Friday, June 07, 2013

Issho ni Arukou

A solitary utility pole stands almost as a monument to the massive disaster amongst the rubble of the old sea wall. Off in the distance, a new levee system is being erected. The new levees, mandated to be 7 meters high, are in themselves an ironic testimony to nature’s ultimate upper hand: the tsunami rose to a terrifying 19 meters in some places.
Reflecting on our trip today to Shinchi, a small fishing and agricultural community on the coast south of Sendai, brings me to a series of fateful declarative statements that might read like newspaper headlines. The March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami killed 116 of Shinchi’s 8,000 residents. Entire neighborhoods were washed away. Fishermen lost their livelihoods in a matter of seconds, farmers forever their fields. Concrete bridges were carried hundreds of meters, flipped over, and laid to rest where children once slept. For the fishermen who wisely took their boats out to sea to protect them, their shrewdness was rewarded only with the Fukushima Daichi nuclear disaster, which contaminated and collapsed the local fishing industry indefinitely. A boat not fishing is as good as no boat at all. Farmers face fields not only poisoned by sea salt, debris, and sand from the tsunami, but potentially too radioactive to plant. If this together isn’t sobering enough, Shinchi is only one example – a tiny snapshot even – of the devastation that consumed hundreds of square miles of agricultural land, homes, and even entire towns and villages along the coast of the Fukushima and Miyagi Prefectures.

St. John’s collapsed during its demolition, roof to foundation. Too heavily damaged in the quake to be salvaged, it still provided emergency shelter for 13 residents of the neighborhood in the cold aftermath of the tsunami. It soon became a pilgrimage site for the whole of the Anglican Communion to remember the terrible disaster that befell so many.
The local Nippon Sei Ko Kai parish of St. John’s, Isoyama, was damaged beyond repair. Less than a kilometer away, two parishioners died when the tsunami descended from over the small coastal mountain behind their traditional Japanese inn, leaving only the barest of foundations in its wake. At the same time, their daughter, also a member of St. John’s, was desperately laboring to keep her kindergarten students above the rising waters in Yamamoto-cho to the north as their bus was caught in the onslaught. First, they climbed onto the roof of the bus, then onto the second story of their school. When all was over, 7 of the 50 children had drowned, and 4 would later succumb to hypothermia along with their teacher, Junko-sensei, who had given everything so that as many precious lives as possible would survive.

Hiroshi Matsumoto, our guide today, showed us up the little mountain to the shrine where residents of Shinchi fled and watched their livelihoods and homes disappear into the sea. The water rose almost literally to their feet before it receded.

Daniel feeds chickens kept for their eggs by volunteers and local residents at the Issho ni Arukou Project Center.

The Church, with funding from across the Anglican Communion, including aid from Episcopal Relief and Development, responded to the disaster with the Issho ni Arukou Project, setting up temporary shelters as a volunteer center in a little cluster at the edge of the tsunami destruction zone. With staff-in-residence, they offered community to the lost and destitute while governmental agencies began to lead the cleanup and build temporary housing. Even after recovering shelter and basic necessities, residents of Shinchi returned to Issho ni Arukou to raise chickens for eggs and make handcrafts to sell for community relief and rebuilding efforts: anything to feel productive for the community as a whole while the individual livelihoods of many remained uncertain.
A local artist offered his studio for Sunday worship to St. John’s, Isoyama. They are ultimately planning to rebuild on the site of the old church building, providing not only a new sanctuary for Christians, but a coffee shop, memorial garden, and community center for all of Shinchi. Stained glass from the original building has been stored away nearby to await its new home. The rice fields that St. John’s once overviewed will ultimately become part solar farm, part recreational area. Residents are rebuilding now on higher ground while dozens of workers erect a whole new levee system for the next time the sea and the earth shift. Meanwhile, rice field by rice field is reclaimed with the painstaking removal of contamination and the importation of new topsoil.
Pinwheels bear witness to the dead in a little memorial garden at the original Fuji Kindergarten site.
And Junko-sensei’s devotion seems to have crossed the boundary from death into new life. When the community weighed whether or not Fuji Kindergarten should continue on as an organization, people said they felt guided by Junko’s witness to give the sake of the surviving children highest priority. Fuji Kindergarten now gathers in a new building while the original building is kept as a memorial for tender, brave souls, still scarred by a death-dealing, imagination defying natural disaster. The entrance is now ordained with thousands of paper cranes, a visitor book, and flowers. A small memorial garden, tended each day by the principal, includes 13 pinwheels for the 11 children who died in the tsunami, Junko-sensei, and a student who died in a car accident a year after the quake. Junko-sensei’s husband was baptized three months after her death, and their four children carry the family legacy forward in faith.

On the way back to Sendai, Shintaro and I discussed the uncomfortable implications of preaching on Sunday’s readings in the context of such devastation. How could we preach on the raising up of the sons of the widows of Zarapheth and Nain when children known and loved today will not rise again in this life? Maybe the response of the Body of Christ to the Japan earthquake and tsunami provides at least a partial answer. The restoration of the sons of the widows restored their mothers to life in community, ensuring them connection and hope for the future. The Church in Shinchi and throughout Tohoku has been doing precisely that — restoring one person, one family at a time to community and hope for the future with the Issho ni Arukou Project:

It simply means “Let us walk together.”

Matsumoto-san shows the water line in a storage shed on the original Fuji Kindergarten property. Almost two-thirds of the student body were picked up by their parents between the earthquake and the arrival of the tsunami. The remainder were loaded into buses, but couldn’t pull away from the school before the water struck.
The remains of the Shinchi Japan Rail Station are marked only by a foundation and a no trespassing sign. The tsunami ripped up the rails, littered the landscape with train cars, and demolished the wooden terminal. A more robustly built water treatment plant in the background survived.
The view from the shrine overlooking the residential neighborhood wiped out by the tsunami. Residents who fled here watched the water reach almost to their feet before it receded.
Foundations are all that remain in this residential neighborhood. The concrete slab in the center of the photo is not a foundation, but a bridge that was lifted, flipped, and carried nearly a hundred meters from its crossing over a canal to the wharf.
With volunteers and residential staff of the Issho ni Arukou Project in Shinchi.
Our host, The Rev. Shintaro David Ichihara (L) and Daniel look on while Hiroshi Matsumoto shows before and after aerial pictures of Shinchi.

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