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Finding the Real Stories in Japan’s Disaster

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When major disaster strikes, like it did in Japan on March 11, the world’s media often scramble to cover the unfolding drama. Too often, however, the reporting they do is shallow and the reporters leave too quickly in order to cover something else. They report the obvious but don’t go deep enough—or stay long enough—to get into the human dimensions of the ongoing relief and recovery effort.

A BGR volunteer hauls mud out of a shop in Ishinomaki, Japan.

One reason we miss the real story in a disaster is that some of the most moving elements of a disaster relief story aren’t found at the scene of major-league operations conducted by groups like the United Nations or International Red Cross. If you want to see the most poignant struggles people are facing, you have to find the people who are falling between the cracks of the large-scale operation.

It is, of course, impossible for massive relief operations to touch every person in need. People inevitably fall between the cracks. As compelling a story as the massive operation makes, however, the greatest needs usually are found elsewhere.

Take, for example, the month-old effort in Japan to help survivors recover from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The Japanese government is doing an amazing job, especially considering they also are wrestling with the extremely serious danger of nuclear disaster. But no matter how many soldiers you mobilize to distribute food and water, the logistics of such an operation make it impossible to help everyone. Such an initiative rightly focuses on places where people gather in large groups, like shelters, where conditions often are bad enough. In northeast Japan, however, thousands of people are living in their cars or in their damaged homes. Those people are easily missed—and their struggle is even worse.

That’s one reason I feel so strongly about the work of smaller relief organizations, like Baptist Global Response. (Full disclosure: I do communications work for BGR.) A group like BGR not only has the ability to focus every dollar of donations on people in need—because their overhead is met through other channels—but they also have the ability to get down to the grass-roots level and find the individuals, families, and small groups being missed by the large-scale relief effort.

I was deeply moved to hear about a couple in Ishinomaki, Japan, whose 145-year-old family business was swept away by the tsunami, which struck hard on the heels of the March 11 earthquake. A thick layer of gooey black mud covered the floor of their kimono shop. All their inventory, fixtures, and equipment were destroyed. The street outside was piled high with flood debris.

I found myself trying to fathom the pain, frustration, and discouragement that couple must have been feeling—and the joy they felt when a team of American and Japanese volunteers walked in the door. The volunteers not only had food, water, and other essential supplies, but they also started shoveling muck out the front door.

My friend Ben Wolf, who with his wife, Pam, directs work in the Asia Rim for Baptist Global Response, has been on the scene in Japan. “It’s hard enough to comprehend the devastation the earthquake and tsunami caused,” Ben says. “But for complete strangers to offer to help, that makes a God-sized impact on someone’s heart.”

To the extent that more relief teams like that one will be allowed access to the tsunami zone, the recovery effort in Japan will make that same kind of “God-sized” impact on thousands of families. Two new teams of Baptist disaster relief specialists from the United States have arrived in Japan to work with others who are already there. Besides addressing the need for food, water, and relief supplies, they also will be training volunteers to help people deal with the emotional trauma of surviving a disaster.

Some of the best disaster recovery work in the world is done by Christians who have read When Helping Hurts by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett. Not only do the relief teams understand that addressing the spiritual dimension of human trauma is essential to recovering from a disaster, they also understand that the relief methods employed by many cultural Westerners actually can harm the people they are trying to help, especially in places where extreme poverty limits their ability to improve their lives. You may have alleviated short-term suffering, but if you don’t engage the challenge of helping people find new lives, you have left them worse off than before.

Japan, of course, is not even remotely an example of extreme poverty, but the suffering of people there who are falling between the cracks of the relief effort is very real. And you can personally make a difference for those individuals.

The first, best thing you can do is to pray. Prayer transports you across even the greatest distance, and lifts you out of preoccupation with your own troubles. Prayer aligns your heart with the heart of God, who is ready to help suffering people who turn their hearts toward him. Nothing will make more of a difference for a person in trouble than to experience the love of God for themselves.

You also are able to give, and I personally prefer giving to an organization that keeps nothing for its own overhead but passes along the entire donation to helping people in desperate need. Many times an organization like that also can help you go directly to the scene of the disaster so you can help in person. Even when a government isn’t restricting volunteer access, as Japan is doing right now, you often need specialized skills to make a real difference in a relief effort like that.

What ways have you found to help people who are in desperate need after a major disaster like the one in Japan?

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About Mark Kelly