The following are e-mail updates from our missionaries in Japan. As they send info, we will post their reports and reflections in chronological order. Please mark this page as a favorite and return here for regular updates:
Rev. Dr. Xiaoling Zhu
For more information on the Japan earthquake response, click here: Japan Earthquake Summary Page
Jeffrey Mensendiek serves the Council on Cooperative Mission where he is assigned to the Emmaus Center in Sendai as director of youth activities. The Emmaus Center website is: http://ameblo.jp/jishin-support-uccj-en/page-1.html#main
July 8, 2012
After church I took off in my car to visit families in Shichigo who had been affected by the tsunami a year ago. The Konno family, whom I have written about before were expecting me. When I arrived, they were working out in the fields with their vegetables. As soon as they saw me they invited me in for some tea and snacks.
Mr. Konno was excited as he told me that tomorrow will be a year from the day that they moved back into the family house. As he spoke I could tell that he could still see the destruction from a year ago as though it were yesterday. They never imagined that a year after the devastation they would be able to be so successful in growing vegetables. Mr. Konno said; "Our tomatoes are the best! Everyone tells us so. You've got to try one of our tomatoes." We talked about many things, about the first days that they came back to fix the house. We talked about the many volunteers who came to help. We talked about the times I came to pick stones and debris out of their fields, and about the time I helped to plant wheat which would help to take salt from the soil. I had been to this house many times to work. The family was so appreciative of the work that the young people did for them. Many of the former volunteers write letters even today to confirm the fact that they have not forgotten the Konno family. In six weeks I will be leaving this city which I have called home for the past forty seven years. I had come to say goodbye to the Konnos, the Satos, and others in Shichigo. I told them that I would return from time to time. In their gentle smiles I could tell that life had taken on a new meaning for them as they opened their home and their lives to complete strangers. Perhaps, and this is just my own reflection, just perhaps, they had discovered a new found faith in the human family - a goodness discovered in every human heart, that was infectious by its true nature. I had experienced this same miracle when I was invited into a stranger’s home in Poland more than 15 years ago. It is a true blessing to be able to experience this miracle, as each party is made all the better through the encounter. I stood up to go and walked over to the entrance. There as I put on my shoes I took a deep bow to show my respect and thankfulness for all of the people in this house. Then Mr. Konno, the eighty three year old farmer, took me around to show me his vegetables. He was so proud of his tomatoes, string beans, cucumbers and corn. He kept bubbling over with joy as he showed me his vegetables. I witnessed his joy as somewhat like the joy that Simeon must have felt when he saw the baby Jesus as recorded in Luke 2. There is something magical when the elderly dream dreams. Under the blue sky, I knew that HOPE had taken hold of the lives of this family. I felt blessed to be a part of God's story of hope.
July 1, 2012
"Give back my Fukushima!" The placards in front of the Prime Minister's office revealed the anger in the air. As I shared in my last update, Japanese citizens have been demonstrating in front of the Prime Minister's office in Tokyo each Friday evening. The numbers are growing each week. Last Friday some papers reported as many as 200,000 people in Tokyo, not to mention the demonstrators in front of public buildings in Osaka, Nagoya and Hiroshima. Tomorrow the government plans to reactivate the Oh-yi nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture. For the past two months every one of Japan's 50 nuclear plants (not including the four in Fukushima which were closed down after the earthquake) has been closed down for inspections. Many of these plants including the Oh-yi plant sit atop faults. Citizens of the two largest cities in Japan - Tokyo and Osaka - have mobilized to gather millions of signatures to hand in to the city hall to protest the reactivating of the nuclear plants. But each time the city governments have voted decisively not to listen to the voices of the concerned citizens. Tomorrow as the Oh-yi plant starts operations, there will be 200 to 300 people standing outside in the rain in protest. At the same time, the Tokyo Shinbun news reported about one family that gets by with a 500 yen ($5.00) electricity bill per month. Electricity has everything to do with our lifestyle. And it is clear that electricity has everything to do with what decisions we make, and how we prioritize our life style over the lives of future generations.
I believe the Japanese public is angry because the government has not openly engaged them in a discussion of what we can do to live more simply, and for the sake of future generations. I think our people are angry because they already see what we have to lose, and feel that if this generation does not engage each other, we will only leave despair for later generations. Electricity means power. I believe the eyes of the world are on Japan and its people. Will we be able to break the monopoly, and begin to dialogue about our post-Fukushima priorities? I look forward to the news on Friday nights to see how these protests are going to develop. Maybe one of these days I will go with my children to join the people of Tokyo. The cities must show their conscience, after what happened at "The Tokyo Electric Company."
June 25, 2012
Last Friday 45,000 people gathered in front of the Prime Minister's office in Tokyo to express their opposition to the reopening of the Oh-yi Nuclear Plant in Fukui Prefecture. This protest was first organized by a young man who works as a home helper for the elderly. He marked the first Friday evening in June to initiate a citizen's protest against the government policy to reopen the nuclear plants. He sent out a simple twitter message to call for solidarity in protesting against the government. In fact, for several weeks all of Japan's 50 nuclear plants had been closed for inspection. The Oh-yi plant represents the first nuclear plant to be reactivated since the earthquake of March 2011. On June first only 300 people had gathered, but as the weeks passed, and the word got out through twitter, more and more citizen's showed up on Friday evenings to join in the protest. Finally the media could not ignore the large numbers who had come out to show their support. The only explanation from the government has been that "there will not be enough electricity to make it through the summer." However, everyone knows that we were able to make it through the hot summer of last year even though the majority of the nuclear power plants were closed. As one famous Japanese musician, Ryuichi Sakamoto, said; "For the government to say that there will not be enough electricity is in fact a threat when you think of how the electric companies have a monopoly on the market. There is no way for the public to know or check if this statement is true or not. "Public opinion is clearly in doubt of government policy which seems to be going back to business as usual. Overseas, Japan has joined the US in agreeing to export the nuclear business to up-and-coming countries. Japan has just signed contracts for building new nuclear plants in Vietnam and Lithuania. Hitachi Corp., General Electric, and Westinghouse are all in this global business together. My friends in Fukushima feel wronged. They don't feel that their government has learned anything from the experience of last year, or that the government cares for the people of Fukushima. Government priorities lie elsewhere. I will never forget the morning of June 17 when I went to get the newspaper and found the words "Oh-Yi Nuclear Plant to be reactivated." I felt betrayed. Days later, as the family watched the news coverage of the 45,000 person demonstration in downtown Tokyo, my 12 year old daughter Hana said in all honesty; "Shall we go down to Tokyo to join the demonstration?" The rage is building! We need to stand up for the land we love, and the lives we want to protect.
June 19, 2012
Reverend Xiaoling Zhu (Area Executive for East Asia and Pacific) came to host a meal with the local Tohoku Kyoku and Emmaus Center leadership. This dinner was to celebrate my 22 years of service in Sendai, and shared ministry with the churches in the Tohoku. Thirteen leaders from the Tohoku District as well as the Emmaus Center attended. It was a great blessing for me to have this chance to reflect upon the road that we have walked together - both the ups and downs, and to be able to share with gratitude our partnership. My main task these past years has been to steer the Student Center toward deeper cooperation with the local churches. Ten years ago we dissolved the Student Center to create the Emmaus Center, whose leadership and ownership is fully embraced by the local Christians themselves. Ever since, management of the Emmaus Center has been difficult, and did not turn out as planned, we have really struggled to make ends meet. Then the disaster happened, and now we have found a purpose for being. We have become the symbol of Kyodan's effective response to save the tsunami survivors. The pictures show 1) me with the two young staff who work for the Relief Center, they are not Christian and have worked with us for close to a year. They have been most dedicated to serving the survivors. 2) Rev. Zhu brought a gift to commemorate the long years of partnership between CGMB and the churches in the Tohoku. He is handing the gift to Rev. Takahashi the moderator of the Tohoku Kyoku. We (CGMB) have sent missionaries to this part of Japan for 126 years. Now with my leaving, that legacy will come to an end but we have committed ourselves to working together for years to come. Though I will not be in Sendai, I hope to be involved in maintaining that relationship. Rev. Zhu was very excited to work with the Tohoku. As we sat in the car heading to Shichigo to see how the communities have recovered, he said; "It is wonderful to have mission personnel here, because they give us the truth." Truth is based on trust - the trust that is built with the local people. I believe that I have been blessed with many friends here that have blessed me with a relationship full of truth. And that is the essence of what I am trying to share here on this blog.
June 12, 2012
The Emmaus Center hosted a lecture by Mr. Steven Leeper from the Hiroshima Peace Culture Center. He spoke about the grassroots movement to rid the world of nuclear arms. We had good attendance, with many young people present. His main point was that many people around the world are convinced that the world should rid itself of nuclear arms, as well as nuclear power. However, there is a lack of leadership. There is also a lack of consensus building around this subject. Canada was the one that provided leadership in the international community to sign an international prohibition on the production of landmines. Soon thereafter there was an international prohibition for cluster bomb production, led by Norway. Even though the US and China (the greatest producers) did not sign the document, the global community was able to create global consensus on this issue. The idea is to build global consensus on the nuclear issue as well. He stressed the fact that Japan should and could be a leader on this issue. After the 3.11 disaster, the world is looking to Japan for how it is going to steer its way through this situation. Is Japan going to go back to being a puppet of the US? Or is Japan going to steer a new course that will benefit the whole human community? I think the young people present were genuinely excited and charged by the challenging presentation. The Tohoku is at risk now, in the sense that we are at the forefront of steering a new course for humanity - away from the culture of violence, toward the culture of peace.
June 11, 2012
The fifteenth month! I went with two friends to visit the family of Yayoi, a friend of ours who died on March 11th last year. Yayoi's mother and elder sister live in temporary housing in the town of Sakamoto, south of Sendai on the coast. They run a small business making machine parts. We took flowers, greeted them at the entrance, and reminisced about Yayoi who was to take on the family business. At the time of the earthquake, Yayoi and her father had hopped in the car to go and get Obachan (grandma). The car was found completely destroyed by the tsunami. The bodies were found much later. Yayoi's mother said "Our business helps us to be busy and to move on." They were genuinely happy to see us. I relayed to them that many of Yayoi's friends at the Sendai Student Center are thinking and praying for the family. Some day we hope that we can come and give incense at Yayoi's grave. (Giving incense is a way of showing respect for the dead.) Then, on the way back we drove by the Sakamoto train station which was completely demolished by the tsunami. The only building left standing now is the restroom. These pictures show the platform at Sakamoto Station, and the entrance to the restroom. Notice the bench and the tree still standing. The surrounding landscape is desolate. The tsunami erased a village. I could almost hear the voices of people who once sat on this bench, waiting for the train to come.
June 10, 2012
Sunday at church, after the service was over, Mrs. Sato stood up to be introduced. She lived in the coastal town of Kesennuma, but lost everything to the tsunami and evacuated to Sendai to live with her relatives. Mrs. Sato had come to church for the first time, having been invited by a friend from her high school days. As she stood to introduce herself, she broke down in tears and for some time she was unable to speak. Then she started to speak. "I fled with all that I could carry, and I have been living in Sendai ever since the earthquake. The other day 40 of my friends from Kesennuma came to have lunch with me. It was then that I realized the truth. This past year I have lived in a state of emotionlessness. I have felt nothing, thought nothing, reflected on nothing. But when I saw my friends I realized that I have been supported and loved all through these fifteen months. I wanted to come to church to thank God for all of the support that I have been receiving. These are the first tears that I have shed since the earthquake." Fifteen months have passed, and survivors are only beginning to find the words to express their feelings.
May 24, 2012
Tomoko is 23 years old. She just graduated from college and now works in Sendai. Her parents live in Fukushima city where the radiation level is very high. Tonight I had Tomoko, who was a former student of mine at Miyagi Gakuin University, come to speak to us about some of the issues that she is wrestling within her life. Present were about twenty young people, some students residing in Sendai, some volunteers at the Relief Center, and some staff of the Relief Center. As she began to speak, stillness covered the room, and I could feel everyone focusing their attention on the speaker. Tomoko shared three stories. First, she said that she can no longer speak with her parents about the nuclear issue. When she goes home, her mother prepares dinner in much the same way that she has always done. Tomoko loves her mother's cooking, and yet inside she worries about how this might affect her health in the future. She tries not to bring up the subject. But sometimes it just comes out. When she expresses her anxiety, her parents show their distress. Her father says "Everything will be alright!" End of conversation. Second, Tomoko has a friend who after the nuclear disaster decided to evacuate to another part of Japan, after three days she found she could not adjust, and thus returned to her home town. Friends at her school gave her a farewell party when she departed and she now feels embarrassed and cannot go back to her former school and thus travels by bus to another high school. She cannot bear to face her former school friends. Third, Tomoko has relatives who live with their children in Fukushima city. The government tries to cleanse the school playgrounds and parks, but everyone knows that the radiation is just pushed into the valleys, ravines and gutters. The radiation does not go away. Tomoko fears for her nieces and nephews. She said; "We all love Fukushima. We don't want to move anywhere. And yet there is fear and anxiety everywhere. Some people write on the internet, or on twitter, that we should just move out of the area. But those comments only cause us more pain." I asked Tomoko; "What is the message that you want to tell us today?" She responded by saying; "I don't want people to forget about us. These days there is next to no news about the dangers of radiation, or about what is happening in Fukushima. It is as if the whole country has forgotten about us. I want you to know that there are people living in Fukushima. I don't want you to forget about us." There was a deep silence in the room. No words were easy to find to express our feelings. After a few questions, I thanked Tomoko for coming to share her story with us. It was like a sanctuary, where the words and feelings deeply suppressed, but very real, came to the forefront. Tomoko seemed genuinely happy to have had the chance to share her story. We are continuing these sessions once a month. Fukushima is not "their problem," its "our problem." We need to keep Fukushima close to our hearts - for our own sake as well.
May 11, 2012
This marks the 14th month since the fateful earthquake. My wife Kako was among the group of volunteers who held hands out by the Arahama coast to share a moment of silence in remembrance of the people who lost their lives. There is still much sadness in the air, but as we held hands we were minded that we do not stand alone. Remembrance is one vital ministry of the Emmaus Center. God surely must be here with us as we bow our heads each month in remembrance.
Meanwhile, at the same time my wife was standing out by the coast sensing the chilly breeze from the Pacific Ocean, I was sitting in the 11th Church Recovery Committee meeting of the Tohoku District. Much of the discussion centered on the creation of an emergency alert system which would disseminate information to the churches in the Tohoku district in case there was a substantial nuclear fall-out at the Fourth Fukushima Nuclear Plant. The Fourth Plant continues to be at high risk. There is an exposed tank of water in which used nuclear waste sit. If this water were to leak out of the tank due to some crack in the surrounding container, the used nuclear waste could potentially cause the greatest nuclear disaster in human history. If this were to happen it is agreed that most of Japan would not be suitable for living. The common understanding among the pastors assembled at this committee meeting is that we have been in a state of alert for the past fourteen months. The government claims that the situation is under control, but the public does not believe the official press. Citizens are looking for alternative sources of information. Last year it was evident that those who were able to access information over the internet were informed sooner, and with greater accuracy. Thus, the committee was recommending a system which would inform the churches in a timely fashion to either evacuate, or take appropriate measures. We are living with a time bomb. Life is at risk. We go on with our lives, and yet at the same time there is a nagging fear of the unknown. The pastors are doing all that they can to be on-top of the situation. They gather information, and try to plan ahead, and yet there is a sense in which we know we are not in control. The monster could lash out at any time, dealing death to us all. What does hope look like in this situation? The Lord helps us to be strong and alert and compassionate toward the people with whom we live. The words of the 23rd Psalm come to mind. God is with us in this valley of death.
May 4, 2012
A year ago the residents of Shichigo thought they had lost everything. Today, 269 people gathered in Shichigo for a festival sponsored by the Emmaus Relief Center. Ninety volunteers returned from all over Japan for this special day. The program began with traditional drums and dances, followed by a time when all of the participants could join in the celebrative dances. There were several food booths where people could receive a free lunch, and a children’s section where children painted wooden flower planters. Toward the end we enjoyed a time of Bingo, as the residents received prizes for their bingo accomplishments. I was asked to give the final speech thanking everyone for coming to the small community event. I thought about what words of blessing I could offer to this community, the majority of who are not Christian.
Gratitude is something all people can understand. As the air was filled with the sound of the drums, and the many young people danced to the beat in their colorful costumes, I was filled with a deep sense of gratitude. What a blessing to be here with these people, and to be celebrating life together in this precise spot which was devastated by the tsunami a year ago.
Heaven (or happiness) happens each time a grateful heart meets another grateful heart. Indeed, that is what is happening when we come together for these occasions. Fourteen months after the devastating tsunami, we are looking for new ways to celebrate together. Gratitude is the source which keeps the fire of our celebration going.
April 25, 2012
I just returned from two nights in the northern part of the island of Honshu. The three northern Districts of the Kyodan hold the "Network on Military Bases and Nuclear Issues" once every two years. It is a platform to share information about what is happening in each of the districts pertaining to these issues, and to keep a watchful eye out for what is happening on a national scale. For the first part of the three day session we heard a lecture by Takashi Hirose who is a well-known journalist that has been covering the nuclear issue ever since Chernobyl. He provided much information about how the air, land, underground water, and the ocean have been polluted by radiation. He also cautioned us about the fourth Nuclear Reactor in Fukushima which is in a very critical state and could explode at any time creating the worst nuclear damage in human history. The room was packed full of concerned citizens who hung on his every word. Hirose's main point is that neither the Japanese government, nor the experts in TEPCO are capable of managing the nuclear industry. He called on all citizens to work together to stop all nuclear reactors in this country, and to move the government away from dependency on nuclear energy. At present 53 out of 54 nuclear plants are not running. The Tomari Plant in Hokkaido will stop for maintenance on May 5, 2012. He said, we must cease the moment and prohibit the government from continuing with their present policies. Hirose shared the following website which shows the number of earthquakes during a ten month span last year. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QGH08OyQXg4&feature=youtu.be
The latter part of the conference took us to Rokkasho Mura in Aomori Prefecture where the Japanese government has built a recycling plant for nuclear energy. It may sound like a good idea on first thought, but in fact there are many problems with this plan to bring depleted uranium and plutonium from all over Japan, and to reuse these forms of energy. For the past twenty years the plant has not been operational, and many problems have arisen which have caused the plant to shut down. Meanwhile, dangerous nuclear waste has been accumulating in containers waiting for the day that they can be recycled, but there is no sign that this government project will ever get off the ground. Barrels and barrels of nuclear waste are being buried deep in the ground. In the PR Center for the Rokkasho Mura Nuclear Waste Plant I heard that these barrels of low level nuclear waste will need three hundred years before they will be harmless. The question that arose in my mind was; "Who is going to be around until then to see this project through and who is going to insure us that there will be no devastating earthquake for the coming three hundred years?” I include a picture of some Buddhist priests whom we met in front of the entrance to the Nuclear Recycling Center. They were hitting their drums, and reading from their mantras. These are the priests from the Nippon Myohoji Sect, whom we often meet at places like this - protesting government policies which threaten our lives and the rights of the people to live in peace. Rokkasho Mura is far off the beaten track, but we were grateful that we were brought together as Christian and Buddhist religious leaders in this sign of solidarity.
March 30, 2012
Rev. Ohshimo lost his church to the nuclear disaster. The Odaka Church lies within the 30km radius, and has been off limits for the past year. Today at our tenth Church Recovery Committee in Sendai it was announced that Rev. Ohshimo would be leaving our conference for another church. He shared with us his thoughts about being displaced for this entire year. He spoke of his church members who are now scattered and the 32 children who used to attend the Odaka Church Kindergarten. On the 24th Rev. Ohshimo scheduled a reunion for all of the children and their families who used to be connected to the Odaka Kindergarten and 14 families gathered. They shared their hope that one day they will be able to return to beautiful Odaka town. But for now they are scattered, like the diaspora. Rev. Ohshimo said that he learned through this experience that what matters most is not the church building, but the ties that bind us together. He dreams of the way God will work in and through these children to tie them to one another, and to the home of their childhood. He also shared his frustration of being asked to speak at various churches in Tokyo, and to realize that people are surprised to hear him still talking about the radiation issue. The mentality in the cities is that this issue is already past history. But for Rev. Ohshimo and the people connected to Odaka, it is a very real and ongoing issue.
March 29, 2012
I visited the Asian Rural Institute (in Nishinasuno, Tochigi Prefecture) for a four day work camp with the youth. The radiation count in the air is high at 0.3 to 0.4. We wore masks when we worked outside on the farm. Some doubt that ARI will be able to continue with their programs of working the soil, planting and harvesting. Some doubt that international participants should come to this "dangerous" place. Many Christian schools decided last year to cancel their plans to send groups of young people to ARI for work camps. People are afraid of the unseen and unknown danger of radiation unleashed on the land. However, ARI has come a long way this year in learning how to combat the situation. I was impressed to know that the staff at ARI have studied the situation set their own standards and have taken precautionary measures to protect themselves as well as the international participants who come for a nine month course at ARI. One local nuclear scientist (retired professor of Osaka University) stated that the situation is not as bad as to evacuate the area. ARI is now a part of the Nasu Fortress Movement which is made up of scientists, local citizens groups, and farmers. Their objective is to face the severe crisis by sharing information, and learning and deepening their awareness of the realities of nuclear contamination. Learning, protecting themselves, and then taking action to educate the public; these are the three principles of the Fortress Movement!
If this fortress does not stand, the same kind of nuclear disaster could happen anywhere else in Japan. I was made to reflect about how rooted rural communities are. For us city-folk it is easy to think about evacuating, because our roots do not go as deep as the rural farmers. For the farming community, leaving the land is unthinkable. Some farmers have already committed suicide. There is shame, sorrow, anger, hopelessness on the magnitude which far surpasses the imagination of the urban/modern mind. If farmers in the Nasu area flee, what is to keep other farming communities from fleeing when danger strikes? The irony is that it is the city-life driven nuclear business which is threatening the soil-friendly and sustainable lives of the rural communities. It truly is a battle, and ARI has decided to set down its roots in the Nasu area, and fight with the farmers. I include pictures of one of our youth feeding the pigs. Everything that goes on the dinner table at ARI is measured for its radiation content. Every day is a battle to hold on to the dream of sustainable life which brings hope for all!
