Japan team finds their mission bridges cultural differences


The mission team from left to right: Rev. Jesse Mayes, Adam Hall, Kimmie Simon, Orel Lee, Virginia Mayes, Stephania Dzialo, Altheas Lee, Pamela Heffinton-Hall, Tricia Hall, Bobby Hall, Barbara Watson. -Photos courtesy Adam Hall and the Asian Rural Institute


Sometimes, you can travel halfway across the world and feel like you never left home. Sometimes, you can be immersed in varying cultures, and the commonalities far outweigh the differences.

That was the experience of an 11-person team from the First United Methodist Church of Kissimmee. In June, the group journeyed to Japan for a mission trip unlike any they had experienced.
 
Satomi and  Jonathan McCurley
They worked with Rev. Jonathan McCurley, who grew up in the Orlando area and was recently ordained as an elder in the Florida Conference. McCurley, a missionary with the UMC’s General Board of Global Ministries, has been assigned to the Asian Rural Institute (ARI) in northern Japan for a decade. He serves as community life coordinator.

For nearly a half-century, ARI has trained rural leaders about best practices for sustainable agriculture, sound ecology and community leadership development.

First Kissimmee’s co-leaders, Tricia Hall and Althea Lee, said they were struck with how seamlessly their group worked with other participants from Africa, Asia and Haiti.

“Normally when you go on a mission, you’re building or painting something, and you don’t actually get down and dirty with the people who are learning best practices for their communities,’’ said Hall, who is the Conference’s grants and finance coordinator for Disaster Recovery. “The people will go back home with the knowledge and tools that will give their communities a fighting chance.
 
One of the projects was planting a field of rapeseed, which will be harvested into oil to be used on site in cooking and to sell.

“It was an incredibly cool experience for us all. We were on a sustainable farm. I don’t have a green thumb at all, so I went out of my comfort zone. I was learning how to properly plant rapeseed, which made oil for the farm. I learned how to differentiate between the plants to be harvested and the weeds that had to be pulled, along with learning how to nurture the fields so things could grow.’’

Emotional nurturing occurred, too.

People were assigned to groups for farming, construction or local church beautification (primarily gardening or painting). Each day at ARI, a different person in the group gave their testimony, perhaps sharing with scripture, song, or anything that articulated their faith. On Sunday, the groups went to local churches to share a testimony, lead the music or even deliver a sermon.

“I think the youngest participant from our church was 20 and the oldest was between 70 and 80,’’ Hall said. “I think it blew their minds that young folks and old folks were all there because we believe in God, and we want to love our neighbor. And location makes no difference, whether it means somebody across the world in Japan or right here in Florida.’’

Hall said they were told their music attracted a couple who had never visited a church before.
 
A mural depicts the work and people of the Asian Rural Institute in northern Japan.
“So, they came to know Christ for the first time because of their interest in music,’’ Hall said. “That was incredibly gratifying.’’

McCurley, who maintains his ties to Florida’s churches and appreciates any American support of his work, said First Kissimmee’s presence was a special treat. The trip, through planning and fundraising, was a few years in the making.

“It could not have been more wonderful,’’ Hall said.

McCurley echoed that sentiment.

“To continue your support of God’s mission around the world is a huge encouragement to us,’’ McCurley wrote in a letter to First Kissimmee. “Being in Japan, where Christians are a minority, and people have no idea what a missionary is, it can be very lonely.

“You can work for years and only see one or two new people come to believe and follow Christ and be baptized. You can really question if you are really called and if there is fruit to be born. We have been blessed by you all … (and) we know that our work and your work in not in vain because God is doing new things.’’

Hall said her previous mission experiences were predictable. Once boots were on the ground, it was “give them some hammers, give them some paint, put them to work.’’

And as the work occurred, those being served, although appreciative, were usually in the background.
 
On a break from project work, Adam and Tricia Hall and Stephania Dzialo hiked to the top of Mount Nasu, where many hikers come to pray.

"You’re always wrapped up in doing something,’’ Hall said. “This was a different feel. We were immersed in a community of people who were on mission themselves. We were brought in and made part of the family. Usually, your team is your family, and that’s where you draw support.

“On our team, it was mostly people from a wealthy or comfortable background. We worked with people who came from communities in the middle of strife or war or conflict. They are now the hope for those communities. To see their willingness to work and learn—it gave us all such a tremendous perspective.’’

After a hop from Orlando to Dallas, it was a 13-hour flight to Tokyo, then a 3 1/2-hour bus ride to Nasushiobara, ARI’s community.

There was some brief sightseeing around Japan. For the most part, though, the ARI tasks were all-encompassing.

“We thought we’d be eating Japanese food through the whole trip,’’ Hall said. “But everyone helped out in the kitchen. There was such diversity. One night, you might be eating a meal from Cameroon. The next night, it could be something from the Philippines. It was amazing.’’
 
Before and after the team weeded a mixed crop field prior to harvesting the onions.

Hall said all of the First Kissimmee missionaries received a greater appreciation for their blessings. They were also encouraged by the work and education that would soon multiply through other countries.

Tun Lwin, an ARI graduate from Myanmar, a country in Southeast Asia, recently detailed his work. He planted 10,000 crops (avocado, coffee, tea, orange, banana, lemon, macadamia and pepper) while utilizing natural fertilizers he learned from ARI techniques.

Additionally, he had 5,000 seedlings (coffee, avocado, mango, jack fruit) in a small nursery garden. He also planned to distribute some of his crops to 50 small-scale farmers in his area.

“I thought that was astounding,’’ Hall said. “The ripple effect of what these graduates learn, then bring back to their communities can be so monumental.

“This is the kind of work that goes on at ARI. I wanted our church—and all churches—to know that. This is what we’re supporting. Even with our small group for this one time, we’re having a global impact.’’

—Joey Johnston is a freelance writer based in Tampa.
 

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