A big wave stirs memories

Two boxes sit on the top shelf of my closet. One holds a yukata, or Japanese summer kimono, that is navy blue with large pink flowers. The other box contains an obi, or kimono sash, and instructions, written on looseleaf paper in my teenage hand, on how to tie, fold and clean it.

My connection with Japan began years ago, when my church — First-Wayne United Methodist in Fort Wayne, Ind. — decided to host a group of Japanese young people for the summer through the Experiment in International Living. Miyuki came to live with us and a photo album holds a record of our excursions with her to the lakes of northern Indiana, the Indianapolis statehouse and Mackinac Island in Michigan.

A few years later, during the summer of my 17th birthday, I spent six weeks on Japan’s southern island of Kyushu, courtesy of a Lions Club International exchange program. I lived with two different families, one in Kurume and one in Nagasaki, and quickly grew close to my Japanese “sisters” in each, who were college-age at the time. The next year, one of these sisters, Mariko, spent the summer with my family in Indiana.

I always meant to go back to Japan, but it didn’t happen, except for a quick stopover at the airport in Tokyo.

So I never ventured to northern Japan, where the March 11 earthquake and tsunami caused so much devastation and sorrow and where the threat of a wider radiation leak from a nuclear power plant is keeping everyone on edge.

Unfortunately, even without the news reports, I know exactly what a town looks like after a tsunami has swept through.

Eighteen days after the Dec. 26, 2004, Asian earthquake and tsunami that touched a number of countries ringing the Indian Ocean, I was standing in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, one of the hardest hit areas. Three of us from United Methodist Communications — Larry Hollon, Mike DuBose and I — had accompanied a Board of Global Ministries delegation there to be in solidarity with the Methodist Church in Indonesia.

Television screens, no matter how jumbo, cannot totally capture the aftermath of a tsunami’s incredible force. As I wrote then, the debris — and the destruction — went on for miles. The Rev. Henry Leono, a New Jersey pastor and former resident of Banda Aceh who was with us, literally could not believe his eyes. “This is beyond my imagination,” he said.

Homes and cities can be rebuilt. The human toll from the 2004 tsunami was awful — a final death count of 229,866 by the United Nations, including those whose bodies were never found. Of that total, nearly 130,700 were in Indonesia.

The pastor of the Methodist Church in Banda Aceh, the Rev. Tahir Wijaya, narrowly survived the tsunami by climbing a tree. The receding water deposited two corpses in the church and another 27 bodies in the yard outside. Forty-five church members were believed to have died and 50 families had homes that were damaged or destroyed.

Still, when we visited the church, Wijaya was starting a daunting cleanup process. He was determined to get his church, and the attached school, up and running as soon as possible, with plans for an extended ministry to the families of the 760 students at the school. He and his wife had even re-named their baby daughter. Born two days before the catastrophe, she was now Natalie Tsunami.

I remember that pastor’s determination now. I think of my experiences with the Japanese people and I know they will overcome this disaster, too. And, like those who suffered through the 2004 tsunami, they have the support of sisters and brothers around the world.

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