I’ve learned a lifetime of lessons. I’ve learned to distinguish the difference between giving up and letting go, to allow my narrative to be ever-changing, to not undermine my self-worth, and ultimately to allow God to be the center of my life.

He saved my mom and I in that accident. How else can I explain any of it? I still don’t understand why exactly it happened. What was the point of allowing us to get into an accident, only to remain unscathed? But to think of other possible outcomes or circumstances makes me sick. I am here writing, breathing and unharmed, and all I can be is grateful. Those few seconds in the car were so fleeting, but I now have a lifetime to reflect. And from this moment, I know that my time is valuable. I can only hope that I continue to use it wisely.

Northern Thailand Update – Migiwa Foundation

Last year, we traveled to several villages in Northern Thailand for the purpose of meeting a few of the children who would be coming to live with our ministry workers in Chiang Rai for ten months of the year to attend school. Without a safe place to live in the city, there would be no educational opportunities for many hilltribe children where schools in general are rare and there are no village schools for kids beyond junior high school level.

This year, we were excited to reunite with several of the kids we met in their villages last year, now living at the Migiwa Foundation home. Two of the children are from the Lahu hilltribe and three are Akha. One is the daughter of an Akha pastor who helps take care of the other children but the other four are from broken homes. Last year, one of the boys we met had been basically abandoned to the care of his 13-year-old brother when his mother began living with another man. He was 9-years-old at the time and could barely speak any Thai because he went to school so infrequently. Now he is attending school regularly and doing well.

Our friends were able to rent a large piece of land at a reasonable price, which enabled them to build a separate room (necessary because they are housing boys and girls) and a guest house for visitors which will eventually be used by Thai caretakers for the children.

In the short time they have lived at Migiwa House, several of the kids already have a basic grasp of Japanese (the mother tongue of our friends) as well as becoming fluent in Thai. They also learn a little English, so including their native language, they will eventually be quad-lingual!

But the real language of children is play and that’s what we did whenever we had free time to spend with them. Outdoor sports and games, board games, piggyback rides, you name it, we played it with them. One of the things many children raised in poverty suffer from is lack of attention from adults, so when they can get it, they really soak it up. And they were such sweet-natured, fun children, who wouldn’t want to lavish attention on them? It reminds me of one of my favorite pieces of Scripture: See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! (1 John 3:1) We can only hope that they see the love God the Father has for them through us.

Again, I marveled in the fact that these children experienced such joy in the simple things of life: climbing trees to pick fruit, making stilts and bows and arrows out of bamboo, riding in the back of a pickup truck. Our friend said he’s never taken them to the local mall or to eat at McDonalds. They don’t need those things to be happy and the knowledge of those things would likely just make them unhappy. Isn’t it so true that the greatest temptation we face daily is the temptation to be ungrateful for what the Lord has graciously given us?

Returning to Thailand on this annual ministry trip plays an important role in resetting my perspective on Christian life. It reminds me that contentment can be found in even the most challenging of life’s situations. It burdens me to remember to pray for our brothers and sisters in other countries and humbles me to seek prayers from them. It connects me to the global church and gives me a glimpse of the powerful ways the Lord is moving among His people.

As Christians, we don’t need a vacation from Kingdom work, but I do believe we need a change of perspective once in a while. We returned from Thailand physically exhausted but at the  same time, brimming with spiritual fervor for the work of the Lord. Praise God for the ways He loves and cares for us. We look forward to praying for these children as they grow up in the Lord, supporting their financial needs to live at Migiwa House and attend school, and visiting them regularly to spend quality time with them.

 

 

 

Northern Thailand Update – Abonzo Coffee

A group of people from our church and sister church, including our pastor and I, returned from a whirlwind mission trip to Northern Thailand arriving in Japan a little after 6am. As was the case for our previous two trips, we split our ministry time between our Akha friend running a coffee production business in his hilltribe village and participating in the ministry activities of a missionary family our church conference supports, mainly working with the children of the various hilltribes in the area. Since there is much to process and write about, I am splitting my reflections into two entries. This one will be about Pat, our coffee producing friend and Akha hilltribe member.

