Fukushima First Baptist Church Post Nuclear Melt-down
Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to go to a conference on the post-tsunami church in Japan hosted by an organization called Churches Helping Churches. It was sad to once again hear about how my home country had been hit so hard, but in this context I was more inspired then discouraged. Pastor Akira Sato, Takeshi Takazawa, and Tom Kim were all gracious and encouraging speakers. The highlight for me was having a live video feed of Pastor Sato's Fukushima First Baptist church congregation members on the screen and being able to pray for them by name as they prayed for us. What an image of the united global church.
Mr. Kim began the evening by talking about Churches Helping Churches and showing a video from the work they were doing in Haiti. 26 churches in Haiti, who were in the process of recovering from the disaster in January of last year, collected an offering for the church in Japan after the earthquake. When he saw this, Tom was moved by the compassion of those who had so little to begin with and had the revelation that “our strength is not in our money. It is in the unity of the body of Christ.” As the relief and supplies came from all over the world to Haiti, Tom wondered why the church was not getting the support it needed. “It is the responsibility of churches to help other churches,” he said. That is how Churches Helping Churches (and Churches Helping Pastors) has been able to make an impact in global Christianity.
After Tom spoke, Akira Sato, pastor of the four branches of Fukushima 1st Baptist Church that were evacuated and scattered after the disaster, came to share his story and vision. Sato feels he was called “for such a time as this.” His wife had a dream many years earlier depicting the evacuation of their church. On March 11, coincidentally the birthday of pastor Sato, his congregation was indeed evacuated along with 70,000 others near the Fukushima First Nuclear Plant. Sato wrote a book called Rurou no Kyokai or Exodus Church chronicling the journey his congregation, or what is left of it, has made since that day. It is currently the best selling Christian book in Japan. “I never imagined this drama would happen to us,” said Sato about the trauma, “Even today I sometimes believe it is just a bad dream. We lost our families, church, and home.” But Sato still remains a warrior of faith, like a modern reflection of the heroes in Hebrews11. “I thought my church died that day, but it did not,” he said “We lost four chapels and multiple organizations, but the church remains. And we don't need to worry because the church is our home. We lost many visible things, but we discovered the invisible power of Christ.”
Sato firmly believes that his congregation has grown and learned much through this disaster and has much to teach to Christians around the world. Through this test of perseverance they have met with God. Some say nature must run its course. Some say God judges people through nature. Sato Sensei says that whatever the cause of this natural disaster, it is events like these that make it more clear to him that all creatures need the redemption of the Christ Jesus that Romans 8 talks about. “I want that Jesus to come stand in our homeland and command the waters to be still and the earth not to shake. What I want even more than that is for that Jesus to come and touch each of us now and say 'Do not be afraid.'”
The Fukushima First Baptist congregation, along with thousands of believers and non-believers in Japan still face many afflictions. They face the stigma that people do not want to interact with them for fear of radiation. They have learned to live with very little and take joy in small things like a real bed, a warm shower, and the provision of food and supplies. The disaster pushed Sato and his congregation to set their priorities straight and depend on God alone.
Three walls were broken through the course of this disaster. The wall between the church and the community around it, the wall between the church and a nation hardened against Christianity, and the wall between Japan and the rest of the world. People in Japan have been so touched by the encouragement and volunteers from all over the world who have heard their cries for help. I myself have seen Japanese people break down crying, (something not often seen in Japanese culture) at the realization that people around the world are not ignoring or forgetting about their troubles. Pastor Sato also was moved by the compassion he experienced and said “Who are we that we are so cared for? We are just simple people that lost everything. We lost everything, but we received many things. And we are happy.”
What does this mean for the future of the church? Sato's ambition is to build a new church building in Fukushima, along with an apartment complex for people to live in. It is not an easy undertaking, but “I will try again and again and again” he says, “and I will build another church. The people, especially the old and weak, have no home, so I will build an apartment building for them. We Don't have the money yet, but I have faith that with God's help, we can finish it all by March.” Sato said “I want to thank the global church and testify that God is real in the midst of all the suffering.”
The faith of this man and his congregation were inspiring to me, and this story gave me a picture of the global church as one united body. The church goes through so much suffering in every nation of the world. Rather than simply hearing these stories in isolation, I think we should receive them as what they truly are, wounds to our own body. The members of Fukushima First Baptist with weary smiles beaming at us from the screen during the conference are not simply characters in a traumatic tail or victims of a far-away disaster. They are my brothers and sisters. We may never understand the full extent of how connected the global church is or should be, but the connection is there and must not be ignored.
The tsunami ripped through villages and exiled congregations, but the church in Japan remains strong. Perhaps it is true what pastor Sato said: The walls around the church have been torn down a little. The people are turning their gaze, searching for a sign of hope. They see the compassion of Christian volunteers, friends, and missions and are so thankful. I believe that something beautiful and mighty is about to rise up from the tangled debris of this disaster. The time is now for Christianity to sweep through Japan, for individuals of faith to rise up and inspire their communities by the power of the Spirit, and for Jesus Christ to heal the bleeding hearts of the people.