Almost a year after the March 2011 tsunami disaster, I traveled on a bullet train with Fumio Ito, a pastor of the Japan Evangelical Lutheran Church, to Sendai, a city of 1.5 million northeast of Tokyo. Ito and an ELCA volunteer from Huntington Beach, Calif., work with the JELC’s disaster response effort. Our train passed the Fukushima nuclear plant (which is still compromised) before arriving at the Lutheran church in Sendai, where the volunteer is based. From there, we drove along the coast, passing miles and miles of flattened towns. The total devastation was beyond our comprehension or what we’d deduced from television images.
Below are text messages I sent to family throughout the trip:
• We are traveling in a Lutheran Disaster Response van through Matsushima, right at the ocean where the mountains go into the sea. Boats smashed into houses. Thousands were killed. Many are still missing. Walking along the stony shore, it’s hard to imagine a thriving fishing village was here. All gone.
• In Ishinomaki, a gutted school overlooks a damaged cemetery. People are bringing flowers to graves. In the distance, there is a smashed hospital where a mother carried her daughter uphill. They watched the tsunami carry the rest of their family and friends away. [The mother] still can’t sleep. She asked the ELCA volunteer who is with us to bring her beef jerky. He says he has a suitcase full of it.
• Ito is worried that the one-year anniversary on March 11 will result in suicide attempts. “People just want to go into the sea and be reunited,” he said. He points out buildings and Japanese “FEMA trailers” where refugees live. He visits them as part of his ministry. The government recently told people living in these temporary quarters that they could stay up to two years.
• In front of what was Ogawa elementary school, there is a shrine. Flowers, pictures, banners of origami, bowls of incense mark 79 children and 10 teachers lost. They believed the mountains would shield them from the waves.
• We worshiped at Tokyo Lutheran Church, in the heart of “Korea Town.” I thought I was back in Flushing, Queens, with all the Korean storefronts, restaurants and people. The pastor at the early English service, attended by 30 to 40 people, is an ELCA missionary from Montana who will return to the U.S. soon. At the Japanese service, there were more than 200 worshipers, led by a young, gifted JELC pastor.
• We visited the Union International English Church, which has [an average worship attendance of] 400 and ministries that include a mission to the homeless (something a bit controversial in their upscale neighborhood). Their pastor is on the roster of the ELCA Pacifica Synod.
• At a meeting with JELC leadership, including President Sumiyuki Watanabe and the church’s directors for global and domestic mission, we talked about cooperative work between the ELCA and the JELC. This has included two pastors from Japan to serve ELCA congregations in Huntington Beach and Torrance, Calif.
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