42. Art Internships in Tokyo

February 25, 2023 - Roger W. Lowther

Welcome to the Art Life Faith Podcast. This is the show where we talk about art, what it has to do with your life and what it has to do with the Christian faith. And I'm your host, Roger Lowther.

Well, I got back late last night from a three-week trip to the US and I really pushed probably a little too hard, so I'm pretty tired, but glad to be back and looking forward to continuing the stories about how God is working here in Japan. I first made a trip to Boston where I gave an organ concert for a new organ installation. I met a lot of people during my time there, and also spoke at a college.

Then I traveled to Memphis, where I spoke and played in a foreign missions conference and was interviewed by a radio station. I had the privilege of being one of the main speakers for the conference. The theme was arts, worship, and missions. For the Sunday morning service, I spoke about the role of worship in the call to missions. And in the evening service, I spoke about the role of the arts in the call to missions. In case you're interested, I've included links to both in the show notes for this episode on my YouTube channel.

One of the fun elements of the conference was a collaborative art project. The idea was to be able to create something that we could bring back to Japan and use in the ministries here. There were three large banners where people could write prayers for the Japanese people on Japanese origami paper, tear them into small pieces, and paste them onto the banners. It was a tangible way to show prayers and encouragement from America for the people of Japan. The art project also had additional symbolism of brokenness. By tearing the paper, we were symbolically showing our own brokenness, and in the hands of the artist, this brokenness comes together to make a beautiful picture. In this case, it was a scenic picture of Mount Fuji with a rainbow behind it and Christ carrying the cross at the base of the mountain. And all this was designed by our intern, Mayuko.

There was also a campaign to raise money for Community Arts Tokyo. This summer, we're going to have lots of events with interns and short-term missionaries who are planning to come to Japan. Japan has really been closed down lately. In America, COVID may seem like something that's in the past, but not so here. People are still pretty fearful. I live on the 22nd floor of an apartment building, which means I have to ride an elevator many times a day. And believe me, if I forget to put a mask on, there will be consequences. Others will furiously go for the buttons to get off at the next floor. We also still have large plastic dividers on tables at restaurants and still have to sanitize our hands going into many buildings along with temperature checks. Restrictions for worship services were just lifted in December, only two months ago, so people are still really fearful of getting together. We tried a few small events, but they really weren't well attended. But the idea is that by this summer, through the activities of Community Arts Tokyo, by renting spaces, providing food, and giving music and art events people would be willing to overcome their fears and gather together again and form community around beauty. And we pray that God is going to use these efforts for the sake of his glory in the building of his church.

There are many interns and short-term trips coming this summer, not just with our team, but with all the other missionary teams as well because last year, the country was still pretty much locked down. And people have been waiting. Now they're ready and raring to go. And we sure can use their excitement and energy.

So for this episode, I thought it'd be fun for a change to interview two interns who were here last month to give them an opportunity to share their perspective of their time in Japan. The first I'd like to introduce you to is Zoe Phillips. She's planning to graduate from university this May with a degree in composition and singing, and so came on a two-week vision trip to decide what to do next. And she's considering missions full-time. Boy, we kept her busy, probably too busy! I think we wore her out. She met person after person, did event after event, and most of the travel was by train or on foot. As a singer and composer, she sang in many places, accompanied by herself on the guitar or by me on the piano. Well, without further ado, here's Zoe Phillips.

Zoe, I wanted to sit down with you for a second. By the way, your singing today was beautiful. Thank you so much for doing that.

[Zoe]

Of course.

[Roger]

It's really a privilege for me to be talking to a musician and a student now. You are trying to decide what to do with your life, and here you are on this vision trip to Japan trying to figure out if you want to be a missionary as an artist. Just after hearing you share a little bit this Art Life Faith event tonight, I wanted to ask you more questions about that and let our listeners know some of your stories. First, let's go back and say, why are you in Japan? How did you get here in the first place?

