At the Caritas base in Yonekawa, a volunteer’s day is full. It starts with a short prayer in which anyone who wishes can join in. Michio was formerly a volunteer in Taizé; he is the coordinator of this headquarters. At the beginning, he reads a paragraph from the letter “Towards a new solidarity”. The prayer is very simple; each person is at ease and can feel welcome. Then comes breakfast, the preparation of the picnic for the mid day meal and the departure in minibus for the volunteers centre: a large tent, various conveniences and a small mobile clinic. It is led by people from Minamisanriku. The work is distributed according to what is most urgent. Then you depart for the various places where you work from 9 to 15.30. Then back to the base, evening meal and a time of sharing.
The first day, we were helping two fishermen to repair their nets, outside, near the sea. Sitting on crates, you cut the knots and the fisherman remakes the net. It was a bit like a retreat. From time to time you talk to your neighbour, and then you continue in silence, grasped by the beauty of the place. But when you turn your head, you can see the ravages of the earthquake and the tsunami: you cannot reject the one thing or the other, neither the beauty nor the disaster, you can only accept them. The following days, we worked at the “Wakame” (sea grass). This is the season for gathering the sea grass that form part of every meal in the families. There is no infrastructure and the workers are less numerous. One of the fishermen says, “If you were not there I don’t know what we would do.”
A couple invites us to share the meal in their tent. A wood fire warms up the atmosphere. Gradually they tell us how they have lost everything. They were not even able to save their 102 year old grandmother. He was out at sea. When he understood what was happening, he took his boat further out and he stayed there for three days, watching day and night to make sure that the wrecks of other boats did not come to destroy his. Later he found his wife who had been able to escape to the mountains.
We went along the coast to three different places. Since November, everything has been cleaned and put in order. But where the city was is now a concrete desert. The trees, affected by the salt water, have been cut. As you drive along, you see whole graveyards of cars, piles of tyres, tree trunks laid in order. Everywhere, there are people working: roads to be repaired and temporary bridges to be built. One of the major problems is the removal of the debris.
One day, the leader of the fishermen invited us for the celebration of Shishimai, or the dance of the lion. It is a traditional feast of the Miyagi and above all a Shinto celebration of purification, very important in Minamisanriku. Afterwards, after the meal, he spoke to us. You could feel that he was moved and grateful because, one year ago, the celebration did not take place. The large shed where we met was full of mud and rubbish. He said, “I would never have believed that today we would rediscover the joy of celebration.”
Michio: “There are so many people who have disappeared… those who died, we found them again. But there are also those who disappeared. The leader of the centre lost his wife, and until now they have never found her. Among the young people working here, some have lost someone close to them. That is why they are sad. Sometimes I would prefer not to go in, but I do go in, to talk with them and to be with them.”
Each week, Caritas visits the “temporary houses”. At the beginning, the victims lived in shelters, often large communal tents. The government has built mini-villages of prefabricated houses. One of these is a community centre where activities are held. This is where we met. Most of the people are elderly, who are now isolated, for the villages were built on ground far away from everything, without shops or anything. A group of volunteers and a sister propose various activities.
All of this is very demanding and it is important for the full time volunteers who stay for some time to be able to regain their strength. Near the headquarters, hidden in the forest, there is a grotto where in the XVII century the Christians came to receive the Eucharist celebrated by a priest who later was martyred. There is also a park in memory of the 300 martyrs of faith. Four centuries separate these Christians from the victims of 11 March 2011 but the courage and the dignity are the same. We made a way of the Cross as we went up the 300 steps that lead to a chapel. The pure sound of the bell rings out over the forest that surrounds this place of pilgrimage, like an invitation to follow the example of these men and women who gave their lives to witness to the love of Christ.
This emotionally charged week was also full of signs of gratitude of those who never stopped saying thank you: “You have come from so far to help us. If something happens in your place then we will come too.” Rooted in the morning prayer, carried by the given life of these Christians gathered to help the victims, we were enabled to live a communion between victims, volunteers of every horizon, of all ages, believers and non-believers, and to discover a joy that lets us imagine what a “new solidarity” could be.