In the coastal area an hour and a half’s drive by bus from Sendai there is a young man who has just spent a year in Taizé as a volunteer. He is now working with Caritas Japan. The different churches have set up centres where the volunteers live and from where they set out for the places where they work. These centres are often in places on the edge of a disaster area where they have found a house or premises where they can welcome young people and adults who have come to help. The churches and NGOs make themselves available to the municipalities who distribute the work according to the priorities.
Michio is now the coordinator of the centre where he lives at Yonekawa. There are three people full time as well as volunteers who come for a week or for ten days. When you realise how short vacations are in Japan and some of them come from the other end of country in order to offer their help. He said, “The year I spent in Taizé prepared me to live this, for every day you have to welcome new people and see others leaving; each day you have to re-explain the work, think of the accommodation, the meals, our life together, give them an opportunity to share what they have done, the joys and the difficulties.
Every morning there is a prayer…. A prayer as it is lived in Taizé. It was started by a seminarian and our volunteer took over from him. It is so moving to come together at 6:30 in the morning in a cold church, and to pray with three or four people (most of the volunteers are not Christians), before “the icon of friendship” brought back from the Manila Meeting in 2010. Next comes a substantial hot breakfast before the volunteers, wrapped up against the cold, set off in the truck.
In order to visit several places, we set off by car for areas affected by the tsunami. It took more or less thirty minutes. You go through woods, real countryside, the weather is marvellous and then a sign board announces “beginning of the zone affected by the tsunami” and suddenly everything changes. My companion comments on what we can see: Trees that are dying because of the salt, the railway tracks along the valley are broken, a bridge that has collapsed. All along the coast, the water tried to surge in wherever it could and the valleys were filled with water to a depth of 20 metres and more, and that goes on for kilometres. Then we come to what had been a town. Now it is like an enormous wasteland that goes on for kilometres, like a city that has been razed by bombardment, whereas it is the earth and water that have swept everything away: you can still see a car on the roof of a gutted building.
“Do you see this building?” “It is from there that the young woman who was responsible for announcing to the city the arrival of the tsunami was unable to escape. She had to fulfil her duty to make the announcement, and she was carried away by the waves.” Here, there are the remains of a primary school where children died, there, a hospital where elderly people were not strong enough to go up to the floor above. And bodies are still being found. Sometimes it is the young volunteers who discover them. This is not an easy thing to do but they know that it is important for the families. For the volunteers, there are several work sites: sorting everything that was destroyed: wood, metal, every day objects, and this creates mountains of cars and other waste…
Another work place is close to fishermen who have lost absolutely everything. People in Hokkaido have sent nets but the methods of fishing and the kind of fish are very different. So the mesh has to be undone and smaller ones made. You read in the press that the work of cleaning up is going very slowly. But you have to see what has already been done: it is enormous. We went to Minamisanriku and it is completely clean, everything had been cleared.
And there are initiatives of all kinds: at the beginning, the volunteers went to the temporary housing to wash the feet of the elderly; in March it is still cold and this was a way to bring a little comfort. And there are parishes from other parts of Japan who come to give concerts and entertainments for children. I was astonished to see cosmos growing everywhere. It seems that one of the volunteers has sown cosmos seeds and they are now in flower in the rubble: patches of orange against the grey of the concrete. The earth continues to shake. The children in school are terrified; afraid that everything will start all over again.
Next we set off for Ishinomaki; after Sendai, it is the largest city of the prefecture of Miyagi. There was a small group of us, from different traditions; we have been friends for years. We visited and sang in several churches. At the Catholic Church, the priest sat down and would have liked the singing to go on without stopping. At the Kyodan Church (United Church), the pastor told in detail all that had happened and how it happened. In the evening, we went to pray at the home of Naomi. She too spoke of the need to talk, and to tell again the same events. She is a librarian at the university; from the upper floors, she saw the waves carrying away cars and boats… It took her ten days to return to her home; there was no electricity but the house was intact whereas the neighbours had been struck. At 14.46 on the 11th of each month, wherever they are, the people come together to observe a minute of silence.
Like us, they speak of the solidarity that arises between neighbours who do not know one another. They express their gratitude towards, among others, a parish in Berlin that was the first to offer help. During the first weeks after the tsunami, at the end of the day, some of the elderly people stood at the entrance to some of the devastated areas. They carried signs saying “Thank you for helping us”, intended for the volunteers returning to their centres for the night.
Another city badly affected is Kamaishi. The volunteers working there had requested a visit. The three volunteers from the Catholic, Anglican and Kyodan centres came together at Caritas for the mid day meal. They know one another well and all work there; but they had never had a meal together. Afterwards, the young pastor took us to his church and from there we went to the places affected by the disaster. In the evening, everyone came together at the Anglican hall; in the midst of material that had been collected and clothes waiting to be distributed we had a beautiful prayer. Then it was time for us to take the night bus to Tokyo. Some of the volunteers had travelled three hours to get to the prayer, before returning during the night to their accommodation.
Time to rest and discover something beautiful...
Kimiko writes: In Sendai, a brother from Taizé led an overnight retreat at the Emmaus Centre, which has helped in the reconstruction of tsunami affected areas for the past eight months. Some forty people participated. Most of them have been involved with relief work in one way or another. Seeing so much that has to be done in the disaster areas every day, volunteers and staff are prone to put their own emotional and spiritual needs last, in order to make it through the day. After eight months of continuous distress, people’s hearts can be filled up with suffering, sorrow, distrust, disunity, weariness, confusion and concerns... There are some who, through making themselves very busy, try to keep within themselves the deep sorrow of losing their loved ones.
During the retreat, we tried to hand over all of these to God. The prayers and sharing gave us time to reflect on what is most essential in our life and to discover the beauty around us, which we may have missed. I felt that above all else, we all needed such a time. Not only in Sendai but elsewhere as well, many people connected with Taizé have played a role in the reconstruction of affected areas, including Kamaishi, Ishinomaki, Minami-Sanriku and Yonekawa. We prayed for their activities.
A prayer in solidarity made us one
In Kobe, more than 370 people from various denominations gathered to pray together for the affected areas. Kobe itself experienced the Great Earthquake in 1995 and people there have strong sympathy for the victims of the disaster areas.
Gathered from various different churches, we prayed together in solidarity with people in the disaster areas with intercessions made by five different denominations. I felt that by looking together toward these vulnerable people the prayer made us one and the Holy Spirit filled each of us with serene joy. The prayer filled us with renewed strength to accompany people in the affected areas in reconciliation and unity. “How good, how delightful it is to live as brothers all together!”