Sunday, May 15, 2011

Golden Week Mission Trip to Tohoku Disaster Zone

Finally, a chance to write about the Golden Week mission trip to Tohoku! Life has been so crazy lately, both in terms of busyness, stress, and amazing opportunities! First, about the trip.

We worked with CRASH, Christian Relief, Assistance, Support, and Hope. I spent the last two months trying to organize with these people with many frustrations, set backs, and outright miscommunications. Most of it`s not their fault; it is a disaster zone after all. They are all volunteers with regular full-time jobs or ministry positions and families. They would email to ask for information, I would send it to them, and then another person would ask for the same information. I finally ended up abandoning email and just calling them two or three times a day to deal directly with the recruitment, screening, finance, and placement people myself. (They had exactly one person doing each thing, and like I said, all volunteers.) It was also difficult because ours was the first group of mixed foreigners and Japanese coming from all over Japan.

For that reason, the biggest problem was placement. Normally, the volunteer group comes from a church or NGO, all the members from one geographical location. CRASH tells the group one day before their arrival where they are going and the group drives there. With us, we didn`t have cars and were coming from all over Japan, so we had to buy our tickets ASAP. Then they were telling me that nine was too many people and some folks would have to drop. We finally settled on breaking the team into two: four people going to Nasu in Tochigi prefecture and four (later five) to Hitatchi in Ibaraki prefecture, both in the Tohoku region of Northeast Japan, of course. More on that later.

I have to be honest. There are better organizations than CRASH to go with. Samaritan`s purse, from what I`ve heard and saw while I was there, really has their act together. Less than a week after the disaster, they were shipping over supplies in the order they knew they would be needed from past disasters: water, food, sanitation items and rubber boots, diapers, and on from there. Anyone can go in their warehouse and distribute the items to the evacuation centers. The Red Cross from various countries also has its act together. CRASH has a lot of Japanese buearocratic hoops I don`t understand, given that it`s an international (mostly American) organization. For example, everyone had to get volunteer insurance before we arrived, even though the sites we went to provided it, and everyone had to fill out a Pastoral Reference Form, even though CRASH never asked to see them.

Anyway, I taught my Thursday night class on April 28th, then left for Tokyo on the night bus. I arrived early Friday morning and stayed with my friend Gale, who had been a refugee in my apartment when the radiation was really high. It was a long journey, about 12 hours. I planned to help her move Friday, but was so exhausted I just slept most of the day. Then we saw around her neighborhood and ate at a nice but way too spicy Indian restaurant. The following morning at 5:00am, I caught the train for Hitachi city.

Masanori Saito (the only Japanese member of our team) picked me up at Omika station around 9:30am in the team`s rented van. We drove about five minutes to Ibaraki Christian University to a little house we`d be staying in called Moorehead. Here`s a picture of it:



It was a nice Western-style home set aside for special university guests, with a washer and drier (something I`ve never seen before in Japan) and a pantry stocked with Western food. Much better than the tents we`d been expecting just a few days earlier!

Four other members had arrived on Friday night. Masa took Deborah Ruth, the leader of the Nasu team, back to the station so she and the other three members arriving later could drive with Steve (the Nasu coordinator) to where they would be staying in Nasu. Deborah Ruth and Solveig spent the week doing “kokoro no care” or emotional care, talking with the people in the evacuation centers, teaching them English, and putting on concerts, while the two boys Jean Marc and Aaron Romanick worked on the website for Grace Chapel.

Back at Moorehead house, my team got acquainted and met Jim, the university president and CRASH Hitatchi members. We had a good group. I already mentioned Masanori Saito (Masa), a Japanese guy engaged to an American, nearly 100% fluent in English. At first I thought he was from California or something. Even when he told jokes, his inflection was perfect, and he gave a really funny impression of an American trying to speak Japanese. He was a master of accents, both Japanese and English, and could even speak Japanese with an American accent! About the only thing that gave him away was his gaps in knowledge about American pop culture, but by most standards that would make me more Japanese than American too! He was from Osaka, the best city in the world. Masa served as our driver (because he was the only person in the group with a Japanese driver’s license), our translator, a large part of our muscle, and the comic relief.

Then there was Aaron Peterson, an American Assistant Language Teacher who used to work for the Japanese Exchange Teaching Program but now teaches at an emersion elementary school in Gifu prefecture. He was the calm, reasoned voice of the group, very good at figuring things out, and also a large part of our muscle. He had volunteered over Spring Break in Sendai in the earthquake relief, so he was also more experienced than the rest of us.

