Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Community of Easter Hope (1): Restoring the fabric of soceity

I met Mr. Suzuki for the first time at Global Mission Center in Iwaki last November when I went to visit Usuiso village with a few members of GMC. GMC has been very instrumental from the first day of the disaster on March 11, 2011, in reaching out to the whole city. It soon became a popular place of community service, fellowship and networking (read the story about GMC - here). Mr. Suzuki lost most of his family due to the tsunami, and his home was completely washed away. But he didn't give up even after such tragedy and shock.

The third day of the disaster, on March 13, 2011, he became a group leader of the Usuiso shelter where he was evacuated to. The first food distribution from the city was only one onigiri (an onigiri is a rice ball, not enough for an adult) for 28 people in the shelter for a whole day. As a leader, he went through very hard times because he didn’t know to whom he should give the only onigiri

Onigiri, half a size of an adult's palm
Furthermore, he could not tell anyone that there was only one onigiri. Mr. Suzuki met a man at the shelter who had driven from Sendai all the way to the shelter. This is a distance of approximately 200 km. He was trying to find his father, whose house was destroyed by the tsunami. The man had not had anything to eat for several days because he could not find anything at the shops on his drive from his home. Mr Suzuki decided to give the one onigiri to this man, and told him to eat it in secret, hiding it from everyone.

The next day, there were only four onigiri. The situation made him very sad, and he no longer thought that he could continue in his role as a group leader. He asked another senior to take over his role, and quit as group leader.

Mr. Suzuki started visiting the community cafe run by GMC and started getting to know some of the volunteers and staff. He comes to the cafe in hopes of meeting his neighbors and friends with whom he completely lost touch because of the tsunami. For nearly 8 months, he could not return to Usuiso village because of painful memory. However, the day when I visited, he finally decided that he wanted to return to Usuiso with us for the first time because he felt better after friendly Christians prayed for him and were kind to him.

Mr Suzuki: The old people living in this neighbourhood used to get together in the community centre several times a day, around 6 am, 10 am, between 1 and 2 pm after lunch, and in the summertime after dinner as well.
Volunteer (woman’s voice): Since they could always meet each other, they did not exchange phone numbers.
Mr. Suzuki: We did not exchange our emails either, so now I still have no idea where they are.

Volunteer (woman’s voice): How do you feel about visiting here today?
Mr. Suzuki: I felt like I did not want to come.
Volunteer (woman’s voice): You came today although you did not want to, right?
Mr. Suzuki: I did not want to see this landscape…

Volunteer: You haven’t been back here for a long time, have you?
Mr. Suzuki: I have not been back here for a month. I just do not want to see this landscape.

For Mr. Suzuki, the loss of friends and neighborhood is even more devastating than the loss of his fishing boat and house.
At a department store in Iwaki Train Station

Many survivors suffer from trauma and economic loss, and more importantly they suffer from loss of their social fabric - family, friends, neighbors and their communities. 
Community centers and department stores offer spaces for people to connect and also allow nonprofit organizations to run their programs of providing disaster victims with opportunities to connect with others. 

Mr. and Mrs. Watanabe moved to Koriyama city soon after the disaster. They were helped by Grace Garden Chapel and I met with them in my visit last November - just a few days before I met Mr. Suzuki in Iwaki. I was visiting Koriyama in order to meet with them and a few other victims in order to hear their stories at the church. They arrived a bit earlier than the scheduled interview time and when I came out of the interview room with women from an earlier interview, they were very surprised. They burst into joy and laughter to find out their neighbors were alive after the disaster!   

Mr. Watanabe: Oh yes! You were an office worker in Kitamachimuki!
Woman (interviewee): You fixed the blinds for us. I didn’t recognize you by name.
Ms. Matsumoto (relief worker): When I asked you if you knew Motomu Watanabe, you told me it was difficult to recognize him by name.

Mr. Watanabe: Indeed, it is difficult to recognize just by name.
Woman (interviewee): When I saw your face, I recognized you.
Mr. Watanabe: It is a relief to see someone I know.
Woman (interviewee): Surely, it is.

Local church, restoring the fabric of community 

People often think relief work is about providing relief goods to individuals and families - physical resources. People underestimate, however, the power of connecting people and restoring relationship in that early stage of relief work. The restoration of social fabric is an important foundation for carrying out long term recovery work, and is a foundation the local church cannot afford to bypass. It can be done rather quietly like the way how it happened in Grace Garden Chapel above, or it can be done more intentionally like GMC's vision to rebuild Usuiso community. Pastor Ikarashi is passionate about the prophetic vision God gave him to serve this community by rebuilding economy, providing education and alternative energy so Usuiso can become a model community from which the rest of Japan will come and learn.
Ikarashi, showing the new community design

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