The Tohoku Disaster Relief Center was established soon after the earthquake that occurred on March 11, 2011 and has operated out of the Tohoku District Center, which is known as the Emmaus Center. As of Nov. 14, 2011, there were 1,405 volunteers who had registered at the Emmaus Center to help with relief work. Initially, the relief efforts were focused on helping the survivors in Shichigo in the Wakabayashi Ward of Sendai City with mud removal, cleaning houses, and clearing debris from the fields. As the volunteers involved themselves in this work, they showed that while they were weak in the face of such destruction, they were not powerless to bring restoration. Likewise, they were there not merely to labor with the victims but also “to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.” Thanks to the “Rebuilding Strategy” announced by Sendai City, many residents have now decided to return to their homes, and there has been an increase in the number of requests for our volunteers to help.
Ishinomaki City, on the other hand, is one area where the realities are still grim, and the recovery process is lagging far behind. It takes approximately two hours by car to go from Sendai to Ishinomaki. We needed to establish a base of operations in the city, and one of our primary commitments during the summer was to establish a center there. The Kyodan Disaster Relief Planning Headquarters was able to buy a house from one of the survivors from Ishinomaki, and we quickly renovated the house to serve as the “Emmaus Center in Ishinomaki.” Since the summer of 2011, we have been able to carry on volunteer activities from this base of operations.
From the beginning, the Emmaus Center used the Internet to call on people nationwide to join in the relief efforts. The Center registered numerous volunteers, irrespective of whether the individuals themselves were Christians, and so approximately 70% of the volunteers who come to the Emmaus Center are not themselves Christians. The Emmaus Center has made a point of praying each morning before going to work and in the evening after coming back from work, as a way of expressing gratitude to God. In this way the volunteers are exposed to Christianity, which is at the heart of our relief efforts. Volunteers are housed in the local churches. For many volunteers, it is their first time to enter a church. Some even make a point of attending the Sunday morning worship services. The churches that have opened their doors to the Emmaus Center volunteers have hosted up to 150 persons as of November 2011. One church lost its parsonage and yet showed its gracious spirit by offering lodging to the volunteers.
During the summer, the number of volunteers was high, due to the fact that many of the volunteers were college students. Since schools are now in session, the numbers have decreased, but our efforts are being sustained by committed churches, schools, and organizations, as well as by individuals who repeatedly come back to join in the relief efforts. As we look ahead to a long and sustained relief process, our church-based relief efforts will become even more necessary. As the recovery process continues, the content of our work and the quality of our relatedness to the survivors will change. But despite the changes ahead of us, we will need to continue to “love our neighbor.” We will always continue to need “people” at the heart of our effort to walk alongside and to serve the survivors. (Tr. JM)
—Maekita Mio, Staff member
Kyodan Disaster Relief Planning Headquarters