Category Archives: International Development Programs
The clock read 2:46 on March 11, 2011 when the quake shook Japan’s biggest island. It was the most severe jolting ever experienced on the islands of earthquake-prone Japan. Some registered the impact as over 9 on their scales.
The teachers and students of Okawa Elementary School 400 kms. north of Tokyo knew this was not like former earthquake And they knew to duck under their desks as they had been instructed to do first. They then had to evacuate the school buildings and head out to the expansive playground whose new shoots of grass had just begun appearing. What the occupants of the buildings did not then know was that the real danger was yet to come.
Less than 4 kms. away the Pacific Ocean seethed in turmoil as though angered by the quake’s insolence. A massive wave was gathering force for a pounding of the land. The river close to the school fled in a mad rush inland from its estuary. Students and teachers gathered closer as they listened intently to the playground’s speaker amplifying the announcement that a tsunami was preparing to strike the area.
Although the word “tsunami” is derived from the Japanese language and many “tidal” or “harbor” waves have repeatedly struck modern Japan, school personnel and officials of Okawa’s prefecture were not prepared for the 2011 disaster. The evacuation measures following a quake were familiar and unambiguous. What to do to escape a tsunami of such size and power was yet to be decided.
With no directive coming from the radio, the teachers began a frantic discussion. It was clear they were divided. Bordering the school grounds stood a hill rising in a steady incline over 1000 feet. Even the school’s smaller students had partially climbed it. They had planted and harvested mushrooms there and upper level students enjoyed running or ambling up the hill. When teachers rejected a climb as the best escape route, at least one sixth grader voiced his disagreement. The teachers feared multiple injuries among younger students sliding on the light snow covering the hill.
No one on the playground knew they had 51 minutes between the quake’s first jolts and the wave’s appearance. Or that it would rise above them 30 meters high one minute after the loudspeaker warning. When the river suddenly overflowed its banks and roared as its water surged inland, a handful of sixth graders fled the playground. Four of them along with one teacher survived when the river water began slamming the playground and school buildings. 34 students and 5 teachers perished. When the earthquake occurred, most of the student body had already gone home. The victims were preparing to board the last bus whose driver was also killed. There were over 200 fatalities in the houses near the school.
The tsunami terror left the newly organized Church World Service Japan with a valuable lesson. At a coastal elementary school in a Sendai suburb there were no fatalities. There, immediately following the shock of the quake, students and teachers followed the school stairs to the roof. They witnessed and heard around them the ghastly destruction. But there were no injuries. For Church World Service it was as though the disaster had scrawled a message to guide its future. Disaster Risk Reduction would be their emphasis in preparedness work across Asia.
A variety of measures for risk reduction have been introduced by CWSJ in multiple countries of Asia. Working through local partner non-profits Church World Service Japan implements Disaster Risk Reduction projects in Vietnam, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Myanmar and elsewhere. In most instances, the locale’s evacuation planning is first assessed. Some areas of DRR demanding specialization in expensive technology, such as radiation control measures, are addressed in international conferences CWSJ has helped organize.
That the twelve year old NGO has assumed a leadership in the DRR field is more evidence that government and other NGO’s have been slow to respond to the need. Although 14 countries in Asia experienced over 227,000 fatalities from the 2004 tsunami centered on Indonesia, Japan appears to be setting the standards across Asia in earthquake and tsunami preparedness. There are two major earthquake fault lines on the main island, with one running vertically through Tokyo.
ANOTHER SCHOOL’S STORY
There continues to be surveys and accounts of the decline in attendance and affiliation with churches in the U.S. Although often characterized as evidence of the increasing secularization of the society, I believe this mischaracterizes what is really happening. At the very least, more consideration needs to be given to the trend among persons under the age of 35-40 to adopt practices of meditation and even faith in a power beyond our self from a buffet of beliefs. It is long past time to reject the label secular for any non-Christian or non-Church organized belief or form of meditation.
I am certain that for a majority of U.S. Christians the ten days I just spent in Japan were devoted to a “secular” cause. In accepting the privilege of meeting with the staff of Church World Service Japan for the second time, the first being pre-pandemic in 2018, there was no intention to gain adherents or bolster the churches there. My aim and that of the CWS Japan invitation was for me to assist in developing a public fund raising and outreach strategy for the humanitarian aid agency in a land where 98% of the population is non-Christian. Only one of the six full time staff members, Ms. Yukiko Maki, is Christian and active in the United Church of Japan. Her portfolio as Director of Programs includes cultivating the relationship with the Christian international aid network of the World Council of Churches’ ACT Alliance.
Since its creation in 2011 to help respond to the devastation of the massive earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster, CWS Japan has grown significantly in its capacity and programs. Its General Secretary Takeshi Komino is now a leading voice in Japan and across Asia in the field of Disaster Risk Reduction. In a few years Mr. Komino has led other chief executives in Japan’s non profit sector in setting standards of accountability and engaging in partnerships with the Japanese Government and corporations.
So were my preparations and efforts to help further the presence and public support of CWS Japan to be considered as “secular” in nature? Only if we define religious, as do many U.S. Christians and analysts of social trends, as confined to activity advocating or espousing belief in Jesus Christ.
In fact, in my own tradition of the Christian faith, proselytism has for decades been superseded by another aim of “mission” in other lands. The founding of indigenous-governed churches in Asia, Africa and Latin America has made redundant and obsolete mission and “missionaries” primarily focused on conversion. The joint Global Ministries office of the United Church of Christ and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the U.S. now recruit their partisans to “accompany” Christians and non-Christians in tasks which enhance and protect lives and the land where they are invited to do so.
