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In Japan, 'ground presence' makes impact

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
KAMAISHI, Japan (BP)--The woman closely examines the handmade doll. On one side, the doll's face sports a big smile and exudes happiness. She flips it over and sees the facial expression is a frown, symbolizing sadness and grief.

The Japanese woman tightly clutches the gift and softly thanks the Southern Baptist volunteer who gave it to her. This simple child's therapy toy expresses how she and others in the fishing village of Kamaishi have felt since the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan on March 11 -- a mixture of emotions that won't come out.

Three months after Japan's triple disaster -- the earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear crisis -- residents in the northeast are still digging out emotionally and physically from mounds of debris and mud.

The largest natural disaster in Japan's history left Kamaishi in shambles. An hour after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake, a 50-foot tsunami wave whipped through this hillside block of houses. Many people died as every home was badly damaged.

Since that fateful day, many survivors have lived -- or camped out -- on the second floor of their homes, rather than leave. The bottom floors are filled with layers of mud, dead fish and rubble.

Supplies are still hard to get. Some stores are open with a limited stock, but getting there is a problem. Most forms of transportation were damaged in the tsunami. The government estimates more than 146,000 vehicles were destroyed in Miyagi Prefecture alone. Then, factoring in that most residents are over 60 years old and cannot walk up to an hour -- one way -- to the store, most just make do with whatever they can scrounge.


They are delighted if someone comes along to help.

About three teams of Southern Baptist volunteers are going to Japan each month to help with the ongoing disaster response, said Jeff Palmer, executive director of the Baptist Global Response international relief organization. Three teams from the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention have assisted Japanese Baptists in relief initiatives in recent weeks; a team from North Carolina currently is in the country; and teams from Oklahoma, Louisiana and Kentucky are going in August.

"Most of the volunteers are serving as utility teams, which means that they are doing a number of odd jobs in partnership with Tokyo Baptist Church's North East Japan Recover program and the Japan Baptist Convention's Tohoku Care Team," Palmer said. "They are meeting needs of people in the affected areas and providing services such as mud-outs, cleaning houses, streets, parks, public areas, delivering relief supplies and encouraging disaster victims.

"The simple fact they are there, that they care enough to come help people in need, speaks volumes about God's love to people who are struggling to survive and find new lives," Palmer said.


The constant stress of day-to-day survival is written across the faces of the Japanese whom Southern Baptist volunteers meet. When a team of volunteers from Tennessee arrived with supplies and shovels, for example, the residents' relief was obvious.


This was just one of several stops the Tennesseans made with Gerald Burch, volunteer coordinator for Tohoku Care, to offer help in "mudding out" homes and businesses or tearing down remnants of houses.

Many neighborhoods in the three affected prefectures were destroyed -- in the city of Ishinomaki, 28,000 homes have been lost, according to local officials. Officials estimate more than 88,000 homes in the three affected prefectures are clogged with filth but may be salvageable.

During their trip to Japan, the Tennessee volunteers helped clear out a community center and distribute fresh vegetables and other supplies. This stop, however, made an unusual impact on both the volunteers and the Japanese.

"Just a few weeks ago, we had a community block party led by International Mission Board missionaries Charlie and Teresa Seelen. It really boosted everyone's spirits," Burch said. "The only thing they have holding them together is community cohesiveness. There is no hope of eternity.

"The Japanese are naturally a community people," said Burch, who lived in Japan for 23 years and recently returned to help with the relief efforts. "The community here is about to be broken up and that has everyone frustrated and concerned."

The government's goal is to relocate communities such as this one to temporary housing by the end of June, Burch said. Community leaders say they will "draw lots" to see who goes where. Not everyone will go to the same center. Some will stay in the area while others will be moved to "pre-fab" housing projects farther away -- from jobs, friends and the community support that has sustained them for the last three months.


Many will move from once-spacious homes to a 20-by-20-foot structure squeezed in with as many units that can fit in a space the size of a soccer field.


"The problem people face here is not only did they lose their family and houses, but most lost their livelihood as well," Burch said. "People have frustrations and concerns as they face the unknown.

"What Baptists need to continue to do is have an on-the-ground contact ministry that is sensitive to physical and emotional needs," the volunteer coordinator added. "Sometimes what is needed most in these disasters is just listening and touching someone's life."

The Tennessee volunteers did just that as they cleaned out homes and businesses. In Kamaishi where it was cold and rainy, one Japanese woman insisted they warm up in her house. She scrounged up some coffee and snacks for the guests while her friends and neighbors talked about the difficulties they expect when the community breaks up.

The volunteers asked if they can pray for the community. No one objected as the Tennesseans asked God to watch over and comfort their friends. As volunteer after volunteer prayed, their Japanese hostess gripped the two-faced therapy doll tighter and tighter -- until finally she allowed a tear to fall.

Susie Rain is a writer/editor living in Southeast Asia. To learn more about volunteer opportunities in Japan, email Baptist Global Response is on the Internet at Donations for Japan relief may be sent to Office of Finance, International Mission Board, 3806 Monument Ave., Richmond, VA 23230. In the memo line write "Japan Response Fund."


Copyright (c) 2011 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press

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