March 20, 2012
"Are you angry?" This is a question that has stayed in my mind for the past week or so. Japanese people are known for their silent patience and perseverance. In the wake of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, there seems to be a general mood of resignation to the realities that are now confronting us. Those who demonstrate on the streets in opposition to the national government which shows no signs of repentance in its nuclear policies, the parents and concerned citizens who raise their voices in anger because they have lost their homes and their livelihood, these people are viewed as "emotional" and "over-reacting." There seems to be an absence of a justified anger which should be focused "on those who cause more suffering for the suffering."
On this day, the Tohoku Kyoku held their One Year Memorial Service for the Disaster of March 11th. There were more than 160 people in attendance for the day's program. One of the panelists in the morning pointed out that most of the miracle stories in the Gospel arise out of Jesus's anger toward the authorities (Pharisees and scribes) who cause greater suffering to be put upon the poor and weak. Is there not such a thing as righteous anger? The panelist asked us; "Where is your anger!"
The program in the afternoon was centered on a worship service, during which we offered a moment of silence at 2:46pm commemorating the time when the earthquake struck. Following the moment of silence, three lay people from our Northeastern Conference prayed. I was moved to tears as I heard their compassionate prayers. Sometimes, when the realities are so heavy, and the mind can't even begin to imagine how to climb out of the deep pit, prayer can be the most uplifting gift. Tears kept flowing as each of their words touched upon memories of the tragedy of earthquake/tsunami and nuclear explosion. It has been a year and I still have flashbacks to some of my own experiences during those dark months of March last year. I was taken by their prayers also because they were genuine, humble, gentle, and with a thirst for justice for all who suffer. There was no glowing victory talk. No creed or theological treaty to fill the vacuum for those who suffer. What we have are hearts yearning to be heard and bleeding for justice. In our weakness we want to be close to those who suffer. There was also expressed, gratitude for all of the young people who have come to be with us, and to serve the survivors. In these young people the church finds hope.
The picture shows students from the Student Center. In their hands they hold dolls made out of socks, sent to us by children from Toronto. These young people may not have lost their homes or their families, but they were greatly touched and encouraged by the sign of friendship and love expressed by the children in Toronto. The disaster has touched all of our lives. The tsunami and nuclear zones are visible signs of destruction however, even for those whose lives seem to be intact there have been troubles, a breakdown of relationships, community and confidence in oneself. The scars from the disaster are everywhere. One of the messages that came with the dolls read; "I will always be with you. You can tuck me into bed with you." Here in our darkest night, a child's prayer is a blessing that carries us through the night.
March 17, 2012
Yesterday was graduation day at Katahira Elementary School. This is the school I attended for some years when I was a child. Now it was my daughter, Hana, who would be graduating. We gathered in the gymnasium for a two hour service. There was a lot of bowing toward the front of the stage where the "national flag" was and a lot of speeches and songs. The school had trained the children well for the day everything went as planned. The parents were in tears as they witnessed their child on center stage receiving the certificate of graduation. There were words of gratitude toward the parents, and toward the teachers. I was getting a bit tired of the ceremony and felt that maybe things would wrap up soon; but no, the songs continued. Then at last the graduating class came down to surround the audience and a final song was offered reflecting on all the good memories at school. This would be the finale for the ceremony. Many members of the graduating class were in tears. Through this whole experience, I reflected on how typical this is of Japan - sometimes so very rigid and ceremonial, and yet at the same time so steeped in emotion.
Exactly one year ago, this same gymnasium had served as an evacuation center for about one thousand local residents who had lost water, gas and electricity in their homes. People reflected on what a difficult year it had been. School started late, school events were either postponed or cancelled, and the school cafeteria service had been out of operation for several months. The children had to put up with a lot. The headmaster said that it brought him special joy to see this graduating class this year.
Yes, it is graduation season in Japan. The earthquake of March 11 last year struck only a few days before graduation day. You can imagine how the teachers and the parents had been preparing for graduation day, the excitement and trepidation in the hearts of the children as the day approached. And, bang! One big and long jolt, and the tsunami and nuclear explosions which were to follow, would claim the lives of many children.
March is a time of change and newness - a time of moving on to new horizons. But now for the people of the Tohoku, it will always be a time to pause in remembrance. Our tears of joy will inevitably be tied to the tears of those who have lost a beloved child.
March 13, 2012
Today I ventured with Rev. Shoji into the heartland of Fukushima, into an area where residents have been evacuated. Driving south from Sendai along the coast for nearly two hours we came to the port of Matsugaura just across the prefectural border into Fukushima. This port was badly damaged by the tsunami. The harbor and fishery buildings are ruined. I was surprised to see parts of the harbor still in ruins. This is a rural area which means that there is less government funding. The fishermen are out of work. Most fishermen are either working to clean up the harbor, or working as construction workers. Life is hard and there seems to be little help in sight.
The second stop was to the Haramachi Nursery. This area is within the 30 kilometer radius from the nuclear reactors, and had been off limits until the middle of October. The children with masks over their faces were playing outside. We asked about the psychological stability of the children and their parents. The pastor responded by saying that many have flashbacks about the tsunami, and some children share their fears that the tsunami could come again and take away their family. The church is providing counseling services as well as doctor visits for the mothers and children as a way to help relieve some of their anxiety. Afterward we had lunch at a Drive Inn right near the police check point, 25 kilometers from the nuclear reactors. The police were standing there to check whether people have the proper permits to enter the restricted area. Residents are allowed to go to their homes to collect their belongings. The Drive Inn was full of local residents either going or coming from their homes. The people are tied to their homes, and to the land which they have called home for all their lives. They are yearning for the day when they can return home.
After stopping by to see some people in temporary housing in the area, we headed up into the hills to Iidate Village this was the most shocking part of my day. Iidate is a beautiful village nestled in amongst the hills of northern Fukushima. Because of the direction in which the wind was blowing following the explosion of the Fukushima reactors, this area was polluted with high counts of radiation.
I was overwhelmed to see the empty streets, nobody to be seen. Vacant houses, public buildings empty, fields unkempt, roads empty, it was a ghost town! We drove for miles and miles through beautiful landscape, but saw no one. Rev. Shoji, my guide and driver, told me he was not going to get out of the car for fear of the high radiation. Even within our car, the Geiger counter was beeping constantly. The counter starts to beep loudly after 0.30 micro Sieverts. As you can see, the Geiger counter in my hand shows 0.76 micro Sieverts. The highest count for the day was 1.05 micro Sieverts. (The count was low today because of the snow cover.) As we came back down out of the hills and away from the Iidate area, I was relieved to be
able to take off my mask. Rev. Shoji told me about the painful divisions which exist among the evacuees of Iidate village. The mayor insists that it will one day be possible to return to the area to live. However, there is a sizable group among the villagers who want to relocate permanently. Tomorrow, Rev. Shoji is going to help with hosting a small concert in the temporary housing units set aside for the residents of Iidate. After many tries, it became evident that the two factions will not be able to come together to enjoy the music. Divisiveness is a hard reality for the refugees/evacuees, divisions are everywhere. The pastor at the Haranomachi Church said with a sigh; “This incident has divided us. We can no longer talk to each other, everyone is divided into factions. Our values and opinions confront and contradict those of others. We find that we can talk more openly with those who come from afar. It’s really tiring to always be reminded of our differences. I wish it didn't have to be this way.” My mind is still reeling from the heavy reality which I witnessed today. I feel the pain which covers the land.
March 12, 2012
Tomomi came for a visit! Tomomi is a sophomore at a local university in Sendai and is the one that I wrote about almost a year ago. She lost her good friend to the tsunami, and I have not seen her for some time. Recently, we had some fun events planned at the Student Center, Tomomi told me she "couldn't” come, but there she was before me to share a cup of tea and chat for a time. Tears were in her eyes as she told me how she admired the others for being so enthusiastic about the relief work. She said; "I have my own issues to deal with which don't allow me yet to work for others." I told her I understood how she felt. I know many people for whom this is true. There is an invisible wall called TRAUMA which has locked us into the daily patterns of life, it is too scary to venture beyond and explore the heart but at the same time we know that the only way forward is by unlocking the key to our heart. People like Tomomi need time, they are praying for the day when their tears will turn to laughter. Part of my work is to be with the Tomomis in and around Sendai. I told her; "Don't compare yourself with others, each person has a different way of grieving. Take your time and allow yourself to weep. I need it too. I need it too."
March 11, 2012
This was a memorial day for the devastating earthquake of a year ago. We gathered at 2:30pm at Shichigo for a short ceremony lead by Rev. Takada. He read from Psalm 23, and explained that the church around the world stands with the people of Shichigo as they strive for a new life in this village. People from the Tenrikyo (a Buddhist Temple) were there to offer noodles to all of the attendees. We have been working with the Tenrikyo people ever since last summer, and they are very supportive of our efforts in Shichigo.
Many people were in attendance. Many former volunteers returned for this very special day. It was like a reunion. The prefab by the bus stop in the village had been renovated to serve as our new base of operations. The prefab represents an invitation from the local residents of Shichigo that we may walk together with them toward a new future. The moderator of the Kyodan (the UCCJ) presented a special gift to the residents of Shichigo. Gratitude was in the hearts of all present. One year after the terrible earthquake and tsunami, God has led us to new bonds of friendship and trust.
Later that night we gathered at the Emmaus Center for evening worship. I was in charge of the service. Normally we only have 20 to 25 people attending, however, on that night there were 75 in attendance, the room was packed. I spoke from 1 Peter 2:22-25 about "the capacity to suffer for others." This whole year has been a combination of joy and pain. As we enter into the lives of those who survived the tsunami, we are left speechless. We are reduced to silence. We are made aware of our powerlessness. Yet, facing the suffering and pain of others, and experiencing the silence of the human soul, we find new hope by opening ourselves to a God who suffered on the cross for others. The call to expand our capacity to suffer for others, leads us to be stewards of love. Compassion means the ability to suffer with others, knowing that one's presence can bring hope out of despair. Suffering for others leads to silence, and prayerful silence leads to hope (Psalm 62). The work of the church is to take on the suffering for others, so that God's love will be made real in and through us. A soloist sang "Listen Lord", an Iona Community hymn, which nearly brought me to tears. A team from a Methodist church in Texas sang "How Great Thou Art" to lift our spirits. Singing together was a good way to experience our connectedness to one another. God has been leading us on a pilgrimage. Today was a huge milestone along that journey.
March 7, 2012
I am slipping behind in my writing. So many things have happened in this last month. Each day in the newspapers we read articles related to the disaster of March 11th. In a few days it will be the first anniversary of the fateful earthquake. Here at the Emmaus Center we are planning a simple opening ceremony for a new base of operations in the village of Shichigo. The villagers have invited us to be a constant presence there, and have gifted us with a base of operations. Many of our volunteers who have worked through the Emmaus Center will be returning for this anniversary. At 2:46pm in the afternoon we will be holding hands for yet another minute of remembrance in silence. Lost lives, lost homes, lost livelihoods, lost community, lost relationships, lost security of life. Yet in the midst of all this loss we are going to celebrate by coming together in a way we have never come together before. This is a simple way of witnessing to the HOPE that is already alive within our hearts. I very much look forward to this coming Sunday. In the paper I read that 260,000 people are still displaced. I also read that only 5% of the debris left from the tsunami has been disposed of. The number of volunteers during the summer last year at any given time was 100,000. That figure for the month of January was 5000. The needs are larger now than ever, and yet interest is declining. Here at the Emmaus Center though, we are having a constant number of volunteers who come to help. There are schools, churches and individuals who have benefited through their experience with us, and who come back to help. One of the positive attributes of the church is that it can provide a strong network to sustain an effort such as this. To date we have had 1750 volunteers. It has been an incredible year of people coming and going. It has been a blessing to be at the heart of a relief effort so genuine and fruitful.
February 16, 2012
The Aizu Church Women's Committee invited me to speak at their annual gathering. I shared about the work of the Relief Center in Sendai. Then following my presentation, Terumi Kataoka spoke about the work of the Aizu Radiation Information Center. There were about thirty people in attendance and most of them were elderly. After the two presentations there was a time to share a meal. During lunch people talked about their frustrations concerning the radiation issue. It is understandable that the national government feels the need to keep the situation under control by controlling information, and putting pressure on local schools and public institutions to conform to what has become national policies. However, on the other hand, people feel vulnerable. Some say that the government is only trying to protect its own interests. Individual lives are less important to the government than saving face, and maintaining a sense of control. Terumi shared that they have regular "sharing sessions" with young mothers and concerned citizens. About twenty people gather each month to share their concerns and fears. The work of the Information Center is to provide a sanctuary for people where they can express their inner most concerns and feel accepted and supported by a network of people. In the meantime the government is making tests, and taking samples of prospective victims of radiation. This information is never shared with the public. It has been so ever since Hiroshima. Secrecy goes hand in hand with national nuclear policies. In the midst of this tension, the church that Terumi belongs to is providing much needed space for people to take hold of their lives. What the people of Fukushima need most is "information" based on the truth.
February 2, 2012
Today I spent the day at Shichigo helping to clean the Shoji house. There were eight of us volunteers in total. We are having a cold spell in Japan, and this morning there was quite a bit of snow. It was the first day since the New Year that I found the time to volunteer.
At ten o’clock I had a chance to talk with Mr. Sugawara who is the local resident of Shichigo who was instrumental in getting us into the neighborhood. He was our contact person, and personally delegated our volunteers to the various houses. He told us that out of the 117 households in Shichigo, 71 have returned, and they are expecting a total of 30 more households to move back by the end of spring. He also told us that the neighboring village of Arahama, by the sea, which was totally destroyed, will be moving to the Ishiba District right in the vicinity of Shichigo. The Arahama residents will represent 300 households. The new Shichigo village thus will be comprised of about 400 households in about five years. There will be many changes in the coming years.
We spent about an hour talking about various subjects. In the course of our conversation Mr. Sugawara said with a smile on his face; "If it wasn't for the Emmaus Center our village would not be the way we are today." This is a phrase that I have heard repeatedly. Yet each time I hear this, and I find Mr. Sugawara looking into my eyes, it brings tears to my eyes.
Then he said; "We have decided to donate a prefab for use for the Emmaus Center. There you can keep your tools. You can have space to sit and drink tea. And we want the Emmaus Center to be present as a part of our community as we rebuild." This picture that I send shows the old prefab. It is a run-down old building by the bus stand. And it looks particularly deserted in the cold winter landscape. But to my eyes it was a treasure of our friendship. Close to eleven months of walking alongside one another. The local residents have offered us a concrete way in which we can continue to walk alongside the survivors of this one village. It is a symbol of our friendship and solidarity!
We talked about our dreams for the future. Young people from the Student Center can come to help with after school classes. We can arrange for a piano teacher to teach classes once a week. There are endless ways in which the people from the Emmaus Center can interact and serve the needs of the people of Shichigo. We will start to plan toward the opening of this new Emmaus Center Prefab in April.
January 31, 2012
I see a room clean with new tatami mats
I see the entrance ready to welcome guests
I see hours of labor that took away the stains
the care that swept away some tears, but not all
Countless volunteers prayed
as they scrubbed and lifted and pounded
praying for a new day to arrive in the Shoji family home
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder
The eye of the one who has labored
is able to see what was once there but is no longer
The eye of the one who has labored
sees hope in an empty room clean with tatami mats
January 30, 2012
It is proving to be a cold winter this year. I include a shot of our yard in Sendai. Sendai is on the Pacific coast and thus does not get too much snow, but on the other side of the mountains, in Yamagata, every day the residents need to remove mountains of snow. Usually, I organize groups of young people to go for a day to help with snow removal at some of our churches.
As the cold days continue we are short on volunteers who come to help with disaster relief at the Emmaus Center. Each day our staff makes the trip out to Shichigo and Ishinomaki to do the little that we can. The residents are experiencing fatigue and depression. We hear that survivors are committing suicide. Our hearts go out to all who have worked tirelessly for others, and are now facing their own limits. In a week or two we will be welcoming a new staff member from Seattle, from the United Methodist Church. In this way our efforts are slowly becoming more international. It is at times like these that we can take comfort in knowing that many people around the world are lifting the survivors up in prayer.
January 27, 2012
Our local Church Recovery Committee has finally come out with an emergency handbook; “How to Protect Yourself from the Nuclear Disaster.” The contents include 1) emergency preparedness, 2) basic information about meltdown, re-criticality, and how nuclear radiation spreads, and 3) what steps to take in an emergency situation.
Today was the 8th meeting of the Church Recovery Committee. Our Northeastern Conference is looking at major changes in the near future. Churches that will close, pastors that will leave, residents that will leave Fukushima, church-run kindergartens and nurseries that will need to decide if they will close or remain open.
The Haranomachi Church by the coast and 40 kilometers north of the damaged reactors has decided to remain open so long as there are people living in the area. Some people have no choice but to remain in the area. So the church will be committed to providing services to small children through their kindergarten. However, there has been an ongoing debate within our committee as to how to respond to the nuclear disaster. Some committee members believe that the best solution in light of the Fukushima disaster is to flee, while other members believe that the church needs to remain so long as there are people who have no choice but to stay in their homes.
The committee decided today to ask the national headquarters of the Kyodan (UCCJ) to help fund an office that will specialize in reaching out to people who are at risk due to the nuclear disaster. The present committee members are all local pastors of the Tohoku Conference. They feel overwhelmed by the immensity of the situation. Who is going to address this issue, and how? We are not sure if the national office will respond positively to this request. The national office is overwhelmed itself by the financial responsibility of rebuilding the many churches/parsonages that were destroyed by the earthquake. Thus, nuclear issues seem to be a secondary concern.
I sit in these committee meetings wishing there was something I could do to link the pressing issues of our local churches, with the people overseas who are concerned for us. We know that the nuclear issue is not merely a domestic one. It affects the world. Yet on the local level we are at a loss for what steps need to be taken. I can sense the fear, confusion, anxiety and opposing viewpoints that bring a noticeable tension into our discussions. I hope in the months ahead I will have some more positive news to share. I tell you, talking about this nuclear situation with fellow residents is sometimes like walking on pins and needles. It’s a very volatile and divisive topic.
January 21, 2012
Emidia Belo, from East Timor, visited me at the Emmaus Center. I cannot express what a great joy it was for me to welcome her here in Sendai. I was meeting her for the first time. Emidia was one of the orphans from the Laga Orphanage in Baucau province. I have been involved in supporting 60 orphans in this orphanage over the past ten years. We have been sending Japanese children's books which I translated into Japanese. We then had the English translated into the Tetton language.
I have known about the struggle of East Timor in a personal way ever since I started my work here in Sendai. The first young man I met from East Timor was a refugee who escaped during the oppressive years of Indonesian rule. He escaped to Portugal with a group of friends to "get the word out" about their struggle for independence. Many years later East Timor gained its independence, but not without great sacrifice and bloodshed. Out of this great tragedy, a small handful of Japanese people have continued a relationship with the Timorese people. I have been honored to have been a part of this.
Emidia graduated from college two years ago and now works for the Red Cross in disaster relief. She has a marvelous smile and generous spirit. We sang many songs, and shared our stories - from Timor and from northeastern Japan. She paid her own way to come to Sendai to be with us, and to visit the disaster stricken area. We shared a simple meal together, and for me she was a messenger of HOPE. These relationships that span time and space are the gems for which life is truly worth living.
January 19, 2012
I have to remind myself that we may be in a constant state of emergency here in northeastern Japan. The other day I learned that we might have been at high risk on January 10th when one hundred consecutive small tremors shook the area right by the Fukushima reactors. My friend Rev. Saigusa who works for the Tohoku Help office located in the Emmaus Center showed me a map of the area with markings that show the tremors in northeastern Japan from January 6th through 10th. Most of the small red dots were clustered around the reactors. His explanation was that perhaps these were explosions within the reactors. He guesses that there may be a high risk situation within the inside of the nuclear plants reaching "re-criticality" (this is a word I am not familiar with but it means dangerous!). TEPCO and the official press do not offer any information. They deny any troubles saying that there is no increased radiation coming from the reactors. But experts who have an eye out on the reactors say that the tremors were all very shallow-level tremors, and were concentrated within an hour’s time span. Questions linger in our minds. Rev. Saigusa says; "Anything could happen at any time. The fourth reactor of which we have very little information is the most dangerous. If that blows up the explosion will be bigger than any we have yet seen.
I remember talking to a German man who came to volunteer at the Emmaus Center. His company in Germany had made simulations of the weather patterns, and how the radiation would fallout throughout Japan. After six months of making simulations the company decided to stop making the simulations. They were surprised to receive 9000 emails from citizens in Japan saying; "Please don't stop. We need your information. We don't trust our own government."
We, the church international, need to work on issues of advocacy on behalf of the Japanese people.
January 18, 2012
They say that Sendai has experienced 7000 tremors since the earthquake of March 11th last year. I must say that we have been constantly reminded of the vulnerability of our present situation.
Yesterday marked the 17th anniversary of the Kobe earthquake. There were ceremonies in both Kobe and the Tohoku to remember each other at this time of deep suffering.
The mission committee of the Tohoku Kyoku met the other day to discuss their new "mission statement" to be presented at the annual meeting this May. The explosion of the nuclear plants in Fukushima has altered our ministry from its foundations. Two of our churches are closed indefinitely, and many more are at risk due to the dangers of radiation. How are we going to reflect on our past complicity with the nuclear industry? How is the church going to raise their voice to proclaim peace for the people of the Tohoku in light of this disaster? The Catholic bishops were quick to publish their statement denouncing the government policy of dependency on nuclear energy. Are the protestant churches going to be able to come out with a prophetic voice as well?
There are four months until the annual meeting it is going to be interesting to see where this discussion will go. How our conference will formulate their mission in light of present realities. The mission chair is committed to coming out with "a theology of the Tohoku." However, I am deeply aware of the divisions which exist within our church. How are we going to reconcile ourselves with one another? The threat is a real one! Perhaps more than the threat of nuclear radiation itself, the threat of divisiveness, judgment, anger, factionalism, and impatience toward one another. This could break the church if we are not careful. Sensitivities are on edge and differences have come to the forefront. I pray that we will find the leadership that will be able to bridge the differences, to steer a course of peaceful diplomacy within the church community.
January 11, 2012
Ten months after the fateful earthquake! Moments of silence were shared by our staff at 14:46pm to honor those who died; by the coast, by the graves of the unidentified, and at the Emmaus Center.
