You may not realize it, but you’ve probably heard Alfie Silas sing.
The gospel artist has lent her powerful voice to records featuring Gladys Knight, Ray Charles, Andrae Crouch, Barbra Streisand and Michael Jackson, to name a few.
She appeared on The Lion King soundtrack and toured the world with Whitney Houston.
Yet, it’s within the inconspicuous setting of a small Japanese church, 5,000 miles away from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, where Silas often feels the most successful.
“I can’t describe it,” Silas said. “It’s just God.”
Since 2010, Silas—a member of the California-based Tommy Coomes Band—has traveled to Japan with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association to encourage Japanese churches through her music and her story of faith.
“I’m praying for people, I’m singing, I’m encouraging them through the interpreter,” Silas said. “God has a way of using us on any level when we allow Him to.”
Silas has traveled to Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido twice in the last six months, drumming up support for the May 9-11 Hokkaido Festival of Hope in Sapporo. With each visit, she is amazed at how God is using an unlikely type of music to reach the Japanese people.
“One of the most popular genres of music in Japan is gospel music,” explained Chad Hammond, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s Director of Asian Affairs. “People in the secular area love gospel music.”
“I’ve asked several people, ‘How did this happen?’” Silas said. “And I always get the same story. The Sister Act movie came out in ’92, and people just loved that movie and they loved the songs in it.”
The comedy was a huge hit in Japan, where gospel choirs began popping up across the country, despite the fact that only about 1 percent of the nation is Christian.
“It’s hilarious to me, because you see the sovereignty of God,” Silas said. “He went all around these other circumstances and said, ‘I’m going to do something different in the hearts of people, with no one else leading this.’”
Silas and the Tommy Coomes Band have held gospel music workshops in Japan for aspiring musicians. It’s an open door to share the hope of Jesus Christ with people who have no idea who He is.
“A good portion of these choirs are not made up of believers,” Silas said. “And they are drawn by the Holy Spirit; they’re drawn to that music. I believe God has put them in a place where His Word is being planted in them. And we of course know that the Word will not return to Him void. So that seed is being planted in their hearts.”
As she gets to know the singers, Silas tries to make sure they know what they’re singing about—the God of the universe, who knows and loves each one of them.
“He has a plan for you,” she shares. “He created you and He gave you the ability and the love to sing, and He wants to fulfill your heart—all those empty places in your life, He wants to fill them up with Himself.
“I share little things like that, because I know that they’re searching and I know that sometimes they don’t know what they’re searching for. And that’s not just Japan; that’s mankind.”
Hammond says Silas and several other musicians and speakers have played a crucial role in mobilizing the Japanese churches for the upcoming Sapporo Festival.
Dennis Agajanian, the fast-picking acoustic guitarist, recently visited the far reaches of Hokkaido, where many of the churches had never had a professional musician in their midst.
“There was one pastor,” Hammond said, “I wish you could have seen him that day. He was so excited. He said, ‘Fifteen people came to my church who had never been before.’”
When attendance at a typical Japanese church averages about a dozen people, that’s a big deal. It’s also a big encouragement to the pastors, who have spent years praying for their fellow Japanese to have an encounter with Jesus.
Brooklyn Tabernacle Pastor Jim Cymbala, Swedish singer Lena Maria and former Major League Baseball manager and coach Trey Hillman (now with the New York Yankees) have also made visits to Hokkaido to unify the churches before the big event.
“There were some churches that weren’t involved in the Festival before Jim Cymbala came,” Hammond said. “He really encouraged the churches to get on board. One of the pastors who basically said a year and a half ago, ‘We’re not going to get involved,’ is now one of the most involved.”
As for Silas, she’s looking forward to performing at the Festival and taking part in a gospel music workshop for church leaders. Most of all, she’s excited to see God continue to move in the hearts of the Japanese people.
“I just pray that they have faith,” Silas said. “That it’s not so much about the Japanese way, but it is about God’s way. And there’s nothing that’s too hard for God. There’s nothing impossible for those who believe.”