[Zoe]

How did I get to Japan? Well, I grew up basically watching anime my entire life. The culture of Japan, as much as anime can portray, was just always super interesting. Then when I got to college and I joined a campus ministry, I was like, “Oh my gosh, I can go to Japan and do missions.” Then I get to senior year and my parents are like, “Okay, time to be realistic. Being a musician is a dumb idea probably. Being a musician in missions is an even dumber idea. You need to get an actual job.”

[Roger]

How do you explain that to your parents?

[Zoe]

It was hard. Especially with missions. You have to raise money and getting right out of college and not making money but having to ask people for money is just mind-blowing to them. I decided to just go ahead and do it anyway. Last fall, I decided to look up, just on my computer, missions in Japan. The first thing that popped up was MTW (Mission to the World). I clicked on it, and I got in contact with a woman named Theresa Webber. We had our little discussion, our little talk, and she was like, “Okay, where are you interested in?” I was like, “Well, I'll go anywhere the Lord tells me to go, but if there's somewhere in Japan, I would absolutely love that.” She was like, “Okay, cool. We have some people there.” She was like, “What ministry are you interested in?” I was like, “Well, anything that the Lord says, I know I'll do, but if there's something in music, that'd be even better.” And she was like, “Oh, that's so crazy. We have a ministry there in Tokyo, and they do music, arts, and stuff like that in Japan.” I was like, “Wow.”

[Roger]

That's so cool.

[Zoe]

I was like, “Okay, what's the next step? How can I actually do this?” And she was like, “Okay, the next step would be to go on a vision trip. And just so you can go out, meet them, get to see all the stuff they do.” I guess there was something going on with the scheduling and stuff like that. So she was like, “Okay, how about this? We're going to send you to a conference where they're going to be at CPI and you're going to be helping with the children, but maybe at some point you'll be able to sneak away and get to meet Roger and Abi.” I was like, “Cool, that sounds awesome.” But then when I actually got to Japan, this was in November, I just totally forgot about the secret mission because I was so scared about being around hundreds of kids and teaching them the Bible.

[Roger]

CPI, Church Planting Institute, is a huge conference. It's actually the biggest conference we have of mission leaders and church leaders all over the country. And so there were hundreds of kids there.

[Zoe]

Weren't there? Yeah, it was overwhelming, actually. I was like, “I'm not sure I even like kids all that much.” I'm like, dealing with so many of them and their parents are just leaving them here.

[Roger]

Thank you for your sacrifice and doing it. My kids were in that program too, so I know they really enjoyed it.

[Zoe]

Anyway, got there, totally forgot about the secret mission. And so I'm talking to a few of the other people on the team, and I'm like, “Yeah, I do music. And so if I came back and did missions, full-time missions, and I wanted to do music…” and she was like, “You have to meet Roger and Abi Lowther.” And I was like, “Okay, if there's time, whatever, whatever…” I talked to multiple other people, and they all said the exact same thing. And so one thing led to another and I finally got to meet you one time when you were checking in your kids. And I was super distracted trying to make name badges for the children. And you were like, “I'm Roger.” I was like, “Oh, my gosh.”

[Roger]

Someone had texted me and told me about you and said, “You need to go find Zoe.” I'm like, “Okay, all right.” And so, that was the first time we had met.

[Zoe]

Yeah. And so we met and I got your contact information and all that stuff. And the conference went and passed. And so this past semester was my last official semester of college. And I was like, “Okay, so now it's time to do the vision trip with you guys.” And so we emailed, did other stuff, and I was honestly not sure it was going to happen because it was so last minute. I was like, “I have to raise money again and I'm still not working. My parents think this is crazy. I'm going back, and it's only been three months since I've been there.” But anyway, we still would go through with it. I'd already raised all the money, and now I'm here.

[Roger]

And we are so glad you are. I mean, while you've been here, we've done do a lot of great things together. We went down to Nagoya. We gave some concerts in a café. We visited a private high school about a future concert. We met a lot of people, various ministries around the city. It's been really cool to have you be able to join in and see what those are. How has the trip been for you, though?

