CEBU, Philippines - “...What we gained far outweighs what we had lost.”
This was the message of Kei-ichi Sugawara, one of the delegates of the 51st International Eucharistic Congress, as he shared to the crowd yesterday his experience when a tsunami hit his home, the City of Ofunato in Iwate Prefecture, Japan, almost four years ago.
It was 2:46 p.m. of March 11, 2011 when a magnitude 9 earthquake hit the Japanese city and neighboring areas.
“Nobody in my town had ever experienced such a strong earthquake, which lasted like eternity,” Suga-wara recalled.
The tremendous quake triggered a tsunami a few minutes later that left more than 15,000 dead and 300,000 houses destroyed.
In the course of his testimony, Sugawara showed footages of how his place was slowly engulfed by the rising tide, with houses, humans, and cars being dragged along in the wreckage.
“Dikes and levies that are supposed to protect us from tsunami were destroyed. Rows of houses were gone. Black mud and debris of bottles, steel, wood and sea creatures covered our once beautiful town,” he said.
A Catholic church, which stands on a hill, was spared because of its location.
However, the loved ones of the members of their small Catholic community were lost, he recounted.
He noted that their parish only had 100 members registered before the twin-tragedy, with only 20 to 25 people regularly hearing Eucharistic celebrations on Sundays, including two Filipino members of the community who married Buddhist husbands.
He said for foreigners marrying Japanese citizens who are not Christians, going to Mass is “impossible,” but not in the case of the Filipino women. The two, he said, have become instruments in seeking out fellow Filipinos and foreigners living in the city who have survived the tragedy.
Significant changes were observed months following the tragedy, he said. As help started pouring in, the parish community also grew bigger.
“In no time, many of them (survivors) found their way to our parish church. Every Sunday we had new faces. Each time someone came we asked her to introduce herself to the community,” Sugawara said, adding that Japanese husbands eventually began driving their wives and children to church.
While delivering his testimony, the Japanese survivor, at times, paused for a moment, fighting back his tears.
He went on: “After the disaster, several infants were baptized and three groups of children received their First Communion. These children are the future of our parish. We lost a lot to the tsunami. But what we gained far outweighs what we had lost. From a membership of some 100 before the disaster, our parish has increased double. And it has become animated.”
Sooner, some of the parishioners started serving as lectors, with foreigners delivering the readings in Japanese and Japanese singing the Lord’s Prayer in Tagalog.
Two Filipino and Indonesian priests established a “Support Center for Foreigners” in Ofunato, helping opening doors for employment. They also started presiding over the Holy Mass in Tagalog once a month.
Sugawara further recalled being asked by a reporter if he viewed the tra-gedy as a punishment from God, in which he responded that he could never be able to respond the mind of God but whatever happens, he believes “God is with us. I truly feel that he guides and protects us.”
“The disaster brought down not only physical walls, but walls of indifference and prejudice… I’d like to believe that our small parish in Ofunato, a community gathered in the name of Jesus Christ, has been an instrument of God to realize His plan,” Sugawara said, addressing the thousands of delegates of the IEC, drawing loud applause as he ended his testimony. (FREEMAN)