Touching Lives Rocked by Grief

By   •   October 10, 2011   •   Topics: ,

Last October, as Franklin Graham preached his final message at the Kansai Festival and the lights went out at Osaka Jo Hall, few in Japan could have predicted that one year later, the country would be struggling to recover from a devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power crisis.

Tony Berrera, a Festival counselor and Christian Life and Witness Course trainer, experienced it all. Although he was on a bus in Kyoto when the twin assaults destroyed much of the Tohoku region on March 11, he has lived in the aftermath and sees in retrospect how God was at work.

“I understand now that God was preparing churches to work together last year during the Kansai Festival. The connections, the relationships, the trust, the sense of accountability—God used them all.”

In fact, said Berrera as we met in Osaka a few weeks ago, “the Festival last October connected enough people with the BGEA and with Franklin Graham so that when Samaritan’s Purse came in after the earthquake, there was no question whether the Japanese churches would work with them.”

A New York City native who has lived in Japan for 29 years, Berrera’s love for the nation runs so deep he won’t consider leaving, no matter the danger. “My family asked me when I was coming back to the United States,” he shared. “But I got saved in this country. I am not going to leave my church. I would rather die with the people of Japan.”

When a church member asked Berrera to join the International Committee for the Kansai Franklin Graham Festival last year, he was eager to jump in and help. Soon after, he became an instructor with the Christian Life and Witness Course.

And when the earthquake struck months later, BGEA leadership contacted Berrera to help train pastors along with Rapid Response Team Director Jack Munday and attend the RRT chaplain retreat at The Cove in June.

Compassion in Action

The lessons Berrera learned were priceless in setting up Grief in Crisis training for Japanese churches. “We developed a modified version for their entire lives, not just during disasters,” he explained. “Yes, during March and April, the earthquake was all consuming.  But as time goes on, people are beginning to experience other types of crises. This class can equip people to reach out to someone who has gone through a divorce or lost a family member—to ‘minister across the street.'”

Two bedrocks of the training are the importance of presence and the importance of listening. Because the course is based on the Bible, students look at what God’s Word says about suffering.  Berrera knows a person’s first instinct is to ask, “Why did this happen?” He tells them, “Why is not the important question. Who is the important part – God. We need to ask what He is trying to teach us.”

He will also teach about compassion from Matthew 9: 35-38. In Japanese, the word compassion means “to suffer with.”

Attendees share traumatic stories with each other and begin to relate to each other. Some of them talk about Sendai, said Berrera, but there are people who are still suffering from the 1995 Kobe earthquake.

“Those people were never treated in the proper way,” he explained.  “They were not allowed to express their grief verbally; there were physiological manifestations. Japanese culture is very stoic.

“When we hit on the effects of trauma, the signs – you can see in people’s eyes the light comes on. ‘That’s what that was.’ It’s very personal.”

While all humans feel grief during tragedy, people vary in how they express it and where they take their grief. “For a believer, whether you are Japanese or not, our citizenship is in heaven. You can bring it to the cross,” Berrera noted.

For those who don’t bring their grief to Jesus Christ, the end result is depression and despair. “And the worse thing is suicide,” Berrera said. “Unfortunately, we’ve had 35,000 to 40,000 people taking their own lives every year in Japan for the last 13 years. It’s not a noble thing but it’s an accepted thing.”

Now that seven months have passed since the disaster, people are getting increasingly desperate. The farmers and fishermen are losing hope. According to Berrera, people started to lose hope at a greater rate after the fourth month.

“When I was in Sendai,” he shared, “I heard about a woman at one of the shelters. In the beginning she was taking care of other people and helping other people. And after month three, she went to where her home was and she lit herself on fire.”

Everything people had faith in is gone. Their family and jobs are gone. “They don’t know Jesus so they are left with nothing,” Berrera added.

An Infusion of Hope

This is why the Tohoku Celebration of Hope with Franklin Graham,which is being planned for March 2-4, 2012, is desperately needed.  “Only the Gospel can bring people what they truly need,” Berrera said.

He remembers last year’s Festival: “I was blown away by the positive effect that the BGEA has had on the church in Japan. It was just amazing the way people were working together. It has helped my church to go out and evangelize.”

When Chad Hammond, the Kansai Festival director, first explained the “Festival effect” to Berrera, he realized it was reproducible. The effect is 45 percent preparation, 10 percent celebration and 45 percent follow up.

Berrera had been looking “for years” for a way to educate his church on “no nonsense Bible-centered discipleship training and evangelism.” The Lord placed it in front of him last year in the form of the Christian Life and Witness Course. “It’s had an incredible effect on the church in Japan. Very positive; something I had not seen before.”

If the tsunami and earthquake had happened five years earlier, said Berrera, “I don’t think you would have seen such a quick response from the church. Because of relationships that people developed through the Kansai Festival, a variety of churches worked together. We had people connecting with people already and helping each other out—God set this all up.”

Berrera recalled hearing Erwin Lutzer speak one night at The Cove about God’s purpose in disasters. Lutzer told the audience that “what we are seeing now with earthquakes, floods and cyclones is just a preview.”

“That was not lost on me,” Berrera said. “You can see we are being positioned and prepared as a church in Japan to meet the needs of both the believer and the nonbeliever. The Lord does not waste anything. Yes, God is preparing us for the Tohoku Festival.”

Chad Hammond, director for the Tohoku Festival, added, “We are working with the local churches  to prepare for a Celebration of Hope on March 2,3,4 next year with Franklin. We pray many Japanese who are now hurting and looking for hope will begin a personal  relationship with Jesus Christ and discover the love and nurture from other Christians as they are assimilated  into one of the local churches in the north.”


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