One of the best storytellers I know, Becky Still, recently wrote a story about our work here in Ishinomaki. T.J. Lee, one of her co-workers with connections in Japan, came and took photos, and became friends with our family in the process. They make us look a lot cooler than we are, but here is the article that they crafted together. I love how they highlight our friends here. The people in this community are the ones with stories that should not be forgotten.
Here are a few of the other photos that T.J. took during his time visiting. The last one is my favorite. I love that he is holding broken tsunami pottery found in the small parking lot next to our home; I love that he is holding his favorite “ne-ne” that has since been lost.
***3/10. She sat across from me at the table. “Tomorrow I have to go with my family to the temple. We still don’t have a gravesite for my mom and dad, so we just go to the temple instead.” C.’s parents had both been killed in the tsunami. She hasn’t talked about it much. I asked why they don’t have a gravesite yet. One of the other women sitting nearby made the money sign with her hands. It costs too much.
I asked C. if it feels hard to be the fourth anniversary. She said, “It’s easier than it was last year. I’ve sort of gotten used to them not being here, and so I just sort of talk to them. When I leave in the morning to come here, I go over to their picture and tell them I’m leaving. When I return home, I tell them I’m back. I like knowing that they are somehow still with me.”
During lunch today, some of us were at our gathering place. We had about six or eight local friends come by. One of our dear friends, Mrs. K., told me again different parts of her tsunami story. Telling the story is still important, even four years later. It was snowing and cold that day four years ago, a lot like today. I am so amazed that she survived, because she had run from her home to her son and family’s home – found the door locked, and had run home and then up the mountain just as the waters started crashing in. Her son’s home was virtually destroyed. I’m so glad the door had been locked so she didn’t stay there. I can’t imagine life without Mrs. K.
Mr. A held him close. He made a funny face. Everyone laughed. There is so much healing that comes from babies.
Eric was at the store today buying gifts for some local friends. He didn’t have much time. But there were a lot of people he wanted to see. So he prayed, “God, who is hurting the most now? Who do you want me to visit?” Immediately he thought of the dad of our friend Y. He had lost his wife and oldest pregnant daughter in the tsunami.
He drove over there with sushi and grapes. The two previous times that he has visited, he handed the food gifts, talked briefly in the genkan and left. This time, though, Y’s dad invited Eric in. Eric sat with him for about two hours, listening to many stories about his deceased wife, and looking at photos. This tough dad cried. Things have not always been smooth with Y and her dad. Eric suggested that sometime soon he sit with his daughter and together they look at one of these albums.
Tonight I got a text from Y. about how happy her dad was for the visit. Y. was thrilled. Her dad never shares with anyone. This was a special gift to both her dad and to Eric.
Tonight before our final gathering time, E. sat across from me and a friend and said, “Things are a lot harder now than they were four years ago. The tsunami was terrible, but I’m able to see good in it because God let me meet you and the others who have moved here. So I’m finally able to see some good. ”
Child 1: “Mommy, why do you think God made the tsunami?”
Child 2: “God didn’t make the tsunami! Did He, mom?”
Wow. I can’t answer those questions (and that’s what I told our kids. But I am completely convinced that God wants to work through and in spite of the terrible destruction; that God wants to walk with people through their pain and the challenges that have come over the last four years, and I see it happening.
She said she wanted our prayers. She didn’t have a specific area needing prayer tonight, so I suggested that we just listen and hear what God might want to share with her. My friend V. read Psalm 23 in Japanese to her. And as she was reading, I pictured Jesus the Shepherd scooping up E. and holding her close to his heart. I told E about this image, and that God wanted her to just lay down all of our responsibilities and heavy burdens and just experience his love and care for her. God was inviting her to come. Just come. After this prayer time, E. couldn’t believe how light she felt. It was so so good to see her letting go of some of the heaviness that she had come with.
We had a wonderful final gathering, with 40 or 50 adults gathered together to remember, to promise again to walk together, to invite the presence of Jesus into those places in our lives. It was such a bonding time. At the end we gathered in small groups and some shared, some prayed, some listened. We stood in a big circle and held hands as a symbol of our desire to walk together towards Jesus, whatever the future may bring. No one can do it alone.
I was thinking today about our work at the Nozomi Project. There are five or so staff who have left for various reasons – some on good terms with other staff, and some not. But I thought about it tonight and realized that all five of them are still connecting with our Be One team, and coming to us to help them in their various stages of life currently. They are coming to those with Hope for continuing healing. I am so thankful for that.
