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Three years later, hearts still healing in Japan

[SLIDESHOW=38724,38725,38726]EDITOR’S NOTE: On World Hunger Sunday, Oct. 12, Southern Baptist congregations will address the hunger crisis across North America and around the world, many by focusing on the theme “Hunger Happens Everywhere.” Donations received are channeled through Global Hunger Relief, which uses 100 percent of each gift to meet hunger needs. For more information, visit www.globalhungerrelief.com.

KAMAISHI, Japan (BP) — After Japan’s triple disaster — the 2011 tsunami, earthquake and nuclear plant meltdown — building new buildings was easy compared to the haunting issues that still simmer in many people’s hearts and minds three years later.

Lingering remnants of the disaster are the images of the dead and dying, guilt over not stopping to help those in need, isolation and loneliness from the loss of community and trauma.

The disaster robbed men and women of homes, lives and livelihoods.

In the aftermath of the event, resources provided by Global Hunger Relief helped Baptist Global Response engage and help residents begin the process of restoring their lives.

Financial gifts to Global Hunger Relief have had an impact far beyond the immediate disaster response three years ago. Because of that Southern Baptist generosity, International Mission Board missionaries and their Japanese Baptist partners have been able to meet and address human needs, providing what IMB missionaries call “heart care.”

A year after the tsunami, IMB missionaries Bob and Gloria Gellerstedt moved to Kamaishi, in the Iwate prefecture of Japan, to minister in Kamaishi and Otsuchi. A large part of their ministry is heart care — counseling, group discussions and planned activities that help provide community.

“We are listening to the people’s hurts, pains and dreams for a better tomorrow,” Gloria said. “The Lord often leads to share a story of his healing.”

The Gellerstedts rotate visiting people living in recovery apartments and temporary housing. Recovery apartments were built to be the new homes for Japanese who lost their houses.

The men and women in the apartments have nice accommodations, Gloria said, but they are lonely. The temporary homes in which they had been living since the tsunami provided activities and ways to interact with others, but now they’re on their own.

They are now living in a new community again, Gloria says.

The new apartments have meeting rooms, but they are often locked. During the winter, survivors spend large portions of their day alone, sitting in their rooms, she said.

The Gellerstedts meet dozens of survivors. Gloria keeps a large notebook with people’s names and photos to help her remember.

“Remembering names is important,” Gloria said, “because it’s helping them to see how important they are and that they are not just survivors but can be our friends. They are so excited when we remember their names.

“We are trying to form community,” she said. “At the beginning, many people wound up telling some about their story during the disaster.”

The survivors seem to enjoy singing traditional Japanese songs but they also enjoy singing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” “Amazing Grace” and “Jesus Loves Me.”

“Many people have been shaken out of their regular routines with work and lives, so they have a lot of time with not much to do and that gives us many open doors,” Gloria said.

Tsunami survivors also make photo albums, decorating aprons and bags.
Many lost all of their photographs. Others salvaged a few images.

The Gellerstedts take pictures during group gatherings to help survivors form new memories.

“This is such good heart care for them,” Gloria said.  

A volunteer team from Ohio began a project that provided materials for survivors to make fleece blankets. Baptist Global Response provided funds to purchase the material. Survivors made around 700 blankets, as well as scarves.

One woman was unable to make blankets because she’s blind, but she still went to a craft session. She told Gloria she’d just listen.

“With a silent prayer, I took her hands and moved them through the process of tying the fleece together,” Gloria said. “It took a little while, but she was able to tie the fleece. She was so thrilled to actually have completed a blanket.”

During another blanket-making session, the Gellerstedts invited a woman who had been able to quickly repair her home after the tsunami. But she never had the chance to talk through her experience.

The woman told the group she lost all her family members.

“She then burst into tears,” Gloria said. “It is hard to move on if one hasn’t had opportunities to tell [his or her] story and talk with others who understand.”

The Gellerstedts provide materials on how to help children work through trauma. They pass out Scripture verses written in the Japanese calligraphy style. They provide calligraphy brush pens so survivors can write verses themselves.

Bob and Gloria follow up after the small group sessions so the survivors can share issues they don’t want the group to know.

“They say that everyone had losses and they don’t need to be bothered with my problems,” Gloria said.

“We give them a person to talk with from the outside to whom they can say anything — from the loss of husband, wife, child, the struggles they are having with no future or hope, about medical problems and about the problems they are having with interpersonal relationships.

“When they are feeling overwhelmed we encourage them to not try to do things on their own, but to ask the Highest God who loves them to help,” Gloria said.

The Gellerstedts say this area was one of the least receptive in Japan, but after the disaster, many spiritual walls were torn down.

One woman told Gloria, “It is just the Christians helping us and we are Buddhist….” 

Gloria said, “They are much more open than the rest of Japan. We have had more opportunities to share our faith [now] than we have had in the other 25 years of our ministry.”

The Gellerstedts are in it for the long haul and continue to care for survivors in Japan. Gifts to Global Hunger Relief helped bring healing to a nation that continues to mourn.

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  • Caroline Anderson