On December 16, 2011 the Gamma Ray Spectrometers were installed in one of our rooms at the Emmaus Center. This machine will allow us to measure the amount of radiation in food items. This service will be provided free of charge. In all three German-made spectrometers were installed, one of which was funded by donations from CGMB. (See picture)
The talk in the air is about the fear of radiation. Many students who come from Fukushima are coming to our study sessions at the Emmaus Center. On December 18th we held our second session where we learned about the fruitless "radiation clean-up" now being carried forth by the Japanese government. Mr. Shoji showed us pictures of various sites where the clean-up is going on. In one municipality the local government calls on young volunteers to join in the clean-up. The volunteers wear a mask, but are ill prepared for the highly dangerous situation. In another locality the National Self Defense Forces are doing clean-up dressed in full preventive gear. One Japanese newspaper reported the president of TEPCO saying; "We cannot order our employees to join in the clean-up. It is too dangerous." At the same time the local municipalities in Fukushima and Koriyama cities are asking their local residents "to help" with clean-up.
Mr. Shoji, who has made countless trips to Fukushima since April says: "Clean-up is meaningless. It is a show put on by the government which does not want to face the grave dangers of radiation. At the same time they are putting the local residents at risk. The best solution to the problem is to evacuate all residents. Clean-up only means that the radiation is washed into the gutters only to collect in the lowest places of the Fukushima valley.
Since November we have been buying bottled water to drink at home here in Sendai. I am afraid for our children. No one knows the dangers. The experience of Chernobyl is clear. No one knew what to think about the nuclear disaster. The children were our barometers, three to five years after the disaster the children started having health problems. By then it was too late."
November 30, 2011
On Monday I drove down south to visit some pastors in Soma along the coast of Fukushima Prefecture. On the way I stopped by the former Sakamoto train station. It was completely wiped out by the tsunami. Compared with the northern city of Ishinomaki, the southern coast of Miyagi Prefecture feels deserted. Less population means less money from the local government to be engaged in recovery. The Sakamoto Elementary School was a commanding structure very close to the ocean. Eight months after the tsunami, it still stands quietly by the coast with no one engaged in tearing it down. I could almost imagine the waves filling each classroom. I wonder when recovery will start! Soma is 45 kilometers (30 miles) from the Fukushima nuclear reactors. There I visited Rev. Sasaki in the hospital. He was there to have a polyp removed. I have known Rev. Sasaki for over twenty years. He has always served in rural churches, and is now the pastor of Kashima Eiko Church, with a membership of about 20. I always remember Rev. Sasaki for this special phrase which he once used while speaking at the annual conference of the Tohoku District. He called for people to recognize the importance of "Galilea Evangelism." Galilea is like the Tohoku - it is a rural area, and often looked down upon by the central governing powers. It is not like the cities, where all the power is wielded. It is where the people are, who suffer for the sake of the cities. Rev. Sasaki is a poet. He was so glad that I came for a visit. He handed me some poems, one of which is as follows. The poem is based on a famous novel about a man who tries to place himself with people who are mourning the loss of a loved one. He strives to share the deep feeling of loss. "Itamu" is the special Japanese phrase used when people mourn/grieve the loss of a loved one.
Itamu hito wa A person who shares in the mourning of others, is
Hiroi Kokorode Ukeireru hito a person who accepts with an open heart
Itsukushimiwo Wakarouto suru hito a person who strives in love to understand
Kanashimini Yorisoeru hito a person who can accompany a grieving heart
Soredemo Soreyue and in spite of this and because of this
Nozomiwo motoutosuru hito strives to maintain Hope
Soushita hitoni watashiwa naritai like such a person, I would like to be
November 29, 2011
K is a friend of mine from 20 years back. She married a pastor, and was living in Fukushima city with her two children when the nuclear disaster struck. I had heard that she had evacuated in July with her children to the northern island of Hokkaido. Just recently I got word that her children had surgery on their thyroid glands. I called K immediately. She said; "All of a sudden both of my children, and even our dog had swollen glands, so we rushed to the hospital for operations." Her husband is still pastoring the church in Fukushima but is set to leave at the end of this fiscal year. K shared with me how hard it was for her to leave. She also shared that this nuclear accident has caused friendships to be broken. People whom she had trusted suddenly became distant. Even in the church, relationships were fractured. K said that the only people whom she can really talk to are those who themselves have evacuated. "I ran away from Fukushima. I don't know if the people of our church will ever forgive me." It was a short phone conversation, but I could feel the deep pain in her voice. Our only comfort rests in God, who knows our hearts, and leads each of us according to our own paths. I pray for K and her family in this dreadful time of persecution. Making decisions that go against the mainstream dominant culture bring so much suffering on the individual. In K's case, the irony is that most likely her family will have to live with the tragedy of "Fukushima" their whole lives. The suffering is only now beginning.
November 26, 2011
Today we were able to organize a session with Rev. Shoji to learn about the situation in Fukushima. Rev. Shoji has been with us since the beginning of April and has been making regular visits to Fukushima, visiting farmers, churches, public schools, municipal offices as well as local residents. He has been making measurements of radiation, and at the same time he collects information about life in Fukushima. The information he collects is very valuable, because it is the kind of local information which the government and the main media sources do not report.
Two young people planned the session with me. One a 26 year-old nursery school teacher, Asami, is from Fukushima city and the other was a 20 year old, biology student from Tohoku University. We had thirteen in attendance. Rev. Shoji said; “The government declares that 1 Micro Sieverts a year is a permissible amount, but please know that there is no level of radiation that is safe for our bodies.” He showed us pictures from Fukushima. Cows left in the pastures, fields left unattended, people dressed from head to toe in white outfits heading back to their homes to get their belongings, public officials making radiation measurements, school grounds where top soil is being removed in order to decrease the radiation level. The pictures were a sobering reminder that our lives are under attack. Soil removal is doing nothing to improve the situation.
We hope to continue these learning sessions monthly and might call this time “talking sessions.” It will be a time where we can encourage people who are concerned to come together to talk about their fears and frustrations, and to work together to learn about the risks of radiation, to find a common voice for change. There is a need for the public to come together and share from the heart – to find a sanctuary, where people can find safety and comfort. I think our session this evening provided such a space for those who attended.
November 23, 2011
My wife likes to browse through a magazine called “Tsoohan Seikatsu.” It’s a shopping catalogue magazine which introduces quality products that are sensitive to the environment. The topic for their autumn catalogue is “Calling for a Public Referendum on Nuclear Energy.” The content is quite impressive, introducing voices of many public figures who are deeply questioning Japan’s dependency on nuclear energy. On the cover you can see the map of Japan with the 54 yellow and black circles marking Japan’s many nuclear power plants.
Tsoohan Seikatsu also made a television commercial stating; “It’s not the statesmen, nor the big companies that set our public policies. It’s the people. Let us call for a public referendum on the issue of nuclear energy.” Needless to say no television company was willing to air the commercial.
People are slowly awakening to the fact that the Tokyo Electric Company (TEPCO) and other regional electric companies, who hold a monopoly on the market, have created for themselves a hegemony which very closely resembles the pre-war military emperor system of the 1930s and 1940s. Public opinion and the media are controlled very closely by the invisible hand of the electric company. Banks, large companies, politicians and the media are all beholden to the giant conglomerate energy business. Though polls show that 82% of the people are calling for a change in Japan’s dependence on nuclear energy, 89% of the stock holders of TEPCO (Banks, Insurance companies, etc.) voted in favor of continuing present policies. Yu Tanaka, a journalist and anti-nuclear activist who spoke at our latest Tohoku District Annual Gathering said; “Japan is not a democracy. It is a stock-holders democracy. We need to make ourselves more aware of the structures that govern Japan. We can move beyond our high dependence on electric energy.”
Today I visited the rural town of Ogawara, south of Sendai. My friends were part of a group who purchased a food radiation counter with which they will make measurements of cesium in food products. The new Center was full of local farmers and residents. I met a few people that I hadn’t seen in close to ten years. These people have lived close to the land their lifestyle is not dependent on great levels of electric energy. They have been sensitive to the environment. The nuclear disaster is certainly a tragedy; however, it is bringing the people together in new ways. There are small signs of hope everywhere and we are being forced to examine our priorities, and to think locally.
November 18, 2011
The seventh Tohoku District Church Recovery Committee meeting was held this afternoon. Twenty pastors from Miyagi, Yamagata and Fukushima prefectures gathered to discuss matters relating to:
1) Needs of the churches and related kindergartens;
2) Progress of relief center activities;
3) Aiding areas with high radiation count;
I am part of a team that sends a short newsletter by fax to each of our 80 some churches to keep all churches in the district informed. Each time I attend the meeting I learn so much! Today we started by discussing concrete issues brought to the District from individual churches. Our major concern is to develop sound rules for dispensing the aid. We would not want there to be unequal treatment allotted to the churches. Some churches are eager for the financial aid. The days are growing colder, and we are aware that we need to address the needs of our churches as soon as possible. The second issue which struck my eye was that many church related kindergartens in the Tohoku District are accepting refugee children into their fold. For many of these families are fleeing from Fukushima, or from the tsunami stricken areas, the local government has not yet been able to promise financial support. In the case of Fukushima, the prefectural government refuses to admit that their residents are indeed refugees. Public schools and kindergartens are still operating, and thus the prefectural government insists that there is no "refugee problem”. Those who flee are to do so under their own discretion. For such Fukushima residents, there is as of yet no government support. Our church run kindergartens in the District have accepted up to fifty refugee children, and the numbers are growing. A third issue raised was for the Tohoku District to put out a public statement, much like the local Catholic diocese did, to make it clear that we are anti-nuclear energy, and that we will work toward the eradication of nuclear plants in Japan. Certain pastors were quite in agreement, while a majority of the pastors kept their silence. It is hard to tell what that silence meant. The Tohoku is a very conservative area. Some pastors may still believe that the church should not be involved in social concerns. I have always had trouble with this kind of ideology! Then, the final issue which I will mention was pertaining to children. Some Districts like Hokkaido and Osaka have sponsored children from Fukushima to escape for a short stay to enjoy safe air and playgrounds not contaminated by high levels of radiation. One pastor from Fukushima told us that he has invited a "drawing therapist" to help children work through their difficult emotions. He said “some children start drawing, using dark colors such as black and grey. They draw pictures of their kindergarten teachers dying, and/or pictures of weapons. One child asked if he could write profane words. But once the dark emotions have been emptied onto the page, the children begin to return to normal. The stress, anger and anxiety needs to be expressed and seen for what it is. Then, slowly the children are healed”. Too many heavy topics in one afternoon! This Committee meeting is held once a month. We are trying to move forward collectively, to discern what it means to be the CHURCH in this particular locality.
November 12, 2011
Eight months have passed since the earthquake there is still much to do, both physically and spiritually. From Friday night to Saturday noon, we had a prayer retreat at the Emmaus Center with Brother Ghislain of Taize. Over forty people attended from various denominational backgrounds. The opening meditation was from the Gospel of Mark where Jesus takes the disciples to the other side of the lake. The disciples were very busy attending to the crowds who came to see Jesus. They even lacked sufficient time to eat. Jesus disburses the crowds, and calls the disciples to a lonely place. Brother Ghislain said; "What are the crowds that busy your mind, that block your attentiveness to God's word. Jesus will disburse the crowds for you. Let us allow ourselves to go deep into our hearts to discover the key to our heart of hearts, to once again find joy. Let us for a short while follow Jesus to the other side of Emmaus." On the second day, as I spent an hour by myself in silence, I realized something very important for myself. The Emmaus Center is where I was when the earthquake struck. It is the place where I decided to commit myself and the Emmaus Center to the relief work for the survivors of the tsunami. It has also been a place of pain and conflict, where I was broken, where the community was broken, where I can still feel the wounds deep within me. At the same time, I discovered that this is the place from which God will lead me into a new future. I need to let go, to forgive, and move on. This realization brought a ray of light into my darkness. A famous church father from the sixth century, Isaac the Syrian, said; "If you go deep into your heart of hearts, you will find the key to open the doors to heaven." Living life daily is one thing, but to live from the heart a life for others, this will take a repeated journey back to the heart of hearts. In a sense, that is the key that I have found for my continued journey of accompaniment with the people of the Tohoku.
November 10, 2011
Naomi is a longtime friend who works at Senshu University in Ishinomaki city. She was at work when she saw ships and cars being pushed up the river by the tsunami. For ten days she couldn't go home and remained at work to care for people, and to get some bearing on life. Thereafter, Senshu University opened its doors to the public, offering services, and also offering space to volunteers. Now there are one thousand temporary housing units near the University, and each day the refugees have nothing to do so they roam the campus. Naomi works in the library with only three staff and they have to attend to many people. Naomi says her whole life has changed. On this day I finally had the opportunity to visit Naomi for the first time after the tsunami. I was with a close friend - a Taize brother from France. We had dinner together in Naomi's home (which was spared destruction from the tsunami), and then prayed together with about ten friends in the Taize style - with much silence. Naomi was in tears as she shared; "This is a miracle for me, I have always wanted to go to Taize, but today, Taize came to my house." It brought me great joy to see how delighted Naomi was. She has started a small project called SWAN with a group of women. They are calling on people to send flowers to share with the survivors. Simple flowers can bring joy. Naomi is always reaching out to people, it was a joy to accompany her on that day - she is a sign of hope within the community of Ishinomaki.
November 9, 2011
Today, I bicycled out to Shichigo to join the volunteers. We were nine volunteers in total, quite a small number compared to the summer when we constantly had fifty. Right now we are working with the Shoji family who has just decided that they want to return to Shichigo. We have cleaned under the houses, cleaned the floor boards, the walls, refinished the wall paper, the shoji screens, and are now putting new flooring in. Once the inside of the houses are done, we will work on the outside - the walls, roof, garage and fields. My wife has been going twice a week to Shichigo, and we are busy trying to find local people who will be able to help out on regular bases.
I have found that local people either have already made commitments to different sites, or else they have a resistance to help - perhaps resulting from a personal traumatic experience which they would rather not have to remember. The one picture I include shows vegetables growing in a field where we worked during the summer to remove weeds that had grown to a size over our heads. These vegetables show that the local residents of Shichigo are beginning to regain their daily lives and grow toward a new future. The second picture shows some wrecked cars orderly placed on an open lot. Though not completely cleared yet of debris, the large cars and agricultural machines which were destroyed by the tsunami are placed in an orderly fashion - ready for pick-up. Every day our volunteers continue to go to Shichigo. The Shoji family treated us last Saturday to an outside barbeque. Trust and gratitude are the ties that bind the volunteers of the Emmaus Center and the residents of Shichigo.
November 7, 2011
On Saturday we celebrated the tenth anniversary of the Emmaus Center. It has been a rich, and yet and difficult ten years. 45 people gathered for the memorial worship service, and then the short party afterwards. It was a simple celebration, but very heart warming. Since the earthquake of March 11th the Emmaus Center has proven to be of great worth to the greater public - for which we are very pleased. We hope that our activities will be a witness to the kind of gentle love which Jesus showed the disciples as he accompanied them on their way to the town of Emmaus. Today there was a meeting to discuss how various groups can aid foreigners living in Tohoku. People came from all over Japan for this two hour meeting. Most interesting to hear was the differences between the foreigners who live in the rural areas compared with the foreigners living in the cities. Korean, Filipino and Chinese women who married into farming families have strong ties to their local communities, and they had no problems. However, in the cities there were people who did not have sufficient language skills and/or ties to the wider public, who found themselves at a loss for what to do. People who do not use the internet have a disadvantage in terms of gathering information. Much discussion centered on how the various NGOs, local government agencies and church groups could work together in the future to support the "resident aliens" in this land.
November 2, 2011
Maday (pronounced "Mah-day") means to take things slowly, and to do with great care. The word is a part of the local dialect of Fukushima, near the area where the nuclear reactors are located. It is only recently that I have learned about this word. Iidate village is only 5 kilometers from the reactors. This village has been involved in community building around the idea of Maday. Just this year in February, Iidate village came out with the "Declaration of MADAY LIFE" in which they lift up five basic principles for what they believe is essential for life. These also represent principles toward which they are committed as a whole community.
- Maday in building relationships with people and the wider community
- Maday in taking care of one's body, and the land
- Maday in building family ties
- Maday in honoring the value of "food" and "agriculture"
- Maday in nurturing individual lives
It has taken the people of Iidate twenty years to reach this point, and they were just about to advertise their beautiful village to the wider public, calling people to join them in their simple and yet fruitful lives in Iidate. Just five kilometers south of Iidate village stand the nuclear reactors of Namie town - symbols of just the opposite kind of lifestyle. How ironic that these two communities should be so close. How sad for Iidate.
October 31, 2011
Returned from Kobe city today where I shared about the work of the Emmaus Relief Center. The churches in Kobe, Osaka and Kyoto have been supporting us through this period. Many people are very passionate and sympathetic for the people of the Tohoku, mainly because the people in the Kobe area experienced the large earthquake of 16 years ago. They genuinely want to help.
This month the numbers of volunteers have declined due to the fact that universities are back in session. In Shichigo and in Ishinomaki, we have an increase of houses that want us to come and help out, yet we are short on volunteers. This situation will continue until the 20th of December. Somehow we want to maintain the numbers of volunteers at a daily rate of 15 to 20. We may have to rely on retired folks. Mr. Nishihama, who knows Okinawa quite well, commented; "The citizen's sit-in in Henoko that has continued for ten years, to resist the building of a new US Airstrip by the Japanese government, is sustained mainly by retired people. Young people have to go back to school. You can only depend on them during their seasonal breaks. You have to get realistic about this. The number of young volunteers is definitely going to decrease. We've got to find a way to involve the generation that is just now entering retirement!" Although the media paints a positive picture of those who are finding new ways to rebuild their lives, the reality is still quite severe for the survivors. We only wish that we could send hands to help prepare the houses before winter comes.
October 27, 2011
The Student Center where I work is very slow these days. Very few new young people are coming. I think there is a general depression that has affected the population of Sendai. Last night I met Sayaka who comes to our piano class at the Center. I have known her for some years, and she was formerly a student of mine at Miyagi Gakuin Women's College. She now works for a small real estate company. As soon as I walked in the door of the piano room she greeted me with a smile and said; "Jeffrey-san, I am moving to the city of Fukushima next week. My boss just told me yesterday. I was shocked and responded "No you can't! It’s dangerous in Fukushima!" Suddenly I felt the tears in my eyes. Sayaka is only 24 years old. She smiled sweetly and said; "But many people are living there in Fukushima." I might have responded too honestly. But none the less I returned home with a heavy heart. Here in Sendai, heart wrenching moments are just a moment away.
Just yesterday I came across a new book just published named "Nuclear Reactors and the Christian Response." On the cover is pictured a policeman wearing a mask, standing by a sign which reads "entrance prohibited."Many pastors and lay people whom I know from across Japan have contributed essays in this book. Finally the church is finding its voice - to say No to having more than 50 dangerous reactors on these earthquake prone shores. Terumi, a pastor's wife in Aizu (Fukushima) writes of her anger at how the local government and schools just go along with business as usual requiring families to join on a clean-up day, knowing that the school playground has a very high radiation count. Her church kindergarten was just closed this spring. Now, the kindergarten building houses the Aizu Radiation Information Center on the second floor, and provides play space for the children of Okuma town who evacuated because their town is a mere ten kilometers from the reactors. In her anger she writes; "I don't know why I'm getting so involved in the Radiation Information Center. All I know is that we have the responsibility to protect our children, and the government is not doing that. They are controlling the information, and trying to underplay the dangers. I feel a calling to reach all the mothers who feel isolated in their fear of radiation. In Fukushima, people call you crazy and over sensitive if you question the safety of the present situation. Whereas the truth is that everyone who doesn't question the present situation is in fact crazy. I want to reach all those mothers, and tell them they are not alone. We have to find a common voice so that we can really protect our children."
October 25, 2011
Today I went to the city of Ishinomaki to see for myself the kind of work our Ishinomaki satellite is doing. Since August we have established a volunteer center in Ishinomaki. Now there are three staff members who stay in the house, and we are able to house up to 15 volunteers. The house was hit by the tsunami and so after purchasing the house, we needed to have work done to use the first floor. It is a very comfortable set up with kitchen, bath, living room and plenty of rooms upstairs for privacy. The only thing we lack is a chief coordinator for which we are searching in earnest. Ishinomaki is still a very ruined city with heaps of damaged cars, mountains of garbage, trucks carrying loads of debris, and shovel engines removing the rubble. Parts of the city have been cleared, but other areas are just as they were right after the tsunami. The largest city on the northeastern coast of Japan is a far cry from recovery. Today I visited two sites; Iwaida is a fishing village and we have been involved with the people of Iwaida since the beginning. Now that some spaces have been cleared people are rebuilding their houses. I had tea with Yasuko whom I had met several times before. She said at night the city is very dark and that just recently the people in the fisherman's boat repair and storage across the street decided to keep the lights on all night. Yasuko shared with us how happy she was to have the lights on all night. Light can be a true blessing for the people who are struggling through this difficult time in Ishinomaki. The second site I visited was Mrs. Takahashi in Tsukiyama near our Ishinomaki Relief Center. I helped remove soil from her garden, and replace the soil with gravel. This is a house that many of our volunteers have come to help. Mrs. Takahashi still cannot sleep well at night. She shared with us that right after the earthquake, she rushed outside and agreed to evacuate with the mother and 20 year old daughter across the street. Mrs. Takahashi told them to wait as she rushed into the house to get something. In her confusion, she took too much time, and before she knew it the tsunami had reached her doorstep. So she rushed to the second floor balcony only to witness the mother and daughter being swept away by the tsunami. Feelings of guilt still cause her to have anxiety attacks. Ours is a daily ministry of presence; accompaniment on the long road to recovery.
