Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Community of Easter Hope (3): Wholistic Discipleship in Service

When I first accepted the invitation from Food for the Hungry Canada to go to Fukushima last April, one of the few things that I was most curious about was how local churches would train and sustain relief workers. Having done HR work during the tsunami in Southeast Asia 7 years ago, I could sense the daunting challenge that was laid upon small local churches in Japan. I had seen some cases of serious burnout, ill-equipped volunteers struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder and so on. Tens of thousands of volunteers flew in from all over the world to help Japan, and young and old people from all over Japan also marched in to help the disaster hit Tohoku area, though Fukushima received a much lower level of attention from abroad than the other prefectures because of the nuclear crisis. I was amazed at the scale of volunteerism mobilized for the Japan disaster. We are indeed operating in an age of people-power. Many churches coordinated to channel thousands of volunteers to serve their communities.

Grace Garden Chapel in Koriyama was a bit of exception in this. Their Life Support Program already had a limited number of evacuee families that they had decided to serve after a careful survey and relationship building at the evacuation shelters in the early days after the disaster. They turned their church members into volunteer relief workers to serve the community actively rather than living in fear and anxiety as victims. Rie Matsumoto is one of the staff who has been going out to various temporary housing blocks all over Fukushima to meet evacuees and to listen and find their needs so that the service provided by the Life Support Program would actually meet their actual needs at the right time. Midori and I met her for dinner in my previous trip in March and she testified to us how she's been growing in faith through her relief work. Her father was recently hospitalized after a serious car accident and she shared with me and Midori about how God reached her in the midst of her own problems.

Too tired to listen to the problems of others any more...
When I am so down and trapped by my own problems, I feel 'I ma not the right person to help others.' so I lose my joy and I feel like I cannot stand up on my own. I've been too discouraged to do anything lately. 

There was an elderly couple whom I was closed to [among evacuee families in her work] and they were really stressed because of this earthquake and they got ill from the stress. I was hesitant to contact them, thinking that I might disturb them. However, they contacted the church to find out about me and asked the pastor how I was doing because I was suffering from asthma [at that time]. My pastor told me about the phone call later and asked me to call them back. I was too down and stressed to phone them because I wondered if I had any strength left to listen to someone else's problem any more. For one hour I held the phone indecisively. 

God restored my joy!
I finally called the couple. They really poured out their anxiety and fear about the future and their problems. They complained about their neighbors, relationships going sour and so on. At the beginning, I thought I couldn't take this any more, but I continued to listen.... Then I noticed somehow joy started flowing again in my own heart. It wasn't a happy thing to listen to someone's problems. I realized my attitude was changing and I could listen to the elderly couple with full empathy. Then the couple said that they would not need any material help, but they would like to continue to talk with me.

After the phone call, I started wondering. What really happen over that phone call just now? I didn't really solve any problems, or said anything but only listened to their issues. But I realized it was obedience to respond to God's call. The things I listened to were not exciting things but gloomy and negative stuff, but God restored a joy in my heart as I was listening.

We gladly chose to stay.

Pastor Toyomi Sanga co-leads Grace Garden Chapel with her husband. She disciples Rie and other staff in their ministry to evacuee families, day in day out. They cry together and they laugh together. They are growing in discipleship together in God's family. She trains and encourages her church members in relief work so the church can be friends, neighbors, leaders and whatever the community need them to be. As she spoke in front of camera for me, one last time (!), her words ring so true to me: "We can't live in disaster mode. We need to move on because God chose us to stay here and we gladly chose to stay!" 

(This interview was done on March 14, 2012)

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