After I got home and was trying to get all our kids into showers and then pajamas, I got a call from N. I haven’t seen her in quite a while. Her three year old son had been killed in the tsunami. Today she and her family went to the area right near our home where he had died. She said she had wanted to come by our gathering place, but it just felt too hard. She said, “I could laugh yesterday, and I am sure that I will laugh again tomorrow, but I couldn’t laugh today.” When I prayed for her over the phone, I prayed for her mother’s heart. A mother can love so wide, and so deep; but when that child is gone it means the pain is so wide, and so deep.
I don’t have all the answers, but in the beginning and in the end, I believe in a God who hears, and a God who heals, and in a God who walks with us along the way.
This weekend, my daughter Annie and I did a first…. we helped officiate the funeral of a hamster… of our friends! It was her good friend H.’s hamster. H.’s mom works with me at the Nozomi Project. It was a really awesome thing to be invited into this family event.
What made this ritual extra special was that they were burying their beloved pet at their new home that is being built. It was our first time to see the construction site and the house being built.
Annie, H, and H’s sister gave Nana the Hamster a proper burial!
At the end of the burial, we gathered and I said a prayer. (How does one pray for a dead hamster? I wasn’t sure. I thanked God for being the Creator of such amazing things as hamsters; and thanked him for good memories; and asked God’s blessing on this new home being built….?)
While we were completing our time, the girls found some beautiful broken pottery scattered near the back of the house. We brought it back to the Nozomi Project to be made into something beautiful…
I asked H’s mom about this property where they were building their new home. It’s just about a five-minute walk from our home. From the shards around, I knew it was an area that had been hit hard by the tsunami. She explained that her parents had lived on this land- she had grown up there. The tsunami had washed away her family home.
I asked if her parents had come back after the tsunami and looked for their things… if any of these broken pieces could have been from her parents’ home. She said they didn’t have the heart to come back and see the land. Not even once.
But on that same piece of land that had seen terrible devastation… and now was receiving the body of little Nana the hamster, a new home is being built. My daughter Annie will probably spend many happy days playing inside these walls with her friend. We are thankful to be invited into the lives of the friends in our community; and so thankful for the new beginnings that we see around us of rebuilding and restoration.
Today was beautiful weather so we decided to take a family bike ride. We all biked over (Ian on the back of my bike, if you are wondering!) to a nearby family restaurant, and then we biked along the coast.
We wanted to head over to a playset that was built recently for the third anniversary of the tsunami by a friend of Be One, Mr. E. He had also helped to make some of the furniture for the park that Be One rebuilt last year. We were so surprised to find him there today, and we spent the next hour or more sitting and talking with him.
Mr. E is a pretty amazing man. He and his wife lost all three of their children in their tsunami. This is pain and grief that I cannot humanly imagine.
On the place where their house had been washed away, Mr. E., a carpenter by trade, has built a play-set. He wanted to create a fun place for children where so much sorrow had landed.
The ocean is just 100 yards away. The whole area used to be a thriving neighborhood. Now, he said, only four residents are living in this neighborhood. He sat with us and pointed to the empty plots all around us.
The land right next door had been the home of a seaweed farmer. He was out in his boat when the tsunami came. The boat was able to roll over the tsunami. The husband survived, and when he finally came back to shore and to where their home had been. He searched and searched, but found that his home and the rest of his family had been washed away. Three years later he is still unable to return to this location, but his sister comes frequently and leaves flowers in the yard in memory of the lost family members.
Across the street was a tofu shop. The daughters and the parents were killed in the tsunami.
We admired his yellow VW buggy. He explained: “My kids used to love to count yellow cars. One day my daughter was counting and said, ‘If I can see three in one day, I will be so happy.’ After they died, my wife and I just wanted a yellow car. It reminds us of what made them happy.”
I asked about his wife. She isn’t working right now. I wonder how she has strength for each day. I told him that I hope we can get together with them both soon.
He brought out from the trailer drinks for all of our kids. Then he led them over to a small tuft of wild clovers, and told them that he’s found a few four leaf clovers there. Olivia found four or five, and Owen found two five-leaf clovers! He gave each of our children some small wooden keychains that he has made from tsunami debris.
I watched Mr. E. as he so gently interacted with our children. There was only kindness. He must have been such an awesome dad.
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.
We are in the countdown leading up to the third anniversary of the triple disaster. Two days away now. We are struck every year with the enormity of the task of how best to walk through these days with our friends who are still grieving. It is not easy. For some, gathering together is cathartic; for others, being with a group of people reminds them of their pain and loneliness.
This year our Be One team has decided to focus on going out in twos and threes over these few days to visit our friends across this city. Today we had an awesome team come to our home after lunch and make about 280 Russian tea cake cookies and packets of notes, origami cranes, and snacks that we can use to give out to individuals, families, school children friends.