October 11, 2011
Seven months since the earthquake. The Tohoku District held their sixth "Church Recovery Committee" for which I was present. Fourteen churches have applied for help from the district, for either rebuilding their church or parsonage. The committee has only moved on addressing two of the concerns to date, the majority of the discussion was centered on the effects of radiation. The District sent out a statement saying that levels of radiation in some areas of Fukushima are so high that they would recommend evacuation from these areas. There are other areas which are not safe for nurseries and/or kindergartens. This statement was based on data gathered from the Chernobyl disaster of 25 years ago. However, the reality is that many people are tied to their local areas in an emotional way. They want to remove the topsoil and/or clean the playground to make it safe for children; however, there is no guarantee that the levels will stay low even if the topsoil is removed. Some kindergartens used high pressure water cleaners to try to remove the radiation, the result was that the radiation was scattered to the outlying areas. Some scraped the topsoil off of the kindergarten playground, only to find that none of the neighbors want the contaminated soil buried near their property. They had no choice but to bury the contaminated topsoil near the entrance to the kindergarten. There is frustration in the air, discouragement, anger, confusion, and anxiety. The Aizu Nuclear Radiation Information Center is trying to address these concerns. They are a part of a citizen's movement to file suit against the government for not declaring the Fukushima and Koriyama cities unsafe for pre-school and elementary school education. Chernobyl data supports their case, but the government turns a blind eye. Our District is in partnership with this Information Center, but is slow to take leadership on social issues as a collective whole. There are individuals within the church who have provided leadership, but as a whole the United Church of Christ in Japan is slow to move and provide leadership on these pressing social concerns.
September 22, 2011
The extremely strong Typhoon 15 is sweeping across the Tohoku just as I write. Our volunteers went nowhere today. They stayed at the Emmaus Center and cleaned the whole building. At dinner, we had forty young people all seated for a delicious meal. The first floor of our Center was filled with life; young people from Kyoto, Tokyo, Hokkaido, and Kyushu, each enjoying the new encounters that they receive through the Emmaus Center. Though the numbers of local young people have decreased in the last years, it is wonderful to see how our Center can minister now to so many young people looking for meaning in their lives--who have made that decision to come and reach out to the victims of the tsunami. In reaching out and touching the lives of the people here, it is clear that they themselves are touched in return.
The picture shows my family. Our son just turned 10 on the 17th of this month. Hana will be 12 next month. Stella is 4 years old. The young lady to the left is Kana Kobayashi from Osaka. She is the daughter of a good friend of mine who came to work at our Relief Center for more than 3 months. Kana did a tremendous job in reaching out to the people in Ishinomaki City, and was well liked and trusted. She touched many people with her smile, and gentle presence. 90 percent of our young volunteers are non-Christian. I think that says something about the kind of ministry that we offer. As we reach out to the people in the coastal areas, religious and or cultural differences do not divide us. The Emmaus Center is a cooperative ministry in which we all share a ministry to the wider public.
September 20, 2011
Typhoon #15 is sweeping up the Japanese archipelago. It has rained all day, temperatures are low, and we are to expect strong winds to hit Sendai sometime tomorrow evening.
Today at our District Mission Committee meeting we were all alerted to the way Japanese history has repeated itself. “Mura” means village. The “mura” mentality is a closed-village-mentality which is highly hierarchical and intolerant of criticism. The same mura-mentality that dominated pre-war Japan, now dominates post-war Japan. TEPCO is a symbol of Japan’s village-mentality. It resists democracy. It places a heavy burden on the poor. It threatens life. The church then needs to stand up to preserve life.
There is word that the third reactor in Fukushima is very unstable. A pastor friend of mine alerted me to the fact that the third reactor is such that there could be a hydrogen explosion at any time. Life in Sendai is like living with a time bomb.
September 19, 2011
Radiation levels in the air in Sendai have stabilized at 0.08 micro-Sieverts p/h. This is not a dangerous level, but is higher than normal. A greater concern is the level of radiation in food items. At the end of this month farmers will be harvesting the “new rice.” Everyone is going to be focusing on this latest crop to see what the radiation count will be.
Farmers I know have been talking about investing in a Gama Ray Spectrometer which measures Strontium 90 and Cesium 137 in food products. I have asked CGMB to fund one machine for our activities here at the Emmaus Center as well. With this new machine we will staff a small office, and measure breast milk, children’s urine, as well as food items from the local nurseries and kindergartens. Priority will go to protecting the lives of children. Any extra time we have available will go toward providing services to the wider community. “Food security” is a phrase we often hear used for areas such as Africa and southern Asia. It is crucial now here in Japan to be able to test our own food. When it comes to the nuclear issue, it is clear that the Japanese government is evading the truth, and keeping the truth from the public. It is beholden to great political/economic forces that go beyond its own borders. In fact, the information concerning “internal radiation” (radiation accumulated in our bodies from the food we eat and water we drink) has been kept from public scrutiny ever since Hiroshima. The US government has very much been involved in this diplomacy of secrecy.
In Tokyo today, 60,000 Japanese citizens marched in protest against Japan’s nuclear policy. “Datsu-Genpatsu” means getting out of our dependency on nuclear energy. As I saw the news coverage of these people marching in the city, I was reminded of the words sung by Bob Dylan: “How many times can a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn’t see? The answer my friend…….”
September 15, 2011
There comes a point when the green rice fields turn a soft golden color. That means that the rice is nearing harvest time. Today I noticed the subtle change in the scenery as I bicycled out to Shichigo.
I have been joining the volunteers once a week to go out to Shichigo. Today I helped remove mud from the gutters by the side of the road. It was a hot day. The Konno family brought us some apples in the morning. The work is slow, but we do it together knowing that through our daily efforts God is bringing hope to this community.
September 11, 2011
On this day our local churches in Sendai organized a gathering to remember all those who died in the 9.11 incident of ten years ago, and the earthquake of 3.11 this year. Scripture was read, a message was given, and there was a short recital by a soprano soloist accompanied by organ music. 138 were in attendance. Rev. Naito, who lost his church to the tsunami, read the scripture. I was honored to give the message for the day.
I was reminded of ten years ago when we were suddenly aware of the violence and sadness in the air following the destruction of the World Trade Centers. Six days after the tragedy, I called upon all 80 churches in Sendai to have a prayer service. I was amazed on that day to see close to 150 people from all kinds of backgrounds – Catholic, protestant, non-Christian. I planned the service. Scripture was read, simple Taize-style hymns were sung, and then we prayed together in silence. We prayed that day for peace and comfort – that this violence would not lead to further violence.
And today, the church had gathered again, I harkened back to that first night after the earthquake when all lights in the city were out. The tremors continued, and people huddled together by candlelight trying to keep warm and get some sleep. That night as I walked outside I noticed the sky was full of stars. I have never seen the stars so clear in Sendai. It has been six months since the disaster, and our churches have arisen to meet the challenges through our actions to serve one another. Those bright and silent stars may have been God’s message to us that life goes on, and that we need to reach out to sustain the lives of others.
Wednesday, August 24, 2011
A hard day’s work out at Shichigo left many impressions on the heart. The day was supposed to be overcast, but it turned out to be a pleasant day. Nice breeze coming in from the ocean. Each day the weather is unpredictable; last week sweltering heat, this week cloudy, rainy and cold days. After returning to the Emmaus Center, the volunteers gather to have a time of sharing. This means a time to share from the heart. Each volunteer experiences the day differently. Some are moved by their encounters, some are left with questions, and some struggle to make sense of what they are feeling. Today I was most moved by the reflections of a 19 year old college student. She was the last in the group to speak.
“I don’t know what to say.” She held her head for a moment trying to think. “People speak as if it’s an honor to be able to volunteer. I never understood why people would say that it's such an honor to be a volunteer. They use special language which suggests that the role of the volunteer is somehow subservient to the host of the house. I have always questioned that way of thinking about volunteerism.”
Slowly she raised her eyes to the whole group with a smile. “Now I am coming to realize what this whole experience is about. It seems somehow that working with others in this way is actually a blessing and that I am receiving so much through this experience. Being able to work with others is a blessing. Being able to hear how each of you reflected on the day has caused me to think deeply about many things. I feel like a week I spend here is equivalent to ten years of what I experience back home. And in that sense, I feel that this experience is really allowing me to mature as an individual.” She was obviously looking deep into herself for the words that would capture this moment. Then she finally found the words to unlock her heart; “In that sense I feel honored to be here, and to be receiving so much through this experience. I guess I can identify a little bit with the honorific language. I AM grateful to be here.” I could see gentle smiles on the faces of each of the other participants. She had put into words what each of us was feeling; gratefulness to be able to spend the days with the people of Shichigo – people who had lost so much, and yet were trying to start anew.
Tuesday, August 23, 2011
I returned from a two week vacation in the mountains with my family. Meanwhile, the relief work at the Emmaus Center has been going full swing with 60 volunteers at any given time.
On my way through Fukushima I stopped to visit Rev. Yaginuma and his wife. The Yaginuma’s are an elderly couple living in the village of Kawageta. Each year, for the past 20 years, young people from Sendai have been going to this rural church to help out in volunteering. This year, due to the quake, our summer camp was canceled.
The Yaginuma’s were happy to see me. They asked about my family, and some members from previous summer camps. Many are the memories that we have shared. They served me tea and watermelon. Outside I could see the large yard where for years we gathered the village children for fun and games, and then a campfire. The yard was beautifully kept. I could see the nice green blanket of grass. Young adults gathering at this rural church each year had been a symbol of hope for the whole community.
Then Rev. Yaginuma said in his gentle way; “The radiation level measured in our yard is too high to let the children come and play.” Silence! Then Mrs. Yaginuma followed; “Until last year everybody was happy to receive our vegetables, but now no one wants them!” Another moment of silence! Mrs. Yaginuma was overjoyed when I agreed to take a bag of potatoes. It was a brief visit that left something extremely heavy in my heart. In Fukushima, feelings of abandonment run deep.
Sunday, July 31, 2011
Pastor Yuko from the Joban Church in Iwaki picked up the phone. I told her that I had asked several pastors to deliver a box of paper cranes which had been sent from the UMC/UCC federated church in Minnesota. Rev. Yuko Uetake is the young lady standing between the two other men in the picture. She is twenty six years old and just out of seminary. Her first placement is a mere thirty miles from the nuclear reactors in Fukushima. On this day, the pastors from Sendai monitored the radiation levels around Joban Church. At one sight the count went as high as 14.5 milli sieverts. All were alarmed. Pastor Yuko was touched to receive the cranes - each with a prayer written inside. These were expressions of solidarity from across the seas. Uncertainty is a part of everyday life now in the Tohoku. Disbelief has spread nationwide as scam after scam surfaces regarding efforts by the Japanese government as well as the Nuclear Safety Committee to work behind the scenes so as to present a positive image of nuclear energy. At one national symposium on Nuclear Energy, ten out of the fifteen people who spoke up from the floor were paid by the Nuclear Safety Committee to make positive statements in favor of the national nuclear policy. Pressure was put on the Saga Electric Company employees this month to vote in favor of reactivating the Saga Nuclear Plant. Such undemocratic methods are surfacing each day. The people are beginning to question the priorities of the government. Is there something more important that preserving the life of our citizens?
Monday, July 11, 2011
After working out in the hot sun removing ocean sand and mud from the fields, we gathered for a moment of silence at 2:46pm. This is a simple ritual that we will carry out each month remembering all those who have lost their lives, and committing ourselves to building a new future out of this destruction. Close to twenty volunteers held hands in silence. A cool ocean breeze could be felt. Our host in Shichigo village reminded us that the residents of the village are so appreciative of our help. More than the work that we do, I think that our continued presence is what will really be appreciated. In this way I hope our Emmaus Center will be a vessel for a "ministry of presence."
Sunday, July 10, 2011
It was a sweltering day in Ishinomaki City. I drove some foreign guests out to attend worship at the Eiko Church then we drove around the city and met some residents that our volunteers work with. Kana was our guide. She is a 25 year old volunteer who makes the trip up to Ishinomaki everyday by car, and it takes an hour and a half one way. Our volunteers go into the Watanoha district. The people we help are working with the fisheries sector; seaweed, sea urchin, clams, scallops. Their livelihood has been destroyed. Kana is much loved by the people of Watanoha. She is very outgoing, and easy to be with. Yasuko, who invited us into her home, gave us some vegetable juice which she had received as rations. She sat with a fly swatter and amazed us with her ability to catch the flies one after another. As the weather has become hot, flies are becoming a major problem in the coastal cities. We have to be careful about sanitation.
Wednesday, July 6, 2011
A day volunteering at Shichigo! It was very hot. I was with a group of seven at the Konno house. We were asked to pick up rubbish in the large field. If you dig beneath the surface you can find manga, broken mirror glass, plastic containers and picture frames. Each item I found reminded me that there were people who used to use these items. Mr. Konno is a farmer, age 82. He is a little hard of hearing, but seemed delighted to have us help. Later I heard from his wife that his spirits picked up only after they started receiving volunteers. The people of Shichigo are very conservative. They do not have the experience of interacting with strangers, and would rather that strangers not come into their homes. After the tsunami the Konno family stayed in the shelter for some time before moving into an apartment in town. They moved for the sake of the 98 year old grandmother. When they first saw their house after the tsunami they were devastated. Mr. Konno lost a lot of his agricultural equipment. At first he was at a loss for words. Then his son declared; "Let the whole family move back home. We've got to do this for grandma. "So reluctantly the Konno's started accepting volunteers, and soon Mr. Konno had found a new lease on life.
On Saturday this week the Konno family hopes to move back home. The floors have been redone. The walls in the kitchen were done by Mr. Konno's son. They are hoping that by returning home, the grandmother will respond positively and regain some of her memory. At lunch we sat around the table and talked about many things. Mrs. Konno asked me; "Are you a missionary?" Behind her smile I could imagine her childhood days when she first heard the sound of the pipe organ at church. Perhaps Christianity for her is a precious and fond memory of something foreign and distant. Then she opened her heart to me and said; "You know, on the first day we accepted the volunteers, we were so very grateful for all that they did for us. But at the same time, I couldn't help but wonder why people would come like this to help us strangers. I once asked the volunteers, what motivates them to come like this. Then I got to thinking that if there ever was a natural disaster in another part of Japan, would I or people in my family go to volunteer? I am just amazed that people are here to help us." I listened to these words and was genuinely pleased that she had shared her thoughts with me. She shared with me a sense of wonder and amazement in encountering a world that she had never encountered before. These tender moments are so beautiful. I really enjoy when two worlds meet and embrace the differences. Our volunteer efforts are not about the labor we provide, but rather about the relationships that we can build. In this sense both parties (volunteer and Shichigo resident) are experiencing something completely new. The picture was taken today at Mr. Konno's house. Mr. Konno is telling us what he wants us to do for the day.
Tuesday, July 5, 2011
Today we had many visitors at the Emmaus Center, plus an important meeting to discuss matters regarding the Relief Center. I feel like I need to focus on too many things in one day and by doing so I lose my focus on the young people who gather at the Student Center. In the midst of this full day we had a visitor from Tokyo. He had been a pastor during the large earthquake in Kobe, and is presently the pastor of the Meiji Gakuin Church. He spoke to us for about an hour about his involvement in building "ofuro" (the common/public bath) in various municipalities. At first I didn't understand the importance of building baths. I thought it was a way to provide victims with a place to stay clean. However, as Rev. Iwai spoke, I began to see what he was speaking about. His was a fundamental critique of modern materialist free market society. Individualism, compartmental living, competition are all aspects of our modern way of life. They divide the human family and breed loneliness and isolation. The temporary living facilities built by the Japanese government reflect the insensitive and individualist ideology of today. The "ofuro" however, is a place where community is nurtured. Japanese society has traditionally valued the "ofuro" as a community gathering place. It not only builds community, but uplifts life. The "ofuro" is a symbol for the kind of society which we need to build into the next decades. We must not let our elderly die of neglect. We must not allow people to fall into the pit of loneliness. Especially at a time like this the church needs to show leadership in finding ways to keep the human family united. So that we can support each other into the hope of a new life. Victims more than anyone need to be sustained by the wider community. The "ofuro" is one Japanese expression of togetherness.
Monday, July 4, 2011
Tasuku is 19 years old. He's a sophomore at the Tohoku University. He had been coming to the Student Center for the past year, and since April got involved in our relief activities at the Emmaus Center. The experience of going out to Shichigo every day to work with and for the victims of the tsunami has changed his life. He has learned about the value of relationships. He has labored together with other volunteers and discovered bonds of trust with a wide community of people. He has gotten involved in the running of the relief center. He has a heart for others, and knows that his experience everyday out at Shichigo is a priceless treasure for his own life. Last week Tasuku hurried home to convince his parents of his intension to take a year off from school to focus his energies on the relief work at the Emmaus Center. It is an honor to have a young and committed person such as Tasuku at the core of our efforts. Most of our staff is young. They are the church of today - reaching out to make a difference in the lives of others. Tasuku is the boy in the middle at the bottom of the picture wearing a blue outfit. Tasuku's father is a pastor in Kobe, and a good friend of mine.
Sunday, July 3, 2011
This weekend I was in Tokyo. On Saturday I met with graduates for the Student Center, and we had a time to share about all that has been happening in Sendai at the Student Center (Emmaus Center). This gave me a time to look back over these past four months and make some sense of our experience. One young lady, Asami, from Fukushima was in tears as she reflected on her experience working in a nursery in Fukushima and trying to protect the children who were knapping. Asami loves her home town, but now she works in Sendai. Her parents have told her not to come home for the time being. Tears for Fukushima continue to flow as none of us have the answer for what to do. The future is up in the air. Today I preached at the Sanbonmatsu Church in Chiba (near Tokyo). Then following worship the women’s groups held a special session for me to talk specifically about the Relief Work. People from churches all over Japan have been involved in sending goods, people and/or money to help with the disaster hit areas. They all told me how meaningful it was to hear directly from someone who has been involved in the midst of the disaster. I told them I haven't done much. The real stars are the Japanese people themselves who have taken charge of the Emmaus Center, and built a viable structure for relief work. I only provided the space, but the rest has been done by Japanese from all over Japan. It has been an amazing experience of compassion from the grassroots. The picture I have included is a map of the tsunami struck areas of Japan. It is specifically to aid people who are involved in relief efforts. It will also be a collector's item someday. At present, anyone with an address in the Tohoku can apply for a free pass for the highways. In this way this summer is going to be all about relief work - families returning to their family homes to help. The Emmaus Center too will be accepting many volunteers to help in Ishinomaki. The days are getting hot. I pray that our volunteers will stay healthy.
Sunday, June 26, 2011
Fukushima! I drove down to attend church at Iwaki Church this morning. Then in the afternoon I stopped at Koriyama Church for the installation of a new pastor. It was my first trip to Fukushima since the earthquake, and the explosion of the nuclear reactors. It was a rainy day. The hills were a deep green - the way they are each year at this time of year. As I looked out over the beautiful landscape, I couldn't help myself from feeling a deep sadness. This feeling comes from the unknown future of this area. The radiation cannot be seen. The residents of Fukuhima whom I met today are each living with a sense of unrest and fear for the future. The task of the church is to keep sharing the Good News, even as we keep an eye out for protecting the lives of the residents. People thanked me for coming to Fukushima. One pastor asked me; "Aren't you afraid of the radiation?" We are all in this together. This coming year is going to be definitive for many of us. For me I can't bear to leave the people and scenery of the Tohoku which I have loved my whole life.
Wednesday, June 22, 2011
I joined the volunteers today to bicycle down to Shichigo and spend the day helping with the relief work. It turned out to be a very hot day. I was with a group of nine people working in the fields. First we picked up small debris scattered all over the field. Then we took our shovels and started removing the top six inches of mud that had been carried in by the tsunami. I will try to join the volunteers every Wednesday. The others that had been working at Mr. Abe's field commented how pleased they were to see the progress. One young man commented; "That field over there was a mess a week ago. I'm so glad to see how clean it is now." But later Mr. Abe said to me; "This initial removal of the mud doesn't mean that we can go back to farming. We'll need to replenish the soil, and wait for several years until it is ready to produce crops." In the newspaper I read that there are certain crops that are not affected by the high-salt content of the soil. Asparagus, soy beans, tomatoes, corn, cabbage among others. Of course everything needs to be tested. Some farmers are planting their regular crops just for a try.
After our work under the grueling sun, we walked over to Mr. Abe's house to say goodbye. Of course he had been working with us for most of the day. He seemed genuinely pleased to have met us, and was eager to make a date to go out drinking with us. I took that as a sign of trust, and was very pleased for the invitation. The picture I took shows the clock stopped at 2:46. In one sense time has stood still since that moment of the earthquake. But in another sense, new encounters and relationships have been born. It is like a kairos moment which redefines who we are, one to another. The Emmaus Center asks the volunteers to refrain from taking pictures of the people of Shichigo. They must not become the "object" of our deeds. Rather, through this disaster God brings us together to redefine our lives together. And I must say that the seeds of HOPE are planted in each and every heart that joins in the rebuilding of Shichigo.
Saturday, June 18, 2011
This is the hundredth day since the earthquake. Christians, Buddhist and Shintoists joined together at the crematorium to offer a common prayer for twenty five people who had died in the tsunami, and who could not be identified. The hundredth day marks an important juncture in the ongoing prayer for the souls of the dead. The Tenrikyo Priest (Shinto) led the prayer first by doing an "oharai" (a purity ritual). Then a prayer was offered honoring the various religious groups. In this way Japanese religious traditions have special important days during the year when prayers are offered for the repose of the lost souls. The dead become gods. The living need to calm the dead souls until they are able to find peace in their eternal resting place. I was not able to attend the ceremony, but a Kyodan pastor friend of mine did. For many Christians in Japan the idea of joining together like this with people of other religious traditions would be taboo. However, there are others like us that believe that it is important to show our commitment to be with and for others - especially at a time of great loss.
Thursday, June 16, 2011
For my fiftieth birthday I took the day off and climbed Mt. Kurikoma in northern Miyagi with two friends. It had been some time since I got out into nature, and away from the reality of the disaster. The day turned out to be a beautiful one, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The sound of the birds, the gentle wind, the landscape with patches of snow here and there, the mountain flowers, and our lunch at the top. These past three months I feel like I have forfeited the simple joys of life - such as being surrounded by nature. Slowly, my spirit was opened to appreciate the beauty, and then to be moved by it. The Chinese character for the word "busy" means "to lose the heart." So true! Walking in nature allowed me to regain my heart. Starting next week at the Emmaus Center there will be a series of workshops for "grief work" and "counseling for pastors, care givers and volunteers." It’s just about that time, when the fatigue starts to settle in. The first three months after the disaster one is filled with a sense of purpose - almost driven by the reality that unfolds before you. However, as the days go by one is increasingly aware that things will take time. There is no sense in hurrying. I have been aware of my own depression. In fact, I would say that there is a general depression that is affecting everyone here in the Tohoku. The daily news is so overwhelmingly depressing. For me, things were bad in May as some interpersonal relationships broke down, and everyone at the Relief Center was stressed out. There were nights that I could not sleep, didn't feel like going to work, lost my appetite, and was filled with negative thoughts. I couldn't control my emotions, and felt like I was losing myself. It was good to be able to open up to my wife and good friends, and to take some distance from the realities that were causing me the stress. Now I feel that I have regained myself and a sense of balance in my life. But the experience has taught me that each and every one of us is only a step away from a breakdown. We need to find the means to care for ourselves, to maintain physical and mental health.
