Redeeming Disaster in Japan
Japan's triple disaster has led Christian relief and development leaders to rethink how they do ministry in Japan. Based on my field research in Fukushima with the Marketplace Institute, a public theology think tank at Regent College in Vancouver, complex questions arose after the disaster: What do Christians uniquely bring to a materially wealthy nation struck by massive natural disasters and hostile to the growth of Christianity on its soil? What is the appropriate role of Christian relief in a time of overwhelming need?
While these questions are specific to Japan, the lessons learned are applicable to all disaster relief contexts. The Fukushima triple disaster has only heightened the need to change the practice of Christian relief and development.
From April 2011 to April 2012, Marketplace Institute convened meetings, conducted field surveys, and observed relief work to explore these issues. The institute partnered with Food for the Hungry (USA and Canada), Disciple Nations Alliance (USA and Korea), and Friends with the Voiceless International (Japan).
In the field, we paid particular attention to the three neglected aspects of relief work: spirituality, story, and sustainability.
For decades, disaster relief typically has been equated with physical assistance carried out based on need and without much attention to spiritual factors.
Yet over time, the framework for relief has grown beyond physical recovery. Research on people severely disabled from accidents has verified that a spiritual perspective helps to increase victims' resilience and recovery (findings that are explored in the 2012 book Sacred Aid: Faith and Humanitarianism).
How does a spiritual point of view inform disaster response for Christians when the religious beliefs of the majority are opposed to Christianity? In the early stage of disaster response, Marketplace Institute visited local churches and communities within a 35-mile radius of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Our criterion of discernment was simply this: "Pray, listen, act." We discovered that many of those who decided to stay in the region, instead of evacuating, did so because of vivid dreams, such as pastor Sumiyoshi's, or convictions arising from particular Bible texts.
For example, in the summer of 2011, Japanese pastors gathered for the first Fukushima Future Forum and meditated on Lamentations 3:19–23. One of many pastors who prayed aloud said, "Lord, you accept broken and humble hearts. Crush my pride and sanctify me as an instrument that can be used by you." Before the disaster, there were about 100 churches in Fukushima. Only 20 of these, all of them with 30 or fewer members, remain on site to minister in Fukushima.
Yet dreams and convictions do not always count in the realm of disaster relief provided by paid professionals. There is no simple method to capture intangible motives, or a framework on how to measure the success or failure of actions based on a pastor's dreams, confessions, or hopes. We discovered that many relief groups don't know how to address the spiritual dynamics of human need after a major disaster—how for example, people cope with survivor guilt or posttraumatic stress.