Jonathan Hayashi: Gangster Turned Pastor

The photographs show a shirtless teenager with a head of dirty blond cropped hair, a toned body, and a pair of Ray-Bans. A huge tattoo of a pair of praying hands fills his back. A cross is imprinted on his right arm.

That was Jonathan Hayashi 12 years ago, a gangster who fought on the streets of Japan. No one would have believed back then that he would become a pastor in America today.

Jonathan Hayashi as a teenager

 

Troubles at home

 Jonathan’s troubles began at home—and with his father, a violent man who struggled with anger management issues.

He recalls times when his father would beat his mother in public at the bus stop because she was a few minutes late in fetching him. Once, his father even threw one of his brothers off the second floor of the house.

Jonathan was only six then. His second eldest brother, Kaz, had punched a wall that day and his father was livid. He dragged Kaz out of bed by his hair and hit him. Crying and pleading, their mother tried to stop her husband. But Jonathan’s father would not relent—not even with Kaz’s desperate cries of “I’m sorry, I’m sorry”. Then his father flung Kaz off the second floor of the house onto the first. Thankfully, Kaz did not suffer any major physical injury from that fall.

“Being at home was a terrible experience, there was always a lack of peace, of security, and of home,” Jonathan, now 28, tells YMI. “Growing up, I had a tremendous fear for my father. I never knew if his anger would lead him to try anything worse on me.” Describing his father as a “micromanaging dictator”, Jonathan says that he always felt distant from his father, who wasn’t a Christian.

On the other hand, Jonathan shared a close relationship with his mother, a Christian, and would accompany her to church weekly. Although he didn’t consider himself a Christian then, the situation at home drove him to his knees to pray daily for God to save his father.

But God didn’t seem to answer. “Even though I prayed so much, He just seemed very distant from me and I didn’t see my situation at home improve,” he says.

 

Troubles at school

On top of this, a hostile environment in school made things worse. Jonathan was born in Kentucky, USA, as his father had got a job there as a scientist for CorningWare. The family had moved back to Japan when he was three, so Jonathan struggled with speaking and understanding the Japanese language.

As a result, he was frequently picked on in class. His classmates would ridicule him with foul words in Japanese, knowing that he couldn’t understand the language. “At first, I was confused; then I felt really shameful for not being able to speak Japanese well,” says Jonathan. He was also mocked and alienated for being the only Christian in his class.

When he was in seventh grade, the abuse from his schoolmates turned physical. He recalls how, on one occasion, a group of seniors used a wooden Japanese sword to beat him up in the bathroom till he was left bruised and bleeding. He says: “I was just an easy target to everyone. Going to school was just plain dreadful and full of negativity. I hated school.”

 

Finding Solutions

At the age of 12, Jonathan got into bad company and joined a gang. His poor attendance at his high school got him kicked out, and he started smoking, drinking, and taking drugs. He found a girlfriend, started working out, and joined his gang for fights.

“I was trying to fill the void and emptiness within me with something, and I went for all the things of this world that promised me fulfillment and purpose,” he says. “I turned to earthly things rather than the Creator himself.”

“Growing up, I watched my father abuse my mom and siblings and naturally, I started to project that onto others,” he says. “I was deeply hurt by so many people, and the internal conflict turned into an external attack onto others.” He remembers one particular fight where he fought one-on-one with a rival gang member. It left him with a deep cut in the jaw that required four stitches and his opponent drenched in blood.

By the time he turned 14, he had stopped attending church. “Deep down, I knew there had to be more to life than these meaningless activities but at the same time, I felt that I couldn’t turn to God,” he explains. “I hated God.”

 

God’s Work

But God was not done with Jonathan. At the age of 15, he was arrested for stealing a motorcycle and being part of a gang. As he sat in the police car, God tapped on Jonathan’s heart, saying: “Jonathan, I have a bigger plan for you—this is not what you’re supposed to be.”

Jonathan was not convinced. “I swore at God, ‘You’re not coming into my life now, not after what you didn’t do for me. If you loved me, why didn’t you give me a dad that loved me? If you loved me, why didn’t you protect me from the bullies in school? If you loved me, why didn’t you protect my mother and my siblings from my father’s abuse?’” he says.

