The team from New Hope Baptist Church in Fayetteville, Ga., quickly breaks the ice with big smiles and over exaggerated waves. An 86-year-old Japanese woman waves back and blows a kiss. When the red-headed American feigns catching it and falls over from the sheer force of the imaginary kiss, the crowd erupts in laughter. The Georgians take the uncharacteristic outburst by the stoic Japanese in stride. After all, that's what clowns do -- bring laughter and joy.
For some in this temporary housing unit, it's the first big laugh since March 11 when the earthquake and tsunami wiped out their small fishing village. When the laughter grows, "Deano T. Clown" hams it up even more. He knows it is an important part of the healing process for those who endured so much physical and emotional pain.
"Laughter is one of those universal languages," the veteran clown explains. "It's therapeutic. Our hope is that at least for a moment, the survivors can forget the issues of life they face right now and just laugh."
It's been several months since the waves crashed down on Ofunato City. There's nothing left of this community built along the harbor, just empty foundations and piles of rubble waiting to be recycled.
The government's temporary housing units -- small, prefab houses made of aluminum -- squeeze onto any open, flat space up the mountain road, overlooking the obliterated city and prompting memories that most would rather forget. The spectacle of Deano T. Clown and "Mrs. Uppington" clomping through their housing complex in oversized shoes is a big enough distraction to help with this quest. Most have never seen a clown in person.
Curtains part and faces peek out to see the impromptu parade. The clowns' bright makeup and clothes are a stark contrast to the colorless surroundings of these units. Doors open and residents excitedly pour into the small community room. Even the construction workers put aside their tools and join the procession.
"This is the most people out of their unit I have ever seen," the social director says, smiling at the immediate impact of this clown ministry.
It is often hard to get survivors to leave their housing units because of depression. Moving on with life has been a hard and slow process. More than 20,000 people died and more than 100,000 lost their homes. An estimated 158,000 people in this Tohoku region lost their jobs due to the tsunami's destructive path -- the fishing industry was practically destroyed, factories were demolished and most stores have not reopened.
IMB missionaries Tak and Lana Oue say "heart care," like this, is one of the top priorities in this stage of disaster relief. When community leaders told them it was time for the people to move on with their lives -- to laugh and be cheered, they knew it was time to bring the clowning ministry from Georgia.
SEND IN THE CLOWNS
The community room is so packed, there's barely enough space for the clowns to perform or for the SOCs (Supporters of Clowns) to offer coffee and tea. Faces peer through all of the windows and crowd the doorway.
The clowns' silly antics bring smiles, applause and laughter. Deano T. Clown grabs volunteers from the audience and teaches them to spin plates on a rod. Mrs. Uppington challenges Deano T. Clown to contest after contest -- each ending in some funny disaster.
Smiles by all ages are big and wide -- or rather, everyone is smiling except Mrs. Uppington.
"Deano, my heart hurts," Mrs. Uppington says as the audience leans in closer to hear more.
As she describes losing her home, friends and family members and how she feels so alone, Mrs. Uppington rips apart a paper heart. Several nod their heads in acknowledgement. They understand how she feels.
Since the earthquake, tsunami and ongoing nuclear disaster, depression and suicide are rampant. The country already had one of the highest suicide rates in the world, but new figures show the number of deaths has risen by 39 percent since the triple disaster. More than 3,281 people committed suicide in the month of May alone. Some of these deaths have been in the housing units where IMB missionaries visit with ministry teams like New Hope's.
Deano T. Clown takes the torn heart and gently places it inside a an empty box called "life." He explains that Jesus can heal all wounds, including a broken heart. He hands Mrs. Uppington the box and she takes out a whole heart. The crowd breaks out in cheers. A few have tears in their eyes.
In many of these housing units, it's the first time ministry teams have been allowed to share the Gospel so openly. This area of Japan is known to be the most resistant, with less than 1 percent claiming to be Christians.
"We use humor and clowning to gain entrance and let them know the love of Jesus," Mrs. Uppington explains. "Sometimes, as clowns, we are able to share more openly than we would if we wore street clothes."
After the show ends, survivors shyly approach the clowns. They want to take their picture with them, not to mention try to figure out all of the illusionist-type tricks they perform. The SOC members of the clown troupe circulate the crowd, offering drinks and a listening ear. The laughing continues well after everyone walks out the door.
"It felt good to laugh," a smiling 86-year-old Kashima Saito says. "The clowns are very funny. Events like this are very encouraging and keep our spirits up."
It is this attitude of "never give up" that impresses the New Hope team the most. After hearing so many stories of survival, they understand tragedies on a whole new level -- a way that cannot be described in a story or shown on television.
"People are so resilient. They are survivors," Deano T. Clown says, pointing to his new friends Shiro and Ritoko Ogasawara as an example. "Life will never be the same here, yet they keep moving forward."
The Japanese couple invites the team to their temporary home for a short rest and a cup of tea after the performance. Ten people squeeze into their small room.
Shiro thanks the Georgians for bringing laughter and joy to his city again. As his wife pours tea, she apologizes about the limited space and for the fact that they do not have much to offer as hosts. She tells the ministry team that her family is among the lucky. They lost their home and most of their possessions but no one died.
"We wear donated clothes. Even these teacups are recycled. We dug them out of the mud and cleaned them," Ritoko says. "After all of these months, we are building our lives again. Because of our contact with volunteers like you, we are dreaming and thinking of the future."
Susie Rain is a writer/editor living in Southeast Asia. For more information on volunteering for the International Mission Board's Tohoku Care Disaster Relief Project, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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