Japanese Christians Begin Relief Work

Date Posted: 3/23/2011

The United Church of Christ in Japan has established a disaster relief center in the Tohoku District in northern Japan, which was severely affected by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

The Rev. Jeffrey Mensendiek, a United Church of Christ missionary who serves as director of youth ministries at the Emmaus Center in Sendai, helped set up the center.

“We also have people going out into the community to gather information about how people are coping in the (area’s) evacuation centers,” he wrote in a March 17 email update.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief already has sent an emergency grant to the United Church of Christ in Japan, which is using the funds “to distribute food, clean water, clothing and heating fuel,” wrote UMCOR’s top executive, the Rev. Cynthia Fierro Harvey, in a March 21 letter to The United Methodist Church. The Japanese government has requested that outside groups not come to Japan, she noted.

As of March 21, Japan’s National Police Agency put the number of dead and missing from the earthquake/tsunami at nearly 22,000. About 350,000 evacuees, including those who fled areas near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, have occupied about 2,100 shelters set up by 15 prefectures, the Japan Times reported.

Sendai lies within the 80-kilometer or 50-mile radius of the reactors that the U.S. government has recommended as an evacuation area, and Mensendiek said he remains concerned about radiation levels.

Although many have left the area, as of March 19, about 10,000 people remained in the evacuation centers in Sendai, where, Mensendiek reported, “the needs far surpass our ability to provide,” particularly with “no gasoline to visit the areas hit by the tsunami” and limited food supplies.

“We wait for a new dawn, when we will have the capacity to accept relief rations and to provide generously to those in need,” he said.

“How can I express what it’s like to be here now in Sendai? It is unreal,” he wrote. “I'm reminded of Albert Camus' novel ‘The Plague.’ Only, I'd like to rewrite his story to say that our challenge is to witness that God is present here in the lives of those who suffer.”

Being Self-Sufficient

At the Asian Rural Institute in Nasushiobara, self-sufficiency is paying off “big time,” said Steven Cutting, a staff member. The staff is taking precautions but believes the institute is far enough away from harmful radiation levels from the nuclear power plant, even if a meltdown occurs.

“Today we restocked ourselves with food and water – vegetables from the gardens, several bags of rice,” he wrote on March 17. “Nearly all the foodstuffs we need we have in plenty.”

That abundance is allowing the institute to help others, said Jonathan McCurley, a United Methodist missionary based there. Through connections with a former staff member, the institute has arranged to donate food to help feed refugees staying in a hall and gymnasium at a local park.

“Although the original plan was to house 50 people for a week's time, that has turned into an expected 500 people this week, and people will be able to stay longer,” he explained. “We still continue to house several refugees ourselves and do all we can do to support people caught in the middle of this disaster,” McCurley reported in a March 22 email update. “Many of the people coming here are not only escaping the destruction of the earthquake and tsunami, but also the power plant. And that continues to press in on us.”

An indefinite ban on leafy vegetables and milk produced by Fukushima and neighboring prefectures – announced March 21 by Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan after samples were found to be above the allowable radiation limit – will have a “double whammy” on farmers, McCurley pointed out, placing both their livelihoods and their health in danger.

Near the Asian Rural Institute, radiation levels are about a third of what they were the first week but still above normal. “As far as we know, our food is still OK, but we are in the process of getting it checked and are cautious in what we are eating and drinking,” he added.

Trucks from Tokyo

In Tokyo, Second Harvest Japan, a food bank, has gathered supplies for those displaced from their homes in northern Japan. The Rev. Claudia Genung-Yamamoto, a United Methodist missionary, and her husband, Toshi Yamamoto, are on the organization’s board of directors.

Members of West Tokyo Union Church, where Genung-Yamamoto is pastor, also volunteer with Second Harvest Japan. The church itself is a sponsor of the organization, which, she said, “has worked non-stop since the quake getting out needed food and supplies.”

Kazumasa Haijima, the agency’s director of food bank operation, drove a 1.5-ton refrigerated truck full of food and blankets from Tokyo to Sendai, arriving March 15, and remained to deliver supplies from Tokyo to different disaster areas.

Second Harvest Japan’s executive director, Charles McJilton, led an emergency support team that arrived with a 4-ton truck of relief supplies on March 17. The supplies were then divided among five local trucks for distribution.

To support UMCOR’s assistance to relief efforts in Japan, donations can be made here.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York.

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