A middle-aged mother has once again stopped by Okawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki to tenderly sift through piles of graduation photos, trophies, gym clothes and backpacks—desperately hoping to find a precious keepsake belonging to her dead daughter.
Her search this day is successful; she discovers her daughter’s journal with the words “Mommy’s birthday” scrawled across one page.
The woman is among countless parents and residents who have made the pilgrimage to the school’s gym now serving as repository for 50,000 items that were recovered during mop-up operations on the south bank of the Kitakami River.
But at the end of October, the doors of the old gym will be locked and the unclaimed belongings will be taken to a nearby incinerator, a sign that time is passing and hope is fleeing.
According to The Japan Times, approximately 46 percent of Ishinomaki was inundated by the March 11 tsunami and earthquake. Close to 4,000 deaths have been confirmed in the city; more than 2,000 people are still missing.
The school itself was hard hit. The Japan Times reports that 75 of 108 students and 10 of 13 teachers were killed as they evacuated the school and tried to escape across a nearby river bridge. One of the teachers who survived later committed suicide.
In this community so terribly affected, one man is quietly making a difference. Pastor Shigezo Suzuki walks among the remains of once beautiful homes with a Bible, hammer and guitar. “A lot of people abandoned their homes at first,” he says, pausing from his labor. “But now they are coming back after hearing that Samaritan’s Purse is helping to renovate houses.”
The manual labor is a part of bigger job—that of building God’s Kingdom during a crucial time. “Now that the shock and initial busyness has subsided, people are feeling depressed” says Suzuki. “Before this disaster, few here had ever heard of the Gospel. The concept of grace escaped them.
“The upside is that hearts are now open,” he adds.
Suzuki drives two hours every day to come to Ishinomaki. “I am called to this area,” he says. “This was my hometown; the house I grew up in was destroyed.”
He works with Amazing Grace Ministries whose mission is to build churches where there are none. In Ishinomaki, that’s exactly what happened.
When a volunteer from Samaritan’s Purse met a homeowner in the work area, the two began to discuss that Pastor Suzuki was looking to plant a new church in Ishinomaki. This man happened to be the owner of an apartment complex in the neighborhood.
After a moment, he proposed that if the crews would mud out the lower floors of his apartments, he would give Pastor Suzuki one of the apartments to use as a church building for one year, rent free.
“There had been much prayer for a new church planting there and God answered those requests,” says Billy Graham Rapid Response Team chaplain Ray Thompson, who was serving in Ishinomaki and other areas near Sendai at the time.
The church will be dedicated on October 30.
A Labor of Love
Pastor Suzuki’s story is not the only example of how God is building His Kingdom in the midst of rubble. Tokiko Hiratsuko was so touched when volunteers helped clean her home that she opened her heart to the love of Christ for the first time.
The day of my visit, she shared her memories from March 11: “The earthquake was really big so we were trying to clean up after the mess because everything had crashed in and fallen down. The phone calls were coming in rapidly but, after a while, the phone stopped because the phone lines were destroyed.”
While Hiratsuko was cleaning, her 18-year-old daughter heard a “weird sound.” The two stepped outside and saw a wall of water—with a small car floating on top—rushing toward them. “We realized it was dangerous so we ran inside and slammed the door.”
Mother and daughter looked out the window. “We could see our neighbor backing up his car and thought, ‘Oh no, no. A tsunami is coming.’ That was the last time we saw him alive.”
Water and debris filled the bottom floor and an eerie darkness settled over the house. Huddled together in an upstairs bedroom, the women survived along with one of their two dogs. “We couldn’t save the other one,” says Hiratsuko. “My daughter still cries over his death.”
And Hiratsuko’s heart still pounds when she looks around downstairs. But some of her fear is dissipating, thanks to her new relationship with Jesus. “I knew about Him before but He seemed distant, not real. When the volunteers came in and they were helping me and they devoted themselves to me, I wondered why they were doing those things.
“On the last day when they finished this house,” Hiratsuko recalls, “they came in and asked me if I was interested in learning more about Jesus, and I said ‘yes.’ I am amazed at what a great loving God He is.”
Now Hiratsuko hosts a Bible Study in her home each week, led by Pastor Suzuki. “God has brought us together through tragedy,” the two exclaim in unison. “Jesus is alive in Ishinomaki,” Suzuki adds.
The photo on this page shows Pastor Suzuki with Tokiko Hiratsuko. See more photos from Ishinomaki in the Multimedia box on the left side of this page.