SENDAI, Japan — For one hour, there were no atheists here.
That hour began at 2:46 p.m. Friday, March 11, as tectonic plates scraped against each other beneath the Pacific Ocean, 43 miles east of this coastal Japanese city.
Enduring earthquakes is a way of life in Sendai, a city of 1 million souls about 190 miles north of Tokyo. There’s a saying here that you can survive any tremor that lasts up to a minute.
This one lasted three.
When the earth finally settled, sirens blared. The people of Sendai’s low-lying coastal communities had only an hour — maybe less — before a massive tidal wave. Roads were gridlocked.
As they raced from their cars, ran through tunnels or sprinted to the upper levels of buildings, “everyone prayed to their god,” said Mokoto Hosoi, one of a handful of Christians who comprise the Church of Christ in Sendai.
Only about 1 percent of Japanese claim Christ as Lord. Some pray to the sky and stars, Hosoi said. Some practice Shinto or Buddhism. Many profess no faith at all.
But in that moment, “everyone prayed,” he said. “Even though we all prayed to different gods, we all prayed.”
Then the waves came. ‘I TRY TO BELIEVE IN GOD STILL’
The magnitude 9.0 earthquake generated a tsunami with waves nearly 133 feet high that reached up to six miles inland. It was the fifth-strongest earthquake recorded since 1900 — more than 1,000 times stronger than the quake that destroyed Port-au-Prince, Haiti, last year.
So powerful was the “Higashi Nihon Daishinsai” (“Great Earthquake of Eastern Japan”) that it increased the Earth’s wobble on its axis and sped up the planet’s rotation. It cracked reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, sparking a series of meltdowns.
Japan’s prime minister called it the most difficult crisis his country has faced since the end of World War II. Police have confirmed more than 15,500 deaths, with nearly 5,000 people still missing.
Though four months have passed since the quake, “it feels like five years ago,” said Yuko Kawamura, another member of the Sendai Church of Christ.
Kawamura was at a junior college, where she works as a secretary, when the quake hit. She hid under her desk and tried to comfort a student from South Korea.
“She cried and cried,” Kawamura remembered. “That made me more scared.”
After the quake, Kawamura tried desperately to reach her close friend, Aya, a young mother of two who lived near the coast. The power was out and cell towers were down.
Eight days later, she got a phone call from Aya’s parents. Her friend’s body, and the bodies of Aya’s 5-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter, were found in the debris. “If you want to see them, come to the ceremony hall,” they told her.
In the months since, Kawamura has kept in close contact with her friend’s family. She has returned to work, though often she feels guilty for getting back to her own life.
She remembers the day of her baptism — June 29, 2004 — after months of studying Scripture with missionaries from the U.S. She shared her conversion story with Aya, who said she was interested in Christianity but not ready to commit.
“When I remember conversations with her, I pray to God, ‘Please take care of her,’” Kawamura said. “I want her in heaven, but I don’t know.”
She finds comfort in Jeremiah 29:11: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.’”
But she also struggles with the experience, which she said both strengthened and shook her faith.
“I try to believe in God still,” she said. “When I doubt God, I pray to him, ‘God, why did you do this?’” ASKING AND SERVING
People across the islands of Japan ask similar questions, said Junichi Uzawa, campus minister for the 50-member Omika Church of Christ in Hitachi City.
“I have no answer. Only God knows,” Uzawa said. “What I can say is, whether this tragedy happened or not, everyone dies.
“For those of us who survived, it creates an opportunity to ask, ‘Why?’”
As they ponder that question, Japanese Christians — joined by volunteers from around the globe — face the herculean task of rebuilding their nation.
Uzawa serves Ibaraki Christian University, a 4,000-student school with roots in Churches of Christ. Not long after the quake, the campus became a base for Christian Relief, Assistance, Support and Hope, or CRASH, Japan, a network that supports Christian groups doing relief work around the world. As it responds to the quake, CRASH has adopted the motto “Love on Japan.”
Global Samaritan Resources, a ministry in Abilene, Texas, supported by Churches of Christ, sent four teams to participate in CRASH trips. Jonathan Straker, a former missionary to Sendai, delayed completion of his master’s degree at Abilene Christian University to coordinate the volunteers’ schedules — and to work alongside them.
“The needs are changing, almost by the hour,” Straker said as a bus ferried him and a CRASH team from Tokyo to a guest house on Ibaraki’s campus, dubbed “Hitachi base.” Along the coast, Japanese people need help clearing debris and rebuilding their homes. Thousands more are moving from shelters to temporary housing and need furniture. For many, the shock of the disaster is wearing off, and they need counseling to deal with the sense of loss.
At Hitachi base, Jim Batten, Ibaraki Christian’s chancellor and a coordinator for CRASH, gave the six-member team an orientation about the work ahead.