In 2015, we stood on a hill overlooking the valley where the Akha village of Doi Chang was nestled among acres of fertile soil and abundant coffee trees. The coffee trees were a gift from the King of Thailand in the 1970s as a way to give the Akha an alternative to opium production. Today, the wisdom of the King is evident in the fact that the Doi Chaang (different spelling for the coffee growing region) region produces an abundance of some of the best coffee in the world and kept many Akha people out of the drug trade.

As we stood on that hill, our friend Pat described his vision for the land, which at this point, he did not own nor did he know how he would be able to purchase it. He pointed out where his Abonzo Coffee cafe would be built, and next to it a roasting facility. Above that, a processing plant for washing and drying beans. And all of his Abonzo Coffee employees would be young people from his tribe who would learn and use skills from his company and earn a fair wage to help support their families. And together we prayed for his vision.

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Nearly a year later to the day in 2016, we again stood on the land which was now owned by Pat and had a large parcel cleared and flattened, ready to be built on. Again, we prayed together for the Lord’s blessing on Pat and his vision.

And this past week, once again we stood on Pat’s land, where his cafe and roasting building was more than half completed and land was cleared and ready for building a small processing plant. About a kilometer away down the mountain, a larger processing plant was already completed and producing hundreds of kilos of coffee beans every day.

It is here we should note that four years ago, Pat started with not much more than his family’s coffee farm, some basic knowledge of how to process coffee, and a clear vision from the Lord on how to help his people rise out of poverty. Today, he is on the verge of becoming one of the few major producers of coffee in the Doi Chaang region behind only the cash rich competitor bought last year by a major Thai corporation. The Lord’s favor is on Pat and he is moving, often on faith alone, toward the vision the Lord gave him years ago. He started buying land and building structures not knowing if he would have the capital to finish, but God has always provided and Pat has faith that He will continue to provide, so he presses on.

Pat’s parents work full days on the farm alongside other workers, climbing up and down the steep slopes picking coffee cherries by the tens of kilos per day. The day we visited the farm 10 laborers including Pat’s parents, picked 660 kg of coffee cherries in an 8 hour day. The work is hard enough to make young men break down and cry, but there are no tears from the Akha people during the work day, just chatter and laughter and singing traditional songs together.

The taste of Doi Chang coffee is earthy and complex. One could imagine the spirit of the Akha people has somehow been transfused into the crop that at one time saved their tribe and they now count on for survival. But where there is money to be made, there are always those who will come, willing to exploit people and land for profit. So it takes men and women like Pat to defend the rights of the Akha people for an honest wage and fair dealing in land use (technically, the Akha are considered aliens in Thailand and have no legal ownership of land).

We continue to pray for Pat and others like him who have a vision for the Akha people of Thailand, as well as neighboring countries, that aligns with the way God Himself would care for His people. A vision that sets them free from the bondage of drug and human trafficking, substance abuse, and hopelessness in poverty. A vision where the Akha people outside of Thailand can hear and respond to the gospel as strongly as those inside Thailand. A vision where a young man headed down the wrong path can have his life turned around by Christ to be a spiritual and business leader in his community.

A Yearful of Blessing

Recently, we compiled a summary of our ministry work for our organization’s annual report. As I went through my calendar entries and photographs from the past year, I was amazed at how easily things unfolded for us. It was as though the plans were already in place, and the only requirement for us was to participate in them. Imagine that.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” ~ Jeremiah 29:11

I also re-read our annual report summary from last year. One year ago, we were still finding our feet, praying about and for ministry opportunities and getting plugged in with the local Christian community. Today, we’ve found confidence in being able to live in Tokyo as residents, established several new ministries within the context of our new home church and have a diverse network of contacts within the community whom we can serve and be served by.

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Best of all, the work we have been doing has led us down the path of helping to plant a new worship service at a nearby school in the coming year as well as hosting what will likely be a very large scale English Summer Camp this coming August with a new church partner from California. Both of these things align with our overall vision of serving the community around our church and reaching the many children and young families around us.