When Jonathan’s parents came to pick him up from the police station, the first thing his father said to him was: “You bring dishonor to the family.” That one sentence pushed Jonathan off the edge. He glared at his father in anger and retorted: “You were the one who taught me to be violent and rebellious. You have no right to be ashamed or upset.”

“I felt zero remorse or repentance for what I had done,” he shares with YMI.

At that point of time, Jonathan wasn’t the only one in his family in trouble. Jonathan’s eldest brother had left the Christian faith, walked out of home, and lived an “open, vile and rebellious life”. His second brother had beaten up a classmate in high school and left him hospitalized for a week. His sister, the youngest of his siblings, had dropped out of school.

Desperate, his mother sent him to a missionary home in Tokyo to stay. That’s when he cut off all contact with the gang and broke up with his girlfriend. But he wasn’t able to quit smoking and taking drugs.

While attending the church there, he was introduced to Pastor Kawamata.

 

Pastor K’s influence

There was something different, and special, about Pastor Kawamata. While other Christians despised and judged Jonathan for his past, Pastor Kawamata offered him words of encouragement. “Pastor K was the real deal—he was so full of joy and love,” says Jonathan. “He treated me as if I were his son.”

It was Pastor Kawamata’s love, he adds, that ultimately led him to Jesus. “I was drawn to this love that no other had showed me and I had to know his secret.”

At the age of 16, Jonathan opened the Bible for the first time. Although he had trouble reading because of his dyslexia and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), his desperation drove him to read the Word.

The verse 1 John 3:1 convicted him and led him to accept Jesus into his life. In that verse, the apostle John writes that God’s love was shown to us when He called us His children. Gripped by God’s love for him, Jonathan began to see things in a new perspective. Jonathan says: “Everything changed when Jesus came into my life—I could no longer be the same.”

It was also at that point that he stopped smoking and taking drugs entirely. Instead, he set his sight on becoming a pastor like Pastor Kawamata.

 

Starting Afresh

After a few months, he followed the suggestion of his pastor’s wife and moved from Japan to Malaysia, where he finished high school at Dalat International School, a Christian school. While Jonathan was in Malaysia and away from his family, God kept bringing to his mind his broken relationship with his father. “I knew that in order for me to grow in my faith and to model Christ-likeness, I needed to forgive my father and seek reconciliation.”

So when Jonathan went home for one of his winter breaks, he asked his father for forgiveness and forgave his father. They also exchanged hugs—which is a big deal in Japanese culture—and said “I love you” to each other.

After graduating from high school in Malaysia, Jonathan did a degree in pastoral ministry at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, then a Masters’ in pastoral leadership at Moody Theological Seminary. He also met his wife, Kennedi at Moody Bible Institute. They now have two daughters, Kaede and Anna.

Today, Jonathan serves as a pastoral staff at Troy First Baptist Church in Missouri, USA, where he counsels couples with marital problems and students with depression. He is also pursuing a doctorate in biblical counselling. All his siblings also returned to the faith, and now serve as pastors, missionaries, or professors at a Christian seminary. Their father also came to know Christ five years ago.

Jonathan’s father getting baptized

Jonathan attributes a large part of who he is today to his mother, who never gave up on the family. “My mother was so faithful and persistent. Christ was evident in her, not just on her lips but also in her deeds,” he says. “From the lifestyle that she led, it was very obvious that Christ is center of all things in her.”

He recalls how she would wake up at 4 a.m. every day and spend time reading and praying for the family in the corner of her room secretly. She has also been helping the Our Daily Bread Ministries translate the Our Daily Bread devotional into Japanese for the past 25 years.

Jonathan is no longer in contact with Pastor Kawamata today, but he will never forget his love and kindness. He also credits the pastor for pointing him towards full-time ministry.

Another person whose life and words have played a significant role in changing Jonathan’s is the renowned American evangelist and publisher Dwight Lyman Moody, who started out as a poorly educated shoe salesman. “If God could use Mr. Moody, why should he not use the rest of us?” Jonathan says.

“My future plans and goal is to become a senior pastor and to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth. I believe God is calling me to shepherd the flock. My dream is to proclaim His Name and preach the Word with all my might to see men saved, baptized, and added to the church,” he says.

