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.

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

“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”.

Dream Big Dreams

In many ways, today was the culmination of over two years of praying, dreaming and planning with our partners from Redwood Chapel. Over two years ago, God brought us together with Redwood Chapel as they sought a vision for ministry to their newly chosen unreached people group, the Japanese. At that time, we had not even left America and were still forming in our own minds what long term ministry might look like in Tokyo. One of the few things we were sure of was that we felt God prompting us to reach children and young families with the gospel message.

It was with that in mind that we floated the idea of a partnership to do some sort of ministry like Vacation Bible School in Japan. We knew from experience on a smaller scale that children loved it and even parents were able to learn about the gospel through the simple message of children’s ministry. But our dream was for something larger: perhaps more churches or a larger scale event, and for the ability to replicate a program across the nation of Japan.

When we found a wonderful church, Nerima Biblical Church, with a pastor couple who shared our passion for reaching families in the community, we knew it would be possible to host some sort of event at our church. So we went ahead and started high level discussions with Redwood Chapel.

We explored the idea with small steps, leading to a small vision team from Redwood Chapel visiting our church last October. On that visit, the person in charge of the preschool whose facility we are using shocked us by offering the use of their facilities free of charge. Suddenly, the concept of “large scale” grew even larger. Here was a brand new facility with the capacity for over 500 children, much larger than any church in Japan could host on its own.

From that point on, we moved forward with the plan to host such an event in August 2016. We met on numerous Skype calls and on our own in both Japan and California. A “dream team” was formed by Redwood Chapel with experienced leaders who could lead the initial event while teaching a Japanese counterpart how to lead in future years.

On July 1st, we opened registration with barely any marketing other than word of mouth. We had no idea how many children we should expect to be enrolled. We told ourselves that we would be happy if 50 kids came the first year since nobody knew what to expect. 50 kids were enrolled on the first day. And enrollment continued until we hit 230 at the end of the official enrollment period. We were blown away by what God was doing in our community. It had nothing to do with us.

To say there was spiritual opposition to our English Summer Camp program would be to put it mildly. We faced all sorts of problems, from fierce political fighting at the facility we were using, to horrible automobile accidents involving team members, and even mosquito-induced anaphylactic shock. Little issues kept eating away at our time, our enthusiasm, our sense of unity. But we pressed on with prayer and the little faith we had, knowing that the work the Lord had begun He would see through.

As I stood on the stage today looking out over our 240+ children, 50 volunteers and a number of lingering, curious mothers, I was close to tears. For two years we dreamed of this day, of the hundreds of little smiles, the ring of laughter, the enthusiastic dancing. And today, there it all was, as if God had choreographed it all behind the scenes while we struggled with our faith to expect even 50 children.

Today was day one. There are five more days of ESC this year alone, not to mention the years of partnership with Redwood Chapel yet to come. There will be spiritual conversations with children and parents. There will be real and lasting impact on individuals and families. There will be amazing works in people’s hearts that only happen through Christ Jesus. And it all began with a dream, a dream that we allowed to be big even when our faith would have kept it small. And everyday, I want to relish it all, to breathe it in like a refreshing cool antidote to the hot summer days, knowing the Lord is moving in our community and in this nation of Japan.

Stop Asking The Wrong Question

The Christian church in Japan is growing, though much of the growth is at the roots, where it is not easily recognized. In this fast-paced, instant access world, it is easy for churches and missions to look at Japan and ask “why are Japanese resistant to the gospel?” This is absolutely the wrong question. The real question we should be asking is “How is the enemy (Satan) interfering with our ability to communicate the gospel to the Japanese?”

The difference is the first question incorrectly assumes that Japanese are not interested in or are opposed to learning about Christianity. The truth is that Japanese people are open to learning about many things, including Christianity. In a recent Pew survey, the majority of Japanese surveyed  had a favorable view of Christianity and of all the major religions, chose Christianity as the most favorable, even above Buddhism. They may not like the idea of organized religion, but then again, Jesus wasn’t a big fan of it either.

The second question rightly assumes that there is spiritual warfare going on between those opposing God and those doing His work. And this is not just between groups of people but in the spiritual realm of angels and demons, which I am not knowledgeable enough to discuss at length, but I know it goes on around us every day, unseen. Satan does not want the Japanese to hear the gospel message. He does not want Japanese to know the facts about Jesus Christ. And he is throwing huge amounts of resources into battle to ensure they are kept in the dark.

