Renee Williams at her watermelon-themed cafe in Japan

Church in Japan doesn’t look like a traditional church in the United States. In the town of Taro—seven hours north of Tokyo—it often takes place at the Watermelon Café.

There, Foursquare Missions International Missionary Renee Williams conducts monthly “Heart Care” workshops to help residents heal from grief stemming from the 2011 tsunami and earthquake. The café also hosts concerts and special events, while Renee informally ministers to customers.

The shop offers Renee a chance to share her faith on neutral ground. That includes sharing the “Watermelon Gospel”: black seeds represent sin; red fruit, Christ’s blood; white inner rind, cleansed hearts; and green, Christian growth. Such opportunities are key because the average Japanese person is hesitant to enter a church.

“We have to find creative ways to reach people where they are, instead of expecting them to come to church,” says Renee, a former staff member of The Church on the Way (Van Nuys Foursquare Church) in Van Nuys, Calif., who answered the call to Japan in 2003. “There aren’t enough pastors or workers here, so we need to think outside the box.”

A missionary serving at a Japanese church, in 2011 Renee started driving food and supplies to the Iwate area to participate in Foursquare Disaster Relief (FDR) outreaches. After moving from the main island of Honshu to the northern island of Hokkaido, she continued making the long commute by ferry.

The nation’s losses were especially acute in Taro, a fishing community of 4,200, where residents derive much of their income from fishing for abalone, octopus and salmon, and harvesting wakame seaweed. Not all fish have returned to pre-tsunami levels. Meanwhile, Taro is still recovering from a 40 percent loss of its population due to people having moved elsewhere after their homes and businesses were destroyed.

“We have to find creative ways to reach people where they are, instead of expecting them to come to church. There aren’t enough pastors or workers here, so we need to think outside the box.”

Ironically, another disaster shaped Renee’s destiny. In 2016, a typhoon destroyed her car and the hotel where she usually stayed. Her departure delayed, she finally met a couple from Tokyo who ran a weekend café in Taro as a community gathering place. Hearing that the couple wanted to retire, Renee asked if they would rent the café to her. They would, but only if she were open regularly, not just for monthly workshops.

“I had to make the decision if I was going to jump in with both feet,” says Renee, who launched her business in April 2018. “I talked to my senior pastor, and he agreed it was God’s leading.”

Her skills as a “people person” help her connect with customers and encourage them to share their experiences during the tsunami. She plays worship CDs in the café, which creates a peaceful atmosphere for them to open up about their struggles.

“A lot of people who went to ‘Heart Care’ workshops now come to the café,” Renee explains. “We’ve had a relationship for eight years, and they know if they have a problem, they can come and talk about it. They see the café as a safe refuge and say it’s like entering a different world.”

The café isn’t a money-making venture, although it finally generated enough revenue for her to add a part-time assistant last September. Renee is currently raising funds and sharing her vision for the café, with plans to buy the building and eventually use it as a church on Sundays.

“Before the tsunami, many of these people had never met a Christian,” says Renee. “My vision has always been for the tsunami victims, but if God wants to do something bigger, I don’t want to stand in His way.”

is a freelance writer and book editor in Huntington, W.Va.