Last but certainly not least, Hyemi Lim. Hyemi is a Korean American who, if her ethnicity allowed, I’m sure would have been born blond. I mean that with all affection and good humor. She was smart of course; her blondness lay in her valley girl accent, fascination with teenage pop culture, and off-the-wall comments that seemed to come out of nowhere. Hyemi proved very good at addressing people’s emotional needs and loved to share Jesus with everyone she met.

So where did I, the only basic Japanese-speaking, new-to-relief work "leader" fit into all of this? Well, I pretty much did all my "leading" before the trip started. A better term for me might be "organizer." The CRASH people called us "team Laura," but honestly I just sat around and listened to everyone else discuss what we should do, half the time leaving the ultimate decision up to someone who seemed smarter and more experienced, and half the time stepping in with a half-humorous "team leader says we should do this" when it seemed like most everyone was agreed but simply didn`t want to say directly what we had finally agreed on.

Here’s a picture of our team at the church we attended on Sunday:



From left:

Aaron, Hyemi, Masa, Me, President Jim of Ibaraki Christian University.

OK, on to orientation. There wasn`t much of one on Saturday. We just had our introductions and were told we would be given stuff to do on Sunday. We still didn`t know what that stuff was, though. Basically we learned we would be driving about thirty miles into Iwaki each day. The reason we coudln`t stay there was because it was less than 60 miles from the leaking nuclear power plant. Hitachi was about 90 miles away.

Sunday morning we went to church at Omika Church of Christ. I recognized most of the hymns, though it was my first time singing everything a cappella. It was also the first Japanese church I`d been to where the congregation actually sang in four parts. Interesting. They had a guest African American preacher who spoke in English with a translator, so it was a good Sunday to go there. He had a great sermon about finding our joy and freedom from fear in Jesus even when times are hard, related to the earthquake, of course. We had quite a few aftershocks right there in the middle of the service. No one seemed to notice.

The classic greeting in Tohoku these days is "what`s shaking?" The answer, if it`s a good day, is "nothing much." If it`s just a so-so day, it`s "the ground." If it`s a bad day, then "everything!" (Sorry, bad joke. Actually, only the English speakers say that.) Honestly, though, there were quite a few quakes throughout the week, but the biggest was about a four on the Richter scale. Some stuff fell. That was all. I learned to sleep through quite a few of them.

Sunday afternoon, we had our real orientation where we were supposed to get a list of jobs. The guy, who shall go unnamed, simply brought a big plastic folder with telephone numbers.

"Just call those churches and see what they need, or how we can help them help their communities," he said.

"What are all these marks next to some of the names?" I asked.

"Oh," he said. "I guess some of them have already been called."

"Which ones?" I pressed.

"Hmm. Don`t know. I don`t know what the different marks mean. You`ll just have to call and find out."

That`s it? You mean I took two months organizing this trip and we spent a collective $2,000 to get here just for you to give us a list of names to call that may or may not have already been called? We were more than a little miffed. Mr. Unnamed, to give him a little credit, saw we were upset and tried to make it up to us by saying we could go to Ishinomaki on Friday. That was a "definite job that needs doing," because no one wants to go there. It`s barely outside the 30 mile no-go zone of the nuclear reactor. We just had to find work Monday-Thursday.

Masa got right to work calling churches and fortunately did find someone, Pastor Kanari at Uchigou Christ Gospel Church, who needed a delivery of food and water. We spent the rest of Sunday organizing the supply tent and taking inventory of what we already had to give away:



Besides the stuff in the tent, the house was filled with boxes of water donated from the Malaysian government. Some of the boxes had broken so we had to count the bottles individually. Here`s a picture of them all once we had them neatly lined up:



Finally, we went shopping for the food Pastor Kanari requested, then went to bed for our early start. At the last minute, one of the CRASH people called and said we had a job doing tsunami clean up for Monday.

So we spent the next day working with Pastor Yoshinaga, some members from Katsuta Bible Church, and several hundred other volunteers. (There were so many because it was Golden Week, a week of Japanese national holidays. Many Japanese get a total of nine days off in a row including the weekends, and so did our group.) We cleaned black mud and waste from street gutters. The blockage was causing flooding, stench, and poor sanitation for the nearby residents. Here`s me with two members from Katsuta Bible Church waiting in line for the bus to take us to the streets near the ocean:



We had to wear the masks because the mud was mostly made of human and animal waste washed up from the sewers and compacted into a heavy black sludge. There was also the issue of radioactive material floating in the air, and asbestos from the ruined buildings. And of course we wore gloves. The hard hats were a bit overboard though, I think. Our team wore the green CRASH logo vests.

Here`s the bus to the work site:



Here`s some of the volunteers at the work site:



Some of the tsunami damage:



You can see in the picture that the cement wall in front of the house is entirely knocked over. It was sort of unreal. I expected the damage to be a lot more severe in Iwaki. But that was far from the worst of it. Iwaki wasn`t hit nearly as bad as places up north, closes to the epicenter. More about that in Ishinomaki.

Cleaning out the gutters:



The work was hard. See those cement gutter covers? They were really heavy. It took two grown men to lift them with special tools. Masa accidentally dropped one on his index finger, and the whole thing swelled up and turned purple! He`s OK now, though.

I was mostly a bagger, holding the bag open for the men to shovel the waste inside. We worked from about 9:00 to noon, then took a break to go back to the base site (a giant parking lot) for lunch. The volunteers were very well organized, a regular Japanese assembly line. They had lines with buckets for people to wash their contaminated boots, lines for sanitizing our hands, and even a line for gargling. The Japanese are obsessed with gargling. They think it really prevents the spread of germs and other contamination. But I`m thinking, when was the last time I put something poisonous in my mouth and then breathed on somebody? Weird.

We worked again from 1:00 to 3:30. Here`s all the bags of muck we collected:



I have no idea what the organizers plan to do with the bags, since they`re a biohazard (human excrement) and radioactive to boot. I`m sure they have something figured out.

Here`s a picture of our group and the Katsuta Bible Church team at the end:



Pastor Yoshinaga was a funny guy. “You got a brother?” he asked Aaron.

“Sure,” he replied.

“Is his name Moses?”

In the evening, we delivered the supplies we bought that morning to Pastor Kanari at Uchigou Christ Gospel Church. Here is our rented van full of supplies:



And here we are with him:



According to Pastor Kanari, there are over 4,000 people still living in evacuation centers. Most of them are elderly and have nothing to go back to, and some of them don`t even have food in the shelters. Iwaki City is storing tons of goods received from outside the prefecture at the local bicycle race track. But many goods spoiled before distribution due to a long, complicated bureaucracy and breakdowns in the system. The city office was destroyed, so many records have been lost. People are not allowed to just go and take the food and supplies they need. The other problem is that many evacuation centers are controlled by yakuza, the Japanese mafia. The goods are taken by them and sold at outrageous prices unaffordable to most evacuees. So Pastor Kanari is filling the gaps for emergency needs. He was very encouraging; his hope and love for Christ really bolstered our spirits.

While talking with President Jim on Sunday, I had found out about Ibaraki Christian University`s affiliation with Oklahoma Christian University. Many of the students had studied abroad in Oklahoma, and many of the professors, including President Jim himself, were from there.

What a great connection, I realized. I also found out that the head of the language OCU English as a Second Language department, L.J. LittleJohn, was on campus Tuesday morning. I tracked him down and introduced myself, explaining I would really love to work or at least volunteer with the Japanese exchange students at Oklahoma Christian.

“Sounds good,” he said. “I`ll let you know by early July if we have a position for you.”

What an awesome job opportunity! Please pray that something comes out of that connection!

After everyone else got up, we picked up my friend Gale from the train station (she had to work Monday) and went shopping for more supplies for an Indonesian church CRASH told us about. In the middle of that, we got a call from Mr. Unnamed, who said there was no more work for us to do, and that we weren`t going to Ishinomaki after all because they hadn`t gotten the rice cookers they needed to deliver there yet. He was shocked to discover we even thought we were going there, even though he was the one who said we were. After he hung up, our group discussed this awhile, and decided we would go up to Ishinomaki anyway to do the same sort of thing Aaron did before, passing out supplies and praying for people.

In the evening, we had a meeting with Mr. Unnamed, a meeting that really ticked me off. First of all, he showed up tipsy. Second, he got really mad when he heard we were going to go to Ishinomaki anyway.

"You`re just taking the day off?" he demanded. "Just like that, for sightseeing? Headquarters would never approve."

I wanted to inform him quite plainly that we were not "taking the day off for sightseeing," that he was the one who said we needed to find work to do, and he was being beyond rude to then turn around and say we should just sit and do nothing because CRASH headquarters said so. They hadn`t given us a dime to work with. They had promised us before we came that there would be tons of work to do and the funding to do it. So where was the work, and where were the funds? Everything we`d done we had done with our own money and money generously donated by friends. Even buying the supplies had been our own money, which was NOT part of the agreement. Masa, our budget guy, looked ready to explode.

Fortunately, calm Aaron and Gale stepped in and smoothed things over. To cut Mr. Unnamed some slack, it was his day off. He wasn`t originally going to be the one meeting with us. At the last minute, the other guy`s wife cut her hand open and he had to take her to the emergency room. I`m sure Mr. Unnamed wouldn`t have normally shown up to a meeting tipsy and all bent out of shape. The matter was left for the time so we could go make our deliveries.

The first delivery that night was to an Indonesian church, and then their pastor`s house. They have a difficult situation, since most of the members are illegal immigrants employed in fishing and fish processing. Most of their boats were destroyed, and even if they could purchase new ones, they cannot fish because of the radiation contaminating the fish in their area. They are now unemployed, and because their VISA expired, they can’t leave the country and ever hope to return. Since many of their family members are still here, they would be separated forever. We prayed for them and left what support we could.

Mr. Unnamed then apologized for his previous behavior and said we could go to Ishinomaki on Friday to deliver some other supplies. Masa called some more churches and found more work for us to do. So it all worked out.

I, however, foolishly forgot to bring a coat and got soaked in the freezing rain. It`s no wonder, then, that I woke up the next morning with a high fever and chills. I had to stay behind while the others made deliveries to Pastor Sumiyoshi at Nakoso Christ Gospel Church and went to two evacuation centers to cook and serve dinner. Those people have been eating nothing but instant noodles for two months now. Imagine what that does to your health! Our team cooked curry and rice for them.



They told me later that they had some good conversations with the people and gave massages to those who`d been sleeping on the hard wooden gym floor with only thin mattresses for eight weeks. It may seem like a little thing, but those massages were greatly appreciated.





Wednesday evening, they took me to the emergency room simply because everything else was closed due to the holiday (National Children`s Day). I was having trouble just standing I was so dizzy, weak, and achy. But the doctor gave me some Chinese medicine, which as usual worked wonders. By Friday morning, I was good as new. I`m really going to miss that stuff, along with having cheap medical insurance.

Thursday I felt good enough to shop with them in the morning, but still too weak to go back to the evacuation center that evening. I wrote some on Masa`s Macintosh computer, but that`s about it.

Friday, we drove three hours to Ishinomaki to deliver goods to Kama Elementary School and Sumiyoshi Junior High School in Ishinomaki city and to some evacuation centers in Higashi Matsushima City. Wow. It felt like we`d driven into a war zone, military trucks, barricades and all. As soon as we got out of the car, the stench of open, raw sewage, rotting fish, and dead bodies attacked my nose, even through my mask. And I wouldn`t be the only one to say the air was just plain awful. There was something very unbreathable about it, maybe the radiation, maybe all the asbestos in the air, who really knows? Here are some pictures of the devastation up there:







Here`s the junior high school where we delivered some sports equipment:



They were really excited about those tennis balls!

Most of the school gyms double as evacuation centers. Here`s what that looks like:



And the other side:



See the privacy changing tent? That`s a new addition. Can you imagine living with over 200 people in one room like that, not able to take a shower, not having decent food, sleeping on a hard wood floor for two months, after having lost almost everything, including your family and friends? That`s Hell on Earth.

As you can see from the devastation, they can`t just pick up the broken pieces of their lives and start over tomorrow, either. Their jobs are gone. Their homes are gone. Their city is gone. Washed away by a wall of water. Many old people don`t trust banks and kept their money in safes which washed out to sea. What do you do in a situation like that? Some people can go to live with family or friends in the Hokkaido, Kansai, Kyushu, Shikoku or Okinawa regions, but what if you don`t know anyone there? They need to get everyone out, especially with the radiation and bad air. Scientists are saying just two weeks of exposure highly increase your rate of cancer. People are saying it`s like Chernobyl? Try Nagasaki or Hiroshima. Not in terms of radiation, but overall disaster.

But you can`t just relocate two million people overnight. Or even in two months. And with many Japanese, they`re ashamed to ask for help. They figure someone else needs it or deserves it more. So many just died from lack of food or water or heat, and thousands more refuse to ask for aid to restart their lives. And granted, there isn`t enough aid to go around yet. It`s a tough situation.

