Meeting with a couple dozen pastors for almost two hours on Friday in Tokyo, Japan, Franklin Graham offered hope, encouragement and compassion.
“It breaks my heart to see people suffer this way,” Graham said. “None of us understand why these things happen, but we know that God loves the people of Japan.”
Kenney Isaacs, one of the first responders to reach Japan with Samaritan’s Purse, has seen almost everything in 25 years of disaster relief work. But he’s never seen this.
And Isaacs can’t help but vividly think of Psalm 75:3, which says, “When the Earth and all its people quake, it is I who hold its pillars firm.”
“That verse, I feel like God is speaking to this event,” said Isaacs, Vice President of Programs at Samaritan’s Purse. “He is speaking to when people fear for their lives, when they fear at the very ground that shakes underneath their feet, God says ‘I set its pillars firm.’ ”
With the death toll expected to top 30,000 and another 500,000 people displaced, fear is rampant. But in the midst of that fear, Graham gave the Christian church leaders a charge, to recognize how God may be using this disaster for far greater things than they could fathom.
“This is an opportunity for us as Christians to go beyond the church walls and demonstrate the love of Christ,” Graham said. “God can use something like this to further His Kingdom in ways we don’t see or understand now.”
Even Isaacs and his decades of relief experience is finding the situation in northern Japan about as hopeless as he’s ever seen.
“The utter destruction,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine they could rebuild.”
The debris from the tsunami, Isaacs has heard, is equal to 30 years of garbage in Japan.
“One thing that profoundly affected my heart is that I’ve seen all these worldly possessions that were, within minutes, pulverized into splinters,” Isaacs said. “It’s as if the surface of the Earth had been put into a blender, put on high speed for 60 seconds and poured back on the ground.”
But in the middle of the rubble, in the center of homeless, starving people, in the middle of all hopelessness, Isaacs knows there is unspeakable hope.
“It just makes me think the things of this world are so temporary,” he said, recalling scripture from Matthew 6:19-20. “And our treasures are in Heaven, not of this earth.”
The relief effort – already billed as the most costly in Japan history with some estimates as high as $310 billion ¬– is not a six or 12 month situation.
In the heavily damaged areas, Isaacs thinks at best it’s a multi-year rebuilding process, although he’s witnessed some cities that have been wiped so thoroughly off the map, he struggles to articulate a scenario where that city will exist again.
“Places you see rubble that’s 20-feet thick,” he said. “I can’t imagine where you put that much garbage. My heart goes out to the Japanese people.”
As does Graham’s, whose burden has been heavy for the people of Japan, including the Kansai Festival in October 2010.
“We are here to stand by you for as long as you need us to help your people recover,” he said.
The timing of that festival continues to reveal itself as conduit that only God could orchestrate. Connections through the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association have been invaluable, from organizing and deploying the initial relief response to the myriad of logistical challenges.
“I feel like we couldn’t achieve what we’ve done so far if we didn’t have those relationships with BGEA and the committee from the Kansai Festival,” Isaacs said. “Samaritan’s Purse has found favor. God has given us favor and that favor is manifested through the Christian community in Japan.
“Practically speaking, it’s everything from who owns trucks we could rent to where could we buy this thing or how could we get a warehouse. Having that pre-existing network of Christians we can work with, we can trust has been instrumental in everything we’ve been able to do so far.”
But spiritually speaking, in many ways, the work has only begun.
One pastor from Fukushima said his church lost it’s building and is living among the people in the crowded shelters, but realizes “God is giving us this chance to serve the suffering.”
As Isaacs and BGEA’s Chad Hammond and Tom Phillips talks with pastors, the need for grief and crisis training has become very apparent.
“Many comments and request about the need for relief and trauma counseling,” Isaacs said. “The BGEA has a program to train Christians in grief and crisis. Chad Hammond and Tom Phillips are quickly moving forward to getting those materials translated into Japanese.
“There’s a great need for it and a lot of excitement for it.”
For now, prayer for Japan and that God would use this disaster for His Kingdom is Isaacs’ most urgent request.
“This tsunami is just a very stark and traumatic example that without hope in Christ we have nothing,” he said. “Except those things that will become ashes and splinters and dust.”