[Zoe]

It's been really good. Honestly, a little bit exhausting meeting so many people every day. I love meeting and talking to people, but it's just like I'm trying to process if I want to come back. And so meeting them and having those discussions, and then at the same time trying to process how I feel and if I want to come back for it, it's just super exhausting. And then I'm not fluent in Japanese. And so it's constantly just hearing Japanese and not understanding anything and trying my best to. And it's just not happening. And so that's also super exhausting.

[Roger]

Yeah, it's not easy.

[Zoe]

But I've also met a lot of people, and it's like one thing to read about all the ministries that are happening in Japan. But it was just life-changing and completely changed my heart for Japan. Actually being here, actually meeting native Japanese people, actually getting to see the ministries that are happening with the arts and seeing that it has an impact on people. I was there when Ayaka did her interview for your podcast, and I was listening to that and just hearing her testimony and how the arts and how music impacted her life. It was just like, “Whoa, this is actually making a difference.”

[Roger]

Yeah, it's how she became a Christian.

[Zoe]

Yeah. That's really been making me get up every day and be like, “This is worth it.” I'm here in Japan. I'm only here for a short time. I need to put my best foot forward. And even though it's tiring sometimes, to see what's out there and continue meeting people because it's important.

[Roger]

So what would you say to college students who are listening to this show and are like, as an artist…being in missions…that doesn't sound like it fits for me. What have you learned through this trip? What would you say to them?

[Zoe]

Honestly, I would say it's just not about you, really. It's about people. And it's like, no matter what gift you have, whether it's art, whether it's singing, whether it's some instrument or something like dancing, even. God didn't give you those things so that you could honor yourself. It's to honor him. And there's no better way to use your gifts than in missions and literally having that directly impact people. And no hate against people who want to go out and pursue a music career. That's amazing. But it's just like, there's nothing wrong with it. You wouldn't lose any part of yourself by doing missions and whatever arts that you love. It's even more so, I feel like it makes it deeper. It makes it more meaningful.

[Roger]

Yeah, I mean, the way it was sold to me is that you can do this in America as well, but there are fewer Christians in Japan, and so there are ways that God can use you. It's more strategic because there are less Christians here. And to have that inroad that is so effective here in Japan and many countries around the world of using music, using the arts to reach people. It really has been a blessing to us being here these many years. What do you think is next for you?

[Zoe]

I was talking to the people that I'm staying with, and I was like, I need to just take a week and pray and fast and just take that time to be away from Japan to really look through all my notes and stuff and what happened.

[Roger]

I've noticed you were taking a lot of notes, doing a lot of journaling…

[Zoe]

It's so much. I think the next step is to just tie up loose ends back at home and talk to Theresa Webber and see what that would look like, coming back. I know for sure that I want to come back, but same deal as always. It's like, God, your will be done. That's first priority. But if your will be for me to come back, I would absolutely love that.

[Roger]

Well, I know that whatever you end up doing, that God is going to bless you as we've already seen during this trip. And so we look expectantly to see how God continues to work through you in the years ahead. So thank you so much.

[Zoe]

Of course. Thank you for having me.

[Roger]

Well, it really was fun having Zoe here. She probably doesn't really know how much she impacted the ministry here. When people come, even if it's just for two weeks, it's a catalyst to build so many new relationships and to deepen others. It infuses everything that we're doing with energy and excitement, and that just makes church planting all that more fun.

Next, I'd like to introduce you to Alana Essex. Now, Alana has been here for quite some time, for six months, serving with the Tokyo City team on the other side of Tokyo. She recently graduated from college and is planning to move to Nashville to make her mark as a singer and songwriter. But before that, God called her to come to Japan for just a little while to use music to help with church planting efforts here. She was so effective as a missionary, and I think she was really sad about leaving and having to say goodbye to her new community here. Mission to the World recently released an article about her which tells more of her story. So I'd love to have you check that out as well in the show notes.

