Ten months after a monster 9.0-earthquake and subsequent tsunami plundered Japan, annihilating the landscape and lifestyles of many of its residents, Burton and Kat Sue were drawn to the region more than ever.
“The door is open right now because the tsunami wiped away everything they worked for, everything was gone,” said Kat Sue, who, with her husband, Burton, left for Japan in mid-January for a yearlong ministry outreach called The Butterfly Project. “When that happens you have to put your trust in something else because nothing material is left.”
The couple, members of San Diego Japanese Christian Church, said they hope to use creative arts to fill the physical and spiritual vacuum lingering after the mammoth March 11, 2011 disaster.
“Christians have been coming to provide relief and support, and that is softening hearts,” Kat Sue said. “He called us to be servants first. He called us to help. We don’t expect anything in return.”
Burton, an IT manager with UPS until he quit Jan. 6 to head to the mission field, plans to use his art training as a way to help the Japanese process their pain and suffering. Kat, a hula instructor, will offer workshops in an effort to reach the women. She left her job as a recruiter for an event planning company that specializes in IT services.
“It was hard to do given the economy, but we know God will provide,” Burton Sue said. “God has shown the way for many, many years. I always wanted to use the gift of art for God’s glory. We’re ready to take a leap of faith. We are blessed with the opportunity and hope to make a difference out there.”
The leap grew a little longer in the days before they left when they discovered that one of their sponsoring agencies was slashing its funding pledge for art supplies because of a drop in its own donor base.
“It really presents a burden to us to continue the ministry, but we know God will supply,” said Burton Sue, who studied illustration at the Art Center College of Design and worked at Dreamworks. “We can’t wait to see how God will work.”
His artwork has been showcased at the Shriner’s Childrens Hospital of Honolulu.
“It is our prayer that once we are on the ground we will begin building relationships with the churches and different organizations.”
The Sues’ desire to work with the Japanese people began several years before the earthquake when Burton Sue sought out a relationship with the Japanese Evangelical Missionary Society to pursue an outlet for reaching people who don’t know Christ. In 2010 the couple went to Tokyo for a weeklong outreach using creative arts at a seminary. They returned last May to do some relief work though Christian Relief, Assistance, Support and Hope, or CRASH.
“We were planning our anniversary and said let’s forget that. Let’s go help somebody,” he said.
In addition to assistance from their home church, CRASH and JEM, the couple is also being supported by The Evangelical Alliance Mission (TEAM).
Their focus will be on therapeutic work through workshops at various relief bases where victims are still living in temporary housing. Entire towns are still absent, and many transportation links remain disrupted.
“There are thousands of people who have no means to get back on their feet,” he said before leaving, adding that the elderly are especially vulnerable. “In many cases they are stuck in limbo.
“The government is great with cleaning up, but they are not as big into the emotional care of these individuals,” he said. “It’s really going to be an encouragement for all the people staying in these communities.”
Complicating relief efforts is the culture itself, which places a strong emphasis on independence. In many instances the Japanese people will turn to “honorable suicides” to prevent becoming a burden. The practice has become so widespread that the government allocated $133 million in suicide prevention assets for 2010, according to the Associated Press.
Religion is also a major factor with less than 1 percent of the population identifying as Christian. Most adhere to Shintoism, a diverse faith that equates spirits to natural elements to such things as rivers, trees, mountains, rocks and the wind. Many adherents also practice Buddhism.
“(Japan is) one of the strongest powers in the developed world, and yet it’s one of the weakest in the world spiritually,” Burton Sue said.
“I think the tsunami represents the greatest opportunity for changed lives since World War II.”
It was at the conclusion of World War II when Gen. Douglas MacArthur urged a group of visiting evangelicals to support the Asian nation. He also asked several missionary societies to send “Bibles, Bibles and more Bibles.”
“Japan is a spiritual vacuum,” the general was quoted as saying. “If you do not fill it with Christianity, it will be filled with Communism. Send me 1,000 missionaries.”
In the weeks after the twin natural disasters, a variety of Christian ministries diverted resources to the island, and those who were already working in the region increased the support.
“It’s important to not forget,” Kat Sue said. “The media has moved on. There are a lot of things going on in the world. The recovery is long. For the Christian population, the workers are few. There is a lot ahead.”
Power of music
While Burton will focus on teaching his style of “wholesome cute” art, his wife will use Christian music and hula. Together they created the Hula Friends! website that meshes their two passions.
“Music has always been my way to community with God, through trials and through joys. I love to worship through music,” she said. “Hula is all about storytelling. Gospel hula is about storytelling God’s story, telling His story.”
She has been trained at secular hula schools called halaus as well as with various hula ministries. Most recently, she trained under Kumu Hula Frances Lacangan and has held a leadership position in Naleonuoliakeaku, which means Voices that Bring the Good News of God. She is the leader of the Hula Friends! Praise Team and teaches gospel hula classes at her church.
Hula, she said, already has a strong following in Japan, but adding the gospel element will drive the genre from mere entertainment to providing its practitioners with a strong Christian foundation.
“You learn the song, you learn the moves, you learn to fully express the meaning of the song,” she said. “You put the words on your heart.”
She said that over time, the lessons become like Bible studies where the students are reflecting on the song’s meaning as they focus on interpreting through dance.
“It provides the group conformity that is important to the Japanese culture,” she said. “There is a fellowship and unity of doing it together.”
“Hula, specifically, with the Japanese culture is very effective because a lot of times the women are the first to follow Christ, then their children. The husband usually follows after that.”
To God be the glory
Burton Sue said the hula lessons are carefully centered on Christ so the moves are not misinterpreted.
“Hula has a reputation of being sexy and provocative, but gospel hula is nothing like that,” he said. “It’s very reserved. It’s very biblical. It’s really interjecting a culture with God’s Word. We are careful that we also glorify God in all that we do.”
For more information, visit www.butterflyjapan.com or www.hulafriends.com.
Donations for art supplies can be made on the butterfly website or by sending a check with “#011026” and “Art Supplies” on the memo line to TEAM, P.O. Box 939, Wheaton, IL 60187-0969.