Jonathan’s family photo

Propaganda: Music is an Outpouring of My Heart

Written By Callie Opper, USA

For American Christian hip hop and spoken word artist, Propaganda (or Prop), who is in his 30s, his rap music journey began way back in the neighborhood he grew up—a largely Mexican American neighborhood. At a young age, he realized he was different.

“I was this one black kid in a white neighborhood,” Prop says. “I felt like I didn’t belong, the wrong color, in the wrong neighborhood.” Besides the color of his skin, there was another reason that made Prop stick out: he loved to draw. This was unusual in a community where most boys found it more beneficial for their safety and well-being to dabble in gang life.

This feeling of not belonging eventually helped him to find his identity in God; his love for drawing subsequently spawned his love for hip hop, rap, and graffiti.

Today, Prop, whose real name is Jason Emmanuel Petty, is known and respected not just for his talent and creativity as an artist, but also for his deep love for God and others, and his passion for race and justice.

These passions are clearly seen in his four albums released through Humble Beast Records, a non-profit organization that describes itself as “a family of creatives, pastors, writers, theologians, and musicians who leverage their talents to see the Gospel go out into the community and transform lives”. Besides Prop, it is also home to other Christian artists like Beautiful Eulogy, Sho Baraka, Jackie Hill Perry and Alert312.

On June 30, Prop released his most recent album, Crooked, which is available for download.

Humble beginnings

“I became a Christian really through good youth ministry,” Prop tells YMI in an email interview. “Somewhere in middle school, via a combination of my parents’ conversion and impact from my youth leaders, I was able to see really great examples of real people having real-life change that made me start to believe.”

In high school, he was given the name of Propaganda by his cousin due to his love of visual arts, history, poetry, and evangelism. “I was so fascinated with the culture of hip-hop and its musical expression,” Prop says. “It sat in the same street of black music I grew up with—being narrative, emotional and uplifting.”

But ask Prop what made him decide to venture into “gospel rap” and he quickly says that he doesn’t think there needs to be a distinction between hip hop and Christian hip hop. “I made no conscious effort to make ‘Gospel Rap’ because as far as I was concerned, there was no such thing,” Prop says. “All rappers had a worldview, I just rapped what I knew and believed.”

In 2002, he was discovered by an underground hip-hop collective and has been going strong ever since. In 2011, Prop signed with Humble Beast Record Label; he is described as a poet, rapper, artist and political activist. Prop released Art Ambidextrous in 2011, Excellent a year later, Crimson Cord in 2014.

As his journey as a rapper began, Prop made sure that he did not rap for the acceptance of others; he never felt the need to respond to those who had harsh opinions about the rap industry. Instead, he rapped simply because it was an outpouring of his heart.

Interestingly, he shares that his biggest critics are not non-believers but believers. “Most backlash I get is from other Christians—mostly very conservative Christian would say I’m too preoccupied with race and justice. My heart actually breaks for those that can’t see that both are Gospel issues,” he says.

Hopes for his latest album

 On his recently released album, Prop says, “Crooked is about all of us.”

“The record is about a crooked person, with crooked desires, inside a crooked system, hoping for the day the crooked is made straight.”

In it, Prop weaves together his own personal struggle over the past few years with all the idols Christians and non-Christians experience daily. He is honest about his own failings, revealing that he struggles with the same challenges other Christians face. “Pride, lust, comparison, self-righteousness. I can’t say I’ve overcome them. I’m constantly confessing my weakness and dependency.

The songs on Crooked tell the story of the world we live in, the people we truly are, and how much grace God freely gives us. Prop raps about issues that many young Christians face today while living in a crooked world.

Prop hopes everyone can relate to his album. In one of his songs, Olympian, he illustrates the heartbreaking realities of this life—that hard things will happen in this crooked world, but we have a perfect God who is constantly perfecting our purpose. Through his lyrics, he urges listeners to not lose heart while fighting against injustice, fighting for peace, and standing up for Jesus.

For Prop, rapping is so much more than just a creative expression. His overall goal is to preach the gospel and remind Christians that we are all image bearers of Christ. “I make music out of an outpouring of my heart. And evangelism is again a part of my life.”

 

Click here to download Prop’s latest album Crooked.

James Fazio: Changing Lives after a Near Death Experience

James Fazio knows what it’s like to be at death’s door, but he’s not one to let a harrowing experience stop him from grabbing life by the reins. He’s now using his love for surfing and filmmaking to help turn around the lives of troubled teenagers, giving them their own story of a second chance in life.

