Being Let In — More Snapshots from 3/11, three years later

The past few days have been among the richest of our two/three years of ministry in Ishinomaki.

We are still learning what it means to walk with our friends up here through their grief and through their healing.  We are still trying to figure out exactly how to “weep with those who weep”  and to celebrate the times when we see glimpses of the joy that comes in the morning. We don’t always get it right.  Thankfully, the very fact of our being here – for the long haul — has allowed our friends to trust us.  They have let us in.  And it is such an amazing privilege.


I was walking into the Nozomi House when I saw her in the distance. I stepped out towards the road to wait for her.  She was walking toward me, with the cold snow pelting us both.  It was so so cold!  As she came closer, she looked at me, and then she looked away.  I knew she didn’t want to talk about it.  But I hugged her, and I felt her body sway, then brace again.  I’m sorry it’s snowing and so cold, I said.  She nodded.  “Yes, it’s just like that day.”


Our team today made four or five visits to some of the Nozomi staff who couldn’t or didn’t come into work today.  My friend S. and I went to see Chi.  I knew her daughter had had the flu last week;  when she came to the door she was wearing a mask and confessed that she herself was on her fourth day of recovery (in Japan the doctors require five days of staying home before you can go out after an influenza diagnosis).  She invited us in anyway- I was so glad.  We sat on the floor, gave her the Russian Tea Cookies that some of our team and kids had made on Sunday, and we asked her how she is doing on this day.  She said that almost worse than remembering three years ago was the challenges that she was having with her autistic son.  “I am so weak and tired from the flu, and this morning we had a battle.  He ended up scratching and hitting me and I couldn’t take it anymore.”  Chi. is always so calm and quiet, but she was crying.

S. prayed for her, and for her family.  I translated, sitting next to Ch, holding her hand.  When S. had finished, Chi explained, “that was so strange!  I felt like a heat pack was on my back under your hand as you were praying.  The heat flowed from my back down into my hand that Sue was holding!”  We explained that it was God at work, bringing His healing touch.  The Holy Spirit is so powerful!

Chi then told us that back in December, she had been working at Nozomi and sitting next to a long-term volunteer.  She confessed to that volunteer that she doesn’t really know if God exists or not.  The friend suggested that she tell God that, and that at times of need she could pray and allow God to respond to her need.  So she said that since that time, she has begun praying.  When she gets upset at her children, she has been uttering simple prayers to God.  And she said it has been so strange how a peace from outside has come over her….

“Now I believe in prayer….”


As part of our desire to provide rituals to remember, we planted a small camellia tree today in front of the Nozomi House.  We gathered at 2:30 pm, spent a few minutes praying, and then we had silent prayer as the city siren went off at the time of the earthquake three years ago – 2:46 pm.  Right as the siren started, our postal lady came to pick up our packages.  We pulled her into the circle, and stood in silence.


When it finished, Eric and one of the Nozomi staff took the tree and planted it in the prepared hole.


We sang a song that we do often at our Sunday morning worship.  Eric closed our time in prayer.  It was a small and simple way for those who wanted to to join together.  But the tree will continue to grow and thrive and bring forth beautiful flowers;  and we will remember.


In late afternoon and through this evening, Christians and our local friends began congregating at the Rock, a big local warehouse/hangout place being run by our Be One coworkers.  Our friend Y. asked if we could come and join her after work.  There were people milling around in different parts of the large room, some seated together sharing tea; others standing in small groups.  Y. went over to a couch area where no one was sitting, and asked for a few minutes to be alone.  She had brought with her the photo album of her sister growing up, and another album of her mom.  She had not been able to open these album since both of these family members had died in the tsunami three years ago.  But she was ready for this next step.  She wanted to be alone, but not alone, so she asked if we could just sort of linger nearby.

Sometimes just being nearby is an important task.


M. also went with us after work to the prayer time at the Rock. About 75 or so had gathered – it was such a beautiful mix of our local friends and believers who are choosing to be up here to walk together through the grief and the growth.  When I came back after dinner, M came bounding over to me.  “They prayed for me!  This couple from Sendai – I don’t even know their names.  But it was amazing!”  She is struggling so much with her daughter.  But I saw hope being born.