We have truly been blessed by consistent financial partners this past year and have had full support pretty much continuously since we arrived in Japan 16 months ago. But we are prudent enough to realize that we may not always enjoy this level of support and we will need a reasonable savings in our ministry account to ensure we make it through the more challenging times.

If you are so led, would you consider a one time gift or new financial partnership with us in our ministry here in Tokyo? Instructions for supporting us can be found on this webpage.

By the way, though our annual report will be published by JEMS, our sending organization, and emailed to our church partners, if you are interested in personally receiving a copy of our report, please leave me a note in the comments and if we have your email address, I will send it to you.

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As always, we are grateful for your prayers, your encouragement, your financial support, and your love for us in Christ Jesus. We love you!

Week One: Japan

We have been in Japan for a week now, but it seems longer. Thanks to the help of wonderful friends, old and new, we have been able to accomplish much in terms of getting settled into our new home. We now have official residency in our city, health care, child welfare (it seems everyone gets this in Japan, regardless of income level), a bank account, mobile phones, bicycles (as seen above) and a pending installation of home phone and Internet service. Each one of these things has been an investment of time and effort from a friend on our behalf.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, getting things done here take quite a bit of time. If the old adage for America is “Measure twice, cut once.” the Japanese equivalent would be “Measure 10 times, cut once.” Japanese quality is legendary, but the price of getting things done right the first time is a quagmire of process and rules. As our friend explained to us, “Japanese people seem to find emotional comfort in following the rules.” Well said.

This past Sunday, we were able to attend the church we will be calling our own, Biblical Church of Tokyo, for the first time in five years. Though our friends the Nakamuras were out of town, we were able to spend time getting to know Kathy, who co-pastors the church with her husband Seiji. We learned about their strategy for reaching the community around the church which is unusual in that the population is growing by birth where the vast majority of Japan is the complete opposite. We feel confident that God has provided us this church as a place to serve, be spiritually nourished, and to learn how to be effective ambassadors of the gospel to Tokyo.

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Our friend John G. came over for dinner last night. It was a great time to catch up with him personally and hear about the many things he’s involved in. Since he lives just a few stations down from us, we plan to get together with him as often as our schedule’s allow. John told us about some of the local churches and movements going on around Tokyo and he will be a great help in getting us connected with them. He’ll also be joining us for a couple of days when we meet our team from California in Chiba in a couple of weeks.

This weekend, we will attend a conference for the 4/14 Window Movement Japan. This is the movement that is forming around evangelizing the age group between 4-14 years old and teaching them how to share the gospel with their peers and families. Less than 50% of traditional Japanese churches have any kind of ministry for children, meaning most children have minimal exposure to the gospel and therefore little interest in hearing about it later in life. With our interest and experience in ministries like VBS and orphanage outreach, we hope to be able to contribute as well as learn from this group.

And of course, we are excited about meeting our team from California in Chiba later this month to help with VBS and outreach at two children’s homes, including one for special needs children. We’ll spend 3 weeks out there, 2 weeks with our team and an extra few days to catch up with our friends and fellow ministry workers in the area. We’ll be in no hurry to leave the cooler Japan coast for our home in inland Japan where August is brutally hot.

That’s all for this week. Thank you for lifting us up in prayer during our transition; we definitely know we are in the loving hands of the Lord!

May Review / June Preview

It’s the end of May and we’re now in the home stretch for our big move to Japan on July 1st. There are now open moving boxes in our living room that are slowly being filled. Items of personal value are being boxed up and put in storage. Here are some of the highlights of the past month:

Gave a Japanese ministry seminar. One of our larger local community churches, Redwood Chapel, has adopted the Japanese as their Unreached People Group (UPG) and has committed to reaching out to them for the next decade or two. Redwood Chapel doesn’t have a lot of people with experience in Japanese ministry, so they wisely reached out to local churches like ours to ask for assistance. In May, they invited me to share about the need for Children’s ministry in Japan, and how a church like theirs might get involved. It was an encouragement to meet with them and see their heart for the Japanese.

