Cover Story

Deep waters

"Deep waters" Continued...

Issue: "Finding their way," Oct. 8, 2011

But the town's worst destruction was the human toll: The tsunami killed 2,300 residents-nearly one-tenth of its population.

Still, even the hardest-hit towns show modest signs of life: A few miles from the lone pine tree in Rikuzentakata on a recent summer afternoon, a handful of Japanese residents in white polo shirts played swift games of badminton on lighted courts next to a pile of rubble. It's a sign that residents want to recover a normal life, even if no one is sure what "normal" will mean.

While government officials grapple with the macro-tasks of recovering from one of the world's costliest disasters, churches and aid organizations are focusing on the micro-tasks of helping individuals and families cope with problems the government can't fix.

Dozens of aid organizations operate projects in the Tohoku region, including Christian groups and churches. But the needs remain vast, and require a careful approach in a reserved and self-reliant culture. Effective efforts include working through local churches, asking locals what they need, and cultivating a willingness to pursue relief work in unexpected ways-from cleaning memorabilia to listening to stories. Going forward for Christian groups working in a nation where less than 2 percent of the population professes Christianity requires approaching opportunities for spiritual care in ways that are wise and winsome.

In an abandoned gravel lot in a tsunami-stricken neighborhood in Ishinomaki, Saturday morning relief efforts take an unusual shape: bingo cards. American missionary Andy Gilbert paces between low benches under a green tent enthusiastically calling out numbers through a bullhorn. More than a dozen local residents from the mostly-deserted neighborhood hunch over cards until a woman in a white hat yells: "Bingo!"

It's a lighthearted moment for a group with heavy problems. Six elderly women sitting in a cluster near the front call themselves the "tsunami widows." Each lost her husband in the disaster. Gilbert, a missionary with the Evangelical Free Church, says the weekly gatherings include lunch for the community and give isolated tsunami victims a sense of community: "They just need to feel given to."

Churches from across Japan help with the local effort called "Help Tohoku." Rich Rainsford, who works with Mission to the World (MTW) just outside of Tokyo, says volunteers have been bringing supplies, gutting houses, and fixing meals since the tsunami struck. MTW (the mission agency of the Presbyterian Church in America) hopes eventually to start a church in the area, which has few congregations.

For now, volunteers and missionaries are focused on befriending and serving local residents, says Gilbert: "So sometimes you clear street gutters because that's what a family needs."

Other times, it simply means listening. Over a steaming plate of curry and rice, local resident Suzuki Sumiko says she comes here mostly to talk with the missionaries and neighbors. Her house wasn't destroyed by the tsunami, but it slid 8 centimeters off the foundation.

Suzuki, who lives with her younger brother, says they don't have the money to fix the house, and that waiting lists for contractors to assess damages are long. But she says these gatherings have offered relief during stressful months: "I look forward to coming here-I look forward to just talking."

With few volunteer groups visible in the neighborhood on a recent summer weekend, Rainsford says the work will continue. While volunteerism-a typically tepid practice in Japan-has increased since the disaster, there are too few hands for the labor, he says: "There's much more work than volunteers."

Cal Cummings, a missionary with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), has worked in Japan for more than 30 years. From his home base in Sendai, Cummings has helped direct supplies and volunteers to the disaster areas since the quake struck.

During a break from a work project with OPC volunteers in Yamamoto in August, the missionary talked about the complicated dynamics of relief work in Japan: It's not just that the Japanese are famously self-reliant. Many also feel deeply obligated to repay any help they're offered.

That's a perplexing cultural reality for tsunami victims who have lost everything, and Cummings says it leaves some reluctant to ask for help: "Already you're burdened by the situation. And now you're obligated to someone else. What do you do? It's just a vicious cycle." Cummings says breaking that cycle requires demonstrating the gospel of Christ: "That's where grace comes in. You say: 'This is free. We give it because we want to share with you.'"

That's a moving dynamic for Tetsuo Hemmi. The 77-year-old former English teacher lives in Touna, a tsunami-stricken area near Sendai. On a recent summer afternoon, the retired worker welcomed to his water-damaged home a group of volunteers that included Japanese citizens, Koreans, and Americans.


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