Eric wasn’t sure what to expect.  We knew Y’s dad had been alone all day.  We know he’s chosen aloneness for most of the past three years, but he had seemed so touched, so happy by our surprise visit on Sunday night.  So we talked about it and Eric went over in the early evening.  Her dad came to the door, and Eric gave him a platter of sashimi and some grapes for the granddaughters.  And he began sharing with Eric…. today he drove out to the place where his wife’s car was found washed away… and then the place where his daughter’s car had been found.  He told Eric that he just stood there and started shouting their names, waiting in vain for a response.

And as he stood there in the doorway next to my husband, he wept.  But this time he was not alone.


Conversations at the kitchen table…. remembering 3/11

She sat across from us and pointed to the empty chair.

“He’s a boy and he’s only six years old, so he doesn’t talk much about his feelings.  But a few weeks ago, out of the blue, he said, ‘So, I don’t have a mother, do I?’  Of course he knew that his mom had died three years ago, but it was like it suddenly hit him in a new way.”

His grandmother continued.  “I told him that he does have a father and a grandmother and that we are a family and we are going to work hard to stick together.”

Her voice broke.  “He said, ‘I don’t want to work hard for that if I don’t have my mom.’  I couldn’t take it.  I couldn’t say anything.  I had to leave the room.”


“My [grown] son and I ran upstairs when we heard the water coming.  This house was built well so we knew we could be safe.  But my daughter was working at a store near the water, and our grandson was at the school near the water. My husband was traveling on a business trip.  I didn’t know if any of them were still alive… When they didn’t come home I figured they had died.  There was no radio, no cell phones, no lights.  Just darkness.  We waited together and it felt like forever.

“Around 6 am I heard a crashing sound and it sounded like my grandson’s voice calling out frantically.  But it was my daughter — their voices sound the same.  She had waded through all the debris surrounding our home to come and see if we were still alive.  There were no words;  only many tears that morning.”


“We went to visit her [this afternoon] – it has been awhile.  We rang the doorbell a few times.  Then I walked around to the back of the house and noticed that her heater was on.  I knew that she must still be there.  When I walked back to the front of the house, I saw her riding her bicycle away fast.  She has ups and downs.  On the down times she still just doesn’t want to meet anyone.  It’s too hard…”


“Tomorrow I want to just work.  I don’t want to remember.  It is too hard to remember.”


“The morning after the tsunami I started walking all over the area in search of the 100-something of my store employees.  We had no idea where they might be seeking refuge but it was my job to report to the central office that everyone has been found (or not).  It didn’t matter how dangerous it was or that my family didn’t have much food.  I had to do my job.  I took my second grade son with me and we started wading through all the debris to visit all the schools and temples in the nearby areas serving as evacuation centers.  I couldn’t stop until I had somehow accounted for everyone on the list.”


“We didn’t know what to do when the siren started.  We left the home on foot and started running towards the school, but it was in the direction of the water.  When we saw the dark force moving towards us, we knew we had to run in the opposite direction.  I kept tugging on my daughter’s arm to run faster.  My husband finally put our 3rd grade [autistic] son on his back and even though he was so heavy he didn’t stop running.  We heard the noise and finally ran into the stairwell of a small apartment building.  We pulled our children up the stairs and there was a family in the top apartment.  They let us stay with them until the morning light came.  We didn’t know what we would find when we went back down those steps…”


“I don’t know what we are going to do when all the children return to their [fixed up] elementary school this next month.  My fifth grade daughter is so traumatized by what she saw at that school three years ago.  I’ve already told her that she doesn’t have to do the PE swimming lessons in that pool.  She saw those bodies floating in there and I know she will never be able to forget….”


“On the one hand, I almost cannot bear to relive the memories of 3/11 three years ago.  But on the other hand, if it hadn’t been for the tsunami I never would have had friends like you.  Some days I don’t know how to deal with such extreme emotions….”


Please pray right now for our friends in Ishinomaki.  For so many, life is still so very hard.  But we do believe in a Living Hope; in a Healer; in a Savior for this broken world.

reiko's photo

Why I believe in Short-Term Teams

She came into the entranceway of the home where our house-church was meeting this morning, and dissolved in tears of joy in his arms.  Mariko* hadn’t seen Mike for a year and a half, since his team from Hawaii had first come to Ishinomaki to help us for ten days.  Mike and his wife Kathy had met Mariko and her husband Hiro* at a Hawaiian BBQ that their team had cooked for different friends in our community.  Taka works in a different prefecture, but happened to be back that weekend.  The four of them sat together that afternoon and ate, bonded, and became Skype friends.  Despite meeting with Mariko frequently over the past two years, I’ve never seen her light up like she did today!

