Close to 16,000 people dead and 3,500 people still missing. Wreckage equivalent to 30 years’ worth of garbage gathered and stacked in ‘mountains’ awaiting disposal. It has been a year since Japan’s magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami that hit 500 kilometers (311 miles) of Japan’s north-east coast line. The world may have moved on but TEAM missionaries wonder if life will ever be the same in Japan.
“In most areas, the physical rebuilding of many of the towns is still a long way off. The road to emotional recovery from the trauma of such an event will take years, if not a lifetime for most of the survivors,” said Jim Nielsen, TEAM missionary.
TEAM is still working in the devastated areas. While many of the survivors have their current physical needs met, the deeper emotional and spiritual needs are still unmet. So we are now concentrating on recovery and providing emotional care with those living in temporary housing. This kind of care requires relationships and trust to be built between the missionaries and the residents and that takes time.
Has the rebuilding started or are people still in survival mode?
“You can see some towns and neighborhoods being rebuilt, roads mended, traffic lights installed, and even new convenience stores operating,” said Amy Nielsen. “But there are many other areas that were completely devastated by the tsunami leaving nothing but the foundations of homes and shops. The rest was completely washed away. Even now those foundations remain and so does the devastation. In a lot of ways those areas haven’t changed.”
According to many of the residents, now in temporary housing, rebuilding isn’t an option, so they now face the question, “What is the next step after the temporary housing? Where do we go?” While the immediate need is to survive, there are still a lot of unanswered questions.
What is the mood of the country?
We sense that the general Japanese public is still feeling stunned and afraid to even think about the future. Most would probably say they are trying to go about their daily lives, and simply hope that somehow things will improve, with little hope at all.
“The entire eastern sea coast of Japan, where 80 percent of the Japanese population lives, sits vulnerable to the effects of future possible earthquakes and tsunami,” said Jim. “As such, though life in those areas not struck by the March 11 disasters has returned to ‘normal’, it would be fair to say that the new normal in the minds of most Japanese includes an elevated sense of fear and anxiety in regards to the future.”
In addition to this fear of nature, there is a further sense of uncertainty due to the instability of the Fukushima nuclear reactors and the high radiation levels in parts of Japan. Japan was already battered by the economic downturn, but there is increasing anxiety over how to fund the rebuilding process and whether the nation can ever recover economically.
How are the survivors doing?
It’s barely possible for anyone who does not live in the affected areas to begin to comprehend what it would be like to not be able to go home and have everything you were familiar with literally washed away.
“It’s ever present in the tsunami survivors’ minds that a significant event has occurred in their lives which is far from over. The devastation still surrounds them, with evidence of destroyed neighborhoods and towns being seen everywhere,” said Jim.
“When listening to the men and women talk with each other at the temporary housing communities, you could think just for a moment that their lives have returned to normal,” Amy said. “They talk about their neighbors, the city officials and local government, what they made for dinner the night before and various neighborhood issues, things that just about any person would talk about. But in a moment those discussions can quickly change to talk of earthquakes, tsunami and March 11.”
The fact of the matter is these people are by no means in what anyone would consider a ‘normal’ situation. Many of the residents who come out to the activities organized by missionaries are very energetic and happy to connect with volunteers, but many of them say that when they are at home alone, it’s hard to keep that happy spirit. Being alone, particularly when it’s dark and cold outside, is incredibly difficult emotionally. Especially for those who have lost family and close friends in the tsunami, they cannot forget their losses no matter how much time passes.
“Others have really banded together and put a lot of emphasis on community and their neighbors,” Amy said. “For many of them, since they don’t have strong beliefs or religion to fall back on, they turn to each other and see hope for the future in each other. But for most people, the future is a big question mark, and they need to just take it a day at a time.”
Are people questioning their traditional beliefs as a result of the disaster?