So how is the devil working to oppose the message of the gospel to the Japanese? This post would go on for pages if I tried to explain every aspect of spiritual interference Christians face in Japan, but I’d like to highlight some of the major ones and perhaps dive in to the details in future posts.

The god of Work

Japan is known as an industrious nation and solidified that reputation in the post WW2 era, becoming an economic superpower on the back of manufacturing and quality improvement. However, that reputation has become an idol for many Japanese companies who now insist on a work-life imbalance that most Americans would find horrifying. Though a lingering economic malaise has slightly improved the situation for the average Japanese worker, long hours and six day work weeks are often the norm. If a worker has free time, it is often used to catch up on sleep, spend time with family or engage in a hobby. There is simply no room for learning about Christianity in the schedule of most Japanese once they graduate from college.

Ironically, most Japanese, including those in the government, know that overwork is a big problem in Japan. However, nobody seems able to make any major inroads to change. I believe this is because deep down, Japan is proud of its workaholic reputation in the world and employees are rewarded for taking part in that system of overwork.

Christianity as a “Western religion”

Christians should be aware that Christianity is neither western nor religion, with its roots in the Middle East and its emphasis on a personal relationship with God that is unique to Christianity. Yet because of its obvious differences from Buddhism and Shintoism, this reputation is difficult to shake.

Much of Japan’s cultural identity is based on Buddhist and Shinto concepts. The most central concept of collectivism vs. individualism is one of the strongest separators of Christianity from the Japanese. By its nature, you cannot be Christian and Buddhist or Shinto simultaneously. Becoming a Christian requires a person to renounce their belief in Buddhist and Shinto ideals, an act which separates a person from the collective group. This bond to the collective: society, family, work, social group, is what makes it extremely difficult for Japanese to accept Christ, who says “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

The Work of Cults

The existence and popularity of cults in Japan is proof in itself that Japanese are indeed spiritual people. Spiritual, yet not necessarily religious. Unfortunately, many cults, including those who identify themselves with Christianity, are active in Japan, preying on people’s spiritual hunger. Even those who are wise enough to escape the grip of a cult find themselves suspicious of any other “religious” group, and perhaps rightly so.

As Japanese people are not well aware of the facts of Christianity, cults which claim to be Christian can be very dangerous to them. For Japanese people, cults like the Mormon church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Unification Church can be indistinguishable from true Christian churches until it is too late. Even in the best cases, these cults create distractions that keep Japanese people from learning the truth about God. In worse cases, it turns them into deceivers of their own people.

The “Powerless” Church

I bring this up cautiously and without pointing fingers at any organization or church in Japan. However, in Japan, just as anywhere in the world, there are churches that exist that are not demonstrating the power of the gospel in changing people’s lives. Some are merely social groups of people meeting together every week to sing songs and hear an uplifting message. Some are churches that treat new visitors as outsiders who are creating an inconvenience to them. Some refuse to acknowledge that the methods used to share the gospel with others has changed dramatically over the past few decades, or that methods that work in the West do not work nearly as well in Japan.

The worst cancer in the Japanese church is the lack of unity between churches. While more partnerships between churches have been forged recently through disaster relief efforts, there are still too many churches trying to do things on their own without any inclusion of other churches or organizations in their area. When disagreements or battles between Christian groups become public (and Japanese people do love their gossip), it puts a stain on our reputation as people who have been changed by the power of Christ.

When we begin to ask the right question, we understand that the most powerful weapon again Satan is prayer. And prayer is something that can be done by anyone, at any time, from anywhere. Would you consider joining us in regular prayer against the activities of Satan to deceive the people of Japan? Would you ask prayer groups you belong to to include this topic in their prayer times? The war was already won when Jesus pronounced “It is finished” on the cross, but the battles for the souls of God’s people are still being waged, and you are a difference-maker.

When Coffee Really Is Life

“Baby diapers.” That’s how my traveling companion Yuji described the smell, as we approached the site. Once you get that image in your mind it’s hard to shake it. But indeed, the smell of coffee cherries going through the process of having their husks removed and the beans washed does have strong olfactory similarities to what goes on in a toddler’s diaper 35 minutes after eating lunch.

The smell of “baby diapers” or coffee processing is noticeable in many parts of the village of Doi Chang, high in the mountains above Chiang Rai in northern Thailand. Doi Chang is an Akha village, a hilltribe living largely in Thailand, but also in neighboring Myanmar, Laos, and even southwest China. They are not Thai; they have their own language, their own culture, and for the most part, the Thai government won’t even grant most of them citizenship. They are stateless in the country they live in, and as such, are one of the poorest people groups in Asia, the average Akha living on less than $2.00 US per day.