Over the past eighteen months, Mike and Taka have talked weekly, exchanging English and Japanese lessons.  Mostly becoming steady friends.  Taka has shared much of his grief about the tsunami with Mike – heart-talk that he has not shared with others.  The wives have joined in now and again.

Today they were reunited.  Taka, Mariko, and their daughter came to worship.  They stayed for lunch.  They went with all of us to a baptism at a beach.


It was the first time that Mariko has gone anywhere near the ocean since the tsunami swept through here two and a half years ago.  They came back for a tea time, and participated in a prayer time for the Ishinomaki high school girl Rena* who had just been baptized.  They beamed all day.

This morning we were also so happy to have Reiko*, her husband, and granddaughter come to worship for the first time.  They had hosted our short-term intern Sabrina on a homestay this weekend.  They took her all over and she had a magnificent time.  They brought her back this morning and decided to stay for our house church.  Others who watched thought they were regulars – they fit in so well.  I loved seeing them sing worship songs for the first time.

As we broke up into small groups at the end of worship to share needs and bring them in prayer before Jesus, I looked around the room.  I marveled at how God specially uses those He is sending here for shorter time periods.  For sure, the on-the-ground presence of long-term missionaries is irreplaceable.  But I see Him doing something unique – breaking through in a special way – through love-filled people who come and devote days or weeks or months investing in those we love.

Today’s baptism of Rena was also because of a short-term overseas trip.  Her good friend Natsuko* spent two weeks with a Christian homestay in Texas two summers’ ago.  Natsuko came back to Ishinomaki excited to find a church, and met up with Jonathan and Michiko, missionaries serving here.  Natsuko was baptized last spring. And today Rena.  Those two weeks of being loved on by Christians across the world made all the difference for Natsuko – and now Rena too.


I’ve read numerous articles questioning the benefits of short-term mission trips.  Some of the points are very valid – we need to use our resources wisely and evaluate the long-term potential negative effects to places where we send teams.  And on the receiving end of short-termers — it can be exhausting on those hosting!  We need to prepare well, make sure that we don’t overextend (!!), and find appropriate ministry outlets for those who come often without much language or background.  But over my twenty-some years of serving in Japan, I have continued to see God uniquely use the abounding enthusiasm, inquisitiveness, and servant hearts of many individuals and churches from around the world who are committed to loving the people we love.  Today was a beautiful example.

*I’ve changed the names of our Japanese friends.

Shades of Gray

It has been great to be settling into our new home – so many little things that are funner, easier, more beautiful, warmer, more spacious… One of the huge things for me has been seeing that our front door is already welcoming in many – yeah!  We had two friends stay over last weekend with us; a 35-or-so people birthday celebration here for our friend Lora before we had officially moved in; a thank you dinner for the carpenters who worked hard to completely our home; a movie night with some friends from the area, a staff lunch; coffee time with friends today; and several playmates for our kids and their friends.  We are looking forward to having the Nozomi staff over for lunch next week and then hopefully an open house next weekend.  Also, my sister Beth is coming to visit for ten days – woohoo!

Today we had over the family of an old friend of mine.  He and I had gone to the same church in Tokyo twenty two years ago, and then had lost touch.  The following year, he had moved back to his hometown of Ishinomaki to help his parents’ business.  He got married, and they have a son now a year younger than Owen.  We had a wonderful time getting caught up!  They live about fifteen minutes away.  Here is a photo from twenty-two years ago — eek- hilarious!


As we listened to their stories of the tsunami, we were again so aware of the layers of pain and challenges that still remain.  Their son is still very conscious when they drive through the tsunami zone;  he worries when his mom is at work and separated from him.  Their family keeps camping and food supplies in their car;  she carries emergency supplies in her purse;  they are ready in the case of future earthquakes or tsunami.  The night before the big tsunami, he had shown his son a video of the Indonesian tsunami so that he might be prepared just in case… (it had been predicted that sometime in a thirty year span there would be a big earthquake and tsunami.  It was overdue in this area, so some were on the watch for it). It hit the next day.

One of the things that struck me as we were processing the last two years with them was a comment that she made about their first time to leave Ishinomaki after the disaster.  They were driving down to visit her sister in the Tokyo area.  And as they began to leave behind the devastated areas, they noticed color coming back into the scenery.  They didn’t realize how Ishinomaki had become just many shades of gray… there was no green left;  no flowering trees or signs of spring.  As they left Miyagi prefecture they noticed more and more colors filling up the scenery and they began to feel more alive.

