TOHOKU, Japan (BP) — Everything changed on March 11 for Eiko Tanno. It was the day a 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit the northeastern coast of Japan — the day she lost hope.
Tanno was working in her home office when the ground started shaking and shimmying. She ran outside and huddled with her neighbors.
Then came the tsunami warning.
They rushed to higher ground and watched as powerful walls of water took out entire neighborhoods and anyone in its path. Some houses dislodged from their foundation and floated away. Others simply splintered into scraps from the force of the waves. Tanno’s house, however, remained intact. The water overtook the first floor but didn’t climb higher.
“The tsunami took away my livelihood,” the middle-aged Tanno says seven months after Japan’s historic triple disaster that included an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis. “My business was downstairs, and it was ruined. My house was not totally destroyed so I was not given access to temporary housing. I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
For months, Tanno traipsed through the mud and toxins in her home. She climbed the stairs to a bedroom where she and her family had begun living and working. She always closed the door, trying to shut out the constant reminder of her fate. No matter what she did, though, she couldn’t escape the rotten smell of dead fish or the piles of rubble outside her windows.
It was a depressing living situation until a group of strangers knocked on her door.
“The day the yellow shirts came to my neighborhood, my life changed and I felt hope again,” Tanno says, pointing to a group of workers wearing yellow shirts, hats and vests. Month by month, the yellow shirts slowly help transform her neighborhood.
Southern Baptist Disaster Relief teams, known in this part of Japan by the yellow clothing they wear, cleaned out the mud and toxins caked over Tanno’s bottom floor as well as every house left standing on her block. A few weeks later, another team pulled out rotten boards.
Today’s team — “yellow shirts” from Missouri — installs insulation and hammers in flooring. They laugh and tease as they work. They stop to bow in respect to neighbors coming in to inspect the progress and soon have their new Japanese friends laughing.
David Price of Calvary Baptist Church in Neosho, Mo., marvels over the fact that disaster relief teams from different states have come to Japan during the past six months with the same purpose — to share Christ’s love through service. Just a few hours farther up the coast, another team from Georgia conveys the same message by clearing debris and sifting through rubble for personal items that can be salvaged. A different Georgia team sets up shop in a parking lot, building benches for the temporary housing units scattered throughout the region.
“It’s overwhelming to think that each of our teams has been a tiny piece of God’s plan to reach out to the Japanese,” Price says, noting that teams from Canada, Texas, California, Alabama and every state in between have been part of the International Mission Board’s Tohoku Care disaster relief project. “Each team has a different skill in helping a community recover and it just builds on each other.”
Rebuilding the muddy wastelands of the northeastern Tohoku region is expected to cost hundreds of billions of dollars and take up to a decade. The Japan Fire Department estimates more than 111,000 buildings and homes were destroyed with around 656,920 damaged.
Darrell Barrett of McConnell Memorial Baptist Church in Hiawassee, Ga., says it is easy to get caught up in the vast destruction that stretches for hundreds of miles. Where his team cleans there are no markers to know location. Gone are the street signs, landmarks, parks and homes. It’s just a field of foundations. Volunteer cleanup crews — American and Japanese — know the area only by the ship that rests unnaturally across the road.
“It’s easy to desensitize in situations like this so we can get the work done,” Barrett says, bending down and placing a perfect teacup he recovered onto a pile of salvageable household items. He picks up a framed picture of a 10-year-old girl and adds, “Then you find something like this and it all of a sudden becomes personal. You start wondering about the family who lived in this house — if they are alive … if they are in heaven.”
Barrett knows the chances of meeting this family in heaven are slim. Missionaries say the Tohoku area has been closed to the Gospel for hundreds of years. Less than 1 percent claimed to be evangelical Christians prior to the tsunami. The yellow shirts try to make inroads through their hard work and service, preparing the way for others to come and share.
“I don’t have the gift of speaking,” Tim Beck of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Toccoa, Ga., says, “but God has given me other gifts to use. He gave me abilities in construction. He uses this avenue to reach people in need. That’s my witness.”
These simple acts of service and respect for Japanese culture are slowly moving hearts. Tanno acknowledges that from the very first knock on her door, she knew the yellow shirts were different. They didn’t ask for anything and their help came with “no strings attached.” She was skeptical at first, as were her neighbors. But they soon realized these teams were different from other volunteers working in their area.
“In our neighborhood, we love the yellow shirts,” she says enthusiastically. “They help us without asking for anything in return. They listen to how we need things done. They are kind and care about us.”
She shyly admits her favorite part of the day is when the yellow shirts pack up their tools and ask her to join them for prayer. She doesn’t understand why, but it gives her a peaceful feeling. Somehow, she knows everything is going to be OK.
Susie Rain is a writer/editor in Southeast Asia. For more information on the disaster-zone Tohoku Care disaster relief project of the International Mission Board, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Additional information about ongoing relief work in Japan can be accessed at Baptist Global Response, www.gobgr.com.