Shinji Nagashima felt the earth shake as he was working at Tohoku Gakuin University on March 11, 2011, but he had yet to fathom the devastation about to be unleashed on his country when the massive 9.0 earthquake and companion tsunami swept into Japan.
“Because the building suddenly began to quake, I dashed out the building,” Nagashima, a professor of fluid dynamics and mechanical engineering, told South Carolina Lutherans on a recent Wednesday night at Columbia’s Incarnation Lutheran Church. “I heard the abnormal sound. The stone wall next to me collapsed.”
Nagashima, a Lutheran who spent two weeks in South Carolina explaining his country’s path to recovery and his appreciation for relief efforts, was on the Tagajo campus just four miles from the coast when the tsunami hit. He spent the next days and weeks locating family, friends and students in hopes they had escaped the wall of water that left more than 19,000 dead or missing.
For South Carolina Lutherans, who contributed more than $104,000 to the relief effort, Nagashima’s visit is a way to strengthen already solid ties between the S.C. Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Japanese Evangelical Lutheran Church.
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Relief is ongoing, and Lutheran representatives will be on the ground for years to come, said the Rev. Mary Anderson, Incarnation’s pastor. “We don’t just drop a few goods and leave,” Anderson said.
Nagashima said many in his country remain in temporary housing as the government rebuilds the infrastructure. Although the heavy cleanup is done, Nagashima said the mental health of his countrymen remains precarious, especially for those who suffered the deaths of family members along with the loss of houses and jobs.
“Older people are suffering very much,” he said, but young people carry deep burdens as well.
He told how one of his students brought him the last of the vegetables harvested from his father’s fields, ruined in the tsunami. But that same student returned this year with new harvest grown on inland fields, taking the place of his father, who had died.
As Nagashima showed photographs of the devastation — including once-fertile farm fields now covered with sand and salt, urban areas strewn with debris and beautiful seaside towns filled with rubble — Sarah Whitehead pondered what the youth of Incarnation church could do to assist from a continent away.
“Seeing those pictures a year and a half later really touched me,” Whitehead said. She and Anderson have been in discussions about a project to “make the youth more aware of what’s going on outside their comfort zone,” and the presentation renewed her drive to develop a project.
Invited by the South Carolina Synod to visit the state, Nagashima is accompanied by his son, Keiichiro, a law student. The Rev. Jerry Livingston, who spent 40 years in Japan as a missionary, is serving as his guide and occasional translator. Livingston, who now lives in West Columbia, S.C., was pastor of the Sendei Lutheran Church from 1961 to 1969 — the same congregation that Nagashima now serves as a lay leader.
“We try to keep global missions before our people, not to generate income, although if people want to do that, it’s fine, but to remember our brothers and sisters in Christ all over the world,” Livingston said.
Nagashima said the losses endured by so many last year remind him of the Old Testament story of Job, whose faith in God remained steadfast despite suffering the deaths of his children and the loss of his property. For Nagashima, it brings back painful personal memories of the death 19 years ago of his own young son and his search for spiritual answers.
“Do you think Job’s story came to a happy end?” he said. “I don’t know what Job felt. But it may not be that Job’s story came to a happy end. Job’s new children had never replaced the children he lost. I think that Job had kept his mind on his lost children.”
He continued: “For me, no one can replace my lost son, too. But I know that my son is sleeping in the arms of God. I have a hope we can someday see each other. We know many people who lost each important thing are depressed now. Nothing can replace what they lost. What they need now the most must be the hope from God.”