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
In one of his parables Jesus talks about the yeast that is mixed with flour until the whole loaf of bread is leavened. My experience at the Emmaus Center is much like what the yeast can be when it is mixed with flour. The yeast is nothing when it is left to its own but when it is mixed, it has the power within it to make things more than what they are sort of a built in magic ingredient. The reality of the Emmaus Center is that we have been around for ten years (and fifty years before that if you include the history of the Sendai Student Center) as a Christian outreach ministry. We have been struggling financially the whole way. Then the earthquake happened, and our days have been transformed as we have been the locus of relief activities for the Kyodan. People visit from all over Japan. We have had countless visitors from overseas. We now have 45 bicycles all donated for volunteers to go out to the coast to help. Boots too are lined up along the back door almost as if we were a farm of some sort. Every week new volunteers come, and old ones return home. We are at the crossroads of a great movement of people. We don't advertise the Emmaus Center, but the volunteers and the people out at Shichigo and Ishinomaki, and everyone who have welcomed our volunteers, they love the Emmaus Center. I can't claim that I have done anything extraordinary, and yet by having this Center it is clear that ordinary people have had extraordinary experiences. Non-Christians and Christians are working together for relief. In that sense, from my perspective, the church is enabled to be more than what it is by the presence of our volunteers. The number of Christians is few and the strength of the Emmaus Center is limited, but today, we are allowed to be as like the yeast - part of a larger body which is enriching the lives of so many people. I feel very strongly that God is a part of all of this as the true leaven. The CHURCH is at its best when it is but a sign of something larger than itself - pointing the way for a vision of how our life could be if we work together in trust.
Saturday, June 11, 2011
Today I went to Shichigo to work as a volunteer. I worked in Mr. Kanno's greenhouse, shoveling dirt that came from the ocean. It was rainy in the morning, but cleared in the afternoon. Mr. Kanno worked alongside of us. He was so grateful for our help. He brought us snacks in the afternoon. As we rested during the noon break, I asked Mr. Kanno about the vegetables he used to grow. His face lit up as he spoke about the spinach, tomatoes, cucumbers, okra, egg plants, onions, etc. He told me about how he used to sell his products through the market. As he spoke many fond memories were coming back to him. I could tell that this time was very healing for him. He was recalling the energy and passion that he had put into his life prior to the tsunami. But of course the road ahead will be tough. The land has been covered with sea water, and will not be able to produce for several years. But still this short time of reflection was a time to dream, to hold on to a vision of how life may be someday. I intend to be there with him through the Emmaus Center to walk with him as he rebuilds his life. In that sense the work I did today was most meaningful! At 2:46pm the volunteers from the Emmaus Center gathered in a circle in an open field at Shichigo, with us were five other volunteers whom we had met for the first time. We were there to bow our heads for a moment of silence, this being the third month since the earthquake. 90% of the houses have been cleaned out of 118 homes and only 20 families have returned to live in their houses. Many people lost their lives to the tsunami. One of the men who joined us said; "I lost several good friends to this tsunami, but how encouraged I have been to see you bicycle into our neighborhood every day, joyful and energetic! Thank you for all that you do." After this man's words we bowed our heads for one minute of silence. The word "Yorisoi" means "to walk alongside." The work of the Emmaus Center is not about providing laborers who can do the work. We are about "Yorisoi," walking alongside those who are suffering and who have lost so much. This is all about the heart - how we join our hearts together to build a new future. The moment of silence seemed to be very meaningful to the young volunteers who were there. God touches our lives in the midst of our silence. Silence is something that everyone can offer together . . . to God.
Friday, June 10, 2011
Iwork with the Tohoku Kyoku (Northeastern District) of the United Church of Christ in Japan (the Kyodan). Today we had our third meeting of the "Church Reconstruction Committee." Issues discussed included 1) hearing the report from the Tohoku Disaster Relief Center in Sendai, 2) contracting an expert to assess and make recommendations for damaged churches in the Tohoku District, 3) setting dates for grief work and counseling for pastors and volunteers who are involved in relief work, 4) what to do about church based kindergartens and nurseries which are not able to operate due to high radiation counts, 5) designating a committee to focus on issues involving radiation, and coming up with a concrete proposal from the District regarding mission priorities with respect to the radiation issue. One pastor declared; "It is no longer possible, nor should we encourage churches in Fukushima to continue to operate their kindergartens and nurseries!" Another said; "The newspaper in my area reports that the radiation count in the air is rather low. However, I dug one foot by the place where the eaves of the kindergarten drop rain water. The radiation count was 14 mili-Seiverts. Certain areas have high concentrations, and we need to be very careful about letting children play outside." A third pastor said; "I have two children age 9 and 5.
I am very pessimistic about the situation in Fukushima City. I am sure that our family will not be here a year from now. I tell you that we are going to have a massive exodus of pastors from Fukushima City and the surrounding area at the end of this fiscal year. The District needs to be aware that perhaps none of these churches will be able to find a pastor willing to serve in the Fukushima area." You can imagine how heavy the air was. The Tohoku District is made up of 90 churches, some of which have a history of 130 years. The churches in Fukushima represent 35 out of the 90. Sendai too is only 80km from the nuclear reactors. What is the future of the church in this part of Japan? How do we remain focused on God's mission in the midst of the fear and uncertainty? I must visit Fukushima soon. It has been three months and yet I have not made that a priority of mine.
Thursday, June 9, 2011
TOHOKU HELP met on the third floor of the Emmaus Center today. 40 people were in attendance from various churches in the city. It is an ecumenical association that is trying to help the weakest churches. They have counted 88 Christian churches along the coast of north eastern Japan that have been damaged by the earthquake and or tsunami. The weekly TOHOKU HELP meeting is also a place to share information. One man shared the following: Sendai city has prepared temporary housing for 5000 families. However, 4,000 families have opted to rent their own apartments. The evacuees are facing hard times. Through May the evacuees were all staying together in school gymnasiums and or public facilities. Life was hard, but at least they were all together. Music groups came to cheer them up. The city had various services to support the victims. They felt secure. However, since the beginning of June the local government is urging the evacuees to move into temporary housing. Government services are coming to a close. Each family has to make up their own mind as to how they are going to transition into the next stage of life. The evacuees are uncertain about their future. They will be separated from each other and have many unanswered questions as to how they will be sustained in the next year or two. Many have lost their jobs, and are at a loss for what to do. The man at the TOHOKU HELP meeting who shared the situation of the evacuees in Sendai said; "This is a crucial time for us to be involved. We need to show a commitment that we will continue to walk with them. "Though TOHOKU HELP is not directly related to our Emmaus Center, it is good to attend these meetings to learn what other groups are doing and thinking. Networking is an important factor in our relief work. Information is something to share - that it may help to uplift life.
Wednesday, June 8, 2011
The people of Fukushima are suffering. The irony of our modern age is that in order to sustain an urban high-energy consumption lifestyle the lives of rural folk are put at risk. This is clearly seen in the case of Fukushima. The other day I saw a television program on Iidate village in Fukushima prefecture. 80 percent of the residents have evacuated due to high radiation counts. The Japanese government has warned all residents to leave the area by June 20. The journalist visited Iidate to meet the remaining villagers and the village mayor. The mayor spoke about the responsibility of both the Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Company. Clearly they were irresponsible for maintaining a dangerous facility for which they did not maintain sufficient safety standards. At the same time the mayor spoke about the vision he has had for his small village. The mayor showed the many pictures he had taken of the villagers. Every picture captured the genuine smiles of the villagers. The mayor said; “We have a special word in this part of Japan called “meh-deh-i” which means “build your life with your two small hands, slowly, carefully, and filled with heart-filled thanks.” The irony is that these rural folk who have lived close to the land and to each other, who have cherished the small and simple gifts of life, are being punished on behalf of the high-speed lifestyle of our cities.
Sunday, June 5, 2011
The Okawa River runs from Mt. Murone, down the valley to meet the ocean at Karakuwa - an area north of Sendai. The Karakuwa area is famous for their delicious oysters and scallops. Needless to say, the tsunami wiped out the livelihood of the fishermen this year. For 23 years now, the fishermen of Karakuwa have been going to Mt. Murone to plant trees along with the residents of the Murone area. Why? Because they know that a rich and diverse forest provides for rich and diverse marine life. The river carries nutrients from the hills to the ocean. Hundreds of people now gather each year on the first Sunday of June to join in this big tree planting event. I have been going for the past 18 years. This year I joined 24 others from the Emmaus Center in caring for and celebrating God's creation.
The fishermen of Karakuwa this year were ready to forgo the event, but the residents of Murone said; "Let us sponsor the event. You can come as guests." Due to this history of common commitment in caring for the environment, the strong bonds of trust between the two communities (the people of the ocean, and the people of the mountiains) moved the downtrodden hearts of the fishermen. We had a beautiful day. The participants walked three miles up the mountain, first to take part in the opening ceremony, and then to plant seedlings. I sensed strong emotions in the people who made the speeches. It was clear to all present that the fishermen of Karakuwa were being uplifted by the people of the Murone community. This year more than ever I could feel the strong ties between these two communities. One oyster farmer said; "We are grateful for all that nature provides in order for our oysters to grow. The oysters we grow are the fruit of our relationship. Our lives are interconnected in a deep way - and this we learn from nature itself."
Saturday, June 4, 2011
Today we held a barbeque for students at the Sendai Student Center where I work. 35 people came. It was good to be outside by the Hirose River, surrounded by nature, and to be with good company. What made this day special for me was that it was the first event for our Student Center after the March 11 earthquake. In fact, in order to carry on the activities of the Relief Center, we had postponed all of our regular youth ministry activities through the month of May. Sometimes people get to thinking that "relief work" is all about relieving the suffering of the tsunami victims. But in fact, there are many levels to this relief work. For those in the city, not affected by the tsunami, there are unseen struggles of the heart. Regaining our daily lives, reconnecting with friends, and spending quality time together, are all an essential part of healing for the soul. I am hoping that our Student Center activities can provide healing for the youth of Sendai.
Friday, June 3, 2011
Christians and Buddhists are working together to care for those who have lost loved ones. On the first of May the Inter-religious Association of Sendai sponsored a group of Christian pastors and Buddhist priests to establish a telephone life line for the public. They also included in the network, doctors, psychologists, grief workers and scholars. Christians and Buddhists were on the streets together to hand out leaflets advertising the new counseling service called "Space for the Heart." The idea is that the religious community work together to provide a counseling service for people who are suffering psychologically from the effects of the disaster. When people call in, the counseling service can listen to the client and direct the client to the appropriate specialist; be it Daily Life, Medical Care, Psychological Care, Buddhist Spiritual Care or Christian Spiritual Care. As Japanese society on the whole returns to normal, and those who have lost their homes move into temporary housing, the visible needs will disappear. However, the spiritual needs which have been suppressed (Japanese are good at doing that) will emerge with increasing emergency. The religious community wants to be present to the public. Many religious groups in Japan are known for their "in the face, aggressive evangelism." However, it was confirmed at the first meeting of "Space for the Heart" that we want to let people know that the religious community is available. And to let the public know that in this time of great need, the Buddhists and Christians are working together to address the spiritual vacuum caused by the earthquake. Accompaniment and availability are two gifts that the religious community can provide to the Japanese public at this time of critical need.
Thursday, June 2, 2011
This is the 65th day that we have been involved with the village of Shichigo by sending volunteers. Today our volunteers were asked to help by cleaning up the graveyard. Shichigo is an area where half of the population lost their lives. The man I met in Shichigo the other day said; "So many people died in my neighborhood that I haven't even shed a tear. I feel like the experience has numbed my senses."
Today I want to tell you a bit about Mr. Sugawara who appears in the picture. (The other young man is one of our volunteers) He is a 70 year old carpenter. An ordinary man who has had an extraordinary experience. He lost family to the tsunami. But now he stands before us a changed man (he says). Transformed by the experience of the tsunami and what followed. His house was flooded and covered with mud. Therefore he had no choice but to stay in the emergency shelter provided by Sendai city. There he met one of our staff from the Emmaus Center who said; "We are looking for HOPE, and a way to share that with young people." These words caught Mr. Sugawara's attention, and he decided to take charge of our volunteers. He convinced the police and army to let our volunteers into the "off-limits zone" by saying "I will take responsibility for them." First, we set to work on Mr. Sugawara's house, clearing the mud and cleaning both inside and outside the house. Soon the neighbors could see that our workers were sincere and hard working. The word spread in the village, and soon people were coming to Mr. Sugawara asking that we help at their house as well. In this way our involvement spread - all thanks to this one man.
Yesterday Mr. Sugawara told us; "I never had any interest for volunteerism, and in fact I had a strong dislike for Christianity. But my encounter with you guys has changed my whole life. Before, I used to hold onto a prestigious position within the community and order people around. But now I know the joy of serving. Everyday, I go out to organize you volunteers. My wife and family understand what I am doing. We don't quarrel. My wife has become so cooperative. I feel like my heart has changed 180 degrees. I am full of HOPE for the future. And I promise you that I will cherish this relationship with you folks at the Emmaus Center until I die."
Our relief efforts are not about quantity. We are all about relationships. Shichigo is a closed and traditional community. They are not open to outsiders coming into their lives. But we hope this relationship will grow into the future. Mr. Sugawara said; "The tsunami was terrible, but it was not all bad." His eyes light up when he is with us, because he knows from deep within that we share a treasure of a relationship that will sustain us long into the future. Thanks be to God.
Wednesday, June 1, 2011
I went to Shichigo today to help with clean up. It had been quite some time since I last went. 25 volunteers sent out for the coast in the morning. Its an eight mile ride. People know us because our volunteers do the round trip out to Shichigo everyday. They call to us with greetings, and bow to us. The relationship is there. Even though we live in this large city, the residents between the Emmaus Center and Shichigo have noticed that there are groups of bikers who bike out to Shichigo to help.
Today I went to Mr. Sato's house to help. He was a very chatty man. Seemed a bit nervous about having a foreigner around, but warmed up as the day went on. I was mainly involved with cleaning the windows of his house. The mark from the water level of the tsunami could be seen at two meters (six feet). I took my time to make sure that the wondow paines were clear of all the mud. Mr. Sato walked by and seemed so happy that his windows were so clean.
At lunch, one of our volunteers had brought his guitar, and he sang a few songs to fill the air with music. A few of the tunes were familiar to Mr. Sato who is now 70 years old and retired.We sat in his garage singing together, I realized that this indeed is a form of pasoral counseling and grief work. There is something healing about music. It was a touching moment for me to realize the way our volunteers are able to involve themselves in the lives of the victims.
From day to day recently, I had been in the office. It was good to get out and interact with the people of Shichigo. Hope is in the relationships we are able to experience in each day. The earthquake and tsunami have given birth to a new relatisonhip between us in Sendai, and those out by the coast in Shichigo.
Saturday, May 28, 2011
This week we had the annual conference of our Tohoku (Northeastern) District of the Kyodan. Representatives from our 90 churches were gathered for two days of meetings. The conference was held at the Aobaso Church. Next door, the Emmaus Center was being used for activities of the Relief Center. Delegates of the conference were able to see first hand the kind of volunteer work carried out by our Relief Center. However, one elderly pastor stood up at one point during the
conference to say; "It is wonderful that so many people from around the country are coming to join as volunteers in the work of the Relief Center. But to this date, only one person from the Sendai area has come to our area of Fukushima!" She spoke with a mask over her face. Rev. Takeh comes from Iwaki, about 30 miles from the nuclear reactors. Her words spoke of the large gap which exists between Fukushima and the other areas in our district. People are afraid of Fukushima. Companies have stopped asking farmers in Fukushima for their products. Farmers and fisherman are going out of business. Kindergartens are closing. Children tease one another by saying "You are covered by radiation so I can't play with you." Discrimination toward the people of Fukushima is growing. At the conference, there was a sense of the urgency for the church to address the issues of nuclear radiation at both the national and local levels. The truth is that the church has not been able to get mobilized around this issue yet. However, one thing is plainly clear. No one trusts the government. The government tries to downplay the dangers. The Fukushima Education Committee has announced to all PTAs within the prefecture to refrain from taking their own data for radiation. In areas where the radiation level is high, the local government has acted to scrape topsoil off elementary school playgrounds as a way to protect children from high levels of radiation. However, such gestures do not have a long lasting effect. This annual conference was like no other. There is a sense of urgency in the air. People are concerned and afraid. All of us are praying to discern how the church can and will respond to this emergency. We will need to begin by gathering information, and studying the situation. Please pray for the people of Fukushima, and areas close by.
Monday, May 23, 2011
Day 73 after the earthquake. Day 55 after we started calling on volunteers to come and help. We have registered more than 550 volunteers to this date. Some stay for as short as three days, others for as long as a month. The Emmaus Center has been a bee hive of activity. Each day the meals are prepared by local volunteers. We are like a large family, sharing meals and sharing stories. Today at the volunteer meeting we heard reports of the day. Volunteers go to different houses. We ask that the same person go consecutively to the same house in order to build a sense of stability in relating to the local residents of Shichigo. The volunteers are asked to make suggestions as to how to improve on our activities. A general discussion followed about safety while riding bicycles to and from the coastal area. Then it was time to recognize people who are leaving. One young man stood up and spoke about his work in the Oya house. Grandma Oya had evacuated to a house in Tokyo. She seemd to be in good shape in her new life in Tokyo. The young volunteer got to thinking if what he was doing was truly appropriate. "Is there any meaning in cleaning this house? Will the old lady ever want to come back to live here?" As he was working, neighbors came by to ask whether the young volunteer knew if Mrs. Oya was going to return. They spoke about the way they used to always sit and have tea with Mrs. Oya. They stood for some time to chat with him. Then Mrs. Oya's daughter came by with a genuine smile. She thanked the volunteers for the beautiful work that they had done to make the house livable again. Mrs. Oya had given up on the house. But the daughter saw with her own eyes that the house was fit to live in again. Then the young volunteer knew that this place offered something to Mrs. Oya that no other place could. The neighborhood, the shared memories, the relationships were all here. He was convinced that Mrs. Oya would some day leave her "comfortable" life in Tokyo to return here - for the sake of the community of people who knew her and loved her. There was a deep sense of satisfaction as this young volunteer spoke. He had found a truth in his own life that he will now treasure forever. Volunteers here speak about "The Emmaus Syndrome." The word has gained a certain significance among the volunteers. It speaks of the sense of belonging and comfort which each of them have discovered while at the Emmaus Center. Maybe its the discovery of a loving and caring community - something the city folk have been searching for in their hearts all this time. Many of the volunteers express their thankfulness for such a place as this. Some start to cry as they look back on their experiences. As I witness them at the crossroads of their lives, I feel blessed that God has been at work in and through the Emmaus Center - to change lives. The church in this way can be a blessing to the wider community.
Thursday, May 19, 2011
Traveled up to Kesennuma yesterday to deliver some supplies and visit an old friend. We stopped by the Senmaya Church and had a talk with the pastors. Not only is the church severely damaged, but the whole hillside is marked as dangerous for further building. The pastor and wife shared with us that their first priority is to build consensus among the congregation concerning the future of the church. With only ten members they have no financial ability to buy land and build a new church. At present they are renting a space in town for a minimal fee. We then continued by travels to see Mr. Hatakeyama the oyster farmer in Kesennuma. He lives right by the sea. Luckily his house was spared because it was high enough up the hill. Still, they were out of electricity and water until one week ago. When the tide is in, the road to their house disappears under the water. People who live by the sea are prepared to get by for ten days without help from the outside. In the case of this tsunami, the family of Mr. Hatakeyama housed forty people for several days before they moved into the evacuation shelters. We then stopped by to see Rev. Onodera of the Kesennuma house church. He is a speech therapist, and had been at the local volunteer center spending time with four people who have speech impairments. He enables them space to express their deepest frustrations, and in this way we renew our former connections. We sit and share stories some are heroic and others harrowing, we then pray together. The sky was very blue this day. It felt good to be reconnected and to see that people are involved in rebuilding their lives.
Saturday, May 14, 2011
Today, I went to the Christian cemetery at Kitayama in Sendai to preside over the 125 anniversary worship service for Tohoku Gakuin. This cemetery is located within the Buddhist cemetery of Rinnoji. The cooperation and respect between the Christian and Buddhist communities in Sendai goes back over 100 years. Even today they are working closely alongside each other to minister to the spiritual needs of the people. It was a blessing to be a part of that long and meaningful history; both Tohoku Gakuin University and the continuing Christian and Buddhist dialogue. Later at the Emmaus Center a man and his elderly mother came to express their sincere thanks for the help they had received from the volunteers to help around the house. The elderly mother was using a cane. She will be 90 years old this year. I could sense in their eyes how deeply they felt about their gratitude. They kept bowing and exclaiming what a wonderful team of volunteers we had sent to them. That day I had been feeling rather tired. But as I stood before these two people, and witnessed their bows of gratitude, I was filled with a new strength. This is the kind of relationship that fuses each person with joy and thankfulness. With a sense of pride I knew that the volunteers whom we sent out from the Emmaus Center had touched lives, and had made a difference. God is at work through our volunteers.
Thursday, May 12, 2011
The Sendai Student Center activities have been put on hold all this time since the earthquake. We have postponed all activities to focus on the relief work. But just last night I called on students and others who have been connected to the Student Center, and we had dinner together. I cannot express how happy I was to be reunited with these people. I realized that they are the ones who represent the community which I had before the earthquake. Ever since March 11, something has been disrupted. Our energies have been focused on the victims of the tsunami. Sometimes our minds are filled with the fear of the radiation. Each day is so busy and full that it is hard to remember what life was like before the earthquake. But on that evening, as I looked across the table at these familiar faces I realized that they, in their simple presence, spoke to me of the person I was before the earthquake.