Consulting Job Confirmation. After hitting a potential roadblock to my continued consulting work with my current company, everything came together suddenly and with unexpected blessings. In the final deal, I have been asked to work from home (instead of making an hour plus commute into the local office) and I am now considered a direct contractor, meaning there is no middleman to take a portion of my paycheck. For those wondering how this consulting work will affect my ministry schedule, it won’t. I will work at this job on average 5 hours per week. Praise God for turning a trial into a blessing yet again!

Sold my car. This was a mixed blessing, but I am so grateful to know my car is going to a responsible young man who needs a good, reliable vehicle. We ran into a hitch when I took it to get smog checked and found that one of my modifications was not, uh, street legal. Thankfully, my awesome Dad came to the rescue again and helped get the car back to stock in a couple of hours.

Purchased one-way tickets. It’s been a long time since we had to purchase one-way tickets, almost 16 years. There’s something very final about one-way tickets because you realize you aren’t coming back for a while. But the good news is we got a decent airline and the prices were not outrageous (though airline tickets in general are expensive this year; be warned). Also, the CAJ relocation allowance covered the majority of our ticket and extra baggage costs.

Sending our son to camp. Thanks to the wonders of social media, I met another “friend I have yet to meet” in our city and he told us about the International HiBA camp taking place this summer. It is held literally a few kilometers (got to get used to metric measurements) from where we stay for our Summer short term mission in Chiba and the timing aligns nearly perfectly. It also happens that our son is now the right age to attend, so he’ll get to go meet some great kids, many of them he will attend school with at CAJ. We know he’s a bit shy about making new friends, so this is answered prayer for us about him.

Meeting new friends online. We’re so fortunate to live in the age of social media (yes, I recognize the irony in that statement as well). Jayne and I have been able to connect with many people on Facebook and talk with them on Skype before we’ll ever have the chance to meet them face to face. Through these technologies, we’ve already been able to connect with a number of great people and co-workers in Japan, long before we set foot on Japanese soil. One of these connections led us to…

Choosing a home church. Yes, we were able to Skype with Kathy Oyama, who pastors the Biblical Church of Tokyo with her husband Seiji. Based on the ministry vision of this church aligning with our own and the bilingual ministry for our children (as well as Kathy being a wonderful person), we decided to make this church our home church in Japan. For those who are familiar with them, Cru missionaries Mitsu and Karen Nakamura also attend this church. This will be a great opportunity to witness and learn how a Japanese church can reach out to their community in ways that are relevant to those who live there.

So what’s coming up for us in June? Here are the biggies.

Commissioning and Send Off at San Lo. If you’d like to join us for our commissioning and send off, it will be this Sunday, June 1st, at our church, San Lorenzo Japanese Christian Church. The send off will be a pot luck after service (we are basically hijacking our monthly “Coffee Hour” for our own design 😉 ). Service starts at 10:45am.

Elementary / Middle School Graduations. Both of our children will be graduating from the respective schools on the same day this month, so it’s going to be a crazy day. It’s a bit surreal to realize both of our children will no longer be in elementary school. It’s no joke that time flies when you have children. But we are proud of the accomplishments of both of our children and the people God is molding them to become.

Crazy Packing. Make that crazy sorting, packing, and tossing. And if you need anything, you might want to inquire with us as we are not having a garage sale (I hate those things) so most stuff will either be given away to friends, sold at ridiculously low prices, or donated to a worthy organization.

Finalizing Support. I am going to make a factual statement here. We are currently undersupported. I don’t want this statement to cause any guilt or smack of solicitation. It is merely a stated fact because we get asked this question all the time and we want to answer truthfully. If you prayed about it and didn’t feel called to support us, please don’t feel like you need to pray again for clarity. But if you do want to support us, now would be a great time to set up your financial support. That’s why this is the last thing on our list; now that you’re done reading our post, please go set up your support!

Lastly, thank you for all of your prayer support over this journey. We feel the results of your petitions on our behalf in the smoothness of this whole process and the blessings that have exceeded our expectations in so many ways. Thank God for each one of you!