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.

Stories from Thailand:Blessed By the Poor

The Akha village of Hoiyao is a dusty one-hour drive from central Chiang Rai in northern region of Thailand into the mountains. Like many villages of hilltribe people of the area, getting there requires driving on some poorly maintained dirt roads which turn to mud during rainy periods, perhaps dodging chickens, sleeping dogs, and even the occasional water buffalo. Villagers who venture to and from the city or to their work sites miles away usually have to endure the journey in the back of an open truck, with swirling dust in their eyes, mouths and nostrils and clinging to their skin and clothes. During the rains, these simple little trucks can often become stuck in the mud and have to be pushed or dug out by the passengers.We, however, rode in the comfort of a closed cab truck with 4-wheel-drive.

Arriving at the village, we were greeted by the village leader. It turned out that he and his wife opened their home to us that evening to sleep on comfortable mattresses and extra blankets to keep us warm over the cold nights in the mountains. A group of women in anticipation of our visit had already begun to prepare dinner, a delicious feast of traditional  Akha foods, many of which were made from crops or livestock of the village. As much as we could eat that evening, our gracious hosts kept refilling our plates.

After an impromptu church gathering where we worshiped together, shared a brief message and prayer and played games with the village children, we retired to the village leaders house to sleep. His wife even came in to make sure we were properly covered with enough blankets and tuck us in!

In the morning, the ladies of the village were at it again, preparing us breakfast before we headed out to Myanmar to bring some medicine to the pastor of another Akha village there. It was humbling to receive such generosity and hospitality from people who for the most part subsist on less than a few US dollars per day. In a way, it was almost uncomfortable. But I was reminded of the early church in Phillipi, who having very little still saw it fit to share of their blessings with the apostle Paul.

This is just one example of the blessings we received from our hosts in Northern Thailand. Throughout our travels in Thailand for the week-long trip, we experienced the blessings of hilltribe people. Though they suffer discrimination from the very country that hosts them, those who are believers in Christ are still filled with the joy of the Lord. The way they worship God is so pure and powerful, the movement of the Holy Spirit is easily sensed among them. It is no wonder that the Christian church is growing among the hilltribe people in that region of the world.

And yet, the realities of living in this fallen world are still painfully obvious. The effects of poverty: lack of education, children who are at risk of being trafficked, shortened life expectancy, are all hazards of life for the hilltribe people. The gospel has improved things in each of these areas, but there is still much work to be done to even the odds of hilltribe people sustaining themselves and their families. While our children dream of being rich or famous, their children dream of eating three times a day and not fearing if their father or mother will abandon them or even sell them to a stranger.

The more time I spend among the poor, the more I despair about the disparity between the rich and poor in the world today. And I’m not talking about the filthy rich, those who have more money than they could ever spend in this lifetime. But people like us, who have plenty and spend frivolously, when there are so many people with greater needs which could actually be met. It’s enough to make me ponder how to convert some of our material wealth into something that can be helpful long term to the hilltribe people of Thailand.

When Paul talks about the love of money being the root of all evil, it is often hard for those of us wrapped in our first world lifestyles to comprehend. We don’t feel evil for having warm clothes to wear or buying a new car every five years. It’s only when we begin to weigh the effects of our financial choices that we can see the evil. The monthly car payment can send 5 children to school when they would otherwise have no access to education. The cost of a new winter coat could feed a family of 4 for a month. I’m not trying to guilt trip you here; I just want to open your eyes to reality. If you feel guilty about what I’m saying, that’s the Spirit working on your heart, not me.

If you don’t feel compassion for the world’s poor, it’s probably only because you haven’t spent enough time among them. When you spend time with them and realize how beautiful they are, how they are God’s children, like you and me, and how generous their hearts can be, often more so than our own, you will naturally come to have compassion for them. Though we are ministry workers to the Japanese, we feel it is important for us to connect with the third world and to help our Japanese friends do the same, since years of prosperity in Japan has deeply affected people’s ability to feel compassion here as well.

After being back from spending time with the Akha for almost a week, I’m waiting to feel normal again. But perhaps the way I am feeling now IS normal. It’s normal to have compassion for people who are facing the difficulties in life the Akha people are now facing. It’s normal to feel uneasy about my personal wealth, because wealth was never meant to be accumulated for a “rainy day” when for so many in this world, everyday is a rainy day. It’s normal to feel heartbroken for the dozens of children we encountered  with broken families and little hope for the kind of future we from the first world take for granted.

I ask you to unite your heart in prayer with mine, that the Lord God hears the cry of his people, that he binds up their wounds, that he fills their empty stomachs, and soothes their weary souls. And pray that we do not allow our hearts to be hardened to the plight of the poor and the powerless, but as we are called, that we should serve them and help them in any way we can.