As one member said; "After the earthquake, I realize what the most important thing is in life. After the lifelines have been cut, and all that you took for granted is no more, what counts most is community. I never realized how important community is." Yes. We realize that we have each other. And, we realize that more than anything, it is the people around you that help you to get through with joy and hope. This disaster has been a wonderful learning experience for all of us. Even in the midst of the sadness and disruption, God is revealing to me that in each person is a God given goodness. When we encounter that goodness, there is something transformative. The Student Center activities will resume at the beginning of June. Slowly we are resuming our daily life, even as we walk along the people who are unable to do so out at Shichigo. The picture was taken at Ishinomaki Eiko Church with Rev. Kobuna and Rev. Xiaoling Zhu from CGMB. In our hands is the doll made by the Christians in Chile. Rev. Kobuna told us that one of the children in the kindergarten lost her mother to the tsunami. We hope that the doll will bring smiles and comfort to all the children at the Eiko Kindergarten.
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
2:46 pm. Two months since the earthquake. Seventy people gathered in a circle around an open lot. We bowed our heads. We stood on ground that had been covered by the tsunami. We stood with people who had lost everything. We stood holding hands in silence. In our hearts we prayed for each person who lost their life, and for each of the families who are still struggling with the devastation of the tsunami and earthquake. I was pleased to have four guests from abroad. They represented the World Council of Churches, Mission 21 from Switzerland, the United Church of Canada, and the Far East Region of the Christian Council of Asia. Most of the others there were the volunteers from the Emmaus Center. Before the moment of silence I had the opportunity to share the following. "I am so glad to be here in Shichigo at this moment. These guests represent the world wide church. People around the world are praying for recovery here. Christians across the seas many years ago shared their prayers for this land and that is why The Emmaus Center stands today, because of this commitment. Therefore, I am glad to be able to be here with them to show our solidarity with all of you who are working for the recovery and rehabilitation of the people of the tsunami affected area." Shortly the moment arrived. I took the hands of the two people beside me. Around us was a desolate landscape. Large trucks and bulldozers were removing the debris in the distance. The wind could be felt coming from the nearby ocean. Silence brings us together. Shared silence is a sign of hope for a better life. After the short ceremony was finished, the local resident Mr. Sugawara bowed deeply to the whole crowd. Arigato gozaimashita! We have walked so far together these past two months. And now we know that we can walk some more. The buildings and roads will still take time. But already we have built a strong foundation called TRUST. Upon this relationship of trust we will build a new life together.
Tuesday, May 10, 2011
Today we gathered for the second meeting of the Tohoku District Church Recovery Committee. Twenty pastors gathered from all around the District to share information as to the damages sustained after the earthquake. Three church buildings demolished, many churches with cracks in the walls and or foundation, many churches have damaged foundations, three churches closed due to radiation. Kindergarten classes are cancelled because of the radiation. Five church members across the District lost their lives, many families have moved out of Tohoku either because of the radiation or because they have lost their homes, many Christian farmers have lost their livelihood. There are 86 churches in this Tohoku District. This earthquake and tsunami, and the explosion of the nuclear reactors will definitely have a large impact on the future of our churches. The more we shared information, the heavier our hearts become. What left the greatest impression on me was what one pastor from Fukushima shared with the committee. He was visibly drawn out and tired. His church was severely damaged by the earthquake, and had to be torn down immediately due to safety reasons. Now the site where the church was is an open lot. The church members are elderly, and are eager to rebuild the church. But the pastor says; "The air and land are polluted by radiation. I stay inside all day, and yet I do not feel safe. The soil is contaminated. Church members give me large sums of money telling me to use the funds for the rebuilding of our church. But I cannot bring myself to rebuild a church in a place that I know is dangerous. My true feelings are that I want to run away from this area. But as pastor I tell myself that I must be a Good Shepherd. Every day I am afraid. I cannot sleep. I finally asked the church elders to allow me to move to a neighboring city where I could commute from to the church. My feelings do not coincide with those of my church members. I do not see any future for our church in Fukushima!" Two months after the earthquake, the situation in Fukushima has not been resolved. We are still trying to grapple with how the CHURCH must respond to this situation.
Tuesday, May 3, 2011
I preached at the Shoryo Church on Sunday. I spoke about the three wise men that traveled great distances to witness a sign of HOPE for the world. It dawned on me that the people who are visiting us here in northern Japan are the modern day magi. They have seen the star. When they see the star stop they are filled with joy. They offer thanks through the act of worship. The star is active, restless, and always leading the magi forward. When the star finally stops, they find within themselves a wellspring of JOY. The following poem comes out of my meditation on Matthew 2: 9-11.
The Joy of Bethlehem
Driven by the star in its rising
Sojourners leave their homes
Looking for a sign that will save the world
Each day a new beginning
Sometimes the way is rough
Till one day their star stops above a little town
The star is now going nowhere
Deep within, they knew their joy
After so many days of toil, finally a still place of rest
So much to ponder, so devastating to the eye
The troubled soul has labored for salvation
But to no avail……..till Bethlehem
Bethlehem is the place where people lose loved ones
Bethlehem is the devastation of earthquake and tsunami
Bethlehem is the land to which we are lead by the star
To witness the birth of a child in the midst of it all
Friday, April 29, 2011
Matthew Linden from Edgewood, WA was with us in early April to help as a volunteer. He had been working in Tokyo as a missionary of the Lutheran Church. He sent me the following email before heading back to the States.
I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to serve with the people of Sendai UCCJ Disaster Relief Center. It was actually hard for me to leave for Tokyo last Friday. I really wish I could have served another few days, although my back is quite broken at this point and I can't grip a pencil. It was an excellent experience and I learned so much about disaster relief with respect to the roles of the church and the community. Thank you for welcoming me! It was very hard to see some of the things I saw last week without becoming discouraged and depressed about the overwhelming suffering and burden Shichigo and all of the Tohoku area have faced and will continue to face for perhaps the next decade or two. I was, however, very encouraged by the energy, determination and kindness of the volunteers. I can only really compare it to the Kingdom of Heaven present in a sort of hell on Earth, or like the scarred and muddy, but determined to blossom, sakura I saw several times. I'm headed back to the States Thursday. I can't believe it! I'll be in touch, as I was asked to write an English blog entry and send some of my pictures.
Thanks again for everything! In Christ,
Thursday, April 28, 2011
It’s the forty-ninth day after the earthquake, an important day for many Japanese. In Buddhism this is an important day of prayer for the dead. Many temples have scheduled the "hoyoh" which are ceremonies honoring the dead. In this way the living are comforted. Just this evening I took part in a meeting attended by Buddhist and Christian religious leaders. The purpose was to organize a common ministry to serve the spiritual needs of the public in Sendai. The government and various organizations can address the material needs of the people. But there definitely is a spiritual need which only the religious community can address. The conversation centered on:
1. How can we advertise to the public that we are available to listen?
2. What services can we provide?
It is important that the Buddhist and Christian community join together at this time in a spirit of respect. It shows the public that we are not here to compete, but to serve. The spiritual needs are so deep. The governor suggested that we "set up a phone line and wait." The implication being that it is important for the religious community to wait prayerfully for people until they are ready to share from the heart. Many years ago when I was in the states, I visited a church in Ohio. After sharing about my work, the pastor commented; "I see that your ministry is gentle evangelism." I really liked that phrase, and it has stayed with me through the years. Many people are afraid of religion, and believe that religious people are aggressive and self-serving. Not so for those of us gathered on this night. Our hearts go out to those who have lost loved ones; those who cannot return to the place where they lived for fear of the memories which might return to them. Many people are still not accounted for. The suffering continues. The religious community is ready to serve at any time, but for those who have lost loved ones, the time may not be right yet. Humility is an important part of Buddhism. Waiting, listening, emptying oneself, letting go of desires are all important values. When my father first came to Sendai 60 years ago, he visited a blind man in a small fishing village near Ishinomaki. He witnessed the desperate poverty and asked; "Is there anything that I can do for you?" The man replied; "Desire is endless." There is so much to learn from the wisdom of the Buddhist tradition. On this forty-ninth day I bow my head remembering that many of my Buddhist friends are praying for peace and healing.
Wednesday, April 27, 2011
Let me describe an average day for me at the Emmaus Center. I leave the home at 8am on my bicycle, arriving at the Center by 8:20. I park my bicycle along with the thirty other bikes we have. Inside the volunteer meeting is about to begin. I enter with a cheerful "Ohayo Gozaimasu!" And people respond in kind. The meeting is short. There are about forty people gathered around a large table. We end the meeting with prayer. More than half of those present are not Christian. They join us by saying "Amen" and then the exodus. They head out in teams of six for a 40 minute bike ride to Shichigo. Everyone is wearing boots and raincoats. Mr. Sugawara will be waiting for us to delegate the work. The Tohoku is a very conservative area, and the people of Shichigo are not too open in their relationships to outsiders. Our volunteer staff is very careful to nurture good relationships with the people of Shichigo. We go by bicycle. The slogan of our Relief Center is "Relief Work - based less on efficiency, and more on maintaining relationships." Some volunteers stay behind at the Emmaus Center to clean, cook, sort supplies and welcome volunteers. My task is to be available to greet visitors - especially the official kind of people who are seeking ways to establish continuing support for our programs. 4pm the volunteers come riding back on their bikes. Then the volunteer meeting starts. The volunteer leaders take reports from each of the groups that have divided into the various houses. They call for suggestions and impressions of their work day. The whole group is informed about the progress of shoveling mud and such. Then we end with prayer. Again the Amen! Following the volunteer meeting we have a special time of sharing limited to the youth. This is a time to speak from the heart about what each person felt through the day. This time of sharing seems to be highly valued by the young people. It helps them to open up and be upfront about what is for most on their minds. This is a part of the Christian ministry which really speaks to them. No one is preaching at them, but they have each other to be encouraged and uplifted.
Today I left the Center at 10pm. Outside I spoke with two college age girls who told me how touched they are to be here. The time of sharing is particularly impressive to them. They had all sorts of doubts about coming to Sendai, but now they are overwhelmed by the experience. Their eyes light up as they share with me their own sense of this experience. I feel in them the presence of the Holy Spirit. Community life, traveling to the tsunami struck area, seeing the destruction, laboring in the mud, interacting with the rural people of Shichigo, returning to share their deep experiences with one another. There seems to be something about the whole experience which is hard to put into words. I wonder if this is what the Psalmist was trying to say when he remarked; "My cup over flows."
Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Part of my work at the Relief Center is to be available. There are lots of people in the office that have plenty to do, and I too have things on my mind, but availability is a very important gift that I can provide. We receive visitors who want to talk and gather information. Some are official visitors from churches around Japan, as well as from around the world. They bring their greetings, and express their solidarity with us at this time. Some represent educational institutions and/or churches that are looking for ways to commit their selves by sending volunteers, supplies and money. Some are members of NGOs who are newly setting up in Sendai. They are looking for information about the area. Some are looking for people who might be able to serve as staff. Some have specific tasks like the guest who came today. She was a Japanese woman who is trying to protect people (and especially children) in Fukushima from radiation. She was promoting a kit made in Israel that would help residents create a safe environment within their home - radiation free. Each visitor is so passionate. Sometimes I find myself not being able to respond with the same kind of enthusiasm, when I know that the smile on my face has long since died, I pack it up and head home. There are others that can take my place. The other day a friend sent me the following information from a newspaper in India. Well written and incisive! How true it is that the nuclear industry has for itself a built in money making structure. Man-made accidents like the one in Fukushima mean more business for the nuclear industry! I hope you can give this article by Siddharth Varadarajan a read: ''Rush in now, repent later,'' Siddharth Varadarajan, The Hindu, April 25, 2011, and it can be accessed at: http://www.hindu.com/2011/04/25/stories/2011042552931000.htm
Monday, April 25, 2011
Fishing - Up in the Air!
Last week I went out to the coastal area of Shichigahama. I visited the house of Mr. Sato who is a fisherman. He lost his fishing vessel to the tsunami. Luckily his house was spared, but many of the fishermen in the Yogasaki village lost their homes. Two thirds of the fishermen lost their fishing vessels. The fishing nets kept out at sea were also ruined. Mr. Sato told us that each day the fishermen meet at the Fishermen's Union to discuss their future. The government is encouraging them to form a company in order to move forward and make a living. It is up to each household whether they want to continue fishing or not. There are intense emotions involved here, the lifestyle crafted through the years in this particular area weigh in the balance. Lifestyles, memories, traditions, community, human dignity, identity are all at stake. I asked Mr. Sato how long it will take to be able to fish again. He answered; "It’s not just a matter of going out to sea and catching fish. That I can do today. But to make a living off of the sea will take fifteen years. We've lost everything out there. Then there is the added threat of radiation. That factor has many of us concerned about whether to take the risk and get back into the fishing industry here in Miyagi Prefectrue." On the way home in the car a college student that was with me took the picture of the fishing vessel on top of a building. It was a gloomy day. When will the light begin to shine on all of the fishermen and farmers who have lost their livelihood?
Sunday, April 24, 2011
Today our family went to church. We have three worship services at Kita Sanbancho Church each Sunday. One at 7:30, the second at 9:00 or families with children, and the main service at 10:10. This last service is attended by about sixty people - most of whom are elderly. After worship we had introductions for the people who had come for the first time. Five people had come, each as volunteers to help with relief work through the Emmaus Center. These past few weeks we have witnessed visitors stand to introduce themselves. As they speak, many of them break into tears. They say; "I just had to come. I don't know what I can do, but I couldn't help from coming to Sendai."
This disaster has affected the psyche of the whole nation. People are overwhelmed and restless to do something. At church we find ourselves receiving these people, and witnessing their tears. Church perhaps is the sanctuary which allows them to express what is deepest within them. This Easter is like no other. Sadness still covers the land. The Bible says that Jesus rose in three days. I ask myself "Three days? Why so soon?" My own heart is still fumbling along in the midst of the day to day tasks.
We had lunch at church. Then one volunteer handed out cards from children and handicapped people from around the world. A medical student from Cameroon who attends our church regularly sang a song; "Do not fear." In these small gestures we felt ourselves upheld by the international community. Our hearts are still heavy, but maybe this is God's way of going before us and pointing the way toward resurrection. Is God telling us that three days of grief and discouragement are enough? God's message to me this Easter is "Pick yourself up and live in the spirit of love, joy and hope."
Saturday, April 23, 2011
Today I attended the funeral of Hiromi Kusakari and her mother. The Kusakari’s were members of the Natori Church who died in the tsunami. The day of the earthquake, they were warned to evacuate in the case of a tsunami, but they had not heeded the warning. Hiromi had been a music teacher at high school. She was to retire at the end of March. More than one hundred people were in attendance at the funeral. The pastor read a verse from the 21st chapter of Revelation which speaks about the end time when God will be with us forever – wiping away our tears.
The land is full of sadness. Our lives are full of emotions. Fatigue is always at our doorstep. I can’t help but think that tomorrow is Easter. Today, the Christian church is in mourning. It has been a long Lenten season. Let us mourn today as we prepare ourselves for a new morning.
Friday, April 22, 2011
Each morning I search for the figures in the newspaper. On the front page are the numbers of dead (14,208), missing (12,384), and evacuated (130,852). How long will we be reminded of the number of people who have been affected by the earthquake? Each day the tremors remind us of the tragedy. Life in central Sendai has returned to normal, but those affected by the tsunami, only a thirty minute bicycle ride from here, are still in the midst of a long recovery process. The other day I called the house of my friend Yayoi who died due to the tsunami. Yayoi’s sister told me; “At this point all that I can tell you is that we have cremated Yayoi and her father. Our first priority at the moment is to recover our family business. We have a lot of people who work for us, and for whom we are responsible.”
The other figure I look for daily is the one that indicates the radiation level in Sendai. These days the figure has stabilized at 0.08 Micro Seivert. This figure is within the average range of radiation that any given area in the world would register in a given day. Fukushima City (south of Sendai) registers 1.69. Anything over 5.0 is said to be dangerous. Yesterday, the government expanded the “off limits zone” from a 6 mile to a 12 mile radius. The people of Fukushima have to live in a state of anxious anticipation. When will we hear some good news concerning the reactors? When will the government announce a long range plan for recovery for this area. In fact, the Fukushima reactors are owned by the Tokyo Electric Company. Fukushima has housed reactors which provide electricity to the large metropolis of Tokyo. These nuclear reactors located in rural settings, the US bases in Okinawa, and the nuclear recycling plant in Aomori are all examples of the “Not in My Backyard” mentality which allows those in power to push their lifestyle, and the risks that come with it, on the poor and rural areas of Japan.
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Ten minutes of shared silence each day! When Mother Theresa came to Japan many years ago she was asked; "What do you want to say to the Japanese people?" She responded; "Please try to find ten minutes of silence in each day." I think she could sense the critical lack of silence in our lives here. At the Emmaus Center we have set aside a room for silence and prayer. There is an icon, some candles, a cross, an open Bible. The other day we held an ecumenical Taize style prayer in this room with about 15 people. My wish is that we can have a weekly prayer there - a time to return to the heart. Many volunteers who come to our Center have had no connection with Christianity. In their smiles I can sense that they are thankful to be with us, and to be a part of our community. We hope that they will know that all of our work is sustained by a silent and consistent prayer; "God be with those in need." Prayer helps us turn our hearts toward serving others. Prayer and shared silence is one way in which we express our ministry in Christ.
Monday, April 18, 2011
The cherry blossoms are in full bloom. Exquisite! We have entered our fifth week of hosting and coordinating volunteers at the Emmaus Center. They come from all over Japan. Each morning we have a meeting at 8:30 am before sending the volunteers out on their bicycles heading for Shichigo. Today we only had 35 bicycles for about 45 people. Each day new people join us. There is tremendous energy in the air. Young people are at the center of the planning and organizing. Today, around the dinner table, I sat with three men in their fifties. Each shared with me how impressed they were by the young people. They told me they had nearly given up on young people - on their own children. But here before their eyes were young people so active, dependable, and full of enthusiasm. They told me how encouraging it was to witness the young people gathered here at the Emmaus Center.
I think the disaster has provided a window of opportunity for the youth. Needs abound before our eyes, and the youth are able to reach out and help. The adults who witness the youth are filled with hope. I believe this indeed is the work of the church! The Emmaus Center was started 60 years ago by missionaries of the Evangelical and Reformed Church (one of the precursors of the United Church of Christ). Then for 30 years the Methodist Church also was committed to supporting this ministry. During these years we have been committed to serving young people in Sendai. Now when a disaster like this happens, our history and continued commitment have given life to the local community. The church is able to mobilize the youth for relief efforts. The youth are filled with a new spirit that will change their life forever. I want our churches in the US to know that the seeds we planted in faith, have taken root in so many young people in this country. God is alive in each of them - whether they know it or not. And we are blessed to be a sign of HOPE to the world.
Sunday, April 17, 2011
The man at the mortuary said; “You know I have been in this profession for some time. I thought I knew all about what to do here. But this catastrophe has made me think about things all over again. The other day a first grade boy came. He was the only survivor in the family. This little boy had to be the one to confirm the death of his parents and siblings. You know I wondered how this experience was going to affect him. I did not know what to say to him. I stood beside him completely at a loss for words.” Each day we gather at church and share these stories of a reality too heavy to bear. Go d is our only comfort.
Saturday, April 16, 2011
Lost souls, lost home. Today I accompanied my friend Emi to deliver 80 pillows to the fishing village of Ogatsu. We drove about two hours north of Sendai. This was the village where she grew up. As we got closer, I could see the way the tsunami had swept away every house in sight. The small village was located along an inlet, nestled among the mountains. I had passed through this area on a bicycle tour when I was a teenager, but it was the first time for me to visit since the earthquake. No houses were left. Only the large and sturdy schools and hospitals remained. Emi pointed to the three story hospital saying; "This is the hospital where all the patients, nurses and doctors died. No one survived." We dropped the pillows off at an evacuation center and then walked next door to the Buddhist temple. The priest was happy to see Emi. It had been ten years since they had last met. He poured us some green tea as we talked. One big concern of his was to be able to pray for the dead. In Buddhist thought, people who die become gods. The living must honor the dead by praying to (worshiping) the ancestors. Many of the dead have not been found. Their bodies most probably are at the bottom of the ocean. The priest commented; "There are many souls that are lost and wandering.” I need not mention that the Christian thought about death is quite different. The way we think about death is one of the defining differences between are two cultures. The priest was concerned that all dead souls will find their resting place, and be honored by the living. But the tsunami has annihilated towns, temples and graves. I sensed the pain within him as he expressed his need to find a way to care for the dead - and by so doing care for the living. We agreed that Christians and Buddhists think differently about death. But I had a sense that we shared a common calling to CARE for those who are suffering. Many people in the fishing villages on the Pacific Ocean here refer to "The Chile Tsunami." That was the largest tsunami in recent history which originated in the south pacific. But the tsunami this year was far more destructive than any in recent memory. Emi was worried about the future of her home village. The government has announced that no houses will be rebuilt on land touched by the tsunami. Will the village of Ogatsu disappear? What will happen to her family home? Will all the memories and traditions peculiar to Ogatsu be lost? Traveling with Emi today got me thinking about what it means to be tied to a particular area, or piece of land. HOME is so much a part of one's identity. How will the people of Ogatsu hold on to their home - and in that sense hold onto their identity? Most of the villagers are either in one of the two thousand evacuation centers in Miyagi Prefecture, or have fled to stay with family members in other areas. They are all wondering what will happen to their family home - their furusato.
Emi and Jeffrey
Friday, April 15, 2011
Such joy! I went to visit my friend Satake. He has cerebral palsy and gets around in an electric wheelchair. He lives on the outskirts of town in a Christian welfare institute for the handicapped. When the earthquake hit, his facility lost all life lines--water, electricity and gas. The sixty residents were gathered into one large room with no heat and no water to wash with. The electric generator allowed the residents to do the bare minimum in order to get by. For a few days I had no gasoline to allow me to drive out to where Satake lives. I stopped by on the fourth day after the quake. I could only promise that I would return again soon. His eyes spoke to me of his dismal situation. Now five weeks later, I was with Satake and when he saw me he leapt for joy. Satake is speech impaired, and communicates by pointing to letters inscribed on the table in front of him. I asked him about how he felt these past weeks. He commented; "It was tough not to have electricity, and also not to be able to communicate with people through the internet." My friends who are differently able to remind me, when a crisis hits, they are placed in the most vulnerable situation. Because they cannot fend for themselves, the fear and anxiety must be unbearable. They have to depend on others for their own survival. I will never forget the expression of joy on Satake's face. He tells me with his life how meaningful our relationship is to him. His joy encourages me to respond in kind.