But let’s say you come from one of the dozens of neighboring Akha villages to Doi Chang. To you, this modest little village of a few thousand people could look like New York City. Most of the roads are paved and well maintained. There is a school for children up to Jr. high school and a preschool for children younger than that. Nearly every family drives around in an expensive Toyota 4-wheel-drive truck. So what’s the difference here?

The difference, to put it simply, is coffee. Decades ago, this area of the world was known as the Golden Triangle, the meeting point of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. The fertile lands of this region were productive for growing crops and the crop of choice in those days was the opium poppy. The drug trade took a terrible toll on both the countries involved and the hilltribes who were willing and unwilling participants. So the government of Thailand decided to give the hilltribes an alternative and funded a plan to give them a new crop to grow: coffee trees. Today, Thailand ranks 18th in the world in coffee production and coffee grown in the “Doi Chaang” region (note the extra ‘a’), is designated with a geographically protected trademark for its high level of quality.

The farmers of Doi Chang village are the primary producers of Doi Chaang regional coffee. Around the village, there are several smaller processing plants and one large one belonging to the major distributor known as “Doi Chaang Coffee” Company. When you’re the biggest, you get to own the name. Nearly every family in the village is growing, harvesting or processing coffee, most involved in multiple aspects. But only a few are running companies that are able to distribute the finished products: either raw beans ready to be roasted or roasted beans ready to be sold to retailers or consumers.

Our friend Pat is one of the few. His company, Abonzo Coffee, named after his grandfather who helped convince then reluctant Akha villagers to adopt coffee trees over opium poppies, is small by global standards. Even next to local competitor Doi Chaang Coffee, his production is a small fraction of theirs. He grows coffee on family owned land and purchases the rest from 25 local farmers who chose to sell to him. But while other coffee companies primarily exist to make money, Abonzo exists to help raise the Akha people out of their cycle of poverty.

Pat dreams of expanding his business into overseas markets, adding more farmers to his production and building a brand that is as respected for its devotion to social justice as it is to the quality of the coffee it produces. The cycle of poverty among the Akha, as it is among many impoverished people groups, is bonded with the lack of access to higher education. Doi Chang has a public school providing education up to Junior high school level, but getting an education beyond that means  a long daily commute down to the city and paying a tuition that most poor farmers cannot afford. Akha who are particularly well off send their children to live in dormitories in the city so they can go to school daily, but most can’t afford such “luxury”. But Pat doesn’t want the education of his people to be a luxury, but a necessity. He even aims to teach young Akha people business skills by providing them work and training in the coffee business beyond cherry picking and processing. He intends to build a cafe that will employ many young Akha and next to that, a barista training school that will give them means to learn a skill that is transferable to other jobs (Chiang Rai is the de facto coffee capital of Thailand and cafes are springing up all over the city).

The purpose of our trip to Doi Chang was to photograph the coffee production process of Abonzo Coffee along with a friend we brought from Tokyo who is working with several high-end cafes to potentially use Abonzo Coffee as their house brand here in Japan. As the Doi Chaang regional brand becomes more widely known, unscrupulous growers have been claiming to sell “Doi Chaang” regional beans when their beans are of inferior quality grown elsewhere. Our intent was to show Abonzo Coffee is a true Doi Chang village coffee company and that the beans Pat uses are authentically grown in the region. We also hand carried samples back to Japan to share with potential new customers.

So how does all of this tie back to missions? Interestingly enough, when I joined World Christian Fellowship as their Executive Director many years ago, I attended a prayer meeting where one of the participants mentioned the Akha people. They told the story of the Akha people’s plight of poverty, exploitation, and abuse by the countries they have settled in. In that moment, God laid a burden for the Akha on my heart. Though the Lord brought us to Japan to serve the Japanese, at the same time, He created a path for me to serve the Akha people through Pat and Abonzo Coffee, as well as our missionary friends serving in Northern Thailand. It’s amazing how the Lord opens doors for us to serve, and much of what He does goes on beyond what we can see or comprehend.

Join me in lifting up the plight of the Akha people and for young Akha leaders like Pat who desire both spiritual and socio-economic revival for their tribe. Heavenly Father, you know the names and struggles of each of your Akha children, and you desire to give them a life of abundance and not mere survival. Hear every cry and answer them, Lord God, and use others outside the tribe to have compassion and generosity toward them in the love of Christ Jesus. For you work righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed; You show compassion and mercy to all those who love you. Let your will be done among your people, the Akha. Amen.