Some people in the disaster areas are feeling betrayed by the gods who failed to protect them. Hundreds of local temples have been destroyed, hundreds of thousands of family god-shelves have been washed away, and local temple associations have disintegrated, thus removing many of the “visual” bonds that tied the people to Shintoism and Buddhism.
However the reality is that the area hardest hit by the earthquake and tsunami is in a rural part of Japan, with very few churches and very little penetration of the gospel. For many, although the familiar structures have gone, the traditional Buddhist beliefs seem to be held and practiced much more so in the aftermath of the tsunami since this is all they have to default to.
Jim shares the story of one of the temporary housing community residents. “She mentioned how she just barely escaped as the sea water came rushing into her house,” he said. “But just before the water came in, she saw a bright and gleaming item out of the corner of her eye, which was a small polished bronze image of Buddha. She reached for it and put it in her bag as she ran, and she believes that’s why she was saved.”
This is just one of many accounts of how deeply many of the survivors hold to traditional Buddhist beliefs, which represent the spiritual strongholds we are up against here in Japan. We are thankful, though, for the fact that the love and mercy of God are even greater and we will continue our ministries in the hope that many Japanese people will find Christ.
What has TEAM been doing?
Over the past twelve months, together with local churches and CRASH (Christian Relief, Assistance, Support, and Hope), we have been working throughout the disaster areas providing practical support and assistance, counseling, listening ears through café ministries, and radio broadcasts. We’ve also poured much financial assistance into relief, recovery and outreach efforts.
But in the midst of providing food and clothes, heating and shelter, counseling and rebuilding, one ministry has touched lives in a remarkable way — reaching out through crafts.
“By handing out fliers that include a description of a craft that will be done that day, it has given many residents an incentive to come out,” Amy said. “They feel better knowing they’ll have something to do. Craft sessions provide opportunities for communities to come together, for people to meet and share their stories. They give people a chance to make something, to create things with their hands and pass the time in a loving environment.”
While the crafts are being made, the survivors talk with each other, the missionaries, and the Japanese Christian workers. It’s amazing how they tell the story of their experience on March 11 in detail as though it happened just yesterday. It has been proven that this retelling of their experience is part of the process of healing from the associated trauma.
These craft sessions are not only opportunities for one-time conversations; they form the basis for relationships. Gospel work often begins with friendship and care and this is particularly true in Japan where Christianity is barely known.
In the wake of the trauma and tragedy, this non-threatening and therapeutic ministry is showing Japanese men and women the love of God. “Such activities promote ‘next step’ activities,” Tim Cole said, “such as family seminars, gospel concerts, Christmas gatherings, etc… which can then lead into evangelistic meetings, Bible studies, and church attendance.”
What is TEAM’s involvement in assisting people now?
The physical and emotional healing of the survivors is going to take many years. We are here for the long haul, engaging the people, sharing their lives and Christ’s love with them in a number of ways:
With the handful of churches that exist in the region from the beginning their goal has been to begin laying the groundwork for a series of churches to be started. We can now see the potential of a partnership forming with another mission group and a Japanese church organization.
- Tono, Iwate Prefecture
Three TEAM missionaries are seeking to “bring help, healing and hope to the Tohoku region.” Jim and Eileen Nielsen have been leading the relief/recovery effort since June of last year. Their daughter and fellow TEAM missionary, Amy, joined them the following October, along with three other full-time staff members. In keeping with their base camp motto, their activities have been centered on:
- Bringing Help: Delivering the needed physical supplies, such as blankets, winter clothing, basic food items, etc…
- Bringing Healing: Providing the needed emotional care through running the Hope Café in the various temporary housing communities.
- Bringing Hope: Engaging in visitation and follow-up outreach and continuing to build deeper relationships with the tsunami survivors so as to share the hope we have within us.