Thursday, April 14, 2011
Today, I want to share a few pictures which reveal how the tsunami destroyed a fishing village. Emi comes from the fishing village of Ogatsu north of Sendai. When she was a student we traveled together to Kerela, India. I have known her for ten years. Her father is a fisherman, and is often out at sea. She shared with me the following pictures. Picture one shows Ogatsu village before the earthquake. Emi's house is to the right, closest to the sea notice the barrier wall and the small lighthouse. Also, take a look at the island far in the distance. Picture two shows how the tsunami came in and swallowed houses. Picture three shows the tsunami retreating out to sea. Houses are being sucked together into the narrow outlet by the lighthouse. Picture four shows how most of the water has disappeared from the foreground. In the distance the island is now connected to the mainland. Picture five is taken after the whole ordeal. A house rests atop another house.
Emi had been in Tokyo when the earthquake happened. Out of the four thousand residents, one hundred are reported dead, and two hundred are unaccounted for. None of Emi's family members lost their lives. Emi returned to her hometown to walk the streets that have been cleared by the National Defense Forces. I asked her how she felt. She told me that she was amazed by the extent to which the tsunami devoured and swept away the whole village. "Amazement" was the only word she could find to express her feelings. Emi comes to our Emmaus Center each day to join the volunteers who go out to help in the coastal villages. Behind her quiet smile I can only begin to imagine the loss that has scarred her heart.
Wednesday, April 13, 2011
It's 3pm. Our twenty volunteers are out at the coastal town of Shichigo. They went by bicycle which takes 40 minutes one way. When the volunteers return by 4pm they are all tired not only from the hard labor, but from the bicycle ride home. Rev. Taku Noda was the one who helped us to gain a connection with Mr. Sugawara of Shichigo. Rev. Noda values the trusting friendship we have with Mr. Sugawara. He believes that our continued effort to go by bicycle is very important and symbolic of the way we intend to involve ourselves in the lives of the people of Shichigo. Some volunteer groups come in large cars, decked out in matching outfits, advertizing their organization. However, we are a mismatch of individuals who don't want to impose ourselves on the residents of Shichigo. We want to be a very humble presence. We are the servants. Those on the forefront of the recovery process are the victims themselves; people like Mr. Sugawara.
Yesterday we had official visitors from the National Council of Churches of Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong. I was pleased to meet Rev. Andrew Chang from Taiwan. He was the one who acted immediately to send us twenty electric generated bicycles. These we use each day to go out to Shichigo. Rev. Chang told me that Taiwan too has been hit many times with natural disasters. The Presbyterian Church of Taiwan (PCT) has set up several care centers throughout Taiwan which continue to care for the victims of the disaster. He told me that the government thinks only of building houses and roads. When the work is done in several months they stop their work. However, one survivor expressed his appreciation for the work of the PCT saying; "After three months many organizations pull out. The only one who kept walking with us was Jesus." Rev. Chang invited us in the Tohoku to visit Taiwan to see what they are doing. The Japanese church has no organization which specializes in disaster relief work. It’s high time the church in Japan establish a desk for disaster relief.
Mr. Chida is here to prepare dinner for the volunteers. He is a man who lost his home and restaurant to the tsunami. A few days ago he came to the Emmaus Center for supplies. Learning of our activities he has offered to help us in the kitchen. His simple presence fills me with joy. He has lost everything, and yet he has the capacity to continue to give. God's love shines through people like Mr. Chida.
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
It was a long day yesterday. I must find a way to create my own time, otherwise I will burn out. Tensions are running high now; our volunteers have been working 12 hour days almost non-stop. Troubles have developed between the staff that works with me at the Student Center, and those who have committed their all to the work of the Relief Center, who are judging those who stand by unable to jump into the tremendous energy of volunteers generated by this crisis. In fact the after effects of the earthquake have given rise to a visible divide between those who commit and those who do not.
This crisis has also brought to the fore front our own priorities. Modern life allows us to hide our thoughts and feelings, but this crisis has made the heart visible. I can see how people are prioritizing by the choices they make. This sudden change in our lives is also creating tensions. More and more we need time for the heart to be still.
Today, the IAEA announced their results. The Fukushima reactors has reached LEVEL SEVEN. The situation is approaching Chernobyl.
Monday, April 11, 2011
One month since the earthquake! At 2:46 pm we all bowed our heads in a moment of silence. Even today we had a rather big earthquake. Roads were closed. Volunteers are having a hard time returning to Tokyo. We were supposed to send five volunteers to the coastal town of Ishinomaki, but had to change our plans due to the earthquake.
I often think of that first night after the earthquake, the whole city was black no street lights people were walking the streets with flash lights. We had ten students staying the night with us at our home. Our kids were excited to have so many guests. They ran outside to gaze at the stars. I never imagined we could see the stars so clearly in the middle of this large city.
The first news we heard of the tsunami was the following morning. Reports said that two to three hundred dead bodies could be found on the coast of Arahama near Sendai. Now the death count is up to 12,000. Sendai city must dispose of the dead bodies at a hurried pace. Christian pastors and Buddhist priests have requested the city to allow them to offer a service for the repose of a person's soul. The sending away of the dead is very important for the Japanese people. Not being able to do this in a proper fashion could lead some family members to commit suicide in the future. Religious leaders are much aware of the spiritual crisis before us.
Prayer is a part of our daily life. I don't think there is a single person in Tohoku who has not prayed in some way in the past month. God is calling forth in us a deep and shared prayer for peace and healing. This prayer leads us in a new found communion.
Sunday, April 10, 2011
The newspapers are full of stories and pictures of people who survived the tsunami. On one page we can find the names of those who died. The newspaper in Fukushima prefecture lists all of the kindergartens and nurseries indicating a radiation count for each. I read today that the number of orphans is 62; a number higher than those orphaned in the Kobe earthquake of 17 years ago. Pictures from the towns by the coast of Iwate prefecture to the north of Sendai remind me of pictures that were taken after Hiroshima was bombed; complete devastation.
Tonight we held our monthly evening worship at the Emmaus Center. 35 people were in attendance. The Bible passage was from the Gospel of Mark; "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away." Rev. Nagao said "These are not words of judgment. These are words spoken by a man who walked that lonely path, suffering all the way, reaching even the depths of human suffering. These are words spoken by a man who was facing his own end time. These are words of trust that say, God's loving embrace will follow us to the end. So they are not words of judgment spoken by a self-righteous man, but rather they are words of compassion, spoken by a man who knew suffering, and spoken for those who are suffering each day." Listening to this sermon I found myself deeply moved. There was nothing flamboyant about his style. But something unabashedly simple spoke to me. Faith is so simple sometimes. It is all about trust.
Saturday, April 9, 2011
Two days ago we had a large aftershock registering a magnitude six in Sendai. Electricity was out for several hours in the city, but in the countryside houses are still without electricity. In Ishinomaki, the Eiko Kindergarten was aiming to start their new school year on the 20th, but due to the aftershock they are going to have to move the date back because they do not have any water. This aftershock is a set back for residents in Tohoku who have been focused on rebuilding their lives. The repeated tremors remind us that a return to normalcy will take much longer.
There is now plenty of food in the stores. Gasoline can be bought at the gasoline stands. The only inconvenience in Sendai is not having city gas. Now with the recent aftershock the gas company is back to square one as it makes the rounds to each of the houses to make sure there are no leaks in the pipes. It may be another month before we are hooked up to city gas again. Psychological tensions still run high here. Just today I learned that my friend Ms. Yayoi Takayama's body was identified among the dead bodies in Kakuda city. She was to be married this year. Each of us knows several people who lost their lives to the tsunami. Sadness covers our land.
Today at the Emmaus Center I shared a meal with 20 young volunteers from Tokyo and other areas. They are excited to be here. Their presence is helping me to stay as joyful as I can in these trying times.
Friday, April 8, 2011
Back in Sendai with my family. Last night there was a large aftershock. When we returned home there was broken glass all over the kitchen floor again. Our youngest child Stella (age 4) seems nervous to be back in Sendai where the tremors have not subsided.
Today I spoke over the phone with the Common Global Ministries Board. I shared a bit about my situation here, and at the end of our phone conversation Cally and David prayed for the people of Japan. Prayer and action must go hand in hand in our efforts to meet the needs of the people before us.
Today I met a young woman from Tokyo who is a therapist. She had been in Higashi Matsushima at one of the evacuation centers where 500 people reside. She was part of a team providing foot baths for the refugees. Japanese are very fond of baths (the ofuro). People who have lost their homes, have also lost that private space where they can relax after a hard day. As this young volunteer made herself available to wash and care for the feet of the refugees, some broke down in tears, some shared their anger, and some revealed their worries. She commented to me: "There was something very precious about taking their feet into my hands to wash. I shared their tears, and we shared a tender moment together, in much the same manor as I imagine Jesus must have shared with his disciples as he washed their feet."
Thursday, April 7, 2011
Today on television I saw a program on residents of Namie in Fukushima prefecture. The town of Namie is located very close to the Fukushima nuclear reactors. Two days after the earthquake, the government called on all residents to evacuate from their town. No one has been able to return to their homes. They are not only homeless, but jobless. There are also many people who lost loved ones to the tsunami. The Namie residents want to return to confirm who has died. They want to bury their dead, and yet they are unable to do so. The whole area around the reactors is off limits. The residents had put their trust in the safety of the reactors. But now they are angry. Will they ever be able to return to their home. Accepting the nuclear reactors in Namie had brought with it many financial perks. But at what cost!
The Kyodan has a church in Namie. About ten years ago Rev. Yoshida was pastoring the Namie Church. He was outspoken about the dangers of the reactors. The more he spoke up, the less people showed up on Sundays. Soon all of the people had left the church. Rev. Yoshida had to leave Namie, and for years the church building has remained. The district pastors have taken turns to hold worship once a month. The empty church stands now in the middle of the empty town; a reminder of a prophetic voice that we the people did not heed. Tomorrow our family returns to Sendai. At present the radiation count in Sendai is 0.1 micro-seivert. We will have to monitor the radiation level each day.
I would like to share the current situation in Japan. At this point the Japanese government and the Japanese people have helped to make sure that the evacuees are cared for in terms of material needs. Food, blankets, clothing, and daily necessities are well provided in the evacuation centers. We have stopped to collect supplies at the Emmaus Center, and are now focusing our efforts on getting volunteers out to the tsunami disaster area to help.
Recently, we have been asking for shovels, gloves, rubber gloves, and special bags for collecting broken glass, sandbags, wheelbarrows, boots and anything our volunteers can use to clear out the broken debris. We also have asked for cars and trucks, and now people have responded to meet our needs. So our immediate needs are well provided for. The problem will be our long term needs.
Just the other day the Tohoku Kyoku (Northern Conference of UCCJ) gathered to form a committee that will look into the damages sustained by the earthquake to formulate a report by the end of May. No Kyodan churches have been destroyed by the tsunami; however there are countless churches that have been damaged by the earthquake. Many of the churches in the north of Tokyo too have serious problems because the foundation has shifted and fallen. One church in Fukushima has already been taken down because it was hazardous. The leveling fee cost $60,000. This is only the beginning of what will turn out to be a very costly enterprise to rebuild the churches and kindergartens.
One immediate need that we have is to hire full time staff who will continue to coordinate the relief efforts started at the Tohoku Disaster Relief Center. For the past month, I, myself, as well as our full time staff at the Emmaus Center, have volunteered our time and space for the relief efforts. I have been working 14 hours a day to help manage the office. However, in order to continue this work we need skilled staff who will commit for the long term. The Kyodan has promised to send several staff for this purpose, but the Kyodan itself is not financially strong. We will be looking for aid from other sources like CGMB to support this effort.
I will send stories whenever I have time. Though the church in Japan is very small, I think it is doing a fabulous job at responding. The number of volunteers who have applied during our first week has numbered 81. And each week the number of volunteers is increasing. Most of the volunteers are young people. They are participating in an effort that will be transforming for them. In this way the church is participating in the lives of the young people as they find ways to walk alongside others in a time of crisis.
Wednesday, April 6, 2011
I drove to Kyoto last night to pick up my family. Kyoto is about 500 miles from Sendai. The earthquake did not touch this part of Japan. Kako and the kids are eager to get back home. School is starting next week, and all of their friends are there. I needed to come all this way to see them to confirm with them that the Sendai we are returning to is not the same as before.
Yesterday I was in a committee meeting with local pastors from the Tohoku District of the Kyodan (United Church of Christ in Japan). This committee will gather information among our churches as to the damage sustained by the earthquake, and will come up with a plan for the rebuilding of the church. They will also receive funds both from Japan and abroad to channel this both for the church and for the wider public. One pastor reminded us of the mistakes made in the past. In the 1950s there was an evangelsitic team financed by the churches in America and lead by an American named Lacour. Many churches were built in the Fukushima area, but after the funding ended and the mission team went home, there was no vision within the community to carry on the work of the church. The buildings still stand, but the church membership is not selfsustaining. This pastor reminded us that the rebuilding of the church must not only include the kindergartens the local residents themselves. The purpose of our relief efforts must not focus on the church building, but on how the church is going to serve the needs of the people.
Another serious discussion concerned the area in Fukushima which is now off limits due to nuclear radiation. The Odaira Church outside of Fukushima City is close to the off limits zone (18 mile radius from the reactors). Rev. Suzuki has evacuated his family. Though he himself remains, he is very concerned about the future of his church community. In the face of these new challenges many of the members of the committee seemed to be at a loss for words. One pastor commented: "We have decided to find ways to live with the radiation. At our kindergarten we have bought our own gieger counter with which we will take our own data to monitor the situation. We will inform the families as to when and how to act when the radiation levels are high. We are certain there will be days that we will urge the children to play indoors."
At our Relief Center in Sendai we are daily receiving groups of volunteers to help with the tsunami disaster. But we have not yet been able to address the serious situation we have in Fukushima.
Monday April, 4, 2011
People from all around Japan are coming to our Center. There are official visitors from the various Districts of the Kyodan as well as representatives from churches in Korea and Taiwan. Today there is a team from the Japan Korea Society in Los Angeles who are going to air a program on 18.2 California introducing our situation to the wider public in the US. The reporter says that the treatment of the media in the US is quite different from what the media say in Japan. There is also a Japanese journalist who has been with us for a week. He is impressed with the number of young people who are involved in our volunteer movement. Today we sent 25 people out to the coast to help with the mud removal. We have an additional 10 people in the port town of Ishinomaki. Waves of people show up at our day saying "We want to help." Our task is to welcome them, house them and direct them to places where help is needed.
Through this experience, there is a deep sense of loss. Not only the loss of lives and homes, but a definite sense that all of us have lost our daily lives to this disaster. But at the same time there is one recurring word that we hear over and over. This word pours out of my mouth each time I greet a new person. Our eyes meet, and I know that we are not strangers. Then with no reservation I say "Arigato" which means thank you. It is one of the words closest to our hearts. We are so thankful that people come to be with us. Its noon time on Monday. I sit at a crossroads of people trying to reach out to one another. And I for one am so thankful that the church is able to be a vessel for this good work. Not that I mean to take credit. I just know that many people NEED this place. And I am happy to be a part of it.
Friday, April 1, 2011
Tomomi is a freshman at the Tohoku Engineering University in Sendai. She is also a member of the Student Center where I work. I called her today because I had heard that she lost a good friend to the tsunami. Soon she was in tears as she told me about her good friend who comes from the coastal town of Soma. Many of her friends come from towns by the coast like Ofunato and Kesennuma. Tomomi used to eat lunch everyday at the school cafeteria with her friend Shiori. She received word that Shiori's was one of the bodies found in the aftermath of the tsunami. I told Tomomi there is so little that I can do for her, but that I will be praying for her and for Shiori's family. This evening at the Center we held a short Taize style meditation. Tomomi and Shiori were close to my heart as I prayed. There is so much to pray for in each day.
Fukushima is now famous around the world for the nuclear reactors. Rev. Yuko Uetake has just moved to the Iwaki Church (in Fukushima) to serve there. I also talked to Yuko on the phone today. Fukushima has been contaminated. The air, water and land are full of radiation. Dairy farms throw out the milk they have gathered from the cows. Farmers are not going to plant their crops. Fishermen are not going out to sea. People are moving out of the area. Five of our churches in the Tohoku District are closed because the residents have all moved out for fear of the radiation. Products from Fukushima will not sell on the market. I hate to say this, but who knows what will happen in the future. Will there be a day when no body will take a bride from Fukushima? The prospects are grim. Fukushima is not so far from Sendai. Nor is Tokyo very far either. Are we to expect a similar fate?
A pastor friend of mine shared with me that after the nuclear reactors exploded, his wife panicked and escaped from Fukushima. For two weeks she stayed near Osaka before returning to Fukushima. When she returned she had lost the trust from the church members. The residents had remained, but she had fled. 26 years of living together in Fukushima, 26 years of building mutual trust; the trust was lost in one night. These stories weigh heavy on my heart.
I have decided to bring the family back to Sendai at the end of next week. School is starting, and my wife and kids are eager to return home. My heart swings between opposite emotions. Should the children be protected at all costs from this unseen danger by removing them from the Tohoku area? Am I over reacting? Or should we claim our life here just like all of the other people of the Tohoku? Should we stay to the bitter end, to be present through this all? Who knows what the effects will be? Will it take ten years or less before we begin to experience the ill effects of radiation?
I am not afraid for myself for I have lived a good fifty years. But I fear for my children. I am sure all parents who live in and near Fukushima fear for their children; for our children are our future.
This lenten season is like no other. I wish I had a word of hope to share with my audience. What I share is this picture taken by one of our volunteers who went to shovel mud from the houses of Shichigo. Plum blossoms blooming in the midst of the devestation.
Thursday, March 31, 2011
The schools in Sendai have been hard hit by the earthquake. As many may know Miyagi Gakuin University and Tohoku Gakuin University were started by the German Reformed Church (One of the precursors of the Evangelical and Reformed Church, part of the background of the United Church of Christ) in the 1880s. They represent the work of our denomination, and our ties have continued through the years. Miyagi Gakuin has sustained damage to the chapel and class rooms. The university has announced that classes will resume in May, but some question whether the classrooms are safe. The whole school is focused on efforts to renovate and repair the buildings in time for the spring season.
Today I walked over to the Tohoku Gakuin campus. The main building is a beautiful building made out of granite from the Akiu area. Near by stands the Rahauser Chapel. The stained glass window was afe, but some windows were shattered, and the ceiling has fallen. The chapel will need to be repaired. Four other buildings at the Tsuchitoi campus are severely damaged. Again the school is hoping to resume classes by the second week of May, but at this point they are trying to surmise the situation.
I visited the Volunteer Center at Tohoku Gakuin which had just started up two days ago. They were still in the process of organizing themselves. I wanted to tell them about our Relief Center, and that we had at least frou different locations to which we hoped to send volunteers. We have the connections, but we need more volunteers.
I am presently teaching at Miyagi Gakuin, and am on the steering committee of Tohoku Gakuin. I am hoping that our Disaster Relief Center will enable these Christian schools to involve their young people in relief work.
Getting out of the house, away from one's daily life, and involving oneself in the lives of others, is a vital way for young people be transformed. Evangelism is all about transformation. Not that they will become Christian, but that they will know and feel the change within - the transformation which is the gift of God.
Wednesday, March 30, 2011
We are beginning to welcome groups from Tokyo and other places. Today we were able to send a total of twenty five young people to the coast to help with dirt removal. We have prepared shovels, gloves, rubber gloves, a wheel barrow, bags for the dirt and mud, boots and brooms. The church in Taiwan sent us twenty electric powered bicycles. The picture shows the young people about to take off for the coast.
At four pm each day we have a "volunteer meeting." The young people report about their day, and share information about how we can improve our efforts at relief work. The reality of the tsunami destruction seems to have moved them deeply. One young woman was in tears as she shared with us her thoughts. There is so much to do, and so few hands. Our young people were helping one household. But next door there were elderly people removing heavy furniture. "If only we had more help." they said.
We are beginning to access the universities in Sendai. Each university has been severely hit by the earthquake. Some campuses like Tohoku Gakuin and Miyagi Gakuin have sustained great damage to their buildings. There is question whether the campuses will be able to resume their classes from May. The leadership at the universities are overwhelmed by their own problems. Today I was on the phone with each campus, offering them information about our Center. We have at least four locations between Ishinomaki and Sendai where we need help. We have connections with the people. All we need is to access the young people in this city who are looking for ways to help.
Each night at seven, we have a staff meeting at which we discuss the issues before us. The five areas that we discuss are Public Relations, Volunteers, Goods and Supplies, Information, and Daily Life. Each day we make important decisions which help us to go forward. This relief work is going to be for the long term. We need to be sustainable in our efforts. This room is full of young people earnestly searching for ways in which they can use their talents and skills. This catastrophy has brought us together in a common spirit. There are no strangers in the efforts to relieve the suffering of the victims. I feel God is moving through us. Prayer is an integral part of our day. Silence is just as important as action. It helps us to focus and continue on.
Sunday, March 27, 2011
Third Sunday of Lent. Each Sunday I visit a rural church.
Today I traveled by car with two friends to worship at the Tajiri Church and Tome Church. The pastor of Tajiri Church is a long time friend of the Mensendiek family. He has pastored that church for close to fifty years. Last year they built a new sanctuary and parsonage with wood provided by a layperson of the congregation. I was amazed by the beauty of the small sanctuary. Rev. Kokubo said that if he had been living in the old parsonage he and his wife would most certainly not be alive today. The earthquake lasted six minutes. It shook from side to side, rather than up and down. The latter kind causes more damage. The earthquakes which shake from side to side for a long period of time tend to cause large tsunami. It is said that the great tsunami this month came in three separate waves. The town of Tajiri lies far from the coast, so it was not touched by the tsunami.