One may well respond to this “call” to “accompanimiento”, as the Latin American origin of this approach to mission describes it, as a pilgrimage with people abroad and our Creator to restore and “make all things new”. This is, however, a significant historic departure from the traditional U.S. Christians’ view of “mission” in other countries. The Global Ministries avoidance of referring to their personnel deployed overseas as “missionaries” in favor of the term “Mission Co-Worker” grows out of the dramatic changes in the 20th century world. The struggles for independent nation status and self reliance resulting in the decolonization of the Euro-American colonies found support among progressive and aware U.S. Christians and their church denominations.
The new outlook on world mission that emerged in the more contemporary church bodies demanded a wholly different set of skills of their mission “co workers” in other countries. Gone was the emphasis on sending “authoritative” voices on the scriptures and preachers of “the Word” to be replaced by mutual learning, listening, affirmation and “accompanimiento”. To build relationship in an effective partnership with a colleague or colleagues in the foreign setting, one first had to devote oneself to learning about the local context. Never appropriate or needed was someone who, with little listening or learning in the local context, presumed to offer “expert” advice on any activity or program.
My rewards in taking such a posture and approach flow from the sense of solidarity and mutual affirmation I have experienced. Rather than a tally of converts I celebrate the beginning and the growth of relationships with those who fulfill the purpose of their lives with life-enhancing, loving works. Following my recent trip, I am grateful for the meeting of new CWS Japan staff and for the deepening of my relationship with those staff I interacted with in 2018. Vastly different but equally fulfilling have been the relationships enabled by mission assignments in Congo (1969-71 and 2010), Mexico (2012-2015), and with Church World Service US donors in Kenya (periodic visits 2003-2011).
A primary difference in my recent experience in Japan has been the strengthening of my conviction that there are many paths up the mountain of faith. Christians are by no means alone in their life work of seeking and paying homage to the hope, peace, joy and love we celebrate at Christmas as Jesus’ offering to all humankind. During this latest Japan visit, I found new strength and assurance from those of other faith traditions and no faith at all in my own trek up the mountain of faith. As we join persons taking a different path we can all know the solidarity and love of Christmas every day as we climb to the mountaintop.
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Visit the CWS Japan English website at https://www.cwsjapan.org/english/. Make a monthly or one time donation while there!
I can’t imagine a more attention-grabbing headline than one published at the end of 2019, “This is the Best Year Ever”. Tempted mightily to despair over the course of political news in the U.S. and the UK in 2019, Nicholas Kristof’s report on the progress made last year in health, education and economic development worldwide could not be ignored.
The article (published in the New York Times on December 28) was subtitled “For Humanity Overall Life Just Keeps Getting Better”. To substantiate this bold claim, Kristof introduces data reflecting progress made by the world’s poorest people in the poorest nations with these words:
“Since modern humans emerged about 200,000 years ago, 2019 was probably the year in which children were least likely to die, adults were least likely to be illiterate and people were least likely to suffer excruciating and disfiguring diseases.”
Here is a selection from the data supplied by Kristov to support his claim:
• Every single day in recent years, another 325,000 people got their first access to electricity. Each day, more than 200,000 got piped water for the first time. And some 650,000 went online for the first time, every single day.
• As recently as 1950, 27 percent of all children still died by age 15. Now that figure has dropped to about 4 percent.
• A half century ago, a majority of the world’s people had always been illiterate; now we are approaching 90 percent adult literacy.
The last statistic deserves to be highlighted because the increase in world literacy is largely due to recognition of the importance of educating women in sub Saharan Africa and other areas of the world where women have emerged from the confines of domestic life to play a much greater role in society. In recent decades women have led in organizing community projects to expand literacy education, clean water access, enhance agricultural development and other anti-poverty efforts. Education of women and women organizing new local and nation-wide community service programs have also contributed to significant declines in the birth rate in poor nations.
Dramatic evidence for the correlation of women’s education levels and the birth rate is provided by Bangladesh. Once described “by Henry Kissinger as a ‘basket case’,” Kristof notes that now “its economy grows much faster than America’s and Bangladeshi women average just 2.1 births (down from 6.9 in 1973)”. We need not go so far as South Asia for evidence that higher levels of education of women bring significant reduction in the birth rate. The “total fertility rate” (TFR) in Mexico has fallen from 5.7 births per female to 2.2 TFR in recent years. This trend of fewer children birthed with more education of the parents, regardless of vast cultural differences, counters dire predictions of global overpopulation. Again and again figures have shown that more education, and more educational opportunity for women in particular, is the most effective birth control method.
Two trends will hamper further progress by humanity according to Kristof. He states in the article’s conclusion, “Climate change remains a huge threat to our globe, as does compassion fatigue in the rich world”. I would add to those two the much greater aid funding provided poor nations by the U.S. and other developed nations for weapons purchases and security training than for economic and social development. A recent study by the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) concluded, “National security concerns have continued to drive U.S. assistance policy”. Our wars in the Middle East have demanded far greater expenditures than the expenditures for foreign aid in general. A highly disputed estimate by the Pentagon in early 2018 that the U.S. would spend 45 billion that year on the Afghan war alone (the estimate did not include disability claims and payments for injuries suffered by our soldiers) compares to the 35 billion dollars foreign aid budget passed by Congress for 2018.
Optimism with humanity’s progress toward eliminating extreme poverty and its effects must be tempered then by consideration of what would be possible should foreign aid be devoted primarily to development aid and not to combat and training for war. In countries of the Middle East, do the citizens associate the U.S. with aid for economic and social progress or with the perpetuation of conflict between inhabitants of that region?
In the next post we’ll look at some readers’ responses to the Nicholas Kristof article at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/28/opinion/sunday/2019-best-year-poverty.html