ISHINOMAKI, Japan (BP) -- I remember how fearful I was that first time. Tokyo Baptist Church put out a call to church members seeking volunteers to work in the tsunami disaster zone, and God urged me to respond despite a resistance to leaving my "Tokyo bubble."
I was afraid that if I saw the destruction I would be forced to feel the pain of the people on a much deeper level than I already felt as a longtime resident of Japan. It didn't occur to me at the time that God would take me back again and again to work with survivors. He changed my heart and expanded my world, starting with that very first trip to the Tohoku region of northeast Japan.
I was pleasantly surprised that it didn't look like anything I had seen on the news immediately after the tsunami. The government had already started cleaning up. We were able to drive right up to the church's distribution spot in the city of Ishinomaki where we offered hot food and a makeshift store of canned foods, water and toilet paper.
However, I soon found out when I took a walk around the neighborhood that the closer you got to the ocean, the destruction became worse. Streets were covered in mud; houses were destroyed; there were even houses on top of houses. Bags with the remnants of destroyed lives were stacked in neat piles along both sides of the street, waiting to be picked up by the trash crews.
Then I saw some freshly planted flowers!
It was such a stark contrast from everything else around us. I saw it as a sign of hope in a situation that otherwise looked hopeless. I asked the lady of the house about her flowers and she said, "I needed something of beauty to focus on in the midst of all this destruction."
MAY & JUNE
I took two trips up to Ishinomaki with Next Generation, our church's youth group. We cleaned yards and hosted a barbecue for the neighborhood. These young people served so selflessly and with joy that it blessed me just to watch.
We decided to drive up the coast one day to Onagawa. Everything was normal and beautiful until we went around a bend and saw a fishing village that had been wiped out. It was now just a pile of rubble. Everyone in the car was silent as we saw town after town like this.
I remember thinking, "I've seen enough, Lord. I don't want to see any more." But there was nothing to do but to continue driving forward as tears streamed down my face. No matter how much pain my heart felt, I trusted God had a reason for bringing me here.
One day, I reconnected with the flower lady, Mrs. Mori. I told her how much seeing her flowers had meant to me that first trip. We cried remembering that time of destruction.
I spent four days with four other women from our church ministering in what we've come to know as "our neighborhood" in Ishinomaki. We spent our days visiting people, including the Mori family. The Moris shared what little food they had with us and we talked as if we were old friends. It was amazing to sit with these survivors, listen to them and just pour love into them.
Next Generation went back to work in "our neighborhood" through a youth camp similar to M-Fuge in the States. Our students worked hard in the heat, creating beauty where they could and taking time to talk with the local residents. They prayed for and with the people of Ishinomaki. Seeing the tears streaming down the faces of these young people as they prayed for God's grace and salvation to come to Ishinomaki was one of the highlights of that week. I know people in this neighborhood heard God's voice through these young people.
My son Kosuke and my daughter Miyuki jumped at the chance to spend Christmas in Ishinomaki. They had also been greatly impacted from previous mission trips there. We wanted to share this special holiday with our new friends.
One day, we went out inviting people in temporary housing communities to our Christmas concert. As I walked around I realized these houses were built in what once was a baseball stadium -- the bleachers and dugouts are still there. What must it feel like to live in a baseball stadium, knowing this is your home for the foreseeable future?
Christmas Eve night was beautiful. The concert was set up outside. The choir sang and played hand bells as snow fell around us. Our neighbors and friends listened to the whole concert even though it was very cold.
At the end, we lit candles and sang Silent Night in English and Japanese. It was beautiful. Who would have imagined that nine months after the tsunami we'd have such an amazing night celebrating the Savior's birth -- a story most in this neighborhood did not know before the disaster.
For the first time in my life, I feel like I have experienced Christmas. It was not about presents, good food or even family. It was about self-sacrifice, love and joy.
I thank God for forcing me out of my "bubble." During the last year, I've joined fellow believers in sharing God's love with tsunami survivors through our sweat and tears. Seeds have been planted in an area that did not have a church presence. Several have asked Jesus into their hearts and more are beginning to ask questions.
God has given me a renewed desire to pray for the people of Ishinomaki. Not only those I've spent time with, but those I've never met. I know God has great plans for this city. Being allowed to play even a small part is humbling and such a blessing.
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