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Baptist ‘ground presence’ makes impact in Japan’s disaster clean-up

By Susie Rain

KAMAISHI, Japan – The grown woman examines the hand-made doll closely.

On one side, the doll’s face sports a big smile and exudes happiness. She flips it over and the facial expression is a frown, symbolizing sadness and grief.

The Japanese woman clutches the gift tightly and thanks the Southern Baptist volunteer from Tennessee. This simple child’s therapy toy expresses exactly how she and the rest of her community in Kamaishi have felt since the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan on March 11 — a mixture of emotions that won’t come out.

Four months after Japan’s disaster, residents in the northeast are still digging out emotionally and physically from the mounds of debris and mud left by the crushing tsunami waves.

The largest natural disaster in Japan’s modern history left this community in shambles. An hour after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake, a tsunami wave measuring 50 feet high whipped through this block of houses situated on the side of a hill. Every house received extensive damage. There were also numerous deaths.

Since that fateful day, many have lived — or rather, “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 the 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, when you factor in that most residents in the affected areas 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.

The constant stress of day-to-day survival is written all over their faces.

It’s a welcome relief when the volunteers from Tennessee arrive with supplies and shovels. This is just one of several stops they make with Gerald Burch, Tohoku Care volunteer coordinator. They 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. They estimate more than 88,000 homes in the three affected prefectures are clogged with filth — but perhaps salvageable.

During their week-long trip, Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers helped clear out a community center and distribute fresh vegetables and other supplies. This stop, however, makes the biggest impact on both the volunteers and the Japanese.

“Just a few weeks ago, we had a community block party led by IMB missionaries Charlie and Teresa Seelen. It really boosted everyone’s spirits,” Burch says. “The only thing they have holding them together is community cohesiveness. There is no hope of eternity.

“The Japanese are naturally a community people,” explains 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.”

Burch says the government’s goal is to relocate communities such as this one to temporary housing by the end of June. Community leaders tell the volunteers that 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 have to move to the “pre-fab” housing projects further away from jobs, friends and the community support that has sustained them for the last four months.

Many will move from once-spacious homes to a 20-by-20-foot structure squeezed next to as many homes 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 says. “People have frustrations and concerns as they face the unknown. Our desire is that the Lord uses this time of change and unsettlement to open them to the Gospel.

“What Baptists need to continue to do is have an on-the-ground contact ministry that is sensitive to physical and emotional needs. Sometimes what is needed most in these disasters is just listening and touching someone’s life.”

The Tennessee volunteers do just that as they clean out homes and businesses. In Kamaishi, it’s cold and raining, so one Japanese woman insists they warm up in her house. She scrounges up some coffee and snacks for the guests while her friends and neighbors talk about the difficulties they expect when the community breaks up.

One leader sadly tells Burch that the next time Tohoku Care returns with a team, most likely, no one will be here to receive them. They will miss the encouragement Burch and his teams bring with each visit.

The volunteers ask if they can pray for the community. With no objections, the Tennesseans ask God to watch over and comfort their friends. As volunteer after volunteer prays, their Japanese hostess grips the two-faced therapy doll tighter and tighter, until finally … she allows a tear to fall.

To learn more about volunteer opportunities in Japan, email Baptist Global Response is on the Internet at

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