Pastor Richard Hartley leads his students in the Tokyo Mass Choir during rehearsal
Every year in several black churches throughout Los Angeles, an unexpected performance happens.
One that knocks parishioners off their feet.
"It ranges from shock all the way to tears," said filmmaker Rosylyn Rhee, about their reaction to the Tokyo Mass Choir. The gospel choir is composed of over 100 Japanese students, few of whom speak English at all or are familiar with the cultural traditions of gospel at all.
Since 1996, choir director Richard Hartley has helped to train these students in the very basics of the style — a remarkable feat considering the outward expression of gospel contrasts drastically with the culture of Japan.
"They're very concerned about their social status, what they wear, what people think, being correct," says Hartley. However, he said, "I think the music really liberates people. Once they got the okay that they wouldn't be frowned upon if they participated, then it was an avalanche. They were screaming, dancing, clapping."
The students come from all over Japan through the Jikei International network of schools.
"Jikei's often considered like a 'dump school,' where parents will dump their kids who haven't gotten into a higher university," said Rhee. But in performing with the choir, she says there's an important transformation for many of these students.
"The audience is so giving and loving and open with their own expression of emotion which is really so meaningful for them. As cheesy as it sounds, I think they just feel more connected to love and themselves," she said.
The choir, itself, is composed of the school's first year students who will go through several months of "boot camp" with their director in Japan and with Hartley as well. Then they travel to Los Angeles to perform before black churches to showcase their talents and what they've learned.
"They're so moved that their tradition is being authentically honored," says Rhee.
Her documentary about the choir, "Supernatural," is currently in production and is expected to be released in 2015. Meanwhile, the choir will be heading back to L.A. in October.