After Japan’s massive earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster in 2011 Alecia Talent was one of thousands of Christians who responded by volunteering. I asked Alecia to write about her experience for JapanCAN.
We often have little patience for the small things of life. The birds singing, the smile of a stranger, a conversation…these happen everyday, uncelebrated, unnoticed. The larger things, the great exploits of man and nature are what command our attention and fill our late night aspirations. We spend every day learning about great men and hearing about infamous criminals. History is a collection of the larger-than-life. The daily news and media give us a never-ending supply of what is currently big enough to be known. Like an earthquake off the coast of Japan and a tsunami ravaging its towns.
I sat in a Starbucks crying as I watched replays of the wave hitting Sendai on my computer screen. My husband and I were aspiring missionaries to Japan. We had already been there twice on short-term trips. I loved Japan deeply, with an affection I truly believe could only come from Christ Himself, and my heart broke on that cold day in March, 2011. I wanted nothing more than to be in Japan, suffering along with them, doing whatever I could to help. Obviously, we had to go.
It took time, research, and a generous donor, but by October my husband and I were on a plane headed to Tokyo to work as volunteers with CRASH Japan. After a quick ride on the shinkansen (Bullet Train) we were in Tohoku (the disaster zone). A few more trains and a car ride later we arrived at the CRASH volunteer base in Tono.
The Tono base was in an old house with sliding paper doors, tatami mats, futons, and a wonderful kotatsu — where we could sit and keep warm during meals. We would be here for two weeks to help in any way we could, even though our Japanese was minimal, and we had little to offer the tsunami survivors… Or so we thought.
Each day, as a team, we trekked to a new temporary housing site. Located at random clearings near the tsunami zone the temporary units were metal, one-room boxes serving as homes for those displaced by the disaster. At each site half of us would set up a “Mobile Cafe” complete with crafts, hot tea, coffee, treats, and tables for people to come and socialize. The other half of the team would distribute blankets to the tenants and inform them of the “Mobile Cafe.” We always had a bunch of people, young and old, come for a free drink and a chat.
I confess that it took me at least a week to figure out why on earth I was there. I couldn’t speak Japanese. All of my conversations had to be done through an interpreter. We weren’t doing any clean up, nor were we allowed to preach (though Christian materials were laid out for those interested). How was this little “Mobile Cafe” making any difference in the lives of those who were suffering? How was I making a difference?
Two events brought home the very important lesson that, to those suffering great pain small things matter. At one point, an older gentleman at our cafe began a deep discussion with one of our team. We heard later that this man was very interested in discussing the tsunami, and particularly its spiritual influence on his life.
He told our interpreter, “I believe that God is not in temples. He is not like Buddha. He is in people like you.”
This man was referring to the volunteers at the “Mobile Cafe.” And he was right. Was it not the Spirit of the Living God that brought us here to serve him tea? How did he realize that?
Then came a more personal moment. I sat at a table with the same interpreter and a young Japanese girl who was asking me all about my life. As we drank tea together outside her little temporary tin home she expressed interest in my marriage and explained to me that she had met a man in a shelter after the disaster. This young woman had lost everyone she knew in the tsunami, and this man soon became her boyfriend. She hoped to marry him, but his family did not approve of her, and it was causing a strain in their relationship.
She poured out her heart to me, her desperation to keep him, the only relationship she had left, and her confusion at knowing what to do. She asked my advice, which I gave, but I don’t really think that was why she was there. She wanted help, but she wanted something more than that, a listening ear. Here I was, a married woman her age and a foreigner who knew nothing about that culture’s ways and, therefore, wouldn’t judge her if she spilled her heart.
These two events stayed with me throughout that week. There were more conversations and encounters.
The little boy who wanted his picture with us and his new bike. A woman who wanted to host us in her little tin box for tea. The man who showed my husband all his pictures of the tsunami. The little old lady who insisted on buying my husband tea from a vending machine because he was so “pretty.”
I will never forget when an entire family came out of their housing unit for a potluck feast, heartily encouraging us to join them as they took advantage of the social time our cafe gave them.
As I considered these things, I imagined the situation reversed. What if it had been my town that was destroyed? What if it were my grandma living in a tin box after losing the home of her ancestors? It would mean so much to me if one stranger, traveling thousands of miles to do so, came to offer my grandma a hot cup of tea, a chair and a table, and company. A little cafe where she could get some resemblance of society and normalcy back. It dawned on me, “Small Things” really do count!”
It’s no wonder that now, over 3 years later, the gospel is finding roots in Tohoku like never before.
A missionary at my church in Japan recently held a baptism. It was his first after decades of ministry in Japan. This baptism took place after serving the survivors long after the media and big charities had forgotten about the 2011 earthquake. Churches are forming. Hurting people are finding hope in Christ. And why? Because with each cup of tea, each person that came to suffer alongside them, each sacrifice made by a stranger was a testimony to Christ.
The volunteers had enough hope in the goodness of God that we could dare to be personal with the hurting and stare at their pain without looking away in horror.
It touched them. They spilled their hearts. They saw God. No one stands out in this. Not one missionary or organization or charity group….just thousands of little people from churches all over Japan and the world coming to do the little things that are easily overlooked, but not easily forgotten.
I grew during that trip. It was a good reminder that aspiring to greatness isn’t wrong, but who defines what is great? Only He knows how many seeds were planted and lives changed just by me and thousands of other volunteers being faithful in the little things.
I sometimes wonder if the answer to the problem of evangelism to Japan isn’t along these lines… The little things. The small moments where we touch lives. The unseen deeds. Jesus had only 12 disciples to His name, small men of little significance who just got to share life with Jesus. The world has never been the same since…
Alecia Tallent is married to Michael and is the Administrative Assistant for Global Ministry at TEAM’s office in Carol Stream, IL. Alecia and her husband are preparing to return to Japan to serve longer term as missionaries with TEAM.
- IN JAPAN’S DISASTER ZONE CHRISTIANS CALLED “JESUS PERSON” (JapanCAN)
- Is There Any Hope for Japan? (JapanCAN)
- Digital Outreach: An Incarnational Paradigm (JapanCAN)
- Hope in a Package: Volunteers are Making an Impact in Japan (CRASH Japan)
- TEAM Home Page
Paul Nethercott is working on a feature-length film called 2 Criminals. Based on a true story, 2 Criminals is about two volunteers Paul met while doing disaster relief work with CRASH.