After the colossal relief effort that swept warships, doctors and missionaries into Japan to pick up the pieces left by a devastating earthquake and tsunami, Burton and Kat Sue entered the country much more quietly. They brought pencils, watercolors, dance, and music to heal the people’s wounds.
During a year of service in northeastern Japan that started in 2012 — less than one year after the March 2011 disasters that wiped entire villages off the map there — the Sues used the creative arts as therapy for the victims of the disaster. They turned drawing and painting into outlets for victims to express their feelings.
When the TEAM short-term missionaries left Japan, the plea of their friends and other survivors rung in their ears: “Please don’t forget us!” The Sues have not forgotten. They recently published an art-based devotional booklet created specifically for the disaster’s survivors, and have started a letter-writing project that is connecting their San Diego church with affected communities in Japan.
“It could have been easy to think of Japan as a sliver of time in our lives,” said Burton, who served with his wife for a year in the city of Tohoku. “But we were compelled to think of ways to keep the many friends in Tohoku in our hearts and prayers.”
The Butterfly Project — as the Sues called their ministry during their time in Japan — helped survivors to relax and learn to enjoy themselves through different creative forms including fine art classes.
“We saw the transformation of each person – like a cocoon turning into a butterfly,” Burton said. “One survivor said that she never learned how to do art this way, but doing it this way was very liberating and fun.”
When Burton and Kat returned to the United States in February 2013, they decided to continue their art ministry by creating a short art devotional booklet based on the classes he taught in Japan. Titled “Art for Healing” in Japanese (“Art for Your Heart” in English), the booklet contains simple art instructions and ways for people to reflect on the beauty of God and the way God is working in their lives. The booklet’s theme comes from John 14:27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”
The Sues printed 500 copies of the booklet at a Christian-owned printing shop in one of the areas hit by the tsunami. It was distributed to several missionaries and churches serving in the areas affected by the disaster and also mailed directly to many of Burton’s former students.
“I wanted them to have a reminder of everything that they learned during our time together,” Burton said. “I also prayed that this book would make it into the hands of others that are seeking hope.”
Burton and Kat’s home church in San Diego is also playing a part in their continuing ministry to disaster victims. They started the Tohoku Love Letter Project, in which church members were paired with 50 people the Sues knew in Japan. They write monthly letters of encouragement to their Japanese friends, often sharing Bible verses. Letters from Japan are then posted on the bulletin board at the Sues’ church so people can pray for them. The church also put together a 2014 calendar containing encouraging Bible verses for their friends.
“We use the Bible as our inspiration, and send letters of God’s love providing verses of hope and joy,” Burton said. “We want to let our friends know that they are definitely not forgotten.”
-Written by Lisa H. Renninger
-Photos provided by Burton and Kat Sue