The 27-year-old American pro-surfer, filmmaker, and father of two, has just completed his first documentary, Time Well Spent, about four teenage boys from different parts of the world who each have a unique story of pain and hardship but are bound by a common love for surfing. He hopes to release the documentary in the boys’ home countries, followed by the US.

In the 1½-hour long documentary, viewers follow Kross Brodersen from Hawaii, Henry McAlvany from Indonesia, Declan Bradley from Australia, and Yeferson Bellido from Peru on a surfing journey that culminates in a discovery of their value, worth, and place in life.

It’s a project that has cost James heavily in terms of energy, money, and time—it took him close to three years to put this documentary together—but it’s been worth every cent, second, and inch of effort. To James, this is simply his way of giving back to God after being given a second chance.

 

God’s Plan for James

The documentary’s tagline, “Your past does not define your future”, reflects James’s own life journey. The surfer almost died at the tender age of 13 after he contracted Kawasaki disease, a rare auto-immune disease that causes blood inflammation. For months, high fevers raged in his body, causing skin to peel away from his hands, feet, and around his mouth and throat. The last bit was the worst, as it left his throat sore and unable to eat. He needed 16 aspirin tablets every day just to keep his temperature down and the inflammation at bay.

“They had to shove Go-gert (yogurt in a tube) down my throat just to take the aspirins,” he recalls. To make matters worse, he was resistant to every medical cure. The prognosis was grim: James was likely to die from the disease. “I was pretty bummed thinking I would die without really doing anything,” he says.

And even if he did survive, he was told, he would suffer from heart problems for the rest of his life, making it impossible to lead an active lifestyle. That was heart-breaking news to the young boy, who loved surfing and soccer.

But God had plans for James. Through a prayer chain at church, his story came to the attention of a woman who had heard of a new experimental procedure. James was put on Remicade, a drug used to treat rheumatoid arthritis or severe plaque psoriasis. “My parents signed document after document, giving consent for me to take this medicine,” he says.

Young James was only the second person to undergo this experimental procedure. To the surprise of the doctors, it worked. “They were shocked by my case—that I was one of the most resistant cases, yet walked away with no long-term side effects or heart troubles,” he says. James’s case was even reported in a medical journal.

Six months later, James was back playing sports and catching his first waves, doing nearly everything that seemed so impossible just months before. “It was truly a miracle,” he says. “I should not have made it. I should have not ever been able to play sports again, and I most definitely should have had major heart problems for the rest of my life.”

Convinced that divine intervention saved his life, James resolved to change his perspective towards life. “God saved my life at 13 years’ old and I knew I wanted to live my second chance the best I possibly could. I wanted to know this amazing God who saved me and I wanted to live a life for Him,” he shares.
 

 

Photo taken by Eillot Gray

 

Giving Back to God

From then on, James desired to give to others the way God had given to him.

As soon as he completed high school at the age of 19, he went to Chile to volunteer and eventually landed in an orphanage in Perú, Casa Generacion. There, he met Yeferson Bellido, a 17-year-old who was the oldest boy in the orphanage and also its longest resident. The duo became firm friends and would go surfing every day. Once James heard about Yeferson’s life story, he was determined to share it with the world.

“He went from living on the streets and living with abuse of all sorts, to moving into an orphanage, and becoming one of the top surfers in Peru. And he was studying to be an architect at university,” he says. “Most of the people I know from privileged life circumstances can’t even accomplish half of what Yeferson did.”

James was not a filmmaker at that point, but Yeferson’s story gave him a strong desire to be one. “I had a dream one night,” he says. “God spoke to me and said to use filmmaking to show people His love and character.” This was confirmed by three people who told James he would be making movies one day.

James met the rest of the boys—Kross, Henry and Declan—through his travels, family members and colleagues. “We chose these boys because they had been through so much in their lives, and their common factor was that they turned to the ocean as their refuge,” he says. The ocean, he explains, was a safe place for them to get away from their problems and frustrations. And despite having gone through abuse and homelessness—one also losing his parent through suicide—they still had “amazing hearts” and wanted to do more with their lives.

