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Mission work continues in Japan, despite fears

 
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1:00 P.M. EST March 17, 2011



This satellite image shows damage to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor in Japan resulting from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Photo courtsey DigitalGlobe.
This satellite image shows damage to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor in Japan resulting from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Photo courtsey DigitalGlobe.

It’s planting time at the Asian Rural Institute in northern Japan, and the staff is in the fields when they aren’t cleaning up damage caused by the powerful March 11 earthquake that shook the region.

But they keep an eye to the coast, where efforts are ongoing to contain radiation leakage from the damaged reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

“We continue to be worried about the power plant, which has now become the major obstacle to recovery,” Jonathan McCurley, a United Methodist missionary assigned there, wrote on his March 16 blog.

McCurley said that he, his wife, Satomi, and others at the school were taking precautions to avoid contamination from radiation, even though he noted that the radiation levels there, while above normal, were “nowhere near the levels to harm one’s health.”

Later that same day, the head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission warned Americans to stay 50 miles away from the Daiichi plant, which is about 170 miles north of Tokyo. The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed on March 17 that the Japanese military “carried out four helicopter water droppings” over Reactor 3 at the plant.

The United Methodist Board of Global Ministries has given all personnel permission to evacuate from Japan if they wish to do so. A few have left. Debbie Umipig-Julian, based in Tokyo, and her two sons are now in the Philippines, as are Lamberto and Angelita Valino, based in Yokohama. All are Filipino natives.

In the past few days, the London Telegraph reported, people have been leaving the district around Koriyama, the major town closest to the stricken plant, and traveling 25 miles away to the railway station at Nasushiobara, in the Tochigi Prefecture, so they could travel farther south. Nasushiobara is 145 kilometers (90 miles) from Tokyo and 162 kilometers (100 miles) from Sendai.

Agricultural training center

At the Asian Rural Institute, also located in Nasushiobara, the staff has set up shop at the Nasu Seminar House, a retreat center for the Student Christian Fellowship in Japan.



Radiation Warning Symbol. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Radiation Warning Symbol.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
View in Photo Gallery

The ecumenical institute – founded in 1973 by the Rev. Toshihiro Takami – conducts a nine-month Rural Leaders Training Program each year from April to December, focusing on sustainable agriculture, community development and leadership. The United Methodist Board of Global Ministries has had Asian and African participants in the program.

“As Japan still has the occasional aftershocks, we continue to clean up in and out of the buildings,” McCurley wrote in his blog. “That’s a difficult task. Although we have been told the buildings are safe to enter, any shaking makes us all run for cover; the shock from the first quake still isn’t gone.”

In an e-mail to United Methodist News Service, McCurley said most of the staff that left the institute after the earthquake has now returned. “The hardest thing in Japan right now is trying to get the correct information,” he added. “There's so many voices saying this and that, but when we look at the people in the community, although worried, they are carrying on as normal.”

The institute has accepted three people who have come seeking shelter from the evacuated areas near the nuclear plant. “We continue to meet, pray and see what we can do to help those who are in the middle of the really affected areas,” McCurley said.

Lack of food and fuel

A former missionary, the Rev. Michael Southall-Vess, has been contacting friends in the Fukushima area, where he and his wife, the Rev. Marable Southall-Vess, served from 2001 to 2005.

Southall-Vess, now pastor of Arlington (Va.) Forest United Methodist Church, said he is hearing concern over a lack of food and fuel, even miles from the main disaster area. One friend in Kitakata, about 60 miles from the coast, “said the grocery store shelves are empty and they have no gasoline.”



United Methodist Missionary Claudia Genung-Yakamoto and her husband, Toshi, on right, join the Rev. Songwan Hong, head of the Korean Christian Council in Japan, and his family after a service at West Tokyo Union Church. A UMNS Web-only photo courtesy of Ruth Grubel.
United Methodist Missionary Claudia Genung-Yakamoto
and her husband, Toshi, on right, join the Rev. Songwan
Hong, head of the Korean Christian Council in Japan, and
his family after a service at West Tokyo Union Church.
A UMNS Web-only photo courtesy of Ruth Grubel.

Without gasoline and with train travel disrupted in the northeast, he added, it is difficult to move supplies. “There’s not panicking or rioting, but they’re starting to hoard food,” he observed.

Residents of Tokyo continue to endure rolling electrical blackouts and aftershocks from the earthquake.

On March 17, the blackout started at 3:30 p.m. and lasted about three hours. The Rev. Claudia Genung-Yamamoto, a United Methodist missionary, spent the day handling e-mail queries from overseas for the National Christian Council in Japan, to which she is assigned, and tending to the needs of members of West Tokyo Union Church, where she serves as a part-time pastor.

One church family was looking for bread, “which was not to be found in any of our neighborhood stores,” she said. But a neighbor from Ghana – whom Genung-Yamamoto had provided with a flashlight during the blackout the night before – had extra food and bread and was “grateful” that she could help someone else. “We all pool our resources in times of need,” she said.

Genung-Yamamoto had dinner later at the home of Kumsoon Lee, a member of her congregation, and her husband, the Rev. Songwan Hong, the top executive of the Korean Christian Council in Japan, a partner organization of The United Methodist Church. Two aftershocks occurred as they spoke together about the effects of the earthquake.

Some Koreans evacuating

Hong reported that most "newcomers" – Koreans who have not lived in Japan as long as those who are second- or third-generations there – have returned to Korea, as have many of the Korean students.

Five churches affiliated with the council were badly damaged by the earthquake, and the Korean Consulate is helping evacuate Koreans from the Sendai area close to the epicenter.



Cars were tossed like toys in the Sendai area when a tsunami followed the powerful March 11 earthquake in northern Japan. A UMNS photo courtesy of Jeffrey Mensendiek.
Cars were tossed like toys in the Sendai area when a tsunami followed the powerful March 11 earthquake in northern Japan.
A UMNS photo courtesy of Jeffrey Mensendiek.
View in Photo Gallery

The Rev. Seo Eongill, a missionary of the Korean Methodist Church and council member, has remained in Sendai, although his family evacuated to Korea. Other Korean pastors are fine, but many church members in the area are not yet accounted for, Hong said.

The Center for Pacific and Asian American Ministries at United Methodist-related Claremont (Calif.) School of Theology has written to United Methodist Chicago Area Bishop Hee-Soo Jung about “what we, as a faith connection, could collectively do together” to respond to the disaster in Japan.

“Could the Council of Bishops, as in instances in the past where massive humanitarian action is needed in concert, once again lead our church to make an effort to undertake relief and reconstruction in a manner commensurate with our ability as a connection, and beyond what UMCOR is normally able to do?” the letter asked.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief is working with the United Church of Christ in Japan and GlobalMedic to bring immediate relief to the affected communities in Japan. Donations can be made here.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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