6:00 P.M. EST March 11, 2011
The Rev. Claudia Genung Yamamoto was having a late lunch with two church members in west Tokyo when the restaurant was shaken by the most powerful earthquake to strike Japan in at least a century.
As they rushed outside on what was a Friday afternoon in Tokyo, the earthquake stopped but the aftershocks began.
“The ground kept moving and the telephone lines were swaying, so we were afraid,” said Yamamoto, a United Methodist missionary and California native. “By this time, everyone had come out of the buildings to wait in the street. I told my members to keep praying, and I did the same.”
Hours later, Japan was struggling with the aftermath of a combined earthquake and tsunami that killed several hundred people, touched off dozens of fires and raised concerns about a possible radiation leak at a nuclear power plant. The impact was felt around the globe as tsunami alerts were posted in other countries.
United Methodists expressed concern and offered prayers for the people of Japan. The United Methodist Committee on Relief and Church World Service were consulting with partners in the region on emergency-relief needs.
Even more than 200 miles from the earthquake’s epicenter, those living in the Tokyo area were struggling with transportation and communications problems caused by the disaster.
Sarah Alsgaard, 25, took shelter under her bed when the tremors began. Alsgaard, the daughter of a United Methodist pastor, has been teaching English for the past two years in Toride, northeast of Tokyo.
"There’s a storage space underneath my bed,” she wrote to her father, the Rev. Erik Alsgaard of St. Ignace, Mich., in an e-mail. “When I came out, my apartment looked like a disaster area. The TV flew off the table it was on. I haven't picked almost anything up yet because the aftershocks keep hitting, and I don’t know if there’ll be another powerful tremor that’d just send everything back on the floor again.”
In an e-mail to United Methodist News Service received at 9:27 a.m. Eastern Time — 11:27 p.m. in Tokyo — Debbie Umipig-Julian, a missionary there, said communication was difficult because cell phones and landline phones were down, as well as public transportation.
“It is still shaking up to this time so I guess I’ll stay awake all night and pray that everybody will be able to contact their loved ones,” she wrote.
Umipig-Julian, a social worker for the Christian Coalition for Refugees and Migrant Workers, and Yamamoto, assigned to the National Christian Council in Japan, are among the nine missionaries working with partner agencies there through the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. A number of individual volunteers-in-mission also are working in Japan.
Thomas Kemper, the board’s top executive, sent an e-mail message to mission partners and missionaries expressing shock and sadness over the situation. “You and your ministries are in our fervent prayers in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami,” he wrote. “We are also in prayer for Japan as a people in this time of crisis. The General Board of Global Ministries has long and highly valued mission partnerships in Japan and a deep affection for its people.”
In Sacramento, Calif., the Rev. Motoe Yamada, senior pastor of the Japanese United Methodist Church, was able to confirm that her sister and parents in Tokyo were safe and sent e-mails to the Listservs of the denomination’s Japanese American National Caucus and Asian American Pacific Islander Clergywomen Association, asking members to share information on family and friends living in Japan.
The Japanese caucus issued a statement offering condolences and support. “We stand united in our concerns, prayers and support as many of our constituents and churches are related with families and friends in Japan,” the Rev. George Nishikawa, caucus chairman, said.
The caucus is part of the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists, which described the earthquake and tsunami as “a tragedy of gigantic proportions” and called for all churches to remember those affected during their weekly worship services.
“We ask all United Methodists to join with us in prayer for the millions who are affected by the earthquake and resulting tsunami,” wrote Donald Hayashi, the federation’s president. “We recognize that this disaster affects not only Japan, but all countries of the Pacific Rim. We also are praying for the safety of emergency crews who are searching for survivors and giving comfort to the victims.”
Yamada’s congregation of 550 members was holding a prayer service at 1 p.m. Pacific Time for those affected by the disaster.
The Tokyo native recalled practicing earthquake drills in school each year on Sept. 1. “I was in Japan when the big earthquake hit Kobe (1995), and I went there as a volunteer for two weeks immediately after the event,” Yamada added. “The destruction was unspeakable.”
Still, she has faith that “whatever happens after this big earthquake, God is with us and God will help us to restore what we have.” Her Sacramento congregation already had plans for mission work in Japan, which she expects to be revised to focus on earthquake recovery.
Relief needs in Japan and elsewhere related to the March 11 earthquake and tsunami also will be the focus of the United Methodist Committee on Relief, which is in contact with partners in the region, said Melissa Crutchfield, UMCOR executive for international disaster response.
The Rev. Cynthia Fierro Harvey, UMCOR’s top executive, urged prayers for those affected by the disaster. “Once again, in the wake of disaster and in the face of widespread need, we rely on the ever-expansive generosity of United Methodists and all people of goodwill to help us respond to those whose lives have suddenly been turned upside down,” she said.
Emergency response staff members at Church World Service are in contact with the agency’s office in Bangkok, which is monitoring the situation in Japan and across the region. Tsunami warnings are in effect for North Sulawesi, Indonesia, and two local partners for CWS there have been contacted.
Donations can be made to Pacific Emergency, UMCOR Advance #3021317.
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe. Tim Tanton, executive director of content, contributed to this story.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or email@example.com.