Sometimes I will be driving through a neighborhood and just look for a single tree that may have survived.  Homes are being rebuilt – that is great — but there are still whole huge areas without any trees – with very little green.  One of Eric’s hopes in this next season of recovery is to help residents plant more trees – bring more color back to this city!  This morning he planted the first tree on our property- a cherry tree.  It may need to be moved and replanted when our land is graded, but it still made me happy to see some pink blossoms beginning to shoot out and show off shades of hope.

Beauty from Brokenness

It’s really happening!  This past Saturday the Nozomi Project was officially launched!  It has been a wonderful ride over this past year in seeing the dream that keeps me up at night become a reality.  God is so amazing.

We had an official ceremony for the start of Nozomi, and it was wonderful to have some members of the community and all but two of the participating ladies attend.  We also had a chance to thank Lisa and Rebecca, who had spent nine days tirelessly working non-stop on getting things started and teaching all of us the many techniques to making jewelry.  Lisa had spent countless hours before coming praying over and ordering all of the supplies for us.  They are amazing, and everyone loved them and bonded with them.


It has been really wonderful to see God bring such capable women from Ishinomaki to us.  Last week we officially “hired” two of the Y.s I have written about.  Yuko (below) will be the team manager.  Last week she learned how to make every single necklace and she will be the trainer and helping to make the business side of things run smoothly.  She shared at the ceremony how she has loved making jewelry since she was a little girl — this in so many ways is her dream job!  My other friend Y. will serve as a part-time office assistant, and help with printing, mailing, and admin things.  


Here are some of the things that made me cry on Saturday afternoon:

  • the slideshow that our friend Anika put together showing how God has been at work through these ladies and the amazing teachers and volunteers He has brought into our lives over the past few months 
  • the theme of how God loves to take what is broken and make it beautiful.  There were just so many beautiful things, and beautiful faces on saturday.  Don’t you think so?


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  • It was amazing to see exhibited all of the jewelry that has been made so far. These ladies are amazing!


  • Our families were all involved — it was fun to have all of our girls pick out and model one of their favorite necklaces!
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  • Chad’s sharing the vision that he was given of the Nozomi project –not just being a place for the women to receive hope, but for them to actually be catalysts of hope being sent around the world.  Their stories, perseverance, and handicraft can and will inspire many others as the jewelry is sold and distributed.  I loved this so much!  And I could see it on the faces of those all around me – just even the thought of this seemed to bring more determination, more hope.  
  • Three generations!  Our friend Reiko (right) is the wonderful artist who drew postcards for us.  We are hoping to print these and begin selling them, as well, through Nozomi.  It was touching beyond words to see her daughter – one of the Nozomi members – just sob as we brought her mom up front to honor her.  Later Tomoko said, “I never thought I could be happy again.”  They have been through great loss, but her tears and smile were great evidence of God’s work in bringing about hope and healing. Image
  • Sharing the vision and our guiding principles.  I shared from Psalm 147.  Verses 2 and 3:  “The Lord builds up Jerusalem (Ishinomaki); he gathers the outcasts of Israel (Japan).  He heals the broken-hearted, and binds up their wounds.”  What I had discovered earlier that week was a prayer I had written in my Bible a year before – June 2011 – about these very verses.  Eric had gone up to Ishinomaki a few times at that point – I had not been here yet — and we had no idea we’d be moving here.  But I wrote, “God, please touch the people of Ishinomaki.  Use our serving them to build your church, to bring hope.  Keep us faithful to your calling.”  It has been such joy a year later to see God beginning to fulfill this prayer. 
  • Praying over the jewelry and the ladies.  Eric did a beautiful job of commissioning the jewelry; the Nozomi Project; the ladies.  As we held hands in our circle there was a strong sense of blessing and joy; of God doing something unique and special in our midst.  More beautiful than the jewelry is the community that He has woven together. 


Tomorrow the real “business” of things is beginning, where the ladies will actually begin earning money for what they make.  I have to say it is scary to begin having finances come into play.  I have spent a lot of time consulting others and praying about the best ways to go about this;  but we would love your prayers that we will keep things fair, open, and that money won’t become the central focus or a stumbling block. We have made it clear that we, Be One staff,  are not getting one yen from the project – it is all being paid to the women and funneled back into the community.  (BTW – if any of you know of someone who could give us some experienced advice on how to set up our business formally – i.e. as an LLC or nonprofit- please email me.  Thank you!).  

