Saturday, January 21, 2012

Relief Work in Ishinomaki: Some Random Observations

This is a long one. Do yourself a favour: make a cup of tea (if you want delicious, nutritious Japanese green tea, you can find my brewing instructions here) and curl up on the comfortable chair with a blanket. Ready? Okay, let’s go.

I thought about putting together some sort of exhaustive post or posts about our time in Ishinomaki doing relief work. On further reflection, I decided not to do that. If you’re interested, I've provided links to our team leader’s daily blog entries and our online photo album at the end of this post. (Please do have a look, since I've only put a few pictures here.) Here I’ve picked a few topics of particular interest to me and reflected on them.

To summarize briefly, Keith and I joined a team from Westminster Chapel in Bellevue, Washington to sing Christmas carols (wearing Dickens costumes!) in Ishinomaki, which is a couple of hours away from Sendai. Keith and I got connected with Westminster through TalkTime (informal conversation time for international students and professionals) and Alpha ministries. We spent December 7-18 in Sendai, Ishinomaki, and Chiba singing in a wide variety of contexts, ranging from churches to coffee houses to schools and nursing homes.

Caroling at a yochien (kindergarten), wearing our 変な洋服 (weird Western clothes)

We were excited to join the team, led by Mark Ramquist, who together with his wife, Sylvia (our mentor at Westminster), served with Asian Access in Japan for many years. One of the team members, Mika, is a songwriter and performer living in Sendai, and we have many mutual friends. I discovered when I met Bev that we had had an hour long conversation in the parking lot at Westminster a year before. Rachel, I discovered, is a huge fan of our friend’s novels. Cheri has a great sense of humor—that weird American sort of humor that I had been missing. 5 out of the 7 members had some level of Japanese, which was very helpful. Personally I think it was a great team, and we sounded darn good, too!

The team at Matsushima: Mark, Mika, Bev, Cheri, Rachel, me, Keith

Our goal for the trip was to glorify God, to encourage the people of Ishinomaki, and to allow the long-termers to do their work better. It was encouraging to me to hear at the end of each day about things which went on while we were singing. Andy and Lorna had great conversations and deepened friendships with local people. More cooperation happened between the various organizations in Ishinomaki. Doors were opened for future groups of this kind to go to some of the same places (schools, nursing homes, etc) as we had been.

People seemed to enjoy the songs. Sometimes we invited participation (complete with hats!) during the familiar songs. Invariably when we sang “Silent Night” people would sing along… and they would cry. It’s not at all a sad song, but they would cry, even men. I guess they needed to cry, but usually there is no opportunity. Through our singing, we gave the listeners a culturally-appropriate opportunity to express some of the sorrow which had been bottled up for so long.

Personally, the theme of the trip for me was “church.” What does “church” mean in the areas affected by the March 11 disaster? What does “church” mean in Tohoko? What does it mean to “be the church” in Japan?

We saw a number of models of church functioning alongside each other in Ishinomaki. First, we visited a church—building, worship service, pastor, sermon, etc. We sang 30 minutes of carols as part of the service. I have never seen a Japanese church so packed—and this one was only a few months old. There were people in the 2 main rooms of the house in which the church meets, people filling the storage room, and people looking in the windows. When we finished singing, we had to wait outside for the end of the service, since there was nowhere for us to sit.

This is after church. You might be able to get the general idea, but this doesn't do justice to just how crowded it was. The pastor, Suzuki-sensei, is in the foreground on the right.

I think many people came for our mini-concert. Or maybe they just came because they wanted to come to church. I don’t know. What I do know is that both in Miyako and Ishinomaki, people told us that they were thankful that the Christians were there, helping in ways that the government really couldn’t help.

Another model of church we saw was the community outreach model—events ranging from coffee houses and concerts to visits to nursing homes and schools to “takidashi” (literally “emergency food distribution,” but in this particular community, “takidashi” has become a chance for the neighbourhood to come together for coffee, bingo, and a communal meal). While the “traditional” model of church is helpful for teaching the Bible and worshipping together, smaller gatherings give opportunities for relief workers to develop personal connections with and care for local people. These smaller gatherings also give opportunities for the local people to participate and take ownership as well.

