Faith groups mobilize in wake of Japan's worst-ever earthquake

March 15, 2011

In the aftermath of Japan's worst earthquake on record and the deepening threat of radiation leaking from the Fukushima nuclear power plants in the north, faith groups and relief agencies around the world are exploring ways to assist through donations, emergency supplies and prayer.

Episcopal Relief & Development said on March 15 that it is sending financial support to the Nippon Sei Ko Kai (NSKK) to help with its initial emergency relief efforts as the Anglican Communion province continues to gather vital information about its impacted dioceses in the north and begins to assess the immediate needs of the church and the wider Japanese community.

Some reports are saying that the death toll has reached 4,000 after the magnitude-9 earthquake (upgraded from an earlier estimate of magnitude 8.9) struck on March 11 resulting in a destructive tsunami that pounded the country's northeast coast. But Japanese officials estimate that at least 10,000 people will have died as a result of the disaster and say that approximately 30,000 people from the most devastated areas are still unaccounted for.

The earthquake -- estimated to be at least 700 times more powerful than the one that hit Haiti in January 2010 -- caused Japan's main island to move about eight feet to the east, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

"We are standing by the church in Japan during this difficult time," said Nagulan Nesiah, program officer for Episcopal Relief & Development. "As you can imagine, the needs are overwhelming and it will take time to assess the best ways to support the church and Japan as they move toward recovery."

About 550,000 people who have lost their homes or have been evacuated are living in temporary shelters, according to a March 15 update from Shinya Samuel Yawata, secretary of the NSKK.

He said that, due to lack of access and communication, the NSKK provincial office was struggling to get accurate information about the disaster's impact on the coastal dioceses of Tohoku and Kita Kanto in northern Japan, but reported that there were no casualties among the clergy.

Yawata said that St. Stephen's Church in Mito-city, Ibaragi Prefecture, while not completely destroyed, lost its bell tower and that the church building and rectory suffered substantial damage. He also reported that Shimodate Anglican Church in Ibaragi Prefecture also has sustained significant damage to the walls and ceiling.

"Food and fuel supplies are running low in many areas, and both transportation and communication infrastructures have suffered severe damage, hampering the ability of relief agencies to respond," according to a March 15 press release from Episcopal Relief & Development.

Adding to the crisis is a series of explosions at the Fukushima nuclear power plants, which has prompted the evacuation of more than 180,000 people, the release said. "There is currently a 20-kilometer evacuation zone around the plant, and people living 20 to 30 kilometers from the facility have been urged to stay indoors with all windows and vents closed. Local authorities are continuing to screen and treat people for radiation exposure."

About 62 miles south of Fukushima is the Asian Rural Institute – an ecumenical training center for sustainable agriculture, community development – where some staff and volunteers, including Episcopal Young Adult Service Corps volunteer Steven Hart from Kentucky, evacuated on March 12 after news of the power plant explosions.

Steven Cutting, an ARI staff member who stayed behind, confirmed that everyone at the institute is fine.

"ARI sustained quite a bit of damage from the quake, but nothing like you are seeing on the news," he said in a March 15 e-mail update. "Some of our buildings have structural damage, but we do not yet now the extent. Everything is a mess and smashed, since everything on every shelf, desk, or cabinet was thrown violently to the floor."

Cutting said that the clean-up at ARI began the day after the quake, but that "we stopped to regroup in the face of the even scarier stuff happening at the nuclear power plant."

The radiation in the area where ARI is located "is higher than normal," Cutting said, "but not to danger levels apparently, but the wind started blowing radiation in our direction. Before today the wind was blowing it away from us."

Despite being directly impacted by the earthquake, ARI does not expect any issues with food shortages, said J.B. Hoover, executive director of the American Friends of ARI, in a March 15 e-mail update, adding that the institute already has harvested and stored rice for the coming year as well as stored silage and other fermented feed for the livestock. "As an organization ARI will continue operating and serving the local community."

Hoover also noted that ARI has vast experience managing volunteers. “Every year over a thousand of volunteers come to ARI. This puts ARI in a unique position as a functioning local organization with this experience.”

Jonathan and Satomi McCurley, United Methodist Church missionaries serving at ARI, said in a March 14 blog post that although they "are still in the middle of a bad situation, we know that our God is able to deliver us from this and more. Thank you for all of your prayers, love and words of encouragement. They have been much strength to us..."

On March 14, the McCurleys set up a temporary office at the Nasu Seminar House while continuing to monitor the situation at the power plant and the institute "as we have been warned of another very large aftershock in the next few days," they said. "Please continue to pray for us here at ARI."

Meanwhile, Episcopal Relief & Development said it is also standing by to offer assistance to churches and partners outside Japan, such as those in Hawaii and on the west coast of the United States, that have been affected by the quake-triggered tsunami.

"Please continue to pray for all those affected by this enormous tragedy, both in Japan and around the Pacific," said Nesiah. "Especially during this time where the full scope of the disaster is not yet known and physical damage is preventing relief activities from moving ahead, prayers for mercy, comfort and protection are the most important."

Prayers and message of support continued to pour in from around the Anglican Communion.

Archbishop Alan Harper has called for prayers to be offered in Church of Ireland churches on March 20 for all those affected by the disaster and Archbishop Phillip Aspinall of the Anglican Church of Australia has urged all Australians to keep Japan and its people in their ongoing prayers and thoughts as the nation recovers.

Aspinall said that Australians join the global community in expressing shock at the extent of the disaster, "which has once again reminded us of the unpredictability of nature. Australian Anglicans also remain confident of God's active caring involvement in the lives of people no matter where they live."

Referring to the recent floods that impacted vast swaths of Queensland, Aspinall said Australia knows only too well of the destructive forces of nature and the gratitude that flows from giving.

"We are grateful for the support and good wishes which flowed to us from the church in Japan in the aftermath of the floods [and bushfires] earlier this year. It is tragic that we should be returning that support so soon," he said.

Episcopal Relief & Development said that its Japan Earthquake Response Fund will provide vital support to the NSKK for their immediate work in assessing and responding to the disaster and that the agency will continue to provide additional support as the NSKK assesses its needs and makes longer-term recovery plans.

Donations can be made to Episcopal Relief & Development, www.er-d.org, 1-800-334-7626, ext. 5129. Gifts can be mailed to Episcopal Relief & Development, PO Box 7058, Merrifield, VA 22116-7058.