Also, I feel compelled to comment on the various articles I found online about the Akha relating to Christianity, including Wikipedia. It seems there are a few individuals out there working with the Akha (which is wonderful) who are hostile to Christianity and any other concepts they deem come from the Western world and they are vocal in their opposition on the Internet. I can personally attest to the fact that I did not encounter a single Akha person who was hostile to Christians. Moreover, the Akha churches are all led by local pastors, most of whom live in their local village among the people. The conditions they live in are no better than the people they are serving. These are godly, respected men who have a positive influence in their villages and they can only have that influence by living as men of integrity, financially and morally. I also met several young people who are so full of passion for the gospel that they want to become pastors or traveling evangelists to teach their people in more remote areas about the Bible. They are already willing to give up any hope of becoming wealthy or living a comfortable life for the sake of the gospel, even as teenagers or young adults. So the ideas that Christianity is being “forced” on the Akha and their children are being stolen by missionaries are frankly just outright lies. If it were even partially true, I’m certain we would have received a much colder reception from the many villages we visited.

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Under The Weight of Grace

The image in this post may represent the single most important image I have had the privilege of creating since coming to Japan. People who know me understand that I love to dive right into editing my images as soon as I can get them downloaded on my workstation. But I allowed this set of images to sit for a while so I could reflect on the man who is the subject of these photos and his life’s journey that brought him to where he is.

Anyone familiar with Japanese culture knows that when they see the tattoos and the severed pinky finger, they are looking at the image of someone associated with the yakuza, Japan’s organized crime syndicates. It is true that this man was once a member of the yakuza, but it has been decades since he was miraculously released from the service of his crime bosses to do something he had become passionate about while languishing in prison: sharing the love of Christ with others.

Unfortunately, the physical effects of being a part of the yakuza are often impossible to erase. Fingers do not grow back. Body tattoos are not easily removed. And drug abuse as a youth often leads to frail health later in life.

Years of living with the physical reminders of his past and the harsh judgement of certain Christians in his past have transformed his physical scars into emotional ones, scars of shame over his past. Though I have known this man for over a year, this was the first time I ever realized he had tattoos. He kept them carefully hidden under long sleeves and collared shirts.

This past week, during an interview with my friend Paul Nethercott for a short documentary on his life, the topic of his tattoos was brought up. And for the first time on camera, he revealed his tattoos, talked about them, their history, and the shame he associated with them. But rather than agree with him, Paul encouraged him, reminding him that when God redeemed him through Christ, everything about him was transformed, including his tattoos. Rather than being viewed as a source of shame, he should see them as something beautiful. One of the students from the film crew visiting from Huntington University in Indiana presented him with a beautiful image of part of his tattoo she had drawn and attached it to scripture from Psalm 34:5 “Those who look to [the Lord] are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed.”

In all of our lives, we carry the tattoos, the scars, the wounds from our sins before we knew the saving power of Christ. When our lives are redeemed, God doesn’t promise to remove those reminders of our past. Sometimes, he uses them to allow us to speak into the lives of others who have the same kinds of scars.

I have titled this image “Under the Weight of Grace” to remind us that God can make the things in our lives we feel ashamed of having done tools for reaching others with the message of grace. I chose to bring a soft, warm light from above to symbolize the grace of God falling on us. I hope the Lord will use this image to inspire the man in the photo and others who are suffering from the weight of their shame when they should be rejoicing in the weight of His grace.

What is Seijin Shiki?

A little while ago, I had the opportunity to take portraits of a young lady from a family who, like us, came to Japan last year to share the hope in Jesus Christ with the people of Japan. The occasion was Seijin Shiki, an event that nearly every Japanese girl (and many boys) look forward to participating in.

Seijin Shiki is the ceremony celebrating the Japanese coming of age, which is 20 years old. Like turning 18 or 21 in many other countries, at 20 years old, a Japanese person is considered an adult and receives all the responsibilities of adulthood. In America, many young adults informally celebrate this time on their 21st birthdays (often with a trip to Las Vegas on the West Coast), but in Japan, any young adult turning 20 before April 2nd of the year of the ceremony celebrates on the same day, the 2nd Monday in January.

On that day, young people can be seen sauntering about town in their finest clothes, or at least the finest clothes they could rent. For women, this usually includes wearing furisode, the most formal and colorful type of kimono for single women, and having their hair and makeup professionally done. For men, it can be either a formal black kimono or a Western style suit.

The Seijin Shiki day is generally comprised of three possible components. First, there is a ceremony that takes place at the city hall of the city where the young person resides. They are formally recognized as adults by the city officials and given a token gift from the city.

