By Pamela Brownstein
For Slade Heath, the idea of selling his belongings and packing up and moving his whole family to a country more than 8,000 miles overseas seemed daunting at first. But the more he thought about it, the more he realized that the opportunity to teach and live on the island of Okinawa, Japan, was a once in a lifetime opportunity that he couldn’t turn down.
After talking it over with his wife, Tiffany, a nurse who works in the birthing center at Beaufort Memorial Hospital, and his three children — Kaeley, 15, Caleb, 13, and Gabriel, 11 — they agreed to go for it.
“It takes a lot of faith to up and move your family,” Slade recalls.
So in 2011, they sold their cars and furniture and rented out their house on Lady’s Island. The rest of their items they had to ship, which he admitted can get pretty expensive.
The trip just to get there involved flying from Savannah to Charlotte, then from Charlotte to Newark, then from Newark to Tokyo, Japan, and finally to Okinawa.
But once they arrived, he felt they had made the right decision.
“For two years I don’t remember breathing,” Slade joked, “because we were so busy.”
This wasn’t his first time in Okinawa. After getting married in 1997, Slade joined the Army and was eventually stationed there. Even though he was somewhat familiar with the island, he said it was an entirely different experience returning in 2011 and living among the locals and working as a teacher at a private Christian academy.
At the school, where Slade said about half of the students were American and half were Japanese, he taught eighth, ninth and tenth grades. He taught a variety of subjects including history, government and religion, but his lessons went beyond books. The first two weeks of school he was involved with actually building his classroom on the third floor.
“The whole operation was mission work. When you see people around you working hard, you get a sense of the people you care about,” he said.
For Slade, music is an important part of his life and he carried his trumpet all the way with him from the U.S. He even met his wife while he was in the Spirit of Atlanta Drum Corps band — he played the trumpet and Tiffany was in the color guard. So he brought music to the school and started a trumpet ensemble where he taught between 7 and 14 students how to play the instrument.
As the family settled into their new life and acclimated to a different culture, Slade continued to travel on mission trips around the world.
During his first trip in 2000 to the Philippines on a medical mission, Slade said their team of about 15 people saw more than 1,000 people in need in only two or three days. “Seeing all the kids in need keeps us going back,” he said. And since then he has been on many more mission trips to places such as Jamaica, Trinidad, Costa Rica, and back to the Philippines.
“There are many definitions of mission work. For me, it’s not just helping with physical needs but helping spiritually as well,” Slade said.
From the mountains of Jamaica to small villages in the Philippines, Slade said there are many examples of helping those in need that keep him going back.
“It’s easy for us to say we trust God, but when these people say it, they mean it, and that makes it worth it,” he said.
Slade’s father, who fought in World War II and the Korean War, became a pastor and reached out to area migrant workers in the Lowcountry when Slade was growing up.
Now, his desire to help those in need has spread through the family and his wife and daughter have accompanied him on several mission trips. During a trip to the Philippines in 2013, his wife was surprised by the conditions for labor and delivery. “It was an eye opener for her,” Slade said.
“Seeing the Lord through the eyes of little kids is the heart of my work,” he said.
He described the Japanese culture as respectful and resilient, especially on Okinawa which is often hit with typhoons. Slade said his family saw 10 typhoons in the two years they were there. But the people on Okinawa are known for their long lives and they celebrate their longevity.
“America is a wonderful place, but Japan is another wonderful place,” he said. “The people were so nice, we never locked our door because we felt safe.”
Slade also said the food was excellent and he still misses it sometimes.
The family returned to Beaufort in July of last year and Slade admitted there was a bit of an adjustment for everyone.
He said his kids embraced the culture and there were little differences that they missed. “Instead of ice cream trucks, in Okinawa a man comes around selling sweet potatoes,” he said. “There is something about that place that creates a sense of home, it became our second home. But we’re glad to be back to our home with family and friends in Beaufort.”
In the six months that he has been back, Slade has spoken at local churches, telling the story of his missionary work. He said looking back has inspired him to plan for his next trip.
“Looking forward, I am considering my first preventative mission trip,” he said.
For more information or how to get involved in overseas missionary work, contact Slade Heath at 843-505-0574.