By David Tereshchuk*
March 4, 2013—From providing accommodations for the homeless to investing in sunflowers.
That’s the broad span of good uses to which UMCOR, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, has been directing the outpouring of generosity from United Methodists and others of goodwill following Japan’s appalling triple disaster almost exactly two years ago.
Donations amounting to a remarkable $12 million were generated in response to the devastation wreaked by the March 11, 2011, earthquake, and the subsequent massive tsunami and nuclear catastrophe.
Determining just how most usefully to spend that enormous sum in Japan—a country with its own highly developed economy, of course, and its own distinct complexities—has brought fresh challenges to UMCOR and its international and local partners. Notable among those international partners is Church World Service (CWS).
For instance, over the past two years UMCOR’s funds have gone via CWS to provide immediate emergency relief for families in northern Japan who had to move into temporary accommodations following the disaster. They also have gone to the urgent repair and, later, longer-term rebuilding of the Asian Rural Institute in Nasushiobara, with whom The United Methodist Church has a long association.
UMCOR also assisted in the effort (among other initiatives) by Japan’s ecumenical relief agency, JEDRO —which was launched by the National Council of Churches of Japan about a year after the triple disaster—to provide citizens with Geiger counters and advocacy for responsible nuclear power policies.
As time has gone on, UMCOR’s help has turned to more forward-looking assistance, including:
•Support for small businesses to encourage fuller economic recovery and fuller development
•A long-term convalescent program for radiation-affected children
•Support projects for non-Japanese disaster survivors, and
•Assistance and network-building for immigrant women.
One clear emphasis in UMCOR’s commitment has been a substantial focus on communities whose particular problems and needs might otherwise remain hidden or unaddressed.
And investing in sunflowers? This is an example of UMCOR’s partnering in Japan that works in both symbolic and highly practical ways. UMCOR’s partner in this case is Shalom, a voluntary agency for people with physical challenges in Fukushima City (just 35 miles from the disastrous Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant’s meltdowns).
For 30 years, Shalom has operated a range of services that bring together physically challenged individuals with the community at large. These include a bakery, the “Midtown Dream Factory,” which is well known in the vicinity for its superior bread and pastries. One of the bakery’s workers happens to be an Olympic-level athlete—Tomomi Sato, who is a legally blind 100-meter runner who won a bronze medal in the 2011 International Blind Sports Federation Games, and only very narrowly missed representing Japan in the London Special Olympics of 2012.
Shalom’s extensive work, all “dedicated to the practice of Christian love,” according to its own mission statement, has long included the sale of craft products made by its members, but now it also includes the production and sale of sunflower oil.
With assistance from UMCOR, Shalom is sending sunflower seeds to willing growers outside of Fukushima to gain, in return, between five and ten tons of seeds produced in non-contaminated areas. These then allow Shalom to manufacture some 1,250 to 2,500 liters of sunflower oil and oil products for commercial sale.
Many of the growers are with institutions that cater to vulnerable populations (hospitals, nursing homes, facilities for the disabled, and so on)—all of whom can enjoy the therapeutic effects of beautiful flower-growing while simultaneously being of service to others.
Sunflowers also possess a quality that is potentially of enormous use within Fukushima Prefecture’s nuclear-affected areas. The flowers can in effect absorb the radioactive contaminants from the soil, which may help to achieve the long-term revitalization of agriculture across a wide swath of Japanese countryside.
It is no wonder that the sunflower is regarded throughout Japan as emblematic of recovery. Shalom itself, already known for its musical events in the community, recently supported an art exhibit that drew in photographs of sunflowers from all over the country.
Shizuko Ohtake of Shalom says: “I hope that this coming third year will further spread the network of connections through sunflowers, and help to maintain the lessons of Fukushima’s nuclear disaster.”