Tohoku District’s Disaster Victims’ Relief Center

—Noda Taku, director*
Student Christian Fellowship

The activities of the Tohoku District’s Disaster Victims’ Relief Center are mainly focused in the Arahama and Ishinomaki areas of the Wakabayashi Ward in Sendai City, Miyagi Prefecture. Our desire is to see the restoration of the homes and lives of the people living there. Arahama is the area closest to the center of Sendai that was damaged by the tsunami, and very soon after the disaster, news reporters were saying that 200 to 300 dead bodies had been found there. We decided very early on that we were going to work in this area, alongside the people living there, and we began our support with prayer and countless visits to Shichigo Elementary School, which was being used as a refuge center. I would like to tell you about the important guiding principles of our work.

Is this disaster an opportunity for evangelism?
My own answer to this question is that it is not appropriate to become involved with such a hidden agenda. We are looking to see how we can share others’ burdens by coming alongside them and suffering with them. Such a blessing is the only aim of our work.

Because of this stance, we have made it a rule that none of our clothes, cars, or bicycles carry any kind of logo advertising our group. We do not all wear the same clothes or have identification badges or any other kind of mark or symbol. While on site, the group leaders are, of course, carrying identification or business cards, but these are kept out of sight. This reflects our feeling that each of us has a personal involvement as an individual believer. The only information that we see as important is our own names, and to display these we write in felt-tip pen on sticky labels. We are proud to be involved not as an organization, but personally, as individual believers, and selling our organization is of no use either to ourselves or to the people we are working with.

The Biblical approach to service: “Rejoice together, weep together”
The policy for our work was decided on very simply, as it is shown to us through the Bible and prayer. It is, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.” It is important to us to follow the approach to service and walking with others that we see in the life of Christ.

“Slow work”–the importance of inefficiency. Another policy for our activities is the idea of “slow work,” meaning that we attach more importance to the actual person we are dealing with than to any achievements or results. When we first started our work in March, we would spend all day clearing away rubble and mud, only to see how much could be cleared away by heavy machinery in just a few minutes. Faced with such a scene, we felt extremely helpless, and realized just how exhausted we were both mentally and physically. Such experiences made us aware that for us it was to be people that was important, not efficiency or results. We came to want to engage with this disaster slowly and carefully, knowing the emotion of a sharing that involves getting down on our knees and getting dirty.
We travel by bicycle. We use bicycles as the means of transportation for our work. At first this was for practical reasons, as bicycles can maneuver in and out of the debris and park in gaps between the rubble, and are not affected by gasoline shortages. However, what we think is most important is that we are exerting ourselves to make the visit. As a result, this approach has brought us rich rewards. Our bicycles running around the streets pulling trailers full of spades and other tools have become a well-known sight. Everyone greets us, and people have been known to put soft drinks or other gifts in our baskets when we are stopped at traffic lights, so that we feel their recognition and love. Also, because we use bicycles in the area struck by the tsunami, the atmosphere and the smells are close and very real to us. When participants first go, they become unable to see the road ahead for their tears, and so need mental preparation for becoming involved in the relief work. From the center of Sendai, we have a 14 km bicycle ride each way, but it doesn’t feel like a long way.

Don’t predetermine or impose needs. We want to take care in responding to what the individuals we are dealing with see as their own needs, whether these are for things or for actions. If we ourselves are not able to do anything, then we add our voices to the cry, “Please help us!” And if there is no response, then we also grieve. To someone facing a house with everything deep in mud and despairing of ever being able to live in it again, we offer the words “We’ll help,” as encouragement. To someone who is losing hope when faced with fields that have been damaged by salt, we simply say, “We’ll help.” As examples of things that have actually happened, we met one elderly person suffering from a backache, and so we gave her a back rub while we were talking. When we met someone who really liked to talk, we all stopped what we were doing and listened. When talking at the front door of a house that had a heap of the area’s rubble piled up in front of it, we said, “Isn’t this terrible! May we plant some flowers for you?” And they let us plant flowers. We see all of these things as “needs,” and as a way of serving people as individuals who matter.
In addition, the life of the church has been enriched in many ways. Our day starts with us holding hands in a circle for prayer. We go by bicycle to wherever we are working, and when we return we offer prayers of thanks for our safety during the day. The volunteers who come from all over Japan (more than 100 of them a day during the Golden Week holidays at the beginning of May) have stayed in the local churches. The women’s groups of the churches render their services by providing hot meals at the end of the workday. The work of our center is basically made possible with money donated by churches. Of course, for the people who are sent from the churches of other areas—but especially for the many participating volunteers who did not know anything about the church—it has been an important experience to be enveloped in church life. So it turns out that before returning home many people, without being pressured into it at all, have attended Sunday worship at the churches in which they have been staying. Through the work of the church, they have had the experience of taking part in relief activities based on the words of the Bible, and I believe that this will lead to abundant fruit in their future lives.
*Noda Taku is the assistant to the Kyodan executive secretary responsible for the Kyodan’s Disaster Relief Program, and was formerly the on-site coordinator. He is also the director of Kyodan’s Student Christian Fellowship in Tokyo. (Tr. SN)