 

Yeferson Bellido | Photo taken by Elliot Gray

 

Declan Bradley | Photo taken by Eillot Gray

 

A Rocky Journey to the Waters

While God placed their hearts to bring the boys on an amazing trip, it was not all smooth sailing. Apart from finding the money to finish the documentary and facing disapproval from friends and acquaintances, James and his team also had to deal with the paperwork to get passports and visas for the boys.

With no official sponsors or backing, money was often tight. Friends could not understand why James wanted to devote so much time, energy, and money to the documentary. “We received a good amount of flak of taking this project on,” he recalls. “But every time we were about to give up because we had no money, or something wasn’t coming together, God worked it all out and provided for everything through incredibly generous people.”

The team received funds through a small crowd-funding campaign and from friends and a non-profit sports organization, More Than Sport. But the backbone of the support was Kross’ and Declan’s communities back home—they came out in full force to support the boys’ fund-raising.

Looking back, James says it’s still impossible to comprehend how everything came together. “It was truly nothing special we did, but all Him,” he says. “One huge undertaking was the boys’ legal paperwork: we had to track down birth certificates, get social security cards, identification cards and finally passports. It was incredible it all came together on time.”

And it was all worth it. James recalls a particularly touching moment where Kross handed the keys to a house he and the team had “worked their butts off” to build, under the blazing Panama sun, for a local family.

Photo taken by Eillot Gray

Kross had spent a large part of his childhood homeless or couch hopping, so the gesture was especially touching. It was also at that moment that Kross realized he was no longer just a homeless kid, but an “amazing young man” who had the ability to make a difference in someone else’s life, James says. “He was crying, all the other boys were crying, and our whole crew was crying while trying to hold the camera steady. It was a special moment to be part of.”

Kross Brodersen | Photo taken by Eillot Gray

 

Henry McAlvany | Photo taken by Elliot Gray

 

More Stories to Be Told

While James is relieved that the project is finally completed, he is slightly nervous about how the film might be received. “For me, this being my first big personal project, now comes the thought, ‘What will people think about my work?’ ” James says. He plans to submit the documentary to various film festivals before looking for a proper distribution channel. “I am also very excited for the four boys, for their stories to be heard, for them to feel proud and even hopefully get discovered by companies for their incredible stories and surfing.”

Ultimately, says James, the documentary is about inspiring people to see that they are “worth so much more than they choose to believe”. “I want others that are in a similar situation to see hope in the boys’ stories and choose not to give up,” he adds.

As for his future plans, James is thinking of doing a few more documentaries. He plans to do a feature on Yeferson as well as document the story of the woman who started the Casa Generacion orphanage.

Ask James why he does what he does, and this is his reply: “God saved my life, changed my heart and gave me a purpose to live. I do what I do because I want the broken and the lost to feel the hope again. To feel they’re worth something. To be inspired to live a fulfilling life. And to show them the gracious love that God has shown me and that they have a Father in Heaven who is there for them.”

Photo taken by Eillot Gray

 

To find out more about the documentary, click here

Cassandra Kanda: Rocking Christian Music

Written by Jasmine K., Singapore

Think catchy riffs, deep bass rhythms, and synthesizer melodies, and you’re likely to associate them with “house” or club music. But a 22-year-old musician is aiming to break this stereotype and prove that Christian music can be catchy and current too. And to prove it, she’s produced an entire album all by herself.

Meet New Zealander Cassandra Kanda, who produced Genesis in her room. Just five months after the album was released in January, her music has reached some 20 countries and hit an overall stream count of one million on Spotify. Currently, her top-hit, “Sticks and Stones”, occupies 14th position on The Hot Chart, which tracks the most-played songs on the top 40 Christian radio stations across the US.

But Cassandra is quick to say that the motivation behind her music has never been the search for fame and popularity. It all started when she found it difficult to share worship songs with her non-believing friends, she said in an earlier interview with The Good Christian Music Blog. They were turned off by this genre of music as it was “all about God” or simply incomprehensible because of the liberal use of Christian jargon. Noting the lack of relatable Christian pop songs, Cassandra saw an opportunity to try and weave together biblical truths and R&B grooves. That set her on a path to co-produce the album Road to You with her church two years ago.

In an email interview with YMI, Cassandra says that she discovered her interest in music at a young age. When she was 11, she was always fiddling with the instruments in church on Sundays and pestering band members to let her try them out. “I remember they bought a new keyboard and gave me their old one, just so I could stop bothering them on a Sunday, as I was that annoying kid,” she says.

