“Let them praise his name with dancing…” Psalm 149:3
By Chad Berry
Moving to a hip-hop beat, Joao Pedro (J.P.) de Carvalho Neto and his fellow street dancers contort their bodies in a rapid series of synchronized moves. A few minutes later when the song ends, the audience erupts in approval.
It’s another day of ministry for Neto, a 30-year-old Brazilian OMF International missionary to Japan.
“My heart is to reach the people that are rejected by Japanese society – young people who don’t go to university,” Neto said. “They just have a part-time job. They do dance.”
“Though perhaps unorthodox, such ministry fills a need in Japan” says Wolfgang Langhans, OMF International’s Japan Field Director. Less than one percent of Japan’s 127 million people know Christ. Among young people, the number may be even less.
“Japanese young people are interested in dancing and music,” says Langhans. “To use Christians from overseas who have talents to reach Japanese in this area of their interest is one way to fulfill the Lord’s command to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth.”
An unusual journey
If the idea of combining hip-hop, street dancing and gospel ministry seems unusual, it’s even more unique considering Neto’s path to Japan. Seeds of interest in Japanese culture were planted at an early age when Neto took karate from his father, who taught martial arts in Neto’s hometown of Uberlandia in southern Brazil.
Then one day, Neto’s older sister invited him to a dance class at a church she’d been attending. As a shy teenage boy, Neto was reluctant at first, but decided to go anyway. It was an eternally significant decision.
“Everybody (at the class) was very nice,” Neto said. “Then I saw something different about them. I realized it wasn’t only dance. It was something else. It wasn’t just dance class.”
The difference, Neto found out, was Jesus Christ. The class not only studied dance, but the Bible as well. Neto soon became a Christian. His parents followed suit. It wasn’t long before Neto was using dance as a means of outreach to nonbelievers. His church used street dancing and other performance arts to create opportunities for street evangelism.
“Music and dance is quite cultural (in Brazil) – samba and rhythm,” said Neto.
His interest in Japan took on a new dimension after becoming a believer. Neto wanted to minister there, but didn’t know how to do so. So he began to pray. He soon had an opportunity to go to Bolton, England as part of a partnership between his church in Brazil (Sal da Terra) and a church in England.
The opportunity turned into a seven-year tenure in the United Kingdom, including two years at Belfast Bible College in Northern Ireland. Neto’s time in the UK was preparation for life in Japan on several fronts. While working with church youth groups and using his dance skills to minister in the UK, Neto also was exposed to cross-cultural living and learning another language (English). He later was introduced to OMF International, leading to a series of short-term trips doing children’s ministry in Japan from 2006-2009.
Learning in Japan
Neto joined OMF International full-time in 2010 as a church planter in Japan. His first two years have been spent doing language study in Sapporo, but he will soon move to Tokyo to work with OMF International’s YouFo (Youth Focus) team.
Exactly how his street dancing skills will be used is uncertain, but Langhans and Neto are both confident the opportunities will come. Perhaps Neto will teach dance in schools. Or develop friendships at dance studios. He is open to whatever doors God may open.
“Before, I came with ideas – ‘I want to do this and that,’ but then God said, ‘Love me first and as a result of that, I will tell you what to do,’” says Neto.
“God is already doing something in Japan and I can be a part of what he’s doing here.”
What’s not uncertain is Neto’s commitment to the Japanese people. Neto compares it to a marriage, where two people make a life-long covenant despite ups and downs along the way. For Neto – and many others in Japan – the March 2011 earthquake was a defining moment. In the wake of the devastation, some of his friends in Brazil and England urged him to leave Japan. But for Neto, the disaster only further illuminated why he was called to Japan and strengthened his resolve to stay.
“I want to stay here. I want to die with them. That’s why we’re here.”