by Kent Muhling
Now that I've had some time to reflect on my first trip to Touhoku, the north part of Japan that got devastated by the tsunami in March, I wanted to share some of my thoughts:
1) First, I felt like God was confirming to me the way He made me and the kind of ministry He has suited me for. I really felt in my own element up there. What I mean is, I am not naturally a good organizer, I can grow bored with routine, etc. but I do respond well in crisis situations, when unexpected problems arise or situations suddenly change. As a volunteer relief worker, every day was different. Each day found us going to different places, meeting with different people, facing different challenges, etc. Didn't know until the night before what the next morning's mission was, and sometimes the plan changed the next morning anyway. Would have driven my wife absolutely crazy(!), but I really enjoyed it.
2) Next, I felt confirmed that one of the spiritual gifts God has given me is the gift of helps. It felt really good to simply serve people, driving 3 hours each way just to drop off a van load of needed supplies and see their gratitude. In the past I've mostly focused on using the gift of teaching in ministry.
However I also loved every opportunity God gave me to talk with people, encouraging them, listening to them, and sharing what testimony or witness to the gospel that I could in the given situation. It was very satisfying to be able to exercise both speaking and serving gifts together.
3) I also felt convicted to be better prepared to respond to such situations in the future. This is Japan -- earthquakes are a constant reality, and there will be another big one. The only question is, when.
That means being better prepared to cope if a disaster hits us, and being better prepared to help if disaster hits others. The Lord impressed on my heart that in earthquake prone Japan, this is a necessary application of "love your neighbor as yourself." Are we preparing to help others as much as we are preparing to protect ourselves?
Here are some very practical things I've thought of so far:
- Keep more canned food and water on hand so we have enough to share if needed.
- Practice earthquake drills at home so our children won't freak out so bad if one actually hits.
- Take up camping as a family recreation so everyone will be better prepared to "rough it" if our house were damaged, or if we wanted to go help in an area where other lodging is unavailable.
4) Finally, if we are going to commit to being involved in relief ministry in the future, additional tools are needed. Before leaving for Touhoku, the three of us going bought work clothes and gloves, safety boots, hard hats, etc. We also packed camping equipment (that one family already owns) and enough food and water that we could be completely self sufficient for two weeks if needed. As it turned out, we didn't have to live that way this past trip -- but it could be necessary another time.
What other tools do we need to be able to minister in time of disaster? Here are two more I've thought of:
1) An iPhone. Don't laugh! So much necessary communication happens online now, that if you don't have internet access you are seriously hampered. Simply having a cell phone wasn't enough. Both our mission (Asian Access) and the CRASH relief network are using email, websites, message boards, and Facebook to communicate. We had to have internet access. But when you're away from home, or when the electricity goes down (as it was in many places where we were working), how can you do that? Through the 3G cell phone networks -- the cell towers were mostly still up, unaffected by earthquake or tsunami.
(And I needed 3G cell network internet access in order to send you my email updates!)
In addition, we made great use of that capability while on the road. Our volunteer teams were using their smartphones to check email enroute, receive and post information on the web, navigate unfamiliar roads (using the iPhone's GPS and Google Maps), mark locations and record contact information of places we visited for others to use (Google Maps again), even pass GPS coordinates to the military for air drops of relief supplies to evac centers!
Oh, and we made lots of phone calls, too.
When we arrived in Japan, in my attempt to be frugal I had opted for the simplest cell phone, with no data or texting plan. Yesterday I went back and got an iPhone (and the necessary data plan for internet access). That significantly increases our monthly bill, and we need to raise additional support to cover it. But this disaster relief experience taught me that it is a necessary tool for the ministry we were doing, and a necessary part of being prepared if we're affected ourselves.
2) A large minivan. Again, when we came to Japan we bought a nice little station wagon, with seats for six, and room enough for our family and luggage when we take a trip. But there's hardly room for anyone else, or for larger amounts of cargo. I was only thinking about my own family's needs, not about being prepared to help others.
Up in Tohouku, many people were (and still are!) using their own vehicles to transport relief supplies. Rental trucks are hard to come by now, and there is no other easy option. The entire second week of my trip I drove a large minivan, borrowed from a pastor in Sendai city. Every day that thing was packed to the gills with people and/or supplies.
You might think, as I did at first, that relief supplies would always come in big shipments on huge military trucks. Of course that was happening, too. But what about the 9 houses left intact on the western edge of Shizugawa after the tsunami hit, for exampl? Those 9 families are still in their homes, without electricity, running water, phone, or gas for cooking. No big military truck will deliver supplies to them. It's a long walk to the nearest evac center to stand in line for food and water, and hard to carry much back home if you do -- especially if you're elderly or sick. And there are other things they need that the evac centers don't provide. What to do?
Enter a CRASH volunteer team with their two minivans full of supplies!
We were the perfect size to meet that need. And there are numerous similar situations I could describe. Plus, every time we made a delivery we did it in Christ's name, often even praying with the people we delivered to.
So-o-o-o, we're praying about the possibility of trading our nice little station wagon in for a larger van. Again, that would mean raising additional support, but I have become convinced that it's a necessary tool for the job.
Or, to frame the idea biblically, it is a very practical application of "love your neighbor as yourself." I want to have room enough in my car to love my neighbor when an earthquake hits. Right now I don't.
We are meeting with the other missionary families to talk and pray about what we'll do next. I expect I (or perhaps we!) will be going up north again, but we don't know when, for how long, or in what capacity. There's a lot to discuss. We'd really appreciate your prayers about that, even as you continue to pray for the people up in the Touhoku region.
Thanks again, so very much, for your love and support.
Yours in Christ,