That grew her passion in music tremendously. The self-taught musician, who fully dedicated her life to the Lord at the age of 16, went on to pick up various musical instruments, including the piano, guitar, and drums. She learned music composition in high school and gained hands-on experience by producing for local artists, working on film scores for film students, and mixing and producing her own pieces in university.

But the road leading to where she is today has been a bumpy one.

Voice of God

After college, Cassandra faced her first obstacle: her family. She found herself having to plead with her parents and convince them to allow her to enroll in the New Zealand School of Music. Having moved from Zimbabwe to New Zealand, they had been searching for better opportunities abroad and couldn’t accept music as a livelihood. “The challenge was to convince my parents that this is what God has called me to do and they need not worry about the outcome,” she recounts. Thankfully, her persistence and passion paid off eventually.

Then she faced another obstacle. In her application for the Bachelor of Music course, she realized that she had not taken a certain paper in high school that was required. By God’s grace, however, the university suddenly held a sitting of this paper during the summer break before school reopened; it was the first time the module had ever been scheduled so early in the year. “The timing was uncanny,” she recalls.

This was just the first of the many times in which God continued to affirm Cassandra’s decision to go down this path. After completing her music degree, she did a worship internship in her church. This included doing the roster for worship duties, leading worship, and being the band director.

One night, while she was praying and doing her devotions, she heard God telling her, “Make an EP, make music.” It was a “weird moment”, she says, as that would mean she would not
be continuing her internship in the following year, as she had originally intended to.

But any uncertainty she had vanished just one month later. At a retreat, a woman whom she barely knew pulled her aside and told her, “God’s called you to do this.” Cassandra was blown away; she knew it had to be God nudging her.

Voice for God

Things were also rough in the lead-up to the release of her first album, Genesis. When Cassandra first started, she couldn’t afford to pay for studio recording or promotional plans. A few of her close friends and mentors, concerned about the risk she was taking by diving into an “unorthodox” genre of music, also tried to dissuade her. They were afraid that the plan would fall through and her efforts would go to waste.

On one occasion, a conversation with a colleague discouraged her greatly and made her doubt her decision. “He said, ‘Do you really think you can make music like this for God and be successful? Your voice probably isn’t what most radio stations would want to play’,” she recalls.

For a while after that, Cassandra began to avoid spending time with God. It eventually reached a point where she found herself on her knees, crying in her room. “I wanted to do right by God but at the same time, I didn’t even believe in myself,” she says.

But that’s when she felt God’s presence strongly again. “He was just speaking encouragement over me, reminding me of what He said and that He never makes mistakes and I certainly wasn’t an exception of that.”

That was enough to get her back on track. Cassandra also began to experience God’s provision. “When I had no money for food or no idea how I’d get home from the church office, someone or something would come up to bless me or provide me with what I needed.”

Touching lives

What gives Cassandra great joy in this whole journey is seeing how God has used her efforts to bless others, including her non-Christian friends. “They love it,” she tells YMI. “They listen to it all the time and message me about it, asking what it means.”

She’s also been overwhelmed and humbled by the responses she’s been getting from complete strangers. Close to a month ago, Cassandra received a message from a lady who said she had lost her brother and was struggling to see God’s healing and comfort. She was consoled by the lyrics of Cassandra’s song, Sticks and Stones. “I cried reading it because it was one of the things I’ve always been praying—that music will help those who need comfort and solace,” she says.

On another occasion, Cassandra was greatly encouraged by a message from a teenage girl who was battling depression and struggling with her final examinations. She shared how Cassandra’s album helped to tide her through those rough patches.

Future plans

Currently, Cassandra is working on a new song, “Thoughts”, for her next album. It is a reminder from 2 Corinthians 10:5 of the need to guard her thoughts as an act of obedience to the Lord.

In the near future, Cassandra plans to travel internationally to share her love for God and music. Some 10 or 20 years from now—or whenever God gives her the green light—she hopes to start a record label.

What’s Cassandra’s chief motivation for producing music? “I do what I do because I want to be obedient to what God has called me to do,” she says. “And, I know with everything God places in my hands, He usually has a greater plan and way to help and encourage other people.”