- Ichinoseki, Iwate Prefecture
Two TEAM missionaries – Burton and Kathryn Sue – recently arrived in Japan and are already using their gifts in the creative arts through a relief/recovery base in this city. Creative arts have been proven to provide positive distractions for people suffering from post-traumatic syndrome from such disasters. Burton is developing art classes at various locations and is currently looking at entering some elementary schools. Kathryn is using dance to bring women together to fellowship, pray, and learn hula to Christian songs at various locations.
Four TEAM missionaries – Paul Nethercott, Roberta Peabody, Joshua Brenner and Christina Jones – are serving at the headquarters of CRASH (Christian Relief, Assistance, Support, and Hope), a relief agency associated with TEAM, in the areas of media, recruitment, placement and IT.
A number of other TEAM missionaries in various ministries around Japan are making regular trips to the disaster stricken areas to help in the emotional recovery process. They are taking all opportunities possible to plant seeds in order to share God’s love through crafts, counseling, practical support, literature distribution, and radio broadcasts.
How is TEAM’s work making a difference?
Jim, Eileen, and Amy Nielsen’s continual presence in the prefecture of Iwate is making an impact on that area. In visiting the same temporary housing units and meeting the same people, some very important questions from the residents are being raised. One of the most significant questions asked is: “How is it that almost a year has passed and you are still here to help us?”
Many Japanese are surprised by the commitment and love shown by local and foreign Christians. “This has allowed missionaries to share how God has called us to this place for this time and how it’s through His strength and grace that we are still there,” Amy said. “The residents are intrigued, and many are open to listening as missionaries begin to share the gospel.”
In another area, we have been assisting the efforts of a local pastor. “Offering craft activities and other practical support has helped build his credibility in the area,” Tim Cole said, “and this gives him and his team of believers an open door to all temporary housing and community events. As he serves in this community, several people have become Christians, and local landowners have asked him to establish a Christian center in their midst.”
How can I pray?
“It must be kept in mind that this is a long term operation, the real results of which we will probably not know for another decade,” said Jim. “We need continued prayers and support for these efforts even though the disaster ceases to be in the news.”
Please pray for:
- more workers to serve in devastated areas.
- survivors’ hearts to be opened to hear the Gospel.
- increased opportunities to share God in relevant ways.
- unity and love among churches and Christian groups as they work together.
- many new churches to be planted.
- strength and renewal for local Christians and missionaries – the work is often exhausting and traumatic.
- the continued development of relationships through craft and other creative ministries.
How can I be involved?
- See the points above to use as fuel for prayer.
- Funds are needed to see churches established and workers living expenses covered. Click here and select “Japan Earthquake” to make your contribution towards the building of God’s kingdom in the disaster areas.
- We need committed believers of Christ who can speak Japanese to come and listen to the survivors and be ready to communicate God’s love in word, action and deed.
- We also need people willing to dedicate their lives long-term to the people of Japan, being trained in missions, the Japanese language and culture, and then go out to use their gifts to see God’s church grow. Click here for more information.
“Remembering March 11”, by Tim Cole
On March 11, I was in the one place I always said I didn’t want to be when “the Big One” hit – downtown Tokyo! Having been born in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, and spending my early years there, it was a shock to hear that the earthquake was centered in that area. Then I was even more shocked to see images of the tsunami rolling in and devastating the towns and villages I had known from my childhood.
Apart from the fact that we were personally caught totally unprepared for such a catastrophe (hardly any gas in any of our vehicles, and few food supplies in the house), I was also overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster, and a feeling of not knowing even where to start, or to try to help.
The final death toll has been around 20,000 people, including those still missing. Nevertheless, in the sparsely populated Tohoku area, almost every family has experienced some loss, and 500 kilometers (311 miles) of devastated coastline may require as long as a decade to recover.
Providentially, Jonathan Wilson was quick to boldly call Christians to join together to coordinate relief efforts in what we know as CRASH Japan. What a blessing to see how God equips His people for various situations, including many TEAM missionaries who stepped into leadership roles within CRASH. I was quickly assigned to handle the receiving and sending of relief supplies, and before we had even hung out our “shingle”, supplies began pouring in.