Second is a photo session wearing the fantastic outfits that are often so expensive, they can only be rented. These photo sessions often take place at shrines, where young people and their families can also take a minute to pray for a good future. Meiji Shrine in Harajuku is a very popular shrine on this day owing the fact that the area is popular with young people to begin with.

Lastly, but most importantly, the rest of the day is dedicated to friends and family. Some will have lunch at a fancy restaurant with their family and others will meet up with a group of friends and go out on the town, shopping, eating, and possibly taking their first legal drink together.

I was fortunate to be able to photograph our friend decked out in a lovely furisode at a community tea garden not far from our church. Not long ago, I was introduced to a woman who teaches kimono dressing by a mutual friend and she was able to not only provide a lovely kimono to rent but help with the complex dressing process. (Not every kimono is so difficult to put on but this is one of the most formal styles and is usually done with help from a professional or experienced person). We all had a wonderful and enjoyable time.

For some young people, however, this event can be more bitter than sweet. I was recently contacted by our friends in Chiba, asking if I could take portraits of a girl they knew for Seijin Shiki next month. This girl is one of the alumni of the Children’s home we’ve been serving at for the past several years. An organization our friends participate in is putting on a special event for young people from the home celebrating Seijin Shiki. Some of them don’t have families to celebrate with and most don’t have the kind of money it takes to rent the fancy clothing and take photographs of the event, so the organization is helping to facilitate that.

It’s funny how God keeps finding ways to tie my passion for photography in with my passion for sharing the hope of the gospel. When we first came to Japan, I wasn’t sure how useful my photography experience would be to our ministry and now I find so much of my personal ministry is being built on it. Praise God for using what little I have to offer for His glory!

 

The Canopy of Autumn

Growing up in the mild climate of the Bay Area, one thing we definitely missed was the dramatic turn from warm to cold weather signaled by the autumn foliage. It wasn’t until I visited the eastern Sierras in October of 2011 that I realized what I was missing. Needless to say, coming to Japan where both Autumn and Spring bring spectacles of nature that the entire country goes crazy over was an incredible experience for us.

To say that Japan is crazy over the changing autumn leaves is an understatement. Because cherry blossom season is so short in the Spring, popular places to view cherry blossoms tend to be packed with people for a short period of time. But because the autumn colors tend to last longer and experience a week or more at “peak colors”, the crowds don’t seem to be as intense, though the overall numbers probably match their Spring counterparts.

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There are, of course, websites for tracking the changing leaves across the country. And this is a great thing because you wouldn’t want to trek out to a remote location only to find the leaves haven’t changed colors yet.

It just so happens that one of the best places to view autumn colors in the Saitama prefecture is a mere bicycle ride from our house. And a bicycle is perfect because during peak colors, the streets surrounding the location are a gridlock of cars searching in vain for a parking space.

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The location is the grounds of a Buddhist temple called Heirin-ji. The temple itself takes up only a small portion of the forest, but the leaves are best viewed against the classic backdrop of ancient Japanese architecture, as some of the buildings were built in the late 17th century.

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The rest of the space is a woodland preserve of the Musashino Forest, a rarity in such an urban environment. On a quiet day, one can walk seemingly alone through a stretch of forest and maybe catch a glimpse of a raccoon dog or other animal not commonly seen in the surrounding city. But there are no quiet days for walks during the autumn leaves season. Hundreds of people wander the park on weekdays and thousands on weekends.

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Still, every once in a while when the crowds disperse for a few minutes, one can get the sense of standing beneath a tapestry of color only the mind of God could have created, breathing in the cool, earthy air and feeling the fall breeze on your face. And in that moment, a whispered “Hallelujah” might escape your lips because to witness autumn in Japan is a glimpse of God’s glory yet to come.

No words can really describe the beauty so I leave you with a few more photos to savor.

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The Big Dance – Koenji Awa Odori

Summer festivals in Tokyo tend to be gatherings of 50,000 of your friends and neighbors, but the Koenji Awa Odori, with over 1,000,000 people in attendance over the two day event, still ranks as one of the largest in Tokyo. How did a festival in a quiet little neighborhood of Western Tokyo grow to such enormous proportions?

Likely, it has come about due to the now 10,000 participants in the festival, dance troupes from all of Tokyo and now Japan. The event is a constant stream of dancers, along the main street outside the station and spilling over into side streets. Awa odori (odori meaning dance) has its roots in Obon, the festival honoring the dead, but has grown into its own. While Obon festivals tend to be more restrained, Awa Odori use more instruments and more vigorous dance moves. Like Obon, spectators are encouraged to join in the fun. Like all festivals, food vendors set up stalls with delicious festival snacks (and of course, what would a festival be without beer?).