Now, let's listen to the interview with Alana.

I'm sitting here with Alana Essex, and we just had an Art Life Faith event here in downtown Tokyo. And Alana was one of our main speakers talking about her dreams for the future. Alana, thank you so much for being here today.

[Alana]

Mm-hmm.

[Roger]

When I heard you speak at the event today, I was like, “Oh, man, we have to get this story out to everyone else as well.” I wonder if you'd be willing to retell some of that story to our folks?

[Alana]

Yeah, of course.

[Roger]

All right, so first of all, why don't you just take us back to the beginning? Why are you in Japan?

[Alana]

So it all starts back in my senior year of college, and I had no intention of doing missions or going to Japan. I was doing a Bible study with some of my roommates that talked about missions and just God's heart for the world. But there was nothing specific about Japan. It was solely just learning about God's heart for the nations. After that study, I was doing my own quiet time in my room and was reading something that had nothing to even do with missions. I just remember specifically the word Japan just popping in my head.

[Roger]

Wow. Yeah, I can't think of the word “Japan” in the Bible…

[Alana]

So random. Literally no correlation to whatever I was reading at the moment. I don't even know what part or passage it was in scripture, but I just remember thinking, “That was not my own thought.” And I had a feeling I was going to hear it again. And it basically repeated in my mind, no matter what I was doing, just throughout the next few weeks, I just kept thinking about Japan and not knowing why. And I didn't know if that meant I was supposed to go to Japan, if I was supposed to meet students on my campus. I just felt so confused because I was so set on going to do music in Nashville and being a songwriter. That rocked my world. Then after a while of the continued thought, even at church, I would just randomly think about Japan during the service and the worship and just feeling this odd call I never felt before. So finally, I decided I was going to Google missions to Japan. And the first thing that came up was MTW (Mission to the World). And I found the group that I ended up staying with now for the last six months. And yeah, it was like nothing else I'd ever planned for or expected.

[Roger]

So you've been here for six months now?

[Alana]

Yeah.

[Roger]

And when do you go back?

[Alana]

I go back February 9th.

[Roger]

Okay, so that's like two weeks from now? Wow. And so where are you going from here?

[Alana]

From here, I will be going back to Dallas. But before that, I will be going to Germany for two weeks with my roommate and then visiting my brother. But the plan really is to go back to Dallas and then hopefully head over to Nashville to do what I had planned to do all along and do music in Nashville and be a songwriter.

[Roger]

Okay. Actually, there was an article out about you recently that you have this dream for Nashville, and yet you came to Japan instead. Do you want to tell us more about your dream in Nashville? And then also this tension that you felt inside about coming to Japan and how that may kill that dream.

[Alana]

Originally, when I first thought about Japan and the idea of just doing missions, I wanted to just close the door right away on it because my thought was that if I came to Japan, music would end and I couldn't do that here. And even though I even saw there was an arts team in Tokyo, in my mind, I still just thought, well, if I want to be a music artist and I want to be a serious songwriter, I have to go to Nashville or some big city in America, and I couldn't do music and also be doing missions at the same time. I felt like before I came here, I really had to repent the thought of, “Okay, music is no longer in my plan. God has some other plan for me.” And the idea of going overseas is really dying to myself and letting go of all my desires and everything that I had wanted in the past and saying, “Okay, God, I'm going to just throw it all away and just know that you're better. I have to get over that idea of doing what I had wanted.”

[Roger]

So let me emphasize that point. You really thought you were going to have to throw out everything: your dreams, your passions, your talent in music. You thought, I'm going to have to give it up because I'm going to Japan, right?

[Alana]

Yeah.

[Roger]

Okay, so then what happened once you got here?

