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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.

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Students From Japan Wow LA Churches With Gospel Music  was originally published on