March 11th will mark the 5th anniversary of the great earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in northeastern Japan. Though much of my time is consumed by the responsibilities that come with my work on a college campus, I make a point to embark on two pilgrimages each year. One to touch upon the wellsprings of joy, and another to enter into the pain of those living in the shadow of human-made tragedy.
Sachie loves to help cook. Though she can’t speak with words, she has no problem communicating the passion for what she loves to do. One day she comes home from her daily routine to find Ms. Okada preparing the evening meal for the three houses of L’Arche. The menu is one of her favorites; sushi-rolls. She can’t wait to help, but she knows that she must take her bath first. Manami, one of the house assistants, will help her. Manami sits in the hot bath with her and tells her that she must wait until Manami counts to 30. No sooner does Manami finish counting, Sachie is out. She dresses quickly and rushes to the kitchen. Her eyes beam with excitement as she stands in front of the hot steaming rice. Laughter erupts from those of us standing by as Sachie, without a word, speaks to us about the joy and passion she feels for this moment.
The above is just one segment from the trip I recently took to visit my friends at the L’Arche community in Shizuoka. L’Arche is a place where people with and without mental disabilities live together as one family. In Shizuoka there are three homes where 13 “core members” live assisted by a handful of “assistants.” During the day they spend time together doing various activities, and at night they gather at their various homes, share a meal, pray together, and then go to bed. On my visits I often experience their generous spirit of love, welcome, joy and celebration. They know how to communicate from the heart. They show me that you do not need much in material things in order to live a full and happy life.
Realities in Fukushima are much more bleak and complicated. Some people have managed to move on with their lives, but most are still broken, displaced, confused, afraid, angry, depressed, divided, struggling and full of questions. Last fall I received a postcard from my friend Kimie who works as a nurse in Fukushima city. She wrote, “Jeffrey, please come to Fukushima.” We hadn’t seen each other in ten years. She met me at the train station, and then we went out for a cup of coffee. Later she took me to the hot springs outside of town where she lives with her mother. We stood on a bridge overlooking a gorge. The deep greens of the hills and forests were as beautiful as ever. Though radiation levels have gone down in recent years, the dangers are still there. What would be deemed dangerous in any other part of Japan, is “normal” in Fukushima. Solar panel monitors on street corners and in public parks inform the public of the radiation levels. Kimie tries not to think too much about the radiation, but there are times when she cannot avoid it. Like the time she sent a gift of disposable diapers to a former colleague who had just given birth to a newborn. The friend sent the diapers back saying that she was sorry she could not use diapers from Fukushima. This is but an example of the hurt and pain that the people of Fukushima have to live with.
Upon my return home I received another postcard from Kimie thanking me for my visit. The picture on the postcard was a piece of art work from the Fukushima City Museum. Kimie wrote; “Jeffrey, what do you see in this painting?” I keep her postcard on my desk as a reminder of the ongoing suffering of her people. I intend to continue the pilgrimage to Fukushima, in search of the face of Christ who “suffers with” those who are asking themselves; “Why did this happen to us?” and “Where do we go from here?”
Jeffrey Mensendiek serves with the Kwansei Gakuin University, on faculty of the theology department, and a chaplain of the Center for Religious Activities. His appointment is made possible by your gifts to Disciples Mission Fund, Our Churches Wider Mission, and your special gifts.