Later in the day we swung around to visit the Ishinomaki Eiko Church. The water from the tsunami came up to their doorstep. They were fortunate to be on a slight hill. The waters swept around them and beyond. Neither the church, the kindergarten, nor the parsonage were damaged by the flooding water. Only the kindergarten was damaged by the earthquake. There are many churches in our conference which have been damaged by the earthquake. Three are beyond repair. Some areas still do not have electricity or water. Many people have not only lost their homes, but their jobs, the schools for their children, and they have lost their whole livelihood. It has been two weeks since the earthquake. Those who were fortunate to have survived the tsunami, are now beginning to think of their future. What will they do? Where will they live? Where will they work? Who is going to look out after them? The pastor and wife of Eiko Church shared with us that the people in their neighborhood are full of anxiety for their future. Christians are a small minority here, but in a time like this they can make all the difference. I hope that our relief work we provide through the church, and all the volunteer help that we receive will be a sign of love and support for all those people who are now worried about the future. The number of dead and missing has risen to 22,000. But the number who have lost their livlihood is even greater.
Jeffrey Mensendiek from Sendai.
Saturday, March 26, 2011
I drove into the Gamo District of Sendai today. It was raining slightly. Dark clouds. This is where a friend of mine had lived until she lost her apartment to the tsunami. I was with a team of ten volunteers who were going to help the Tamura family salvage things from their home. The effect of the tsunami caused the river near by to swell up and overflow beyond the barriers. Though still standing, each home, school and office building had been touched by the tsunami. Dark mud was seen piled up in various places.
A house was stuck in the middle of the river. Cars were crammed into livingrooms. I saw one traditional storage building (called a kura) lying upside down. The volunteers were told to clear things out of the house. Items to keep would go to the left, and items to thow out to the right. Mud was everywhere. No one had a smile on their face as they went about their work. As I drove home in the car, I heard over the radio that one ball park which had been used as a garbage dump for tsunami debree was now full. All ball parks in Sendai are now being used as temporary garbage dumps for the fallout after the tsunami.
The Japanese people are very patient, and have an incredible ability to persevere hardships. The people of the Tohoku (Northeast) are particularly conservative in terms of expressing their inner feelings. We have been trying to help people, but many of the people we have met have greeted us with the words "Daijobu" which "means I am OK." Perhaps it is a sense of shame which keeps them from opening up and sharing their struggles with strangers. I asked Tetsu, an 18 year old volunteer, what he is feeling as he works each day in the Gamo District. He answered; "I'm glad that what I do makes a difference in the lives of people. These people have lost everything. Sometimes we find money under furniture or tatami mats. The residents grasp the money from us as though this is all they have left to depend on. Working here in Gamo helps me to see many aspects of human existence. I feel I have changed alot, and that my life is made meaningful each day that I come here."
Jeffrey Mensendiek from Sendai.
Two weeks since the earthquake. Feels like a year! The days are cold. At the Emmaus Center we are not using the heaters, because resources are scarce. People keep showing up to help. Leaders from various organizations check in to introduce themselves, and to gather information. I am reflecting on how this Relief Center was started. The earthquake happened on a Friday. By Sunday three pastors had gathered, each of whom had their own experiences with earthquakes. They were quick to call on capable volunteers to gather, and to set up camp. Slowly, they set rules and began to organize. They called on the local District leadership to include them in the decision making. They included me because I was to provide the space to start up the Relief Center. As I reflect on this whole process I am amazed by the grassroots power which has given birth to the Tohoku Disaster Relief Center. The chief organizer was Rev. Etsuya Kataoka, pastor of the Aize Wakamatsu Sakaimachi Church. He is quite an unique person. Full of power and a vision for the church. His vision is to be able to serve the wider public through the church. Now two weeks has passed. The United Church of Christ (the Kyodan) has officially owned the ministry of the Relief Center. The Kyodan has committed to sending a coordinator for the continuing relief work. Rev. Kataoka has gone back to his church. He is exhausted, but he has accomplished his task. I will serve as the interum coordinator until the Kyodan is able to send their personel. The relief work will take many years. 350 miles of coastline have been swept clear. Many people will not be able to return to their homes, much less to the coastal area which has proved to be vulnerable to the tsunami. People around Japan are offering space for the refugees. The government will need to make temporary housing. But it will take years before the families will regain their daily life. I include a picture of Rev. Kataoka.
The situation in Sendai. Gasolene is hard to get. Cars are lined up for miles to get a mere 10 leters. Food can be found in the stores. No longer do people have to line up to buy food. Roads are OK, but some buildings have been affected. Some windows are broken. I hear stories of rape and theivery. In these situations not only the best in the human heart comes to the surface, but the worst as well. Foreigners are no where to be seen. Perhaps fifty percent of the people of this city have left. The ones left are those who call this home. For me too this city, this neck of the woods is home. I am on the phone each day with my family, and with Martha who are in Kyoto. I received emails and phone calls from so many people. I am amazed at the support I am receiving. My heart goes out to the people who are in the evacuation centers, and those who have lost loved ones. I saw on the news that the US is bombing Libya. Why? The reality here is so consuming, that I don't have the capacity to think about anything else. My days have been all consuming. Thank you to the people who are praying for me, and for all of the people in Japan. I pray that the nuclear reactors will be tamed.
Second Sunday of Lent.
I attended worship at the Natori Church south of Sendai, where the lives of three members were claimed by the tsunami. Rev. Masatoshi Ogasawara (retired pastor who studied at Lancaster Seminary in the 1950s) preached on Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane. He said: “This world is the garden of Gethsemane. This world is the dark of night of sadness where Jesus is praying. The disciples have given up. But Jesus continues to pray. He is in agony not because of his own suffering, but because of this love for this world. He is the one who prays in the midst of the darkest night. He is the Savior who can bring light out of the darkest night. We place our hope in this Savior who continues to pray alongside us in our darkest night.”
After worship I drove out a mere ten minutes to the cost. The landscape changed drastically. Refrigerators, cars, houses, beds, televisions, telephone poles and trees were strewn out across the land. An elementary school stood strong, but the mark of the tsunami could be seen reaching to the fourth floor. Did the children make it to safety? Did they stand on the roof and watch the tidal wave smear their beloved neighborhood? What kind of noise, what kind of destructive power did they tremble at? What trauma must have been left on the innocent heart. Today the landscape was still. We stood there in awe and disbelief. The mayor of Tokyo curtly declared: “This is God’s judgment toward us.” I disagree. I believe God’s was the first heart to break as those dark waves broke upon the Japanese coast.
It is three days since the ever-present mask over the mouth that reminds us of the unseen fear of nuclear radiation. Today the American Embassy announced their intention to evacuate all Americans who live within 80km of the Fukushima reactors. Sendai lies within that radius. Each day the Emmaus Center is a beehive of activity.
We just set up the UCCJ Tohoku Disaster Relief Center, and are working on getting information out through the web. We also have people going out into the community to gather information about how people are coping in the evacuation centers. Yesterday, a team of pastors drove to the port city of Ishinomaki to visit two churches that were badly effected by the tsunami. They were able to find Yaku-san, a missing layperson of the Eiko Church in Ishinomaki. The scene of the joyous reunion can be seen on u-tube (and Fox News) of Rev. Kataoka and Yaku-san hugging each other. (Also go to http://ameblo.jp/jishin-support-uccj/)
We have freezing weather and heavy snow today. 10,000 people are still in the evacuation centers. A Japanese Christian medical worker visited one evacuation center in Sendai and offered to help. They were overjoyed with the offer. Life there is very difficult. The needs far surpass our ability to provide. We have no gasoline to visit the areas hit by the tsunami. We also have very little food to offer. But people all over the world are mobilizing to help us. Kerosene is scarce. We wait for a new dawn when we will have the capacity to accept relief rations, and to provide generously to those in need.
The handicapped who reside in Arinomama-sha, a Christian welfare facility have no electricity or water. The staff are limited, and their food rations are scarce. When I entered the door, Satake leaped with joy. He needs an electric wheelchair to get around, his parents are unable to care for him, and he has nowhere to go. There I was, unable to do anything for him but to visit. Joy happens each day when we discover a familiar face and embrace saying "You are alive! I'm so glad to see you."
How can I express what its like to be here now in Sendai? It is unreal. I'm reminded of Albert Camus' novel "The Plague." Only, I'd like to rewrite his story to say that our challenge is to witness that God is present here in the lives of those who suffer.
This is the sixth day since the earthquake. The United Church of Christ in Japan (the Kyodan) has officially designated the Emmaus Center as their Disaster Relief Center. I am most concerned about the radiation. Though the television does not report this, through alternative sources it has been reported that the radiation level has surpassed 1000 at 50 KM from the nuclear reactor.
Today I drove my family across the mountains to the closest city. And from there a friend will drive them to my wife's parent’s home. I am very concerned about the radiation. Tomorrow we are expecting the first rain since the explosion at the reactor. This is a very serious situation.
Sendai is in turmoil. Young people are evacuating. Most people at church are elderly. Without water and electricity, they are experiencing so much trouble in their daily life that for them the biggest priority is to get through the day with the basic necessities. On Sunday about 20 people gathered in the small room at our church. We had only kerosene stoves, and the weather was so cold. The pastor started by saying that he had no time to prepare the sermon. But encouraged us saying that though we see so little, our faith lies in a God that sees the whole picture. Each member had their own story about their struggles. But when we brought these stories together it helped us see how fragmented and limited human vision is compared to God's vision.
The Emmaus Center where I work will most likely become an information center for the work of the church. We are still in the process of assessing the situation, gathering information and deciding how and when to accept help from those who are anxious to help.
Our family is fine. We spent the first two nights without electricity, but now I am able to send out emails on my computer to let you know that we are doing well. Thank you so much for your prayers. Luckily we have had water all along which has been a true blessing. The Murchies also are fine. The worst destruction has been along the coast, where several of our churches, as well as homes of lay people in our churches are located. We are not able to get any informtation at this point to confirm whether they are OK or not. I will send out another email when I have more information. As for now, I want you to know that we are well, and grateful for your moral support.
Martha Mensendiek serves at Doshisha University, Kyoto, Japan where she teaches social welfare.
Sunday, March 27, 2011
It has been a while since I have sent a report from Kyoto. Today was a very moving day at church and I want to share this story.
People from northern Japan are being evacuated to safer and stable environments including the Kansai area where I live. Pastors and church members are also opening up their homes to house "refugees" from the north. Today a family from Ishinomaki (one of the coastal cities near Sendai that was hardest hit by the tsunami) worshiped with us in our small church in Kyoto.
Their home was almost totally destroyed by the tsunami. Mrs. Hara was in the home and ran upstairs but the water came up to that level. She was one of the lucky ones that did not get swept away by the strong current and was eventually rescued by helicopter. Mr. Hara was driving in his car when the tsunami came and swept his car up with the current. He managed to get out of the car and was lucky enough to grab on to things and get himself to a house where the third floor was safe. 8 people spent the night there. The next morning they all found their way to a shelter. His wife was at another shelter and they did not find each other until the fourth day. That same day two of their sons came looking for them and they all were reunited.
Both of them said that they thought they would die. Now they have lost everything they owned but they feel like they have been given a new life to start anew. They plan to live in Yamagata with their son who works at a rural Christian school. The family was Buddhist but became Christian through their sons who they had sent to this Christian boarding school.
It is an amazing story. It was my first face to face encounter with someone who survived the tsunami. It is obvious that they have been through a harrowing time and they are still shaken by it, but at the same time they also had a peace about them that was remarkable.
I, like so many others, have had a heavy heart ever since the earthquake. Feeling deep sorrow for the people who have suffered and anxiety about the continuing disaster at the nuclear reactor. The Hara family and their expression of their faith in God was a gift to all of us at church. We cannot make sense of this tragedy but we put our faith and hope in God's guidance to create new life.
Martha Mensendiek from Kyoto
The UCCJ Kyoto district has just sent an email around to all churches and members, a questionnaire and request to shelter those persons/families evacuating areas due to radiation. Public housing in western Japan has also made available housing for those needing housing from afflicted areas. It has been a week now since the earthquake. I have been in regular contact with my brother (Jeffrey Mensendiek)now and it is good to be able to talk to him. I was glad to be able to help him a bit by translating the information on the Emmaus Center web site into English. I will try to continue to help in that way, so that folks in the US can also follow their activities and information as it unfolds.
I know you are getting a lot of news about the nuclear disaster, which is continuing to be the cause of anxiety and fear throughout the country. Here is some information that may not be reported in the media as much:
I have been engaged in helping get information out to foreign residents. Many foreign workers are in Japan working in food processing, or in factories of various sorts. The tsunami hit an area of Sendai that had a lot of industry, factories, and of course fishing villages. About 400 foreigners remained unaccounted for as of noon Wednesday. It is being reported that many were Chinese and some were from Central and South America. It is estimated that 48,000 foreign nationals are currently registered as living in disaster-stricken Miyagi, Iwate, Fukushima, Yamagata, Akita and Aomori prefectures. Some NGOs are sending staff up to the afflicted areas to help assist with foreign residents who need assistance in other languages.
My students are also starting to organize themselves. They want to go to volunteer, but the infrastructure is not ready to accept a lot of outside (unprofessional) help. For now my Habitat for Humanity students are planning to stand at a street corner in down town Kyoto during this weekend to collect donations. This Saturday is graduation at our University, and they plan to collect donations during the commencement events as well. Here in Kyoto I notice that almost every business (grocery stores, coffee shops, bakeries, etc) have placed a box where customers are asked to donate to the relief effort. We are all in crisis and the spirit of giving is evident every where in Japan, and of course across the ocean as well.
Thank you for your continued prayers,
I got word from my brother's family in Sendai that they now have electricity. We continue to be very concerned about the nuclear reactor leak as well as the many missing people up north. There is a village where half of the population (10,000 people) are not yet accounted for.
I just got a call from my sister in law in Sendai and it was a joy to hear her voice! She says that electricity is still out so they can't use the phone, so she went to a public phone to call me. The house structure was not damaged, but of course a lot of things in the kitchen as well as free standing furniture fell in other rooms. They had about 15 students from the student center staying with them last night - all sleeping in the living room. Lots of after shocks made it hard to get much sleep last night but they are all well. They have water so are able to use the toilets, and they are using a camping stove to cook with and have food at this point.
What many of us are worried about right now is damage to the nuclear power plant north of Tokyo and a possible leak.
Rev. Dr. Xiaoling Zhu is the Area Executive for East Asia and the Pacific
Monday, May 2 2011
It is 8 o'clock in the morning, Jeffrey, Martha and I arrived at the Emmaus Center, full of young volunteers in working dress. The Emmaus Center is a student center where Jeffrey has been working on youth ministries for years, and most of students are Christians. Now, among these volunteers, some of them are Christians, and some are not. With loving hearts, they come together to help families who suffered in the earthquake and tsunami. Today, there were about one hundred or more young volunteers divided into several groups, these groups will work together for the next three days at least, in this way the beneficial families will become familiar with the group. This would give both sides the opportunity to overcome some culture differences.
I went with one of the groups to the place called Seven Villages. The trip took about 45 minutes by bicycle. The tsunami has turned many villages into unmanned area. "It was 2:46 pm, March 11, 2011" I was told "15 seconds before the earthquake all cell phones received earthquake warning. People rushed out of their houses. The 9 magnitude Earthquake lasted about 5 minutes. After the first big shock, people were hesitant to return home since they were afraid of aftershocks. 15 minutes later, the tsunami hit the villages. Many lost lives. A young man survived the first big wave. He swam home, looking for his dog when the second wave hit, the house billowed away, and he disappeared forever."
"At one of the elementary schools in Ishinomaki, teachers guided all students out of the classroom building when the earthquake happened. In one class the students stayed a little bit longer on the playground to avoid aftershocks, the tsunami swept in and they disappeared." Standing there, it was hard for me to imagine things happening in that way. That was a very cold, snowing, and dark afternoon.
Standing in front of a damaged house, I could see the water mark as high as 6 feet. (While I am writing, I felt an aftershock for 5 seconds. It is 6:26 am, now. It was a reported 4.9 magnitude quake. Many residents are still staying at homeless shelters, and no one knows how long they will have to stay there.
Now, it is spring time, and it should be very green. But round me, many trees, bamboos and bushes were yellow and dying. Many very beautiful, very unique Japanese family gardens don't exist any more. I didn't see any blooming cheery trees.
Sunday, May 1, 2011
The train was very fast, and covered 189 miles in two hours. When I saw Jeffrey, I did see that he was thinner. “Less sleep,” he responded with a smile. After we changed greetings, he suggested, “I have to take a group of high school students, 14 of them with 5 teachers to spend three nights near the tsunami area. Do you want to go with me?” “Certainly,” I responded.
At the Northern Congregational Church, I met all the 12th Grade students and their teachers. “Are you afraid of spending three days there with after earthquakes?” I asked. “We will all receive cell phone message if there is an earthquake or tsunami,” the boy answered seriously. “You must run immediately!” the church pastor suggested, “They have two PE teachers with them,” he joked.
This is what I saw on the way to the sea shore! The roads are damaged here and there; small pieces of housing materials, clothes, and papers are still in the bushes and on trees, from which I can see the level of the water when the tsunami hit the area; hundreds and hundreds of scrapped cars, trucks and vans are on both sides of the roads or lined up in the fields; boats landed on roofs; many huge containers are quietly laying on the beach, being slapped by waves; rice fields were covered by salty water, and people cannot grow rice in salty fields the recovery will take years; town after town, village after village were washed away by tsunami, and only heaps of ruins are left; people are not allowed to rebuild their homes any more on the same land since it was too low and will not survive when a tsunami comes again. In the mist of this, volunteers will stay and work for victim families for the next three days and nights of their golden week holiday.
Saturday, April 30, 2011
After the end of my meeting with the Micronesia Council of the United Church of Christ in Chuuk--FSM, I began my trip to Japan to visit our mission personnel, Rev. Jeffrey Mensendiek in Sendai, Japan and Rev. Martha Mensendiek in Kyoto, Japan. The flight attendant provided me a Japan English Newspaper. I saw a large photo about the royal wedding, and more news about Japan’s March 11th earthquake and tsunami.
It is cheery blooming week and the people in Japan will have a week off. They also call this week the “Golden Week.” But what am I going to see in Sendai, where it was terribly damaged by the earthquake, tsunami, and impact of the Fukushima nuclear crisis in this beautiful season? Disaster toll: 14,616 dead, 11,111 missing and 5,278 injured; The quake wrecked 90% of the fishing boats; 118 medical facilities were damaged; victims face a long wait for compensation while the Japanese government and power company sort out their various responsibilities; the coast guard releases March 11th footage; the news is not encouraging.
Anyhow, there is some good news: North Shinkansen trains resume full operations, which meant I could take a train from Tokyo to Sendai directly -- 50 days after the earthquakes with 1,200 damaged locations. Without the use of the Shinkansen trains, people had to change to buses to travel to the north at the Fukushima station where the damaged nuclear reactor is located. 130,000 volunteers are working toward rebuilding the damaged areas, etc.
What does this beautiful season mean to Japanese people with the unthinkable lost experienced this year? With this question in my mind, I am heading to Sendai on the morning train from Tokyo.
Casilda Luzares teaches English at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan.
News from a Japanese Christian School shared by Casilda:
The March 11, 2011 earthquake seriously damaged Miyagi Gakuin and some of our students were killed in the tsunami following the quake, while some students who survived sadly lost parents and other relatives. As a result, a great number of our students are struggling to recover from the tremendous personal and financial losses that have occurred in this tragic disaster.
With a firm belief in Jesus Christ, we tell our students that we will support them both spiritually and financially in spite of our own financial difficulties that have resulted from the substantial damages to Miyagi Gakuin’s school facilities.
Miyagi Gakuin has been providing a Christian education to high school girls ever since it was founded 125 years ago in the name of Jesus Christ. In addition, Miyagi Gakuin has offered university as well as kindergarten education over the past 60 years. We currently have an enrollment of over 4000 students including university, high school and junior high school students, and kindergarten children for whom we feel a deep sense of responsibility to help them grow and reach their goals.
Dr. Matsumoto, Chancellor
Casilda received a poem written in Tagalog and translated into English. She relates that the author, Bebe (pronounced behbeh) is a childhood friend of her daughters. Sheila. Because of poverty and an early marriage which produced two daughters, Bebe came to Japan to work as a night club hostess. The story of her life is heart-rending, very much like the stories of many Filipinas who come to Japan be able to provide for their families back home. Bebe lives in Ibaraki prefecture, between Tokyo and Fukushima. For 2 days after the earthquake and tsunami Casilda could not reach her by phone. Casilda feels she really did not do very much for Bebe except to call her, sometimes several times a day to simply talk to her and to let her know there is someone who cares, and that there are people praying for her. Bebe has not been able to leave the area and is experiencing much hardship.
In but a short time you have yet again helped, and brought joy to, a human being so full of resentment; loneliness her only companion.
You have been commissioned by our Lord God, Most Holy, to drive away the weaknesses that have made a nest here in my heart; with caring words, the love of God your weapon, making me feel that alone, I am not! Your commission, successfully you have fulfilled!
Then comes a crisis, foreordained! Here I am! God’s love, my ally, my friend!
Sa maikling panahon meron na naman po kayong natulungan at napasayang tao, Isang taong puno ng hinanakit, kalungkutan ang tanging kasama, ngunit kayo po’y inatasan ng ating banal na Panginoon na itaboy ang mga namumugad na kahinaan dito sa puso ko! Salita na punung-puno ng pag-alala Pag-ibig ng Diyos ang inyong sandata, pinararamdam na ako’y di nag-iisa! At ngayon po! Matagumpay nyong naisagawa! At dumating ang crisis na nakatakda! Eto ako! Pag-ibig ng Diyos ang kasangga!
The enormity of the crisis is truly overwhelming. This morning I woke up, logged on to Facebook and clicked on a link that my daughter sent me – a sung prayer for Japan from someone from Serbia, and I could not stop but let the tears flow. Just a few minutes ago as I was eating a bowl of noodles for lunch I remembered all those without food and water in this land of plenty and I could hardly continue. A few drops of tears blended with the soup. Thank you for the outpouring of sympathy and expressions of caring from the world. God is still speaking … my heart needs to listen. Closely.
Rev David and Joyce Murchie serve as missionary associates in Japan, and in recent years have taught at Tohoku-Gakuin University in Sendai, Japan.
The tsunami did not reach their home; it swept 1.5 miles inland. The Murchies are safe in their home, wearing their coats and using candles (no electricity). They are unreachable by email. The Tohoku-Gakuin University was founded in 1886 by the German Reformed Church, one of the foundational root churches of the United Church of Christ. David teaches in the Department of Christian Studies.