Ten Days Working With Japanese Churches in Tohoku
A great letter from team member Tim Bentson
Eight of us landed in Japan to work with Oyumino Christian Church that had started their own relief effort to help the people of Tohoku suffering from the 9.0 earthquake, tsunami and the possibility of nuclear fallout. The Oyumino Church had been renting trucks, buying supplies of all kinds and taking them to the hardest hit areas of Japan. They had used the churches in the Tohoku area as contacts to help their countrymen not just in giving them food and water but also the food and water of Jesus Christ, which will not spoil or be taken away.
It was a privilege and honor to be able to go for ten days. On March 11, 2011, the Tohoku area was rocked by one disaster after another. While meeting with a friend and the president of the seminary for prayer about Japan we decided to go together and help. Originally we had thought to raise $10,000- $12,000 in support to leave with the Churches to use. In the end we had raised close to $90,000. Not just the two of us but the six other men that would come with us. We took a week to organize the effort, trying to be as meticulous as we could.
After working for Mission to the World with the Oyumino Church for two and a half years I felt like it was a coming home. You see, I want to go back when I finish seminary to start a church so Japan is very much on my heart. This was an opportunity to help a people that I love, working with people and friends that I love.
The day my group of 5 arrived in Sendai we went to Emao Church where there was a large meeting of pastors and Christian relief organizers. It was a great time for us to network. We heard what many churches were doing and asked if we could help them in any way. The biggest need was supplies to communities and man power.
That night we stayed in Morigo Bible Camp, it would be our headquarters for the week we were in Sendai. The first night there was only a kerosene heater in the main room for us to huddle around and keep warm. It was a blessing and became the planning center for the various teams that were staying at the small camp to discuss where people had gone, were going, and what was needed. The building that had the showers was damaged because of the earthquake so we went 7 days without a shower. There was a large sink with hot water that we were able to use as best as we could.
The next day we went to Shiogama Bible Baptist Church in Sendai. The pastor Otomo-sensei, introduced us to two families that had the first floor of their houses flooded by 5 feet of water. Their roofs were also damaged by the earthquake. Our job was to cover the roof damage with tarps and secure them. I had the experience of being on one of the roofs, about 25 ft. up when a small earthquake hit. That got my adrenaline going. We were also able to give them some water and hygiene kits.
In the morning we went to a warehouse run by Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian relief organization, and also holding supplies by Food for the Hungry. We were able to use their supplies to distribute the much needed supplies. Our team went with a group from Samaritan’s Purse to the town of Minami-San-Riku to deliver hygiene kits to the shelters where hundreds of now homeless Japanese had gathered. Here we saw the people that had everything taken from them by the tsunami. Old couples sat on their futons looking shocked and defeated. The home and life many of them had known for so long was destroyed and the future was now unknown. It made me so sad to see them that way. The creature comforts of life can be taken away in a moment. We wanted to share the gospel, a life that cannot be taken away, but how to begin except by loving them as best we could.
My Japanese friend asked a question that the Japanese Church will now be forced to answer, one that the Church has always had trouble answering, these are his words, “How can my people believe that God is good when this has happened to them? Seeing these things makes me wonder if God is good.” Our only answer is that his will is perfect which doesn’t always relieve the immediate hurt.
The following day, day 4 in Sendai, we went back to Sakura-gi-cho to help the families whose roofs we had covered and delivered more supplies. We also brought information about Shiogama Baptist Church with us. We wanted to spread the love of Jesus Christ through his church to those people. Many of the neighbors came to receive the supplies we had. Everything went quickly, the needs were so great.
One thing to mention is the politeness of the Japanese people. Unlike hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti, the Japanese people weren’t stealing, rioting or acting violent. They were taking what they needed and if they thought someone was taking more than they needed they wouldn’t let them take more. The whole community was in need of supplies, they were willing to have less so that everyone could have some.
Our team, now down to four, went to the coastal town of Kesennuma. The town was completely destroyed by the tsunami. We met with Minegishi-sensei, the pastor of a church whose building and home had been leveled. We were able to bring him and his wife supplies and see where his building once stood. We walked over the remains of Kesennuma almost in disbelief, except except by now we’d seen this devastation before. I talked with a volunteer worker and asked if the place he was working had been his home, he said no but that he was from the town. I didn’t know what to say. What do you say to someone that is dealing with the emotion and physical loss the Japanese are feeling? I told him I was a Christian and that I was working with a church and that we were there to help.
Day 6, we drove to Sakura-gi-cho once again to help the families we had started to befriend. We helped them shovel the mud out of their houses, carry the heavy furniture and appliances that were ruined out to the street and to help bag up all the garbage covering the first floor of their houses and yards. There were piles and piles of garbage lining the streets. We also brought more supplies, underwear, socks, hygiene kits, blankets, boots, cleaning tools and tarps. Once again the Yamauchi family went around the neighborhood telling people that we had supplies. A large group gathered around the van and the mood of the people was different. There they were laughing and talking with one another, joking that the men don’t need to be taking the women’s underwear. More people kept showing up. I thought it might be the first time in a week and half that they had gathered like that to talk and have a little bit of fun. It makes me cry just thinking that the 4 of us could give them that one moment of light when everything around them was terrible.
A friend wrote to me before leaving that his college coach, while watching the news of the disaster said he would pay anything to get out of Japan. While many foreigners and even Japanese were leaving Japan we were going in to the hard hit places to help. That is the power of the gospel. It directs in a direction often opposite to what we think is true. Maybe like God’s goodness in all the tragedy that happened to the Tohoku area.
The following day we left for Chiba. I had wanted to visit my old home the whole time I was in Japan but knew I wasn’t there for a social visit. Work needed to be done. That night I showered for the first time in a week. I had forgotten what warm water and the feel of clean clothes was like. Then I went to dinner with my dear friends, Haruaki and Asami Odate (Haruaki was our Japanese translator, a Christian from the Oyumino Church, and he spent the week with my team. His wife Asami directed the gospel choir I had joined during my two and a half years there) and Ayako Katsumata, one of my best friends from Japan. We ate good traditional Japanese food. It was so nice to be with great friends and share with the girls what Haruaki and I had seen and done. The Japanese beer wasn’t bad either.
On the flight home I had a lot to digest. One thing that stood out from the beginning was how unified the church in America was toward our efforts. That trend also continued while in Japan. It was the body of Christ working as one people for his Kingdom. The other was that even though we had greatly impacted some people the need and devastation are still great. It’s interesting that while we did big and important things among individuals we did very little at the same time. The pictures and videos are witnesses of the extent of the disaster.
My final thoughts are that God will one day bring to himself all the nations. If that means he destroys part of Japan by an earthquake and tsunami and nuclear threat then it is best for the Japanese people. If I gain the whole world but have not love I gain nothing. How much more precious is the love of God than our homes and things.
I went because I love Japan. I went because God had called me to Japan. In a way they are my people. They will be the one’s I go to, to work and live with when I finish seminary. After the disaster, there was nothing to keep me from not going.