I can’t even describe the frenzy of those days, as countless relief organizations, churches, and individuals from all over the world were phoning, emailing, showing up unannounced, and generously providing relief. Shipments from overseas were arriving (daily it seemed) at the port or the airport, and we were scrambling to stay on top of it all. I remember one day when two individuals walked in unannounced and plunked down a combined ¥3,000,000 (US $40,000) to buy food for the people in Tohoku. We filled a four-ton truck with Costco food using those gifts, and sent them to a Domei church in Fukushima.
On another occasion, an organization sent seven containers of supplies from Germany that met urgent needs up north at the last minute. Although it all created incredible stress, I am amazed at how God always worked it out in the end. I still have over 100 unopened emails from those days, as a reminder of the fever pitch at which we worked for three months. The thought that kept us going was, “Every day its life and death for the dear folks in the Tohoku. How can we do any less?”
Now, we rejoice as we see the “first fruits” of that heavy labor – church plants springing up in Kamaishi, Kesenuma, Minami Sanriku, Ishinomaki, and elsewhere; ongoing evangelism through quilting classes, craft classes, counseling, radio broadcasts, literature distribution, and more; people who are turning to God. Mrs. Abe, who lost her daughter, trusted in Christ and now leads a quilting class in Ishinomaki. Mr. Saijyo said, “I’m done with the gods of this land. For the rest of my life I’m looking to Jesus Christ,” and has donated property on which to build a church, and many others.
This experience has also been a study in human nature. We’ve seen how vital human bonds and relationships are to the emotional well-being of the disaster survivors. We’ve also seen that those who really thrive are the ones who’ve chosen to find ways to serve others. Mrs. Nagai, formerly a successful jewelry shop owner, lost everything in the tsunami. Now her purpose in life is to make sure not one person dies of loneliness in her community – a goal she says gives her far greater satisfaction than making money. But ultimately, we’ve been reminded afresh that lasting hope can only come through knowing our Lord Jesus Christ.
I’m reminded that we truly have a God who does far more than we can ever ask or think. He is calling forth a people for His name from this land before our eyes. Yes, there is confusion, ineptness, conflicts, territoriality, and a host of other problems. But then a disaster of these proportions is bound to be messy. This past year stands out as one of my most exciting years of ministry, and one that will define my perspective for many years into the future.
“Help, Healing, Hope in Tohoku”, by Eileen Nielsen
In our Tohoku base camp, there is a sign with these words, “Help, Healing, Hope.” It hangs in our main meeting room and it is these three words that have defined our time in relief work.
The “help” stage has been seemingly completed. In many ways, this stage was relatively simple. Reach as many people as possible with as much physical aid as possible was our mantra for the first 6 months. Many gaps remain, but with so many survivors settled in temporary housing, finding jobs, and their lives returning to a “new” normal, most find they must be content with the way things are for the present. Though for those in temporary housing, the 2-year limit looms large. The future is uncertain for many survivors.
It is difficult to leave this first stage without mentioning the many “heroes” that were involved. From those who had the gruesome job of looking for bodies, to the volunteers who found themselves covered with rotten fish as they removed layer after layer of debris. From the mission and relief organizations who worked 24/7 during the first couple months receiving, organizing and distributing aid, to all the behind the scenes’ people who kept base camps and volunteer centers up and running. They never lost hope, even in the face of the 500 kilometers of clean up along the Tohoku coastal area.
The next stage of “healing” is well under way. This stage has proved challenging just by definition. What does “healing” look like? Seasoned missionaries long to share the gospel, and allow God to bring healing in ways only He can. But this is jumping way ahead of where most survivors are.
For those working in Tohoku, being part of the healing takes a different form. Jesus said “if you share a cup of water with the least of these…” (Matt.10:42). In this case, it looks more like a cup of coffee, a listening ear, making crafts, singing a favorite “enka” song, delivering blankets, and a myriad of activities. In other words, entering the survivor’s world and going through this time with them.
