“March’s violent earthquake has shaken Japan into a new reality,” says the Rev. Paul Tsuchido Shew, a United Methodist serving as a chaplain and associate professor at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo.
“The earthquake and the tsunami and then the meltdown of the nuclear power plant have permanently changed Japan,” he said during a live April 4 webcast that was part of “Encounter Faith: Fearless,” a Rethinkchurch.org online study for Lent. “This is a major event in modern Japanese history.”
While Tokyo suffered some earthquake damage, store shelves are stocked again and people “have a sense of thanksgiving and feel the need to help others,” Shew said.
Christians can offer a sense of hope and faith alongside the practical aspects of relief work. Shew and his students gave comfort and assistance, for example, to Filipino refugees who came from northeastern Japan to stay in the temporary shelter established at the Wesley Center, next to the university.
“They wanted to have worship together and to be prayed for,” he said about the refugees. “A lot of them were really able to gain some healing through that.”
Around the world, United Methodists are continuing to respond to the disastrous events on March 11 in northeastern Japan that have resulted in a death toll exceeding 12,000, with more than 15,000 still missing.
As of April 4, the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) had received more than $1.3 million in donations for relief work with various partners in Japan.
CWS to assist 25,000
UMCOR recently gave a $30,000 grant to Church World Service, our ecumenical partner in disaster relief, for disaster aid in Japan.
Through Japanese partners, CWS hopes to provide immediate assistance to some 25,000 individuals from the Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures. Services include offering mobile medical care, distributing relief supplies, providing counseling services to pregnant women and those with very young children, and assisting with housing offers for evacuees.
In his April 3 report, Takeshi Komino, CWS Asia-Pacific head of emergencies, noted that about 300,000 to 500,000 earthquake/tsunami survivors could be living at the 2,300 official evacuation sites and numerous unregistered evacuation sites in northern Japan.
CWS is working with the National Christian Council in Japan on housing. Zen Koike, a young adult member of the United Church of Christ in Japan, is volunteering as housing coordinator, and has developed a form for the council’s website. Local churches are assisting in matching families who are hoping to share rooms in houses offered.
The Rev. Claudia Gensung-Yamamoto, a United Methodist missionary based in Tokyo, is part of the council’s effort. She also has witnessed how the continuing crisis has made an impact on young people in Japan who “are searching for ways to help, both large and small.”
She said she heard about a student at Kwansei Gakuin, a United Methodist-related university in Kobe, who grew up there as the city was rebuilt after a 1995 earthquake. “In solidarity, he is asking other students who are on a fixed income to pledge 1,000 yen (about $12) a month for 12 months to help the current survivors,” she reported.
Support across the Pacific
Across the Pacific, the Rev. Motoe Yamada admits it has been difficult to listen to the stories of the disaster survivors, even though her parents, sister, nieces and nephews in Tokyo are well.
“At the same time, I’m really hopeful that it will be OK,” she said, noting how those living in the affected areas have helped each other and organized their own communities in the shelters.
From the beginning, Yamada and her 550-member congregation at Sacramento Japanese United Methodist Church have raised funds for relief work in Japan. Immediately after a national appearance on Fox News, the church started receiving calls from viewers who wanted to help “and also wanted to say that we are in their prayers.”
The Sacramento church will contribute some of the $13,000 raised in March to the United Methodist Committee on Relief. Selected donations are earmarked for a small mission team – already in the works before the earthquake – that Yamada hopes can visit church connections in Japan yet this spring, possibly in mid-May.
The Rev. Takayuki Ishii, pastor of Golden Hill UMC in Bridgeport, Conn., has kept current on the situation in Japan through his two sisters and their children in Tokyo, friends inside and outside the denomination, and his subscription to Japanese television shows.
“Because of the enormity of the earthquake and tsunami and the radiation, people in Japan are very much involved in (immediate) relief efforts,” he said. “But I think that UMCOR’s strength, our United Methodist strength, is long-term.”
He believes UMCOR’s partnerships with the United Church of Christ in Japan, also known as the Kyodan; the National Christian Council in Japan; and the Korean Christian Council in Japan are the best way to determine a long-term strategy. “The damage is so severe, it’s going to take years to get back (to normal),” he added.
Seattle Area Bishop Grant Hagiya noted that the disaster has had an impact on cultural exchange programs between the United States and Japan. His children have been involved in a summer basketball program where U.S. players travel to Japan for three weeks to play and stay in the homes of their Japanese counterparts. With questions about fuel and transportation to areas outside Tokyo, “we’re not sure what the plans are.”
Even as the denomination raises relief funds, the overwhelming needs can be difficult to determine. “It’s hard to get an assessment being far away,” Hagiya said. “It (the disaster) continues to weigh heavily on our minds.”
Back in Tokyo, Gensung-Yamamoto appreciates support from United Methodists elsewhere and the commitment by churches across Japan to work together for the country’s recovery.
“I have discovered that our ecumenical family grows larger each day,” she said. “I feel blessed in the midst of this crisis of so much support and prayer, especially by church members in other countries.”
To support UMCOR’s assistance to relief efforts in Japan, donations can be made online at www.umcor.org or in your own congregation. Local churches in Indiana need to send their contributions to INUMC, P.O. Box 6089, Carol Stream, IL 60122.
Linda Bloom serves as a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter.