Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Futaba Hope Church

There is transformative power in working with your own hands. Hands that build beautiful things inspire us. Justo Gallego is one such man, who started building a cathedral all of his life by his hands, alone. He used family property and used his own money to buy materials for foundations but drove around to collect discarded bricks to reuse (for the full story on BBC, click here)

Justo Gallego's hands
Justo Gallego (91) started the project more than 50 years ago and hopes to be buried by the building site, if he can't see the completion of the project.
Cathederal of Justo in Mejorada del Campo, Spain
Futaba Hope Church is located in Tomiyoka town. The name Futaba is the name of the district, consisting of 6 towns and 2 villages, surrounding the troubled Daiichi nuclear power plant. Many residents left for good after 3/11 and those who have returned are mostly elderly people. In this neighbourhood, the church is planted to offer prayers for the district and to welcome returning people with hope for a new future.

However, the situation doesn't seem to get better, but in fact, it looks like it is getting worse year by year. More homes were demolished in the neighbourhood since I came last year. More homes were domolished this past year.

But what seems to be the reality is not the whole story. There's another story - a story of hope and presence sustained by the Spirit and a vision of new creation.

The physical reality of that hope and vision is present in the building that is home to Futaba Hope Church and the people who are reclaiming the building for witness to the gospel.

Last year, Rev. Sumiyoshi started repair work last year with the help of volunteers and financial support from overseas churches. Proudly he shared with us that the owner of the building, a few other pastors and himself completed the work of repairing the roof. Now that there is no more rainwater leaking inside the house, the interior repair began just a few months ago. Renovation is progressing more slowly than he anticipated, but he is in no hurry and moving along with whatever God provides and how he provides.

We came inside to sit around to hear Rev. Sumiyoshi's vision and mission for the church in the community. "This house is to become a house of prayer where the Spirit of God dwells. It is to serve returning community people with prayer and give them hope from Christ." After much invigorating conversation with him, we started working. Our job was to clean inside and outside.
From left to right: Ken Warren from Canada, Rev. Sumiyoshi, Rachel Phua from Singapore and Chie Yoshida from Canada. 
Kaoru from Tokyo and Chie from Canada cleaning the small garden.
Before: The big flowerbed with piles of trash and overgrown weeds.
After: We spent two days to clear the flowerbeds all around the house. 
An elderly neighbour walked by and talked to us. After a few minutes of conversation with Shihoko, the neighbour pleaded, "Please come back. We need more people like you to come back!"

Shihoko received the vision of "spiritual cleanup" of Tomiyoka area when we first visited four years ago. She and her husband started a new church plant in Vancouver with a few Japanese immigrant families just before 3/11 disaster 8 years ago. Since then the church started New Eden garden ministry that offers practical gardening experience at a suburban farm outside Vancouver as a way of solidarity with Fukushima people, as a way of holistic discipleship, and as a way of serving local neighbours in the metro Vancouver area.

Rev. Sumiyoshi and Shihoko
Coming back to Tomioyoka with members of her congregation in Vancouver has been an irresistible joy for her and Ken, her husband. It was her vision to see the area being cleansed by the blood of Jesus and to see a church being planted to offer the love of Christ to hurting people of Fukushima. Ken, a horticulturalist, weeps over the broken land whenever we see or hear about the stories of topsoil removal or abandoned farms or struggling farmers.

With this vision, we come here each year to offer the little service of our own hands as a form of prayer and a form of friendship and solidarity.

Rev. Sumiyoshi hopes to finish repairing the interior this Fall and to start the service officially from then. But we know that he and others have already joined God's ongoing mission with prayers. We join them also through our prayers.
Fukushima Seven!: Ken, Rachel, Chie, Shihoko, Sumiyoshi, Kaoru (and Maria, the dog)
after two days' work.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Tomioka's small signs of life

Coming back to Tomioka town is always an experience of heavy emotions. I first came to this area near the old train station in 2015 soon after the 20 KM evacuation zone order was reduced to around 11 KM from Fukushima Daiichi power plant. It looked like a ghost town where everything stopped on March 11, 2011. Destroyed homes, broken roads and debris everywhere. The only signs of human trace were the flowers at the small memorial site for the tsunami victims near the ocean.  (For more pictures and the story I wrote that time, click here)

Midori and I have come here every year to see the changes since the evacuation zone was opened. This year we decided to stay here for a couple of days to see what life is like for evacuees who decided to return after 4 or 5 years. When we arrived at the train station Wednesday evening, the first thing we noticed is the newly constructed embankment. The height was noticeably raised and I couldn't help but wonder what all is covered under the concrete surface, because what we have seen before, are the piles of black bags containing radioactive topsoil removed from farmlands in Fukushima.

The full moon over the ocean looked sad. As we drove around the area, we discovered an open area where the old embankment still remains. There we saw black turf bags of soil on the shore.

Yesterday morning we went out for a stroll to look for signs of life and to pray. We hardly saw anyone walking on the street. The only place we could see people was a mall that had a grocery store, garden/home repair store, general store and a food court. During lunch hour, the food court was busy but soon after that it quickly became empty. 
"Sakura Mall"

There was one clinic in town and a mobile internal radiation monitoring station on the clinic parking lot. This station is run by the Ministry of Environment and the staff were friendly (I can't write anything about what they shared with us or post photos, sorry).

The houses and apartment buildings in this town look sterile, just like so many fields "naked" with their topsoil removed in the rural area. It was hard to tell whether these houses are occupied now and if there were anyone who make these places their home again.

This unfinished building below grabbed our attention but we couldn't understand why anyone would start putting in the glass first before finishing the rest of the building. Then someone told us that this construction was begun before the tsunami but the owner disappeared after the tsunami; no one knows what happened to the owner or what would happen to this structure. What amazes us is that the foundation was built with earthquake-proof materials, therefore these structure stood undamaged, and no glass broken, even after such a great earthquake as 3/11!

Some sad signs of life are below. We saw a row of houses with broken windows patched up with duct tape and cardboards. Signs of thefts.

It is strange to see vending machines right in the middle of a residential area without any store. What is even more strange is that there were no flower gardens or pots in this apartment complex below, other than a row of young trees planted by the construction company. A Japanese home without a flower plant indeed looks sterile. It doesn't look like a Japanese home I know. This is where we saw signs that people have returned, but these signs are yet far from people making their home again.

For Canadian friends

I couldn't help but take this photo on the highway today...

Thursday, March 21, 2019

We are blessed to live in Fukushima

One of the joys of coming to Fukushima is to meet young people who are committed to Fukushima and want to dedicate their lives to serving their homeland even after so many other young people have left Fukushima in search of better futures, better education and better jobs.

The children who just finished elementary school 8 years ago at the time of the 3/11 triple disaster are now young adults studying in universities or working. They are the direct fruit of the faithful ministry of Reverends Yoshio and Toyomi Sanga at Grace Garden Chapel in Koriyama. These young people spent their entire teenage years learning to serve their hurting neighbours in the most practical ways by serving the disaster victims in their communities. During high school, they formed music bands and created music to offer safe places for other teenagers to hangout after school. They volunteered helping after-school programs for young children or helping at their church. These "kids" that I knew are now young adults preparing themselves to serve Fukushima in the near future as they are now all in their twenties, not teenagers any more.

"20" is a big year in Japan as there is a public ceremony in January for young people turning 20 that year in every local community.  These young attended the public ceremony of the rite of passage. This means that these people are not children any more and they are responsible for their own life. So I asked them to share a highlight of the year since I saw them last year.

Noah is a dietician working in the food industry. Noah loves food and loves cooking and serving food. She and a few other young people from the church went to Hiroshima after a bad flood and landslide to help in the relief work. Serving gives her joy.

Yui is studying to be a kindergarden teacher.  Her biggest news this year is that her parents accepted Jesus and started attending church. Yui started coming to church as a child by herself and her parents were not supportive of her becoming Christian. After praying for them for a long time, they finally accepted the faith Yui demonstrated to them day in, day out. "It was God's divine timing and God's way is so unique," Yui said with a smile.

Ayana's highlight of the year was that she went to Hawaii on a short term mission trip with a few other young people from her church. During high school she had to persevere under pressure (and persecution) from her parents because she became Christian. Praying for her family is her ongoing mission.

Kota is not a Christian but found a family and friends when he first stepped into the door of Grace Garden Chapel. He had been introduced to a church before when he was living in Tokyo but it didn't mean much to him as he didn't know how to related to people there. He comes from a family that do not value religion but after he moved back to Fukushima he started hanging out with these wonderful young people here who made him feel welcomed like his own family.

Yui turned 20 this year. For Yui, this meant that she can decide matters of her own life and she decided to be baptized, finally. Her parents are against Christianity and never allowed her to be baptized until she turned 20. The first thing she wanted to do is to make a public statement of following Jesus! She is very happy as a baptized believer now.

Akito studies psychology and social work in university in Fukushima because he wants to serve suffering people in Fukushima. He is passionate about the younger generation. He is passionate to see children and youth thriving at church. His highlight of the year is that he was able to lead some of the high school students to Christ he teaches at a cram school (as his part-time job while studying at university).

I met Akito when he was just a kid after elementary school. He was following his parents to go to the evacuee shelters to serve disaster victims. A few years ago he was still in high school busy studying and making and playing music with friends, Akito already demonstrated a deep faith in Christ and prayerful thoughts. When I asked him about what he thought of Fukushima and disaster as a teenager, this is how he answered.
"It's like the story of the blind young man in John's gospel (ch. 9). It's not his sin that he was blind, but it is to glorify God. It is not our fault that we live in Fukushima or that Fukushima had the terrible disasters. Some say we are cursed, and others urge us to escape from here. But I believe we are blessed to live in Fukushima and serve the hurting people here, because we know Jesus and have hope in him." 
These young people are the true future of Fukushima and the hope for the coming generation!

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Pray for Ken and Seiko Nishiono and their three daughters

I am writing today to ask you, the reader of my blog and your friends and families to pray with me for Rev. Ken Nishiono and his family, especially his two youngest daughters' health. As Mother Teresa would say, "we can storm the heaven with our petitions and prayers," and this is one of the reasons I started my blog 8 years ago for Fukushima. Yesterday we visited Miharu to meet with Ken briefly to pray together. With his permission, I write his story to assist you in praying.

Ken's second daughter, Yuzuri (2 years old), was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome a few months ago and has been on treatment; now his youngest daughter, Megumi (1 year old), is in hospital since last week with some kidney issues which the doctors are trying to diagnose so that they can come up with a course of treatment. While Seiko stays in hospital with Megumi, Ken is looking after the two older ones. Thankfuly, Miyu (4 years old) is healthy but feels the stress of the burdens of the family.

Family photo in April 2018 soon after Megumi was born.
Ken, Miyu and Yuzuri during our visit yesterday.
"I understand now how much work it takes to take care of domestic duties and raise three children," said Ken as we sat down to pray with him and his two children at the church while his wife and the youngest one were staying at the hospital. Japanese men seldom get involved in family matters or raising their children as it is all left for the wife to do while men go to work and bring money home. Ken has now new appreciation for all that his wife does at home.

Rev. Ken Nishiono and his wife Seiko are the only two people I know that have never left Fukushima since they arrived as volunteers soon after the 311 disaster in 2011 while thousands of other volunteers left after their assignments or quit after being burnout. They both came unmarried and got married a couple years after they first met while working as relief volunteers.

A few years ago, Ken received an invitation to join a local church as associate pastor and became ordained two years ago. Soon after his ordination, his mentor and predecessor at Koriyama Bible Baptist Church in Miharu town retired and Ken became the pastor of the church. (For the story of how Ken came to this church and his testimony, click here)

"I began feeling a bit depressed and exhausted a few months ago thinking it's too hard to be a pastor and started doubting my call to a pastoral ministry when Yuzuri's sickness was first diagnosed," his small voice got quieter with his shoulders gradually sinking lower and lower as he continued to talk.   By having to drive a long distance back and forth between the church and the children's hospital for his daughter's treatment for many days while he continued to struggle with many duties all alone at his church, he began to understand the meaning of Christ's suffering. "I meditated this morning while I was doing dishes, since my wife is away with our youngest daughter in the hospital, what it means to follow Jesus in his suffering. I began to see my role in this church in a new way."

We said our good-byes and promised to pay a visit again next year and to pray for his family in the meanwhile. Our hearts were heavy for the burden Ken and Seiko carry but were encouraged by his ever deepening testimony.

Church fellowship after Sunday worship (April 2018)

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Fact-based education helps to eliminate fear of radiation

The first site we visited is Commutan Fukushima (https://com-fukushima.jp/). Its actual long name is Centre for Environmental Creation Communication Building, Commutan ('Commutan' is sort of Japanese-English to emphasize communication and community). This is run by the prefectural government to communicate the current status of the Fukushima nuclear disaster recovery as well as environmental and educational research to build a future for Fukushima with a more sustainable environment. (Unfortunately the website doesn't have anything in English, but most of the signs in the exhibition hall are done in Japanese and English.)

This is not a disaster memorial, which focuses on the disaster and the power of memory to educate the future generations, but a testimonial, which focuses on the communal efforts by both the Fukushima government and people for the present living conditions and for the future environment of Fukushima. So the emphasis of all statistical information is on the timeline and the changes in trends, i.e., how Fukushima is steadily reducing the level of radiation and how its people are working toward increasing the signs of recovery in wild plants, the air dose rate of radiation, the number of evacuees to this date, and so on.  For this purpose, simple wooden blocks are used to display numbers to show up to date changes.

For example, in 2012, there were over 165,000 evacuees in Fukushima; today that number has reduced to 42,104 people.
Number of evacuees: trends since 2012 in different parts of Fukushima
42104 Evacuees as of January 31, 2019

One of the major areas of education is food safety. Now all brown rice grown in Fukushima is well below the standard level of radiation and only .15% of wild vegetation show the risk of radiation exposure.

Mr. Kiyoshi Sasaki is the Director of Education at Commutan and he explained to us the importance of food safety education they provide to visitors. He was a science teacher at a local middle school and now works at Commutan to educate a broader audience about the importance of Fukushima disaster recovery and of creating a sustainable future for Fukushima. According to Mr. Sasaki, food safety education must teach the facts about radiation to reduce the fear of radiation as it is not simply about abstract knowledge of radiation, but it must help consumers make choices about their grocery shopping. Food grown in Fuksuhima is safe. That's the fact!

Fear vs. fact.
That is the constant battle about radiation in Fukushima. Unfortunately, most of us, who only read about Fukushima and do not have to deal with daily life choices that we think mundane and insignificant such as grocery shopping, often are blinded by media-generated fear. Perhaps learning the facts will reduce the fear.

Another way to reduce the fear, an even more power evidence than the fact-based education, is to meet the people of the faith who have never left Fukushima even when the fear and threat of radiation was so much higher than what it is today. 

Fukushima, here we come!

Visiting Fukushima has become my Spring routine for 8 years now. After a long flight of 9 and a half hours from Vancouver, I arrived in Narita Airport yesterday. Here one can witness a true example of Japanese speed and efficiency of organizing crowds and chaos into an order. They definitely have an art form of doing this, and they do that very quickly. Several hundreds of people from a few planes that landed around the same time flooded into the immigration lines and then these people were quickly "processed" by the airport immigration officers in several steps in a very short time, compared to so many other countries' airports. Shortly after exiting customs, I discovered the big posters of the upcoming Tokyo Olympic games and mascots welcoming visitors. The nation has moved forward. 311 Tohoku disasters are long gone in history. Fukushima has faded away in the nation's conscience.

The long haul flight from Canada to Japan helps me to remember I am entering yet another foreign land. But the transition from Tokyo to Fukushima is always a harder one. This is partly because Tokyo somehow feels much closer to Vancouver, which is on the other side of Pacific Ocean, than to Fukushima, which is just 1 hour and 20 minutes by bullet train.

I stayed with the Otake family at Seibou Christ Church in Inchikawa (I wrote a story of this church during my first visit in March, 2015: to read, click here) last night before starting the journey to Fukushima this morning. Kengo and Tomiko, Shihoko's parents and lay pastors of this church, always demonstrate the finest form of Japanese hospitality whenever I visit them. It is such a home-coming feeling here in Japan after a long flight, and especially before my trip to Fukushima, where I anticipate  feelings of greater emotional distance from Tokyo.

Kengo and Tomiko Otake
Ken and Shihoko flew from Vancouver a few days ahead of me and Midori joined this morning from Yokohama. The four of us drove for three hours to Koriyama where we meet the two other members of our group, who have never been to Fukushima. This year we are trying out a different way of traveling in Fukushima as we welcome a few members of our trip along the way for different lengths of the journey. Stay tuned for the story yet to unfold this week!