Today in Japan is a somber day of remembrance, a reminder of how quickly lives can be changed and how fickle the earth we inhabit can be. Four years ago, a 9.1 earthquake off the coast of Tohoku in Northern Japan shattered buildings and roads and created a massive wave of watery destruction that reached 90 feet high in some places. All told, nearly 20,000 people lost their lives, hundreds of thousands lost all or most of their possessions, and millions of lives were changed forever.
Four years later, 250,000 people who were told they would need to live 2-3 years in “temporary” housing are still there, but now with no timeline on when, or if, they will be able to return to a normal life. There is still anxiety for the people living near the nuclear plant and the ocean over the possibility of another catastrophe. Many people look at the future and see little hope for their lives.
Yet in this present darkness, an eternal light continues to shine, to even grow brighter. Post disaster relief brought many organizations to Tohoku to serve the people, but four years later, many have left the region or scaled back considerably. Yet one group continues to quietly serve the people, and not only are they not scaling back, but they are increasing their presence in the face of the amount of work to be done. They are the Christians, both locals and overseas ministry workers, often working together and following the example Christ Jesus set for us.
Today, I reflect on the disaster of March 11th, 2011, and what it means today in these three themes.
Christian disaster relief efforts removed significant barriers between Christians and the Tohoku people. Japanese people have a reputation for being distrustful of Christianity, most viewing it as a foreign religion with little relevance to Japanese people. With so many cults preying on Japanese people, it is no wonder Japanese tend to be suspicious of Christianity which, for better or worse, came to Japan in a very Western form 150 years ago. In Tohoku, where society is even more insular, few churches were able to succeed in sharing the gospel.
That situation changed dramatically since 2011. Because Christians have faithfully served the people in Tohoku, often sacrificially, strong relationships have formed between Christians and the community. Christian ministries and churches demonstrated their faith by working together across racial, national and denominational divides. Most importantly, they showed a willingness to persevere, a quality that is highly valued among the people of Northern Japan. These factors have earned the church a greater reputation among the people and allowed more partnerships and opportunities to share the gospel through love and service.
There are many wonderful continuing ministries and new churches in Tohoku. Last November, I had the privilege of spending the night at the home of Pastor Daisuke Kimura and his family in Sendai, the largest city in Tohoku affected by the disaster. Pastor Kimura moved with his family from Tokyo to Sendai to start a church with two other families. We attended their house church (they hope to rent a facility later this year so they can continue to grow) and witnessed how churches are meeting the needs of the community. Some of their church members regularly visit temporary housing communities to visit with people and encourage them with music and prayer.
A couple from our home church in California recently completed a 3 month vision ministry in Tohoku and are looking forward to returning to serve long-term soon.
In our organization, JEMS, about a quarter of our full time ministry workers are serving in Tohoku, and several others (including ourselves) are involved in part-time ministry to the people living there. We have some families serving small communities and others focusing on post-trauma care for survivors and those living in temporary housing, helping them through the long process of emotional and mental healing.
There are many other wonderful ministries focused on holistic approaches to helping people. The Nozomi Project, which provides jobs and emotional and spiritual care to many women who lost homes or families in the disaster, is a thriving jewelry making business and has helped launch new projects like the Megumi Project, which is a similar idea using recycled kimono to make fashion accessories.
Despite positive progress, there is so much more work that can be done. Though dozens of new churches and ministries have started in Tohoku since the disaster, it remains one of the most unreached areas of Japan. Even with an influx of churches and Christians into the area, the Christian population remains extremely small. Because of this, Tohoku churches and ministries will often lack the human resources to take on some of the projects they would like to do. But we know God is faithful to provide all things for their needs to His glory.
Still, there are ways for people to become involved in helping the people of Tohoku without even living there. For example, I recently joined Studio Re:, whose goal is to make a feature length action-drama called “2 Criminals” about two Japanese gangsters whose lives were redeemed following the 2011 disaster. Not only is this a film about redemption (which is not a common theme in Japanese films), but it also highlights the work Christians did and continue to do in the Tohoku region. Though the film production is still a ways off, Studio Re: continues to work on other smaller projects, like the story of tsunami survivor Mrs. Fukuoka which was recently funded through a Kickstarter campaign and will be released very soon.
People overseas can help as well. Besides the obvious idea of supporting missionaries who live and work in Tohoku, writing notes of encouragement which can be given to people living in temporary housing is a great project even children can do. If you understand the encouragement of receiving a handwritten note from a friend, imagine receiving one from a complete stranger, telling you that they care and are praying for you. If you are interested in creating a project (or ongoing ministry) centered on encouragement cards, please contact me and I will help get your cards into the hands of people who can distribute them for you.
Most importantly, prayer for the people of Tohoku is critical. It was easy for the Christians of the world to pray in the days following the disaster but 4 years later, many have forgotten Tohoku or moved on to praying for events that they believe are more pressing. Prayer is a powerful thing, and like the people of Tohoku value the persistence of the Christians living in the region, God values the persistence of the ones who pray continually. Shall we start today, praying together for the needs of the people of Tohoku and for many more who will sacrifice much to go and serve them?