One survivor said with tears, “Thanks for not forgetting us.” The change has come slowly, but communities are rebuilding. We have started to hear more and more from survivors, “I think we are getting better.” At a recent café, a woman wistfully lifted a cracker and said, “My first meal after the tsunami was one of these rice crackers.” With a slight smile and teary eyes, another shared how delicious the first rice ball tasted that she ate on the third day after the tsunami. Another told how the first few nights, she slept under newspapers, blankets being in short supply. The stories are beginning to sound more nostalgic than tragic. The healing continues but is much slower for those who still have missing relatives. One survivor shared, “I still have my wife and kids, and I’m thankful, but I can’t forget my aunt who was washed out to sea.”
The role Christians have played at this stage is invaluable. At a meeting recently, it was hard not to notice that most of the volunteer groups were gone. Out of the seven groups represented, six were Christian groups. Christians are staying, being faithful to their Master’s call of continuing to give that cup of cold water. The government representative expressed his appreciation over and over, saying he knew he could depend on us to stay and help.
Even though “hope” is the final stage, hope has infused each step of our journey here in Tohoku. When a local church member, skilled in calligraphy, asked if he could design a sign for the mobile café, he wondered if we wanted to include a Bible verse. It only took a few moments to decide that the Japanese characters for “faith, hope and love” should adorn our sign. According to the Bible, the greatest of these is love. But actually hope is the characteristic that has gotten us through all the tough times.
How can one look in the face of the truly broken hearted, and promise better things without hope? How can we make sense of this tragedy without hope? The Christian lives daily in anticipation of the “hope of glory”.
This is the difficult part of being part of this work as a Christian. Hope is carrying us through the tough times. But whether or not the Japanese embrace this hope as their own is yet to be seen. We pray and work for this daily. One volunteer told us that he felt carried by the prayers of believers all around the world during his time in Tohoku. Those of us here for the longer haul feel the same.
“The Pilgrimage”, by Jim Nielsen
“Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.”
Looking back over the past year, the Lord has taken us on an incredible journey into the northern most prefecture devastated by the earthquake and tsunami of March 11. We have been led to a work that has kept us depending on Him daily for the needed wisdom and strength to reach out to the thousands of survivors in the Kamaishi and Otsuchi areas of Iwate Prefecture.
This journey currently has us focused on bringing the needed emotional and spiritual care to residents of temporary housing communities. We are visiting 40 of the 60 temporary housing communities in the Kamaishi area and 15 of the 50 temporary housing communities in the greater Otsuchi area on a regular basis.
Needless to say, this work would not be possible without an adequate staff and we are thankful to the Lord for bringing to us just the right group of young people to serve since last September. What a joy it is to be able to serve with this group in deploying the volunteers sent to us in order to bring a Christian witness to the residents of the temporary housing through our Hope Café and supply distribution outreaches.
“As they pass through the Valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools.”
The reference to “the valley of Baca” in the above verse is not to a specific place but rather a reference either to a place of weeping or a valley of desolation. Both apply to the areas the Lord has us reaching out to, as the town of Otsuchi suffered the greatest number of fatalities of any of the coastal towns. And the city of Kamaishi, which is located in a valley, suffered tremendous destruction to its downtown business district.
The Hope Café is a place of gathering for the residents of the temporary housing communities where free coffee and snacks are served. It is also a place where individuals can talk to caring people and get a taste of the love of Christ. And now group activities are beginning to happen where the residents can find a new sense of community as so many have lost family, friends and some, their entire communities. As this coastal area of Iwate Prefecture has few evangelical churches and most of the residents have never heard the gospel even once, it will most likely take some time yet before we will see genuine interest in the gospel emerge. We are expectantly waiting to see how the Lord is going to continue to open doors and hearts in the days ahead.
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