May 28, 2021 – Roger W. Lowther
Over the past couple of podcasts, I’ve been sharing stories from our March Aroma of Beauty Conference. Today, I would like to share about the master of ceremonies for the conference, Akira Mori, pastor of Global Mission Chapel.
He started the conference by saying, “As a man of Tohoku, I thank all of you!” Tohoku is the northeast region of Japan, and Iwaki where he pastors is the southern-most tip of Tohoku. He thanked all the volunteers in the audience, and those watching online, for their help over the years. And then he shared his story.
June 2010, less than a month before the earthquake, the building next to their church caught fire, burned down, and took their church along with it. This was of course hard on everyone, but Mori-sensei saw it as an opportunity. He found a big old pachinko parlor for sale. Pachinko is like gambling with slot machines. This pachinko parlor was available at a fraction of the cost of rebuilding their building, and it was much bigger. However, there were a number of people in the church who thought they should just rebuild as before, on the same plot of land and with the same size building. Mori-sensei felt so strongly that God was calling them to move to this new location that he pushed for that, but it caused some division in the church. Seven members left over this.
So here they were in this position of weakness. They had an unfinished building. Their numbers were small. They were still rebuilding trust in their congregation, and they were still getting to know their neighbors. And then the earthquake struck in March 2011, and their world literally fell apart.
Now, most cities along the coast lost 7–8% of their population from the tsunami, but it was even worse in Iwaki. Along their 70 km of coastline, they lost a staggering 15% of their population to the wave. It breaks your heart to hear these numbers.
They felt abandoned and forgotten by everybody, especially the news media who were focused on areas further north.
But then, volunteers began to pour in. Day after day more people arrived bringing food, water, and supplies … and music!
Mori-sensei shared about a 15-person team that came from a church in Taiwan. The pastor had formerly been a singer, so he sang and played the guitar in evacuation shelters. He sang a traditional ballad, a form called the enka, at many shelters along the coast. And he sang a song that particularly got people engaged called Springtime in the North. First he sang it in Chinese, his native language, and then in Japanese.
I had not heard of this song so I looked up the lyrics online. The words speak of longing for a hometown in the north, where the seasons are felt so strongly through the flowers, rivers, and snow. It mourns the separation from loved ones—family and friends—which took on a whole new level of meaning after the earthquake.
Mori-sensei realized the power of song to heal the hearts of people. That the arts are not just a hobby, but especially in disaster and destruction, music and art can bring comfort, encouragement, and courage. Everyone in the evacuation centers started to sing along with this pastor. And then, Mori-sensei himself memorized the lyrics to this song so that he could sing along as well and be encouraged by them.
When I first visited Iwaki to give concerts in shelters, the fear of radiation from the nuclear power plants was really strong. One of the places I played was a high school gymnasium less than 25 miles from the broken nuclear power plants. The whole time I was wondering, “Is it even safe to be here?”
When they served us a soup lunch, I found out they were using tap water for the broth because that was all that they had. I have to admit that I was more than a little afraid to eat it. They lived there. They had no choice. And there was no way I could possibly refuse.
Every evening, we gathered back at the church building for prayer, to share stories from that day, and to sing worship songs together. I was SO tired at the end of each day, from longs days of driving, giving 2–3 concerts a day, and talking to people all day long. I’m an introvert, so that really takes a lot out of me. Then there was the added stress of being in the midst of all that destruction and the fear of the radiation. But we sang together long into the night.
It’s really hard to describe what it felt like at that time. It felt like we were in the only lit room in a raging storm of darkness. It felt like we were on a rowboat in a terrible ocean of devastation, brokenness, and pain. We were in a place where joy was still possible, and yet the whole time we remembered the radiation shooting through our bodies. It just made the community all that more stronger.
At night, every inch of floor space was completely covered with people sleeping. Trying to get to the bathroom in the middle of the night was very difficult. One night, I was put at the base of a huge bookcase, and I had to mentally prepare myself to move quickly if an aftershock struck because I would be seriously injured by the falling books and bookcase.
From March to December, Global Mission Chapel received a total of 15,000 volunteers from 40 different countries. Their church building continued to be a base of operations for relief activities throughout that area for a long time to come. Relationships with their neighbors grew strong and deep.
God had been so clearly preparing this church for this time. They never would have had the ability to accept so many volunteers or help so many people if their church building had not burned down and if they had not found that old pachinko parlor. It’s quite a story!
Anyway, it was wonderful to have Mori-sensei there to lead us through the conference, a man who knew so intimately the devastation and pain of the earthquake, but also the power of God to bring hope and healing through the arts.
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