Takidashi: gathering point for the community

At “takidashi,” we met Sumiko and her brother, Tateo. They and a few others came early to help set up tents and tables and chairs. Tateo’s particular role is to make coffee—quite a process with no electricity or running water. Sumiko supervised all us gaijin (foreigners) who were assembling the Soba noodle soup for lunch.

Andy with Tateo making coffee
Lunch prep with Sumiko

So what does church look like in Tohoku? I don’t really have too many answers except to say that I’m expecting to see something completely unexpected, and I don’t think I’ll be the only one to re-evaluate what “church” means in Japan.

This was a very different sort of trip from our last one—to start with, we were part of a short term team with a specific task, and Ishinomaki is not much like Miyako at all—much larger and closer to a major city. In addition, now it is winter and another 4 months of progress has been made following the disaster last March. There are some similarities between the types of ministries and relief work going on in Miyako and Ishinomaki, but each place has a unique flavor. Generally, it’s a bit hard to compare our two experiences.

I think now that the weather has gotten colder (and no one is on school holidays), not as many teams are coming, which is perhaps both a challenge and a blessing. When we were in Miyako over the summer, the long-term workers were constantly trying to figure out what to do with teams, some of which had no one who spoke Japanese. Now it would appear that serious efforts have been made to foster cooperation between the various relief work groups in the area and to form strategies for the next months and years. Although some things are more organized, our host, Lorna, complained that the only constant in her life right now was the fact that the ferry to Hokkaido goes by at the same time every night. ;) The work in Ishinomaki is constantly evolving and changing, as is the work in Miyako, I’m sure. Exciting to be sure, but challenging, heart-wrenching, and disorienting at times.

Let’s close with a few prayer points.
  • Please pray for our hosts, Andy and Lorna Gilbert, for health, energy, and an extra helping of God’s love to overflow onto everyone they meet. Please pray for them to find suitable housing in Ishinomaki—right now their commute is 1 ½ hours each way.
  • Please pray for wisdom and good cooperation among all the groups working in Ishinomaki--Mika at Ochakko House (coffee house), Virginia at Hope House (community space and coffee house), Chad and Jennifer who were our contacts for school and nursing home visits, and Suzuki-sensei at Koganehama church. Most of these people are tired and worn out. Pray for encouragement and strength for each of them.
  • Last night we attended a charity concert and heard a report from someone who has been working in Miyako. She reported that churches in the disaster area are overflowing with non-Christians and new believers. This is a great problem to have… but there are not many people to teach and care for them. Please pray for strength and maturity for all the church members, since caring for one another is what all of us are called to do, not just the pastor or leader.
  • If you watched Keith’s video in the previous post (Japanese only—sorry), you can see a diagram he draws. This illustrates the pattern of disaster recovery. When people recover from the initial “valley”—that is, their physical needs have been met, they begin to come to terms with all that they have lost—family, friends, homes, possessions, community. This is when they reach a deeper “valley” about 6-8 months after a disaster. We’re a little past that now, but please pray that as people recover and climb out of the “valley,” they would not do so in their own strength, but in the strength that comes from God.
  • Please continue to pray for unity among the churches in Japan. There’s much to be thankful for as we’ve seen unprecedented cooperation in relief efforts. Please pray that such cooperation continues and spreads outside of the disaster area.

If you want to know more about our trip, our team leader, Mark Ramquist, put together excellent daily posts on his blog. Please follow these links:

12/8 Thursday: Tokyo, Sendai, and Takayama
12/9 Friday: Ishinomaki - First Concert
12/10 Saturday: Koganehama "Takidashi" and Chakko House
12/11 Sunday: Koganehama Church
12/12 Monday: Sendai Day Off
12/13 Tuesday: Koganehama Ladies Tea and Samaritan's Purse work
12/14: Wednesday: Koganehama Coffee House
12/15 Thursday: Ishinomaki Kids and Old Folks
12/16 Friday: Onagawa Kids and Tomei SP
12/17 Saturday: Sendai, then to Tokyo
12/18 Sunday: Chiba and Tokyo

In addition, we’ve put our favourite pictures up on picasa, and if you can understand Japanese, check out Keith’s end-of-beginner-course speech about our trip. If you're interested in the continuation of the relief project we did over the summer and what our organization is doing in Miyako, here is a short video you can watch. (There are pictures of us from last August!)

It's been a long one, but thanks for reading!

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