“You’re not coming as saviors,” Batten told them. “You’re coming as people who are aware of their dependence on God.”
Soon after, the windows of the guest house rattled — an aftershock from the quake.
The team spent two days buying food, jumpsuits and work boots. Batten issued them dosimeters — pen-like devices that measure radiation — but explained that the dosage to which they would be exposed would be less than they absorbed on the plane ride from the U.S.
After Sunday worship, the team traveled five hours north to Ishinomaki, a coastal town near Sendai devastated by the tsunami. They unrolled sleeping bags on the padded floor of a karate dojo. The owner, or “sensei,” allows mission groups to stay there.
In all, 40 volunteers lined the walls of the dojo. Some came from a community church in California. A group of counselors traveled from Hawaii.
Three women — Sachiyo Aikawa, Ryu Young Sook and Ellen Uehara — came from Tokyo, where they worship with the Ochanomizu Church of Christ. The 120-member church has sent teams on an almost weekly basis to help in Ishinomaki.
“I wanted to go help somewhere, anywhere,” said Aikawa, a 63-year-old grandmother. She enjoyed participating in a morning devotional with the other faith groups at the dojo.
Regardless of nationality, “we’re all the same,” she said. “We have the same bond.”
Chad Huddleston, a church planter in Japan supported by Christian churches, spoke during the devotional. Huddleston is repairing a house in Ishinomaki, named the “Be One” house, to serve as the meeting place for a future church.
He reminded the volunteers that their task was more than a clean-up operation.
“We also want to start making connections, see churches started and disciples made,” he said. “Let’s go out with joy.” GOODWILL AND COOKOUTS
The volunteers spent a drizzly morning in Ishinomaki raking broken glass, mud-caked cell phone chargers and rotting fish from a lot near the Be One house.
The group took frequent breaks, as local residents ran from their homes and handed them ice pops and juice boxes. An elderly man knelt on the edge of his driveway and shielded the workers with an umbrella as he offered them a plate of orange slices, insisting that they eat each one.
“That’s something my ojiisan would have done,” said Sharon Arnold, using the Japanese word for grandfather. Arnold, the daughter of a U.S. Air Force master sergeant and Japanese mother, lived in Japan until she was 14. Now a teacher in Abilene and a member of the South 11th and Willis Church of Christ, she organized fundraisers for Japan in Texas and came as part of the CRASH team.
“I pray that more Japanese will come to know the Lord,” she said. “Even though we’re only going to be here for a short time, I pray that we will touch lives.”
The next day, as some of the volunteers prepared for a cookout in Ishinomaki, others cleared rotting drywall from the home of Tameko Baba. She and her family — including three grandchildren — survived the tsunami. She lives with friends now but doesn’t want to leave Ishinomaki, since the Buddhist shrines to her deceased in-laws are here. She said she was thankful for the Christians’ help, thankful “that they have goodwill.”
Larry Musick, president of Global Samaritan Resources, said the people of Ishinomaki “are seeing Christians of all stripes and denominations come together and work arm-in-arm.”
Musick has spent six weeks in Japan since the quake and has served on three CRASH teams.
“I’m not a numbers man,” Musick said. “I want as many people as possible to become Christians and for us all to be in heaven one day … (but) I don’t think receptivity and numbers necessarily are equal.”
In Japan, “you’re going to see people that, a generation from now, are Christians because of what’s happening now,” he said. “And God can count that — we can’t.”
Working alongside the volunteers was Maya Konno, a native of Ishinomaki who befriended the Christians and has learned some basic English from them.
“You know, there is something different about your eyes,” Konno told the volunteers. “You have something different.” TRAGEDY AND LIGHT
Churches of Christ in Japan also are different from the way they were on March 10, Straker said.
“I’ve never seen this level of communication,” said the former missionary to Sendai. Congregations are cooperating with groups outside their circle of faith as they serve those who survived the disaster.
The people of Sendai are noticing that camaraderie. During a visit to the city, Straker and his wife, Michiko, were approached by a woman who lives near the church building. She told them how impressed she was to see relief teams going in and out of the facility.
Hosoi, an official with Sendai’s health and welfare foundation and a member of the church, and his wife, Kiyomi, suffered a disaster of their own five years ago when their daughter, a high school sophomore, was killed by a drunk driver. The couple nearly dropped out of church life.
Now, in the wake of the disaster, the Hosois have recommitted themselves to Christ. They try to comfort families who lost children of their own.
Thinking back to March 11, Kiyomi Hosoi remembers finding hope even then. After a day of unimaginable destruction, she looked at the sky and asked God, “Why?” The power was out, and streetlights were dark. All she could see were twinkling stars. She described them as “tiny lights for the future.”
“It was a strange feeling,” she said. “Tragedy, tragedy, but God gave us these beautiful stars. It was very sad, but we have a light. I never will forget that sky.”