March 11 isn’t the only date from 2011 seared into Pastor Satoru Ito’s memory. April 24 holds equal—if not greater—power.
For it was on April 24, Easter Sunday, that his church came back to life.
Looking around the tiny sanctuary in Ishinomaki, an area hard hit by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, Pastor Ito recalled the day with perfect clarity. “It was our first service after the disaster,” he said with tears in his eyes. “Usually people arrive at 10:30. That morning, there was a line out the door by 9:30 of 20 or more people.”
The congregation had, until that day, numbered 10.
A total of 60 newcomers came on April 24.
Pastor Ito at first thought the people were volunteers arriving to pack boxes. When he announced that it was time for Sunday worship to begin and that volunteers could return later, his mouth dropped when no one left. “To my amazement and joy, everyone came in. The sanctuary was full. People worshipped with open hearts.”
After pastoring Ishinomaki Christ Church for one-and-a-half years without a single newcomer, Ito’s congregation now has 70 to 80 members.
“The church was reborn,” said Pastor Ito. “The tsunami destroyed the church. It died once but rose again on Easter.”
Walking from the sanctuary to a back room, he pointed to a line on the wall showing the flood level. If people had been inside, they would have been wading through chest-high water. “Everything inside became garbage,” said Ito. “We lost all of the church’s financial records. The walls stood but everything inside was lost. We also had to strip the wooden floors out of the sanctuary.”
But the material damage can’t begin to compare with losing a member of his small flock, said Pastor Ito. “In addition to the death, we also had many injuries. The brother of one member was found dead after being missing for three months.”
The pain generated by the tsunami’s physical and emotional damage has not been in vain, Ito noted. “This has opened hearts for Christianity. And open hearts are very important for evangelism and the upcoming Tohoku Celebration of Hope.”
Pastor Ito said he realizes the first anniversary of the earthquake is an important time to reach out to people. As members of his church have ministered in the temporary housing facilities the past year, they have encountered loneliness, despair and even crime. “Many people are very weary, but we can’t push faith. We must be careful and follow God’s timing and leading.”
That is why Operation Andrew is a good method to reach people, he added. “Praying for friends and inviting them to attend the Celebration is the best way.
“It will be important for us to be together in person as Christians at this time.”
Rev. Satoru Ito is the Prayer Chairman for the Tohoku Celebration of Hope.
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