It makes sense to use this article to point out the difference between “honoring” and “worshipping” the dead. Many people falsely believe that Obon festivals “worship” the dead. This likely comes from the fact that followers of Taoist Buddhism believe the spirits of dead ancestors revisit the household altars (butsudan) during this time period and people pray at those altars. Prayers are not meant to be offered “to” these spirits, but on behalf of these spirits, whom the living may believe are trapped in some spirit world of suffering.

Obon is actually a celebration based on a Buddhist monk who prayed for his mother to be released from this world of suffering and in the process, recognized her love and selflessness to him. Through his recognition of the sacrifices she made for him, he danced for joy, which became Obon. So Obon is a time to “honor” the love and sacrifice of people, not unlike the American holiday of Memorial Day for those who gave their lives for the ideals of America.

The songs and dances of Obon are often based on the daily lives of the people of ancient Japan, filled with movements like hauling in fishing nets, mining for coal, and planting rice. Watching them is like a glimpse into the Japan of old.

We attended this event as the kickoff “photowalk” of our Ekoda Photography Club. It was a great thought at the time, but now having experienced it, I would probably think better of taking a large group to this event in the future. We ended up losing a couple members of our group less than an hour into the event and with the swelling crowd and limited space to stand, it was going to be impossible to find them again. Additionally, it was very difficult to find good spots to take photos; some people who wanted good shots were there at 4:30am to stake out the best locations. This was frustrating for me and I’m sure even more so for less experienced photographers.

Even so, we did have an enjoyable time and got a few memorable pictures and probably many more good memories that we were not able to capture on camera.

I Love To Tell The Story

When I was 20 years old, I dropped out of a university Mass Media and Film program in favor of a small time gig working as an assistant photographer for a local studio and more free days to spend at the beach in Santa Cruz. Though I never finished my degree, my love, or perhaps admiration of film making has never quite faded away. I had a small taste of producing a short film with a small group of friends in Singapore 15 years ago, but when my friend Paul Nethercott asked me to join his team to work on a full length feature film here in Japan, it was like an answer to an unspoken prayer.

Though production on the full length film, 2 Criminals, is still a ways away, we had the opportunity to practice film production on a small scale with a team of students from Huntington University in Indiana. The Huntington team, led by Professor Dawn Ford, came to Japan to shoot footage for a PBS pilot on Japanese culture. Over a two week schedule, the team shot footage about kimono, tea ceremony, wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) and ikebana (flower arranging).

My schedule allowed me to be with the team on several of the location shoots. My job was to photograph the shoot from a behind-the-scenes perspective, capturing images that could be used to promote the project and simply create a record for the production crew that they could remember their experience from. To be honest, I wasn’t sure how much value my presence would provide as none of my images would ever be used in the actual final production.

As it turned out, it was an amazing experience for me. Though the scale of the production was small, it was still larger than any other production I have worked on. I got to see how the crew worked together and how much detail there is in even the simplest shots. As preparation for our 2 Criminals production, the experience was invaluable to me.

I got to become friends with the staff and students of the Huntington University crew as well. I was so impressed at how professional these students were on set, although some of them were still teenagers. They were disciplined at their work and rarely complained, even though they were working in a totally different culture and environment than what they were used to.

And best of all, I learned that photography, one of the few useful skills I brought to Japan, could be used in very positive ways. The nature of making film or video is that it is not an “instant gratification” kind of product. Producing a quality film can take weeks, even months. Photographs, on the other hand, can be produced in near real time. Posting my photographs on social media each night turned out to be a great motivator for the team and give the supporters of the project real time feedback on how the team was doing. Dawn kindly told me that she viewed my photographs at the end of each day to remind her of how much work her team had accomplished and how beautiful the finished video would eventually be.

I didn’t come to Japan to be a photographer. But in small ways, God is showing me that if I can offer my skills and experience to Him, He can use it for His glory. Next week, I’ll be accompanying my pastor and his son to Northern Thailand for a mission to help record a hill tribe’s effort to create a coffee growing business. My prayer is that the images can be used to help the tribe secure distribution partners in countries outside of Thailand.

Paul reminded me that being a good photographer isn’t just about taking pretty pictures. It’s about using those images to help tell a story. And stories speak to people’s hearts, move them to action, open their minds. Lord, let your story, the gospel story, be my story.

I love to tell the story of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love.
I love to tell the story, because I know ’tis true;
It satisfies my longings as nothing else can do.

I love to tell the story, ’twill be my theme in glory,
To tell the old, old story of Jesus and His love.