TOKYO — It took
six days for Southern Baptist disaster relief specialists from Alabama
and South Carolina to gain access
to Japan’s tsunami- and earthquake-stricken Tohoku prefecture.
It only took a few minutes, however, for them to understand the intense fears
surrounding the nuclear crisis and how it affects disaster response.
Hardly anyone was at the Tokyo
airport when John Hayes of Birmingham,
Ala., and Eddie Pettit of Sunset,
S.C., arrived March 19. With no traffic, the bus trip into town took only an
hour that Saturday, a ride that normally takes two or more. Even the busiest
crosswalk in the country only mustered 15 to 20 people. Normally this corner is
a sea of hundreds dressed in black business suits, jockeying for space to cross
Despite living more than 200 miles from the failing Fukushima
nuclear plant, Tokyo residents
stayed home, creating a “ghost town” atmosphere. In a city of nearly 13 million
people, most venture out only to purchase bottled water and toilet paper.
“The fear of radiation is really the biggest obstacle in responding to Japan’s
disaster,” Pettit admits. “It’s not only affected the Japanese but it’s
dominated the media and created fear throughout the world.
“We have to convince the people in the States that it’s safe to work here,” he
adds. “I want Southern Baptists to know that the radiation scare is a lot worse
in the States than it is here now.”
Tokyo and surrounding areas are
slowly coming back to life three weeks after the nightmare began. People are
venturing back to work and restaurants reopening. The fear, though, is still
hidden just below the surface. It comes out in simple things like wondering if
the fruit or vegetables you buy came from Fukushima
or if the tap water has radiation contamination.
The possibility of radiation is always at the back of people’s minds,
especially when members of Tokyo Baptist
Church sit around a table to talk
with Hayes and Pettit on ways to launch a disaster relief ministry amid Japan’s
Every idea put on the table immediately gets thrown into the “do later” pile as
team members grapple with how to handle the nuclear crisis. It seems like the
radiation concern is a roadblock to every ministry possibility, until Hayes
quietly pulls out something that looks like a credit card. He peels back the
red plastic and points to the blue dot on the radiation detection card, called
Pat Melancon, left, of Baptist Global Response opens food and supplies brought into a neighborhood in Ishinomaki, Japan, March 28 by a Southern Baptist relief team. Melancon led the disaster response team, which included Eddie Pettit, center, of South Carolina
and Kevin Qualls, an International Mission Board church planter based in
“Look! I’ve been wearing this ever since I arrived in Japan
and it hasn’t registered any radiation exposure levels yet,” Hayes says, noting
that all Southern Baptist workers and their children were issued a card to
measure their exposure to radiation, allowing them to return to their
ministries and homes. “Volunteers will wear one of these cards at all times,
too. We want everyone safe while they are ministering in this disaster.”
Having a way to measure radiation exposure changes the climate of the meeting.
It goes from “What will we do in the future?” to “Let’s do something now.” The
timing could not have been better. The very next day, the Japanese government
lifts restrictions to most areas of the disaster zone. Tokyo
immediately sends the newly trained disaster relief team in one direction and
Hayes and Pettit go another. All leave with a dosimeter hanging around their
necks, offering a sense of safety but not invincibility.
Pettit says the long wait to actually visit some of the disaster area for assessment
is not normal for their teams. In other natural disasters, the Southern Baptist
Disaster Relief Network responds immediately and hits the ground running. In Japan,
however, they are just now making their first assessment trip into the heart of
the region struck by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The radiation fears
have a little to do with this delay, but the main reason is government
restrictions and the lack of gasoline.
A two-man team from North Carolina Baptist Men united with
another two men from Hungarian Baptist Aid March 11 to work with Rescue 24 to
help with search and rescue if needed. Because the government had many areas
blocked off the team could not assess hard-hit areas early on in the crisis but
they did meet with other Baptist leaders there to provide some initial
assessment. They also helped get food to an evacuation center.
“Developing countries do not have a disaster plan or the infrastructure Japan
has,” Pettit says, explaining how important it is to work within the Japanese
system and not just respond unilaterally, like many did after Haiti’s
earthquake a year ago. “Each disaster is different and this one is three
disasters in one: earthquake, tsunami and radiation fears. It doesn’t matter
how long it takes us to get established, there is going to be plenty of
disaster work for a long time.”
Any fears of radiation are quickly forgotten as Hayes and Pettit survey an area
safely outside of the 50-kilometer radiation zone suggested by the United
States. The magnitude of this disaster and
the need for future relief work sinks in as the pair walk down the streets of
Ishinomaki. Despite Japanese government forces working around the clock since
the quake, the destruction is still overwhelming, a stark contrast to the
normally pristine and orderly Japanese lifestyle.
Hundreds of cars pile up at odd angles. Some stack on top of each other three
or four high. Broken boats sit stranded on side streets and open lots. Ships
lean to one side on empty roads. Seven-foot-high walls of trash line streets
outside homes filled with a foot of mud.
Entire neighborhoods are still without electricity or kerosene. Nearly 377,000
people are in shelters and thousands more shiver in damaged and waterlogged
homes. People sit in the cold all day and night. A snowstorm and cold front hit
just hours after the tsunami.
Hayes and Pettit see many ways specialized Southern Baptist disaster relief
teams could work and minister, filling in behind government forces: shoveling
mud, providing hot meals and distributing supplies — if they were invited by
the government. They stop to talk to a family who owns a kimono store destroyed
“We need to help get the mud and debris out of the houses. That’s pretty labor
intensive,” Hayes says. “It might seem small to us, but it will plant a seed.
We can show the love of Jesus Christ and make a difference.”
Pettit and Hayes quickly teach some Southern Baptist missionaries how to
properly muck out the kimono shop. As Hayes bends over to help, his dosimeter
swings out from under his jacket. The Alabaman nonchalantly glances at the
exposure reading, then quickly tucks it away. Nothing registers. He wonders
about the church team just 15 miles down the road.
That group is working diligently, remembering everything Pettit and Hays taught
them. They prepare 3,000 hot meals a day in a neighborhood without electricity and
no access to relief supplies. Every two hours, the team leader diligently
checks her dosimeter.
Nothing registers, giving them confidence to continue ministering and lead two
people to Christ.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Rain is an International Mission Board writer/editor living in
Southeast Asia. The International Mission Board has
established a relief fund for the Japan earthquake. Donations may be sent to:
Office of Finance, International Mission Board, 3806 Monument Ave., Richmond,
VA 23230. In the memo line write “Japan Response Fund.” Or you can give online
by going to www.imb.org and clicking on the “Japan response” button. For
further information, call the IMB toll-free at 1-800-999-3113. North Carolina
Baptist Men is also collecting funds to help with recovery efforts. Make check
payable to N.C. Baptist Men, P.O. Box 1107, Cary, NC 27512. Designate your
check Japan Earthquake/Tsunami Fund.)
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