While they were doing that, a few different groups went out to visit our friends across town. My coworkers and I had a chance to visit three families related to the Nozomi Project. We visited one of our Nozomi friends who’s mom is going in for a brain procedure tomorrow. We had a sweet time of praying for her mom and the family while we were there.
We then went to visit one of the families who had lost a mother and a sister in the tsunami. It had been such a hard day for them; they had been to the different gravesites of both of their lost loved ones that day. When we dropped by, we weren’t sure how it would feel. But it was such a special time. Y.’s father — who we have barely met before –was so warm to us! He rarely leaves the house, but seemed genuinely interested in hearing about his daughter’s work, her friends (at one point he said, “Oh! So you really do have friends!), and coming one day soon to the Nozomi House to see where she is working. Here is one of his granddaughters, in front of the family altar, modeling a Nozomi necklace tonight:
After my coworker prayed a very inspired prayer over the family, we each shook his hand to say goodbye. He gripped each of our hands so tightly, barely able to let go. We realized that he probably never gets hugs or hand squeezes from people these days…. And even just when he mentioned the name of his wife and daughter he teared up and couldn’t speak. It has been three years but the pain is still so great. Our little visit — that we were scared to make — seemed somehow so significant.
We also had the chance to visit the grandmother of one of our Nozomi coworkers, T. She had told me a long time ago that sometime she wanted us to go with her to meet her grandmother and to pray with her. She said she was afraid her grandmother, Tomi-san, would die before she had a chance to hear about the “real God.” Today was that chance!
When we walked into the hospital room and I saw her grandmother, I was struck with how very tiny and frail she was. She couldn’t weigh more than eighty pounds; her ninety-four year old body looked tiny in the large bed. But her eyes lit up as she saw her beloved granddaughter standing over her; she became alert and talkative and we loved her instantly.
We talked and shared together. T. told her grandmother that she wanted us to tell her grandmother about God – the God of Jesus. Tomi-san responded, “Oh yes! He’s the God of the world, isn’t he?” T. said, “Yes, he is, grandma, but He also loves each one of us so much.”
Tomi-san told us several touching stories. She had married and had four children. Two of them died when they were infants. Then her husband went off to the Philippines to fight in WWII against the Americans, and he never came home. Tomi’s one son got mixed up in the wrong crowd, ended up joining a gang, and has never been heard from since. Her remaining child, T’s father, died of cancer at the age of 60. T. has told me previously that on his deathbed he had asked his daughter T. to take care of his mother. T. has faithfully visited her day after day, despite being a single mom with two children and working at the Nozomi Project.
She also told us an amazing story of her childhood. There had been a small church in Watanoha (our neighborhood) when she was a little girl – some eighty-some years ago!! They had a gathering on Saturday or Sunday — she couldn’t remember which she said– where they sang hymns and learned about Jesus. She wanted so much to go! But as a girl she had one leg shorter than the other and walked with a limp; as a result she was bullied and didn’t have friends. She kept waiting for someone to invite her to the Christian gathering but no one did, and she was too afraid to go alone. So she missed the opportunity, she said.
We told her she needn’t miss it now. We played for her a short segment of our morning worship time, and shared more with her about the Savior of the World. His love for her; His desire for her to believe in Him; His promise that He has gone ahead for all who believe and is preparing a place in heaven. She said she wanted to pray with us.
I prayed for Tomi-san, and in the middle of the prayer asked Tomi-san if she is ready to believe in Jesus. She belted out a strong “YES!” And so, we believe, in that somewhat-smelly old people’s hospital, a darling darling 94 year old woman said yes to Jesus. I think He has been waiting such a long time, and He didn’t want her to miss another opportunity because no one would bring her. Her granddaughter T. made sure of that. She brought Jesus to her grandmother.
Going home in the car, we asked T. more about her mother’s childhood experience in not going to church because she was never invited. And she said, “I think there are so many people today like that. They want to know about Jesus — but they are afraid to go unless they are invited. Lots of people are just waiting to be invited.”
How often we shrink back from asking people because of OUR own insecurities or our own preconceived ideas of who should or shouldn’t come. Who in our everyday world may need a visit because they are waiting to hear, or needing a prayer, or wanting to grasp a hand? Who needs to be invited to a place where people gather to celebrate the hope of Jesus? My heart has been convicted and touched so much today.
Below is one of the most beautiful photos my iPhone has ever taken. Tomi-san is reading the Bible verse, “I will never forget you! I have written you on the palm of my hands.” Now she nows, for sure, that she is not forgotten.