ISHINOMAKI, Japan (BP)–The handwritten note practically cries out: “Living here! Please help us!”
The volunteers from Tokyo Baptist Church almost miss the dirty scrap of paper, attached to the battered door. It blends in with the rubble and debris left behind by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
Major parts of the house are gone, washed away a month ago by the crushing tsunami waves. Not really believing anyone will answer, volunteer Satomi Ono calls out to see if anyone is there.
A young mother cautiously pokes her head around the corner. When she sees the volunteers’ warm smiles, relief rushes over her and she excitedly yells to her father. They are the only two left in their family. Her two children were swept out of her arms in the tsunami wave. Her mother and husband also died on that fateful day.
The young woman invites the team inside. Despite broken dishes standing up in the mud-caked floor, Ono can see that the pair had worked hard, cleaning their disaster-stricken home. Piles of papers, toys, rotting clothes and splintered wood are ready to be bagged and deposited on the street for garbage crews.
The volunteer slides off her backpack and asks if there’s anything they need, noting to herself that nothing in this ramshackle house appears to be salvageable. Ono explains that her church has a distribution site not more than a 20-minute walk down the road. The church’s goal is to help people not living in the government-sponsored evacuation centers. Ono’s team canvasses the surrounding neighborhood to get the word out.
Ono empties her bag of relief supplies and looks up to find the young woman and her father staring, overwhelmed, at the bounty — some instant noodles, candles, batteries and underwear.
“There is a God!” the woman exclaims through tears.
“Yes,” Ono replies, tears now streaming down her face. “I believe he brought us to your house. He has not forgotten you.”
Residents of Ishinomaki who still have a house standing are expected to “tough it out” or “make the best of it” in true Japanese fashion, persevering in homes wrecked by the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and ensuing tsunami. Just 150,000 of the millions affected live in the evacuation centers where the Japanese government supplies food, clothing and shelter.
The first few weeks after the disaster were the worst. More than 5 million homes were without electricity and nearly 1.5 million had no access to water. Kerosene was non-existent, making it impossible to stay warm when a snowstorm hit hours after the tsunami. Grocery stores had no food, only empty shelves. Driving 200 miles south to the unaffected area was not an option because of the severe gas shortage — and the fact that most family cars had been swept away by the tsunami.
Due to the nuclear crisis in Fukushima, supplies didn’t reach the evacuation centers for days. Weeks after the quake, rationed goods finally reached those camped out in their homes. Relief organizations and churches like Tokyo Baptist had a hard time mounting a quick response because special government permits were required to enter the disaster zone and gas to make the trip from Tokyo was almost impossible to come by.
Once the church’s assessment team arrived in Ishinomaki, it didn’t take long to realize disaster survivors living in their houses were slipping through the cracks and needed help fast. The initial team pulled into a restaurant parking lot to unload supplies to cook a hot meal. Before they could even open the back of the truck, a line had formed.
Local men helped the volunteers unload and older women offered their services in cooking soup over wood-fires. The line of people who were snaked around the parking lot pleaded with Yoko Dorsey, co-leader of the TBC Northeastern Japan Go Relief team, to “hurry up” the cooking process. Not only was this the first hot meal in two weeks, most had not eaten in five days.
“They kept telling us, ‘Anything is fine, even raw food. Give me food now!'” Dorsey recalls. “Most of the people were still wearing the same muddy clothes weeks after the tsunami. It’s all they had. It broke my heart.
“I told everyone that we wouldn’t forget about them, that we would be back,” Dorsey says as a man and woman walk up beside her. Dorsey lets out a yelp and they embrace in a tearful three-way hug.
“I told you we’d come back and we brought vegetables and meat today,” Dorsey says, creating a buzz of excitement in the line. “God wouldn’t let me forget you.”
At the coaching of Southern Baptist Disaster Relief specialists, the volunteers focus their attention on this Ishinomaki neighborhood 250 miles from their church in Tokyo. The destruction and trauma is so great that it will take years for the area to recover. The church plans to be here for the long haul, making volunteer trips twice a week and adapting their ministries as the community’s needs change.
Currently, the church concentrates on meeting physical needs — clothes, food, preparing hot meals, cleaning houses — and developing relationships. They set up a makeshift store in the parking lot with piles of clothes, toilet paper, diapers, school supplies, toys and nonperishable foods. Members of the community go through the free “store” as they wait for the hot meal to be prepared.
For one woman, these piles of supplies are just too overwhelming. She stares blankly at clothes stacked waist high. Volunteers Ging Catabay and Lucilyn Kaneko offer to help. As soon as Kaneko places a hand on the elderly woman’s shoulder and asks what she needs, tears flow. Ashamed, the woman tells the pair that the only thing she’s worn for the last three weeks is what she’s currently wearing. Everything she owned was washed away. She needs a complete wardrobe.
Catabay and Kaneko gently guide the woman through the clothing section, grabbing socks, underwear, bras, shirts and jeans, as she describes how her house was destroyed. When she says some of her family is still missing, the volunteers listen intently, knowing it’s important for survivors to talk about their trauma.
“Why did this happen?” the woman cries. “I have no more hope.”
Kaneko reassures her: “There is hope in spite of everything. There is a God who loves you and His name is Jesus Christ. God used us to help Him provide for your needs and the needs of your neighbors.”
The volunteer grabs a Bible and marks the Book of John. She asks the elderly woman to read the passage and to come back next week to talk again.
“You’re coming back?” the elderly woman asks, surprised. “It’s so far!”
“We’ll be here every week,” Kaneko answers. “Come back and talk to us. We can discuss that book and the hope it offers.”
The woman smiles and walks away, bags bulging with new clothes and a Bible under her arm. She immediately pulls out her phone and tells her daughter to let all of the neighbors know there’s someone who cares about their plight. They are not forgotten.
Susie Rain is an International Mission Board writer/editor living in Southeast Asia. The IMB has established a relief fund for the Japan disaster. Donations may be sent to Office of Finance, International Mission Board, 3806 Monument Ave., Richmond, VA 23230. In the memo line write “Japan Response Fund.” Or you can give online by going to imb.org and clicking on the “Japan response” button. For further information, call the IMB toll-free at 1-800-999-3113.