As recovery efforts in Japan proceed, the full impact of the earthquake and tsunami two weeks ago continues to be felt by many churches that are providing disaster relief while grieving lost members and buildings. At the same time, prayers, letters of solidarity and donations are coming in from the ecumenical community in Asia as well as around the world.
A magnitude-9 earthquake and subsequent tsunami on March 11 hit the northeastern coast of Japan, devastating towns and farms. More than 9700 people have been killed and more than 16,500 remain missing, according to police. Officials are monitoring radiation leakage from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, crippled by the disaster.
In a letter sent on March 23 to churches in Japan, the Rev. Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), expressed the "dismay and sorrow" of the worldwide church community. Speaking for the 349 WCC member churches Tveit said, "We pray for God's grace and divine protection for those who are risking their own lives in order to save others."
The tragedy has also brought together WCC member churches in Japan as they respond jointly to the needs in the disaster area, said the Rev. Dong Sung Kim, responsible for regional relations with Asia at the WCC. "The show of support from churches in Asia as well as Europe and around the world is also part of what it means to be the ecumenical community," Kim said, according to the WCC.
In a report on March 24 from Teruki Takada, staff member of the Commission on Ecumenical Ministries for the United Church of Christ in Japan (Kyodan), it was said that some churches in Japan still have members missing, others are hosting refugees and in one case a group of pastors was part of an emotional reunion.
Some churches remain damaged by the tsunami, while in others cleanup has begun, according to Mr Takada's report. Some churches continue to live with uncertainty. In the Sendai Kita 3-Bancho Church, seven members are still missing. Another five church members are missing in the Sendai Itsutsubashi Church.
Even with this uncertainty, churches are finding ways to reach out to those in need.
The Sendai Higashi Church has hosted 15 refugees. The Sendai Minami Church has hosted 13 refugees while the Miyagino Aisen Church hosted another 16. In one situation, four pastors from the United Church of Christ in Japan (UCCJ) were able to assist a survivor who spent a snowy night on the roof of a three-story building. The Kyodan team of pastors was able to give the man a ride to the coastal area of Sendai City where he was reunited with his co-workers.
ACT Alliance, a Geneva-based global church emergency and development organization, said that the situation in the disaster zone remains "chaotic and confusing as the extent of the loss and damage is so vast." However, ACT Alliance is coordinating with its members working in the country and has offered to send a team of emergency specialists should the churches in Japan request it.
ACT Alliance said Lutheran groups have formed a joint emergency response team incorporating the Japan Evangelical Lutheran Church, Kinki Evangelical Lutheran Church, Japan Lutheran Church and the West Japan Evangelical Lutheran Church. The team will include office and field personnel and will coordinate closely with the National Council of Churches in Japan (NCCJ). Currently the groups are supporting through two partner organisations: Plan Japan and Shaplaneer.
Another ACT Alliance member, Church World Service, is providing emergency relief to some 25,000 people now living at 100 evacuation sites in northeastern Japan. They are focusing on areas where basic needs of food, water, sanitation, electricity and fuel are not being met and are working with a coalition of 32 Japanese agencies who know best where resources are needed, ACT Alliance said.
The impact of the disaster is hitting elderly people particularly hard, said the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) through its Lutheran World Information service. About 25 percent of Japan's population is over the age of 65, but the percentage is higher in the northeast as young people have left for jobs in the urban south. About 400,000 people have been left homeless by the disaster and police report that many elderly are at shelters.
Lutherans, including Japan Evangelical Lutheran Church (JELC), Kinki Evangelical Lutheran Church and Japan Lutheran Church, all member churches of LWF, as well as West Japan Evangelical Lutheran Church, have set up the joint emergency task force Japan Lutheran Emergency Relief to coordinate their response in the wake of the disaster. The LWF member churches there have also joined Anglicans and the bigger Roman Catholic Church in relief efforts.
JELC pastor Suguru Matsuki pointed out that congregation members had donated 5,000kg of rice and 10,000 meals of instant noodles and various canned foods. Church workers from the Ichigaya emergency center noted that four people had left for the coastal area of Sendai to assess needs, said Lutheran World Information.
On March 18 the Catholic Bishop of Sendai, Monsignor Martin Hiraga, and other bishops opened a centre in Sendai to serve the areas affected by the tsunami. They noted that many shelters were without water, electricity, fuel or medicine, causing physical and mental distress for the displaced.