Thanks so much for your prayers and encouragement this past month while I spent a week working in northeast Japan. It was a challenging trip and much shorter than I expected! Now that I have had a few days to begin to collect my thoughts, I will share some words and pictures with you.
Most of the time was in Ishinomaki, a city of 160,000 with one of the largest damages of the northeast coastline: roughly 5000 dead or missing and 20,000 in shelters. My brother Luke drove Yoko Sugimoto and I there from Tokyo the day after my arrival on April 1. (Yoko is a wonderful, compassionate lady who lives in Texas and carries a nursing license from Japan and the US—very useful).
Yoko-san and I started in Ishinomaki with the Red Cross , serving at Watanoha elementary school shelter. The clinic on the first floor primarily served an ambulatory population with acute and chronic concerns. Yoko and I went around on the 2nd and 3rd floor of the school as well as in the gymnasium to see any who were too weak or depressed to go to the clinic. Most of the people did not wish to complain and sometimes it took a good number of direct questions to get out what illnesses they were suffering. Yoko patiently translated my broken medical communication into a language people could understand and we had opportunities to converse without time pressures. Regarding resources, while the medicines I had brought were not accepted by the Japanese Red Cross, access to medicines was decent and most medications could be obtained within a week for chronic conditions.
Medical teams preparing for clinic
As the medical situation seemed relatively stabilizing in Ishinomaki, I left after the 2nd day to see if there were needs further south while Yoko-san stayed to keep helping the Red Cross. I gladly accepted Luke’s invitation to return to Ishinomaki to help the Takahashi family clean out their tsunami-soaked store after learning from contacts south of Watari in Souma that there was not urgent medical needs in that region. Luke had been walking and praying the day before, asking the Lord to lead him to someone in need of His love... Shun Takahashi (the father) then rode up on his bike and greeted Luke in English, thanking him for what he was doing. They then struck up a conversation and are now friends and still working together!
Help with providing resources for the task of cleaning up had been provided by several organizations including Samaritan’s Purse. They have been in Sendai since very early in the aftermath, and an incredible supply resource for churches and Christians wanting to reach out materially to their neighbors in need. From basic hygiene kits, soap to tarps and then transitioning to “muck out” products—wheel barrows, shovels, brushes. . . they were even providing bicycles to help people with transportation in their neighborhoods. We took some of their supplies with us to Ishinomaki for the store cleanup.
Like so many others others, the Takahashi’s accepted their need to manage the mess/destruction in stride, but were also apprehensive about the future months after the assistance might dry up. Food, they said, was easy to obtain; their businesses and livelihood would not be. Luke and others are hoping to remain committed to them as a family and community.
With that in mind, we returned the next day with Joey, Taku and Dad with even more supplies for the neighborhood and were able to put a bigger dent in the store’s cleanup. Dad, the relentless one-man cleanup machine, was an amazing member of the team. The Takahashi’s generously provided us with meals and shared their survival stories. Shun especially opened up and shared his thoughts and concerns.
We spent much time talking and sharing. And at the end of the day, we left each other enriched by our time together and more hopeful for the future. This was personal ministry. Sharing Christ in word and deed. Explaining the reasons for our hope while shoveling dirt out of store floors. While I know there were opportunities that I missed to embody Gospel living during the trip, I am grateful for the ones I did take.
The last day in the Miyagi Prefecture, Dad, Yoko-san (rejoining us the night before in Ishinomaki) and I drove south of Watari to another hinanjyo (shelter) to provide supplies requested. While our contact was nowhere to be found, we were able to leave the food and other items at Pastor Hayashi’s home return to Sendai in time to visit Hisako-san (a friend of Mom’s) in the hospital. That you can pray for her, let me share with you her story. Hisako-san has been a friend of Mum’s for over 15 years and was scheduled for a partial gastrectomy the following day for stomach cancer. The surgery had been originally scheduled for March 12 but the earthquake and tsunami affected the hospital she was supposed to have been at. She is wrestling with God as an all powerful and personal Lord, and is yet to believe Him as the one who can redeem our wrongs. We were able to share, listen and pray with her about her upcoming surgery and it was an especially encouraging time for me to hear Dad speak about the assurance Christ gives us through our fears.
Unable to sleep in my chair on the flight back to the States, I was taken to, as Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said, the borderlands between Medicine and the Church. Let me explain: in the first years of medical school, I was taught the importance of treating the “whole person…” but the Church and religion was compartmentalized into another department of medicine. If medicine couldn’t fix the person, then perhaps giving them a little dose of spirituality couldn’t hurt. The paradigm still remains in medicine “treat the mind and body.” Medicine will always come up short in healing the whole person, however, because the care of souls is beyond its purview. I’d even suggest that only Christianity can care for the “whole person.” I could ramble on, but I’ll leave this with the apostle Luke’s recounting of ten lepers to illustrate (also reflected on by Lloyd-Jones in a booklet my mother-in-law gave me over Christmas). In Luke 17, we read of 10 lepers who are quarantined to the outskirts of society because of their disease. They cry out to Jesus to heal them, and he does. Yet, only the Samaritan foreigner among them grasps the significance of the miracle and returns to praise Jesus. The Samaritan is the only one actually understanding that Jesus gave him more than just a return to health and participation in society. By being reconciled to a right relationship with God, he is made whole. Like the other nine, many patients, and many of the Japanese I spoke with, desire healing in a way that would re-establishes them to society, to normalcy, to routine. There is nothing wrong with that. But there is an even greater desire we ought to pray for! The immediate needs of healing physical illnesses or tsunami-ravaged lives should not obscure our ultimate need for restoration to a right relationship to God.
We need to bow before God as our Maker, the one who forgives us and heals our brokenness completely. It is a gift to care for so many who suffer, but humanitarianism and medicine will never ultimately address our relationship with God... and that is, more than anything else, what needs restoration.
Please continue to pray for Japan. Pray for the Takahashi’s; pray for their neighborhood; pray for the Watanoha refugees; pray for those who are sick; pray for the health of those who care for those who are in need; but pray for something greater than cures for sicknesses or restoration of ravaged neighborhoods. Pray for their hearts. Pray for my heart and yours. We need a right relationship with God. We need to worship our Maker: Love who walked among us; who suffered our sins so we could be restored to wholeness. Please pray. Even if just this once. God listens as we come to him in worship.
PS, apologies for the Christian jargon.