A trip up north to the disaster area
I stand on the seawall overlooking the ocean, with hands clenched at my side, breathing in the bitterness of the salty air that usually brings such sweet memories. In past years I have walked down this seawall with friends in our swimming suits, laughing and enjoying each other's company. We rescued a lady from the water here, we would come and buy kakigori (snow cones) from the stands here, and I collected seashells all along this beach with my family. But not today. Today is different. Today I am in a staring match with the waves as they lap passively up onto the sand. How could you do this!? I want to scream. I feel like the mighty water, which I have spent the majority of my summers splashing around in, has betrayed me. I know I shouldn't be angry at the ocean for the indescribable scene of destruction that lies around me. And I'm not really angry at all. But what words can I use to describe what I feel and see? You know how sometimes there are too many words and not enough words and absolutely no words, all at the same time?
This weekend I went up to Miyagi and even further north to Kesenuma and Ishinomaki, where the tsunami hit the hardest, and I just got back. There have been so many clips in the news, so many pictures, and we have heard endless stories and accounts, but nothing could have prepared me for these sights of devastation. It's just too much to process in my head, much less try to communicate it all right now. I almost want to give up even trying to describe it, but then I remember the faces of the people I love in that coastal town of Shichigahama, the faces of those left homeless, who I saw shuffling through lines to collect a meal, and the faces of those I have never actually seen, but I have seen their soccer balls floating in a flooded landscape, walked on the bare foundations where their houses used to be, felt the sides of their cars, crushed like aluminum cans, and gazed upon their farmland, now heaped with debris. I will write for these people. My words are not the consolation of a house or a family member or a warm meal. What can I do? I will be working in these places throughout the Summer—clearing rubble, building houses, offering food, and talking to the people with the groups I lead, but that will barely scratch the surface of the relief that this area needs. If nothing else, I will be the storykeeper for them. Like the Giver was keeper of memories, and Langston Hughes was "dream keeper," I'll try to be their storykeeper. They at least deserve to have their stories be heard.
We drove up on bumpy roads, closing windows and any ventilation as we drove through Fukushima. Drivers drove uneasily through this area, even with masks over their faces out of fear of radiation. But I looked out the window and saw a little old lady out in her field bent over the plants, with determination-- Her plants that no one would want to buy. Arriving in Sendai took my breath away more than anything has previously. In Sendai, where our cabin is, the recycle store we love to shop at is crushed. There had been a truck sticking out of the second story. The houses of our neighbors are mere foundations. People are missing roofs and tiles and houses everywhere. The road has been cleared, but on one side lies miles of ground laid flat where civilisation used to be, scattered with rubble and debris. Cars are smashed in every way and piled in empty lots. Somehow our cabin overlooking the ocean still stands. Its really a miracle. The water came up to the windows and blew the door off and pretty far away. The basement area is muddy and everything was thrown around and pushed away, but my parents managed to salvage most things. The beach is covered in huge shipping containers, like big sturdy trucks busted open or half buried in the swirling sand and water. Houses have been lifted from one place and plopped down in a heap somewhere else. Telephone poles, sign posts, trees, and other poles are bent, twisted, and snapped. Yet there is still green life growing out of these ransacked areas. The sidewalk and road are cracked, rippled, and missing chunks. I was crying by the time our car got to the Saito's gas station, but there was so much more to take in.
In Ishinomaki, my mom told me that looking at the whole landscape laid waste was too overwhelming, and I should try to process it one piece of debris at a time. What do I focus on? One tiny baby shoe, half buried in mud? A pair of pants hanging on the front of half a fishing boat? Mattresses, refrigerators, car pieces, boxes, shelves, bicycles, pianos, dishes, and street signs strewn throughout the rice paddies like they were mere petals tossed from the basket of a flower girl? The Ishinomaki port town looks like the whole place was devoured, chewed, and vomited back up. I know—that's just kind of disgusting and weird, but that is essentially what the tsunami did to this once thriving town. There is a giant ship, as big as I've ever seen before, sitting on the ground where the tsunami tossed it like a ping-pong ball. It is surrounded by dozens of other boats and cars in various positions, many crumpled like pieces of paper. What sheer force could have done all this? The land is ominously flat in Ishinomaki. That's what made it harder for everyone to escape the oncoming water.
I know I'm just another person describing the mess. But don't just scan the words. Witness them. Experience this with me. Crawl with me through the heaps of rubble. Look down at your muddy feet and find a tiny speck of beauty—maybe a shard of painted pottery, a photo, or wooden figure—and wipe it off and set it up on top of one of the cracked, overturned boats. Maybe this small piece of beauty will cheer up a sorrowful digger through the hopeless piles of ruined life. Look with me at the peeling basketball floating in an abandoned rice paddy. What child owned this ball and played with it on these now wrecked streets? Who were his or her people? In the end, its the people that matter.
The CAJ volunteers fed hundreds of people at the evacuation shelter for those left homeless in Shichigahama. The people have been staying in tiny corners of the hallways and rooms of this city center or, if they get lucky, a family could get to stay in one of the make-shift shelters with 2 bed mats, no matter how many people there are in the family, like the Endo family, with their adorable baby Yuuki.
It was wonderful to catch up with Hiremasa san and the Endo family. We also made some new friends. I got asked out by Aizuma san, a 61-year-old homeless fish market worker. He wanted to go on a “jogging date” when he found out I liked running. But when he found out I also like soccer, he skooched his chair further away from me, just in case I decided to practice my kicking on him. I told him I had a big strong boyfriend nearby, so he better watch out. (I lied about the nearby part). What a funny, creepy guy. But he lost his home that he had just built a year and a half ago. Now he said he's starting to feel panicked about having no where to go. How can we help all the people with similar stories to this man? There were some friendly little old ladies, and a lot of families and people of all ages. I can't imagine being a teenager or small kid stuck with no where to go like so many in that place, but at least they were getting food and shelter.
This trip has given me a heart heavy with debris, and perhaps confused and grieved me even more than I was before. But even as I process what I saw, I know that God is in those places of suffering. And the Good News of God's justice and faithfulness will always be Good. No matter where we are, in whatever predicament, in whatever age, he is Good. I now have a burning passion, more than ever, to help these people. I want God to use me in the best way possible as his instrument. I feel heavily pressed, but not quite crushed. I'm perplexed, but not quite in despair, though some people are, and I want to help lift them out. We shouldn't be paralyzed by the endless piles of debris, nor should we remain grieving over the tiny shoes in the mud, but should fix our eyes on things unseen. It's not always easy to gain that perspective, but there is hope. I have seen that progress has already been made, and the sun will rise on Japan's darkness, and beyond that, our Son has already risen. He has already overcome the world and all the troubles within it. Right now, it is hard to focus on the big picture, but I now know more than before: who and what I am fighting for. Please, please pray with me for this land and the work that is happening to restore it. And for the people. Nihon ganbarou!