Cover Story

Deep waters

"Deep waters" Continued...

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

The volunteers worked through an East Sendai church that's been helping here since a member of the congregation suffered severe tsunami damage to her home. As church members (part of the Reformed Church of Japan) cleared debris and sludge from her house, the church's pastor, Tateishi Akira, noticed many elderly residents trying to do similar work on their own.

The pastor began organizing volunteer groups in the area, and the effort grew: Other Japanese churches and other Christian groups-including the OPC, Food for the Hungry, Campus Crusade for Christ, and Samaritan's Purse-began sending supplies and volunteers to help. Since April, dozens of volunteers have worked on more than 70 homes.

At one of those homes, Tetsuo, the English teacher, eagerly talked with volunteers as they ripped out drywall and insulation below an 8-foot watermark in his house. Standing on a footstool, Tetsuo showed volunteers a small ledge on the wall where he clung by his fingers while tsunami waters filled his house.

After the waters receded he spent a cold night alone, blocked in by debris and worrying about his wife who had been visiting friends when the quake struck. His wife survived, and the couple (who have no children) began the arduous work of removing everything from their home. After weeks of working alone, volunteers through the local church arrived to help. While some volunteers tore out drywall and insulation, others sat in a nearby living room, trying to salvage household items and clean sludge from decades of personal belongings. One volunteer wiped mud from old family photos, including a fading picture of a woman in a brightly-colored kimono.

During a break, Tetsuo scurried around, handing cans of green tea to volunteers resting outside. If he had any hesitation about outsiders helping him, he didn't show it. Instead, he told the small group: "I can't find the words to say thank you. I never thought anyone would help me like this."

Tateishi, the pastor heading relief efforts here, says he hopes to build relationships with residents like Tetsuo. During a lunch break, the 32-year-old pastor sat cross-legged at a low table eating a rice ball in the group's relief center-a heavily damaged barbershop converted to a small headquarters.

Tateishi says he'd never worked on a house until he began helping his church member after the tsunami, but he's learning fast. And though the work takes him from his study four days a week, he says it's all part of being a pastor: "I want to have a relationship with the people here."

The pastor hopes residents will eventually become interested in Christ, but he's taking conversations slowly. First, he wants to show the neighborhood that he cares about them. "Right now, I want to drink tea with them," he says. "I want to work hard for the people."

Ninety miles north in the coastal town of Kesennuma, another group of volunteers was working hard to relieve residents of a persistent problem in the badly hit port town: foul smells and swarming bugs.

More than a dozen volunteers from Horizon Christian Fellowship in San Diego were working with CRASH-the acronym for Christian Relief, Assistance, Support, and Hope. The grassroots network of Japanese churches and Christian volunteers (both Japanese and foreigners) delivered some of the first aid supplies to churches in the Tohoku region after the earthquake (see "Upside down," April 9).

The group continues with efforts like distributing relief supplies and helping residents clean sludge and debris from their homes. But they also offer less common relief, like helping control the heavy odors of fish and spilled oil that pervades parts of Kesennuma.

On one afternoon volunteers manned small, white pickup trucks stocked with plastic containers of chemicals known as effective microorganisms. Wearing thick gloves, mud boots, and masks, one worker walked behind the truck with a hose, spreading the chemical on roads and lots full of sludge and moldy debris. The chemicals kill bacteria, helping control odors and bugs.

After returning from a stint behind the truck, volunteer Eve Nasby said the work in areas that look like war zones was sobering: "You see things that belonged to people-a shoe, a necktie, a stuffed animal. You see the remnants of a broken life." But Nasby said she was thankful her church could help in a small, but practical way: "We're spreading the fragrance of Christ where there was once death."

Ashikaga Hidendri is glad for the help too. The Kesennuma resident worked as an environmental consultant with factories and other companies in the port area before the tsunami destroyed his business and home. CRASH hired Ashikaga, an elder at a local Baptist church, to direct the volunteer project spreading environmentally safe chemicals throughout town.

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