Voices from FUKUSHIMA Vol.10 Rev. Akira SATO

The Story of the Parishioners

 Now, a collection of stories starts. I would like to go on with some quotations from the Bible. The first one shown on the screen is taken from the Letter of St. Peter, a former fisherman, which was  sent to those who lost their hometowns. The dispersion was not because of a nuclear power plant accident, nor an earthquake, but the persecution. Peter writes in the letter that although there are fiery trials and tribulations in life, do not be sad but rejoice.

I am a pastor, but I could not rejoice. My birthday is the same with the day of the earthquake, March 11. I had attended the graduation ceremony of the seminary in the Kanto Region. The ground shook there as well. But the earthquake registered magnitude 9.0, an intensity of 3 on the Japanese seismic scale in my hometown. The Meteorological Agency predicted the mega-tsunami two hours after the quake, but it actually hit only after eight minutes. Everything was beyond all predictions. A concrete-like tsunami at a staggering height of 14 to 15 meters struck our hometown. The next morning on March 12, a siren had kept ringing out just like an air-raid siren. The nuclear power plant explosion was not announced in many of the towns, but the residents were simply told to evacuate, and headed towards the nearby mountains. It was an impossible task to secure an evacuation site to house all of the residents. The roads were jammed with an overwhelming number of cars, and it took two hours to move a distance that would usually take only five minutes. It was a brutal evacuation. Staying in Chiba prefecture at that time, I was stunned at what had unfolded before me. A 90-year-old woman who lived near our church said that it took 12 hours with only one bathroom break to arrive at a shelter. She waited for hours outside for a bus that never came. Instead, she was picked up and put on the back of a military truck with a hood. Not being thrown off, she desperately clung to the truck to get to a shelter on the mountain top. She was sleepless for three consecutive nights. In addition, the assistant pastor at that time (now a chief pastor) evacuated at first with his wife and his newborn baby, but got separated later. With the lack of basic nutrients and food, the wife was unable to produce milk for her baby. Having no blankets, she put her baby on her stomach to warm with her own body and spent a sleepless night, as she could not just lay the baby down on a cold, barren floor of the shelter on the mountain in northwestern Japan. These were the stories that I heard from our parishioners and neighbors which were so different from what the Japanese media reported, and I was outraged with all of the horrendous and inhumane things that had been going on.

To tell you the truth, I was afraid that after what had happened, these people who used to attend  the liturgical service and sang hymns on a peaceful day would say “I don’t believe in God. He does not like our region.” However, the opposite happened. When mobile phones became connected again, I heard many stories about their experiences. One lady told me that soon after the earthquake, she hurried to her house on the coast where her son was waiting. That was when the tsunami started chasing her. She told herself “I can’t die here” and stepped on the gas pedal as hard as she could and ran away from the chasing tsunami. And she witnessed that “At that moment, I felt God’s presence.” I learned that the parishioners experienced the presence of God in the most improbable situation. The video shown earlier is about the 60-year-old woman, our church member, who felt as if her heart was suddenly being crushed. Many people experienced that same feeling. When she went to the hospital, the doctors operated on her then and there and told her to evacuate because the radiation from the nuclear meltdown was getting close. And she said God really saved her. Every testimony that these people gave was for me a surprise. This made me recall one of the verses from the Bible. “‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.” (Isaiah 43)

It was a 90-year-old lady that I worried about most. She lived in an old house which was built 80 years ago. A few weeks after the earthquake, she gave a phone call direct to me at our camp in Tokyo. Of course, I couldn’t ask her “You’re alive?” but she did tell me. “Sir, there was God in my house.” To be truthful, I was quite surprised that such an old house survived the catastrophic earthquake. But later, how did she escape such a situation? She lived alone on a wheelchair. According to her, one of the couples of our parishioners came by, took her in a wheelchair, and stood in front of the door of an evacuation bus, and exclaimed that they should put this woman in poor health on before anyone else. As a result, the lady was put on the bus first before everyone else, and the couple got on at the end. Ever since, the couple and she traveled through Gunma prefecture and other places like a family and traveled as if they were mounted a wings of an angel. And she eventually ended up in Tokyo where her daughter lived.

I did not know that there were such a heartwarming story in the midst of a once in a thousand year mega earthquake. As a pastor, I was mostly worried about how many lived, how many passed away, and how many were missing. But I realized that God is the good shepherd, and how he cared, called, and loved each individual sheep. I re-learned this fundamental lesson of the Bible during the most chaotic disaster.

Our church was located on the Pacific Coast of the Fukushima prefecture, but there were many  who escaped to the coast of Sea of Japan. One family was so heart-broken that they prayed “God, this is it. We can’t go on anymore” in the middle of a crowded gymnasium. After praying and opening their eyes, they saw a young married couple standing in front of them. The family has never met this couple. They were members of a different church group that was located on the coast of Sea of Japan. This couple had been following our journey through the internet and was heart-broken by all of these stories. They heard that one of the families had arrived in the area, and eager to help, came in search for them through the crowd of people in the gymnasium. They said that they would take the family for shopping and to church. Ever since then, the couple supported the family in their most desperate time. Therefore, when it was time for them to leave Niigata, they left in tears. They told me that Niigata is the second hometown of our heart.” I really had no idea that this abnormally chaotic disaster would bring such an encouraging story.

At a first glance, these videos of the cataclysm really make you believe that God does not exist in this world, and that the world contains no purpose. However, now, after hearing countless heartening stories, I have started preaching that whatever happens, God exists and always loves you.”