ISHINOMAKI, Japan (BP) –- The piles of rubble and debris are gone. Cars deposited atop apartment buildings and ships stranded on streets by the March 11, 2011 tsunami have been carted off. The “smell of death” has been replaced by the fragrance of fresh cut-pine and construction.
Yoko Dorsey is so excited about the changes that she makes a big sweeping motion with her arms and asks in her loud cheery voice, “What do you think?” The 60-year-old’s smile crinkles her round face.
I was here a year ago, but I don’t recognize the neighborhood anymore. I stare at the empty lots, trying to numb my welling emotions. Dorsey understands and slips her arm around me.
“I know,” the short Japanese woman whispers softly up to my ear. “Sometimes I walk this street and still see it — the body parts sticking out of the mud … the massive destruction.
“Remember our first trip and how we cried together on this very street?” Dorsey asks, referencing the assessment trip from Tokyo Baptist Church soon after the disaster struck 250 miles north of the city. “Remember we prayed for God’s guidance in reaching this neighborhood? Well, He’s answering our prayers. Come see!”
With that statement, she races off, leaving me standing there in the cold with only my memories.
I know from past experience that Dorsey is a mover and a shaker, never standing still, especially when help is needed. Our paths first crossed two days after Japan’s 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami and subsequent nuclear crisis. Tokyo Baptist Church asked our Southern Baptist disaster relief team to advise and train their members in responding to the world’s first triple disaster. Dorsey was the first person to arrive for the meeting and has never stopped working since, even moving from Tokyo to an apartment as close as she could get to the Okaido community in the city of Ishinomaki — 40 minutes away.
Dorsey’s raspy laugh carries out of a one-story apartment complex, leading me right to her. Sawdust flies as the carpenter sands the wood floor in sync with their rapid-fire teasing. The construction crew notices me and bows in greeting. Dorsey quickly explains that the buildings left standing were strong but need refurbishing. Most people in this area did not receive government help because everything wasn’t destroyed. So, volunteer teams from Tokyo Baptist Church shoveled out toxic mud, carted off debris and now help the community with construction.
The workers smile as Dorsey barks out orders like a field commander, following up with an invitation to join us for lunch in the community building donated by the Tokyo church. She grabs my arm and pulls me out the door. We are late for Bible study.
We walk to a green pre-fabricated home in the middle of the neighborhood.
“I don’t know who painted that,” Dorsey says, shaking her head and smiling at the blue and white logo of Tokyo Baptist Church and cross painted on the aluminum siding of this church plant. “I came back from Tokyo one time and it was there. The people are really getting involved and making it their own.”
Inside the church, two women sit on the floor around the table. This end of the one-room house is the “Sunday School room.” The other end — with a small keyboard in the corner and a wooden cross on the wall — is a sanctuary that might fit 10 people if they squeeze tight.
Dorsey pulls out her thick Bible and begins discipling these new believers. Four have made decisions to follow Jesus since December. I’m amazed, because northeastern Japan has been resistant to the Gospel and outsiders for hundreds of years.
When we first showed up last March, most in this area had never stepped foot in a church or heard the name Jesus, let alone worked shoulder-to-shoulder with a Christian. I remember the confused looks when the survivors suspiciously asked why we were “being so kind” and Dorsey answered matter-of-factly, “We work for God.”
“No one was open to Jesus here in the beginning. I talk about Jesus but they say, ‘What is Jesus?'” Dorsey remembers. She gives a sly smile and adds, “So, I follow my favorite verse (Matthew 7:7) and knock and believe the door will open. I knock on all of the doors.”
After a year of Dorsey’s daily presence and 20-plus volunteer teams cycling in and out, people are beginning to understand. Tsuneko Nakashio tells me God sent His helping hand through Dorsey and the Tokyo church. In fact, the relationship saved her life.
The new Christian looks down at the ground and swallows hard before diving into her story of survival. Dorsey knows what’s coming and wipes a tear from her own eye and puts an arm around the older woman for encouragement.
Nakashio quietly admits that a few months after the disaster she was looking for a place to kill herself among the giant piles of rubble when she heard laughter. She saw Tokyo Baptist Church volunteers working and Dorsey invited her to join them. She followed them to a worship service and there, the darkness and gloom began to fade.
Nakashio looks back down, trying to control her emotions as she relives the earthquake and tsunami.
“It’s really hard for them to remember,” Dorsey says to me. It took three days before water receded, leaving many people trapped on rooftops. Cries of help echoed around the neighborhood but no one could get to them. They lost all of their possessions, money, jobs and many family members. “I understand, she don’t want to talk and she don’t want to remember. You understand, too.”
She turns back to Nakashio.
“We don’t want to forget. That’s why we have to tell people what’s going on here,” Dorsey says, pointing to the older woman’s heart. Tears flow freely now for both women. “People need to know why the darkness is gone.”
We sit in comfortable silence, letting Dorsey’s one-sentence lesson about the importance of a testimony sink in. Then out of the blue, my friend asks if I remember Nakashio from my previous visits.
“She have joy in her face now. You probably remember her walking around with a ‘lady duck face’ when she was sad,” Dorsey says, squashing her lips out to look like a duck’s bill.
Adoration radiates from Nakashio’s face as she sits laughing with her spiritual mentor. Dorsey’s uncanny ability to feel and understand each person’s individual grief, yet bring laughter, endears her to this community. Dorsey shrugs it off but I see it in the number of people who stop to chat, who are willing to pray with us or open their home and offer tea.
There are more smiles and tears here than I’ve seen in all of my trips to northeastern Japan since the tsunami. People are no longer suspicious but open and welcoming to outsiders. Despite the empty lots being a constant reminder of what is missing, there’s a combined sense of hope for the future. This neighborhood is well on its way to healing.
Dorsey’s eyes twinkle as I finally realize why she’s so excited — God is answering our prayers.
“The people here are amazing! They survived a tsunami. They are pulling together to rebuild their community,” she says then somberly adds, “but some are still struggling. They are not well. They need to have Jesus. Pray for that.”
Susie Rain is an International Mission Board writer in Asia who covered last year’s earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan from the beginning.