Since you have read this far, here is a sneak peek at one of my favorites. We have been keeping the actual styles a bit of a secret.   Stay tuned for just a few short weeks until the website is available and all of our pieces are revealed!  


Please keep praying for us and for each of the women involved.  Each day holds its own challenges;  we pray that our eyes and our hearts are set firmly on Jesus, the Giver of all Hope and the Creator of all things beautiful.











Ways and Means

Yesterday many of our Be One team and volunteers attended a first – the dedication/christening (?) of an oyster fishing boat being put out to sea for the first time.  It is significant because it is in an area that one NHK reporter described as the worst-hit area in all of Tohoku by the tsunami.  This town has been so decimated that they are expecting it will be at least another two years before electricity and water can be brought in!  The tsunami wiped out the livelihood of the region- oyster farming.  One entire year has been lost for all of these fishermen;  this winter they have slowly been able to start again.  For many, though, they have not had the resources to replace their boats, nets, and supplies;  some of course lost their homes and their work areas.  Some Be One members and volunteers have been helping one of the local oyster farmers build a log fence.  We all went to cheer as this family christened a new boat, signifying hope for the future for this family and also for this village.

A Shinto priest was brought in to formalize the event. ( I found out that women are not allowed on the boat during this ceremony! I told our friend Beth that I would give her fifty dollars if she jumped on the boat with all of them.  She didn’t go for it.)   It was quite windy- apparently the priest’s hat was prepared for the wind, for it stayed snugly in place.

There was a group of Japanese volunteers from another prefecture also cheering with us.  The girl on the left shared the same name as Olivia’s middle name – Mei- so they hit it off.

The priest and owners opened a large bottle of sake, and some of it was ceremoniously thrown over the boat, then cups were passed out to all those watching.  The highlight of the boat ceremony, though, as well as the solar panel dedication that followed, was the mochi-throw.  Those on the boat started heaving dozens of individually-wrapped pieces of mochi into the crowd.  It wasn’t just the kids going for it – the adults were gathering it up in their own little bags as well.

The kids had a great time, catching as many as they could.

One of the most eye-catching sights in the crowd was this man’s jacket.  During our lunch together, he came and told us that he bought this in Hawaii – it is a one-of-a-kind designer jacket custom-made by a designer who made stuff for Elvis Presley.  Wow.

While it was not an exuberant celebration, there was the feeling of hope in the air.  An expensive sushi lunch and more sake was served to the guests. During the several hours,  I hung out with different ladies who were either neighbors or relatives of this family.  During the mochi-toss, I got several new recipes for serving the rice cakes.  The newest one that I need to try is pizza mochi– you top the mochi with tomato sauce and cheese and then put it in the microwave.  (I found out that you aren’t supposed to prepare mochi from an event like this in an oven or toaster, as it could symbolize the boat burning in a fire.  But a microwave is fine!).

And I heard from  several of the older ladies their stories and impressions.  The older sister of the owner was a beautiful, dignified older lady.  She was wearing a blue lacy dress, which she claimed was really just an apron that she put on to keep her warm.

She lives in southern Sendai (1.5 hours south), and she had not been able to make the drive up to visit her relatives since the tsunami.  Until this day.  As they got closer to the town, she began insisting in the car that they were on the wrong road.  She said this couldn’t be  where her brother and family lived.  Where had all the houses gone?  How could it look like this?  Even though she  had seen all the newspaper and television reports, she could not believe her eyes at the devastation.  She said even still, her bowels and stomach were just aching with pain at all that was around us.  I understood what she meant. It is one of the most haunting sights I have ever seen.

Our family  ended the day with some mochi- ozoni soup (see recipe from a previous blog entry here.)   It hit the spot!

Our friends Mr. A. and his daughter T. ended up coming over around 9 pm for some late-night soup.  We sat together over soup, mochi, and coffee, and talked about the events of our day, and the funeral they would be attending tomorrow for a 27 year-old colleague who had also died last year in the same bank building as their wife/mom. I brought up Mother’s Day, knowing it would probably not be an easy day…

Today T. and I texted a bit.  I sent her a verse on my heart for her – Isaiah 40:11.  She wrote that she had bought a carnation and some baby’s breath and put it in a vase to remember her mom. I was really glad.  We have to keep finding ways to grieve, ways to celebrate, ways to remember.