[Alana]

So then immediately the first week I get here, I didn't bring my guitar and I just thought, no music for the next six months. I am solely doing college ministry, church planting, and that's it. And I won't be writing any songs on here. And within the first week, I was talking to some of my team members who happened to have a guitar they weren't using. And me not knowing that, I just made the comment, “Oh, I wish I had my guitar here. I would have loved that.” And they immediately were like, “Well, why don't you just take ours?” And just gave it to me. I've gotten to use it this whole time. I've written so many songs, and I've just already had so many opportunities here, even though I'm not even on the arts team to get to do music. And so that's been such an eye-opening thing this whole time, realizing that God did not want me to stop doing music. And he proved that in my first week here just by literally giving me a guitar to have for the next six months in Tokyo.

[Roger]

That's so cool. And then you shared just in the event tonight with your beautiful singing, by the way. I wish I could share that with the listeners.

There were certain people that you met, you just felt like, man, God was really leading me to be in this place at this time. Can you share a little bit more about that, the way God continued to lead you through?

[Alana]

Yeah, I think the entire time I just thought because I had no connection to Japan, I just wasn't sure why God placed me here. I didn't really feel like there would be anything in a time period of just six months where anything super impactful could happen or any relationships that could really have any lasting impact on many people. I don't even speak Japanese. Just coming here, it was like, I don't know the culture. I didn't even know that you don't wear your shoes in the house. I learned that the first night I got here.

[Roger]

Are you shared, too, how the food was a little challenging for you in the beginning?

[Alana]

Yeah, I'm also a picky eater. I quickly realized that my life was going to change a little bit. But yeah, I think from right away, I just ended up living in a share house with no other Christians. It was actually a last-minute thing. My team leader told me that the place I wanted to be living in was no longer available. He had to ask a friend that he knew if there was any extra space in the share house and there happened to be a room. I ended up living with all Japanese people and one French guy. It's honestly been such a cool experience because I've been able to be a missionary living in a house with a bunch of non-Christians. And through that, I've met so many people that I've been able to just have some great conversations with and just getting to live with them and even just share my life. I think a lot of it has been even just the day to day and getting to know them, especially my roommate, Julie, who I'll be going to Europe with that I mentioned, never ever would have thought that after I'd be leaving here, I'd be stopping in Europe with this new friend that I've made just to get to continue to share the gospel with her and just go through a study that explains God's heart for her.

It's just so wild to me to learn how the people here don't know anything about God, and not even that they had some bad experience with church or that they had a religion they left, but they just literally have never heard about Jesus or the gospel. It's just so sweet to get to play my songs for them in the share house and hear that it inspires them. Even if they don't understand what the words mean, even if they don't have perfect English and they don't even understand all the lyrics, they still will say, “Wow, that's so great.” That's inspiring. It has shown me that music, one, is so impactful, but also even just being in the presence of other people here and being a Christian does have an impact, whether I'm singing songs that are about Jesus or just songs that I've written about heartbreak or life or whatever I'm sharing. Music just bonds people, and people here love it. I think it's something that is so easy to bond with. It's just been such a cool, powerful tool in all my relationships here that has led me to just continually be inspired by what God is doing with music in Japan and even what will become after this.

[Roger]

That’s so true. That's so true. I know God is going to bless you in Nashville as you take your experiences from here. So thank you so much for sharing this story with us.

[Alana]

Thank you so much.

[Roger]

Well, there you have it. The stories of a two-week missionary and a six-month intern.

I first came to Japan on a two-week missions trip, and now here I am, still in Japan, 18 years later. So I certainly believe that mission strips and internships are powerful ways to help people discover their paths.

We're going to have many more stories to share with you this summer when summer interns come for two months. We pray that God will use their sacrifice and their willingness to come serve and help the church planting efforts here in Japan.

This is Roger Lowther, and you've been listening to the “Art Life Faith” podcast. Check out my website www.rogerwlowther.com for a transcription of this podcast and various links. As we say in Japan, “Ja, mata ne! See you next time.”

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