Saturday, September 14, 2013

Volunteering Once More in Miyako

Looking out from atop the stairways of the pristine Jodogahama beach, you wouldn't think that anything tragic could possibly occur here. The surroundings are simply too idyllic. <View Photo Gallery>

Clear blue ocean water laps gently ashore. Sun glints off gorgeous white rock formations and cliffs that enclose the bay. Sightseers laugh aboard the many boats exploring caves and shoreline. This scenic sanctuary is panoramic eye candy. You can easily see why it is the pride of Miyako. In spite of its remote location, the beach attracts many people to an area that is otherwise just another set of fishing towns along the Iwate coastline.

Looking out from atop another stone formation -- a manmade seawall -- just a few kilometers away, you quickly realize that something went horribly wrong here. The double wall expected to protect the town of Taro was crushed to pieces by the tsunami of 311. The town was washed away, people and property lost for good. Tall grass and weeds now cover barren foundations where houses once stood. You feel the weight of  sadness and despair that survivors have needed to work through these past couple years.

Our volunteer team of 7 from Denen Grace Chapel once again had the joy of spending time among these survivors in the temporary housing areas around Miyako. More than two and a half years later, smiles come more easily and hearts are just a little more open. In two different locations, we first went door to door with a small gift (bookmark with Bible verse, rice cracker and candy) and invited residents to our cafe in the central meeting room. Here we offered a program of food (we made lots of sandwiches), coffee/tea, special music and karaoke, and bingo. I learned that the game of bingo is a serious matter among residents when prizes (daily consumables) are involved.

VBS kids from First Baptist Church of Little Falls, NY had sent candy and prepared many encouraging letters for us to distribute. We translated many of these cards and letters and passed them out with the candy to the residents. The American candy was a big hit. Residents commented that it tasted "refreshing" and were touched that so many strangers remembered them.

A time of singing with residents included familiar folk songs and hymns, and -- in an experiment -- Christian lyrics set to well-known Japanese tunes. Residents sang them eagerly. I think we may have created a new stream of contextualized Christian music. <View Photo Gallery>

Our local church partnership for this work was Miyako Community Church. This church, with the help of many volunteers, has ministered to most of the 60+ temporary housing areas on an ongoing basis. For the church's Sunday worship service, our team prepared the music and special numbers. I (Kevin) preached a message on "Our Burden-Bearing Good Shepherd" to give Pastor Iwatsuka a needed break. A few residents from temporary housing were also in attendance. We enjoyed a beef curry lunch together afterwards. <View Photo Gallery>

Our team also performed special music on stage for an outdoor community festival in Miyako under threatening skies. Pastor Iwatsuka said that up until a few years ago the church was not allowed to participate in the community festival. But now, after seeing the faithful work of volunteers since 311, the organizers urged the church to contribute to the outdoor program. What a turnaround!

I was proud of our worship team leader's bold and thorough explanation of what the gospel lyrics meant as she introduced each song. We distributed lyric sheets -- along with a lot of American candy -- and sang "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" together with the gathered crowd. This song was the final act of the festival. No sooner had the team finished than the rain began to pour down. It was as though heaven cried.

It was a long road trip to Miyako. Ironically, it takes less time to go to Chicago from Kawasaki than it does to go to the temporary housing areas of Iwate. But we'd go back in a heartbeat. God has not left these people alone. He is reaching out to them through the hands and feet of his church volunteering there. And we sensed His love and renewing work in the hearts of people all around us. <View Photo Gallery>

Our family leaves for the States in just a few weeks. But after our return from the States in 2014, we look forward to visiting again. I can't wait to see what things of beauty God will do next in this place of past tragedy! See you again soon, Miyako!

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