To add to the mess, the aftershocks keep continuing. How can you rebuild your life when it`s still shaking? There was a level 7 earthquake just one month after the first level 9. Some people had to evacuate from the evacuation centers! Scientists say the aftershocks may last another six months. Several churches we visited actually asked that we not send repair teams yet because we`d just have to go and fix their buildings all over again later. Things are going to take a REALLY long time to "get back to normal."

It`s no wonder most of the refugees sleep all day. They`re so depressed. We spent quite a bit of time talking to one man. All he had was his cat. He really loved that cat. But other than that, it was sort of like talking to a zombie. Aaron talked to a woman who had to identify her dead daughter the day before. The daughter`s body was so bloated and decayed that the mother had to go based on her socks. She said that as if she were discussing the weather. I guess that`s what happens when over 10,000 people die at one time. They get emotionally numb. The thing doctors are really concerned about in the future is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) like what soldiers get after they return from war. That`s why emotional care for the victims is so important.

Aaron said things had vastly improved since he last came, though. A month ago, there were almost one million people crammed together in the evacuation centers and rescue workers constantly found dead bodies in the tsunami rubble. We didn`t find any while we were there, but we did hear one of the military workers call that he`d found one. Suffice it to say, we didn`t go over there to see. But believe it or not, things are getting better.

One woman at the evacuation center had sort of taken charge. No one was paid to take care of these people, but she had taken it open herself to become the "Mother." She explained the situation of her evacuation center and their current needs. She still had a car, though badly damaged, and took us around to different sites. First we went to her parent`s old house. Here`s the inside:



Me standing in the street where her parent`s lived:



The broken power lines:



It just kept getting worse and worse the closer we got to the ocean. We went into a very remote, rural area where very little had been done to help at all. It was like the tsunami happened yesterday. At least the road was mostly clear and repaired. I guess that took a lot of work. The evacuation center there was the remains of a local tourist attraction, a museum-style reconstruction of a prehistoric Japanese fishing village. The people were living in the prehistoric huts with about the same standards as their ancient ancestors. No electricity, no running water, no gas. They survived on the bottled water brought by the Japanese defense force and food delivered by strangers. The "Mother" there was a young twenty something, maybe even younger than me, taking care of a dozen or more orphan kids. The kids shouted when they saw us, gathering around our van to get the toys and food. They would tell us which ones they did and didn`t want, which at least let me know they weren`t starving and had some entertainment. I marveled at how they never stopped smiling. Kids are tough.

Here`s what their peaceful little fishing community looks like now:




It`s going to take a long time to rebuild that. Odd how the tourist attraction survived but the homes didn`t. Maybe because the huts are so small and open to let the water go through.

The various evacuation center mothers told us their needs so CRASH could make another delivery later. Through it all, we saw the dedication of those serving, many of them through Christian organizations.

Here`s some pictures of he road back to Iwaki. These are rice feilds, completely destroyed by the tsunami. Now they look like junk yards.




The various evacuation center mothers told us their needs so CRASH could make another delivery later. Through it all, we saw the dedication of those serving, many of them through Christian organizations.

Here`s some pictures of he road back to Iwaki. These are rice feilds, completely destroyed by the tsunami. Now they look like junk yards.

Saturday we cleaned up Moorehead house and drove to the station around noon. I caught a bus from Mihata to Ibaraki airport, then flew to Nagoya International, and finally took the train home to Nabari. I got in about midnight, and went to church the next day. I felt like a limp, wrung-out dish rag on Monday morning. I will NOT be doing that again.

I learned through this experience that I`m not cut out for disaster relief work. I don`t think I personally was able to do much; there are those much better skilled and talented for it. Plus it really, really got to me. I felt much more helpful when I volunteered in India and Africa, and I much prefer having someone else organize it. Is that selfish? I suppose it isn`t selfish to realize you just aren`t best suited for something. It would be a waste of time, money, and talent to try to force yourself to do something you aren`t good at. But I`m still glad I went. It was a learning and a growing experience. One I`ll never forget.

Prayer requests: Please pray for the people still in the evacuation centers, that they will be able to rebuild their lives. Please pray for the orphans and those taking care of them. Please pray for the Indonesian church members in a tough bind being illegal immigrants who really can`t stay, and really can`t leave. Please pray for the physical and mental health of victims and relief workers.

Until next time, keep praying and loving, no matter what the cost,
L.J.Popp


Letters and prayer banner sent to an Iwaki church from America.

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