Japan: Punching above their weight

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Traveling the north east coast of Japan, walking the devastated areas washed into rubble by a mighty tsunami is overwhelming.  The physical trauma caused by the earthquake and 50 foot high waves was unimaginable - 15,000 deaths and 5,000 still missing. Areas now contaminated by radiation might be unused for decades. Land sunken by the land shift is vulnerable to flooding with each tide (actually it was the earthquake that caused the land to sink.) People from the Fukushima area, the location of the nuclear reactor, are treated as lepers. Products sold from that area are treated with suspicion.  People live in fear.

In the middle of these sad and hopeless communities, Christians have set out to do what most would never have believed they could do. They were considered too small of a community to do much.

As I watched people working to bring hope to hopeless times and places, I was reminded of the phrase “punching above their weight” when boxers take on opponents in a heavier weight class.

Christians have done what was not expected of them.  Just hours after March 11th, a small organization called CRASH Japan (Christian, Relief, Assistance, Support & Hope Japan) sprang into action to help with the disaster.  In the earlier chaos of people, money and resources pouring in, nothing happened unless it was coordinated.  In collaboration with the Japan Evangelical Association (JEA; www.jeanet.org), CRASH Japan brought together people from all streams of Christian life. Seasoned missionaries dropped what they were doing and joined.   Over 1700 people from Japan and around the world volunteered their time to bring help and hope.  Many Japanese Christians set aside their work and moved into the five CRASH Japan base camps set in the north east to save lives. Many denominations and church groups as well as various mission organizations launched relief teams to disaster areas.

Seven months later, Lily and I spent a week with the JEA leadership, General Secretary Rev Kenichi Shinagawa, Mark McLeod and leaders of CRASH (www.crashjapan.com). We met pastors, Christian aid workers, and young people from around the world as they transition into the next phase of relief development.  With winter looming, people are in resettlement camps. Machines continue to clean up the carnage. Life is trying to get back to normal. But this is Japan where family and community are everything. Now separated from friends and brutally separated by death, many are lonely and completely unprepared to face a winter without family.

CRASH Japan and other Christian relief operations, have moved into a new phase - providing emotional aftercare. While the machines do their work, Christians are now giving focus to the soft underbelly of human trauma, people living alone without hope. Here the potential suicide rate (which is already high in Japan) could spike this year if people are not reached in time.

A pastor shared what a local Japanese of a different faith observed, “I’ve watched you Christians. When people from other faiths arrived, they worked to clean up their own places of worship and help their own people, but you Christians help anyone. You didn’t just stay with your own. And I’ve noticed now that most of the others have left, you Christians are still living and working among us.”

Japan, one of the most difficult countries in the world to reach for the Gospel, is a curious mixture of intensely focused family and community lifestyle with a high regard for ancestors.  From the ways Christianity was introduced in past, many Japanese are wary of the Christian message.

But three forces have conspired to change this marvelous nation and people. The shock of the earthquake and subsequent disaster of the tsunami has upset the status quo, placing pressure on an already weak economy.  The second is the manifest spiritual darkness that is evident when souls are trying to find meaning or value. The third is a shift in Christian and church leadership. A younger set of leaders are stepping forward.  The paradigm of small and cell-like congregations are breaking into new models, especially in urban areas where ancestral worship is more remote and distant.

Yet the work is not done, there are three requests.  Continue to pray.  The work needs the power of the Spirit to break the strongholds that keep Christ from being known. Second, send your best young people for more than 30 days where possible, preferably 30 years to build into the culture, language and people, to bring a new paradigm of church growth and help in a renewal for Japan.  Third, continue to invest. Yes the currency makes it expensive. Yes the work has been slow. But these past seven months, we give thanks to God for the Christian community who have demonstrated a powerful witness of love and care for those in need.  The ripple effect of this witness will be visible in the coming years.  Soil has been prepared.  Seeds have found a hospitable place to take root.  With careful nurture, we pray for a great harvest assured by the Father.

Hurray to those who punched above your weight.

Brian C Stiller
Global Ambassador
The World Evangelical Alliance
November, 2011