Baptists making progress on Japan relief, but obstacles remain


Progress is being made on developing partnerships and training church members for disaster response in Japan, but major obstacles stand in the way of the disaster relief effort, the executive director of Baptist Global Response said March 28.

“Tokyo Baptist Church is proving to be, as we anticipated, a great partner for responding,” said Jeff Palmer, who leads the international relief and development organization. “They have people, connections and resources to help mount an effective response. We face, however, significant challenges in the area of basic logistics: purchasing fuel, acquiring relief supplies in bulk quantities, and things like that.”

A four-member response team that arrived in Tokyo March 23 has had productive consultations with Japanese Baptist leaders and partner humanitarian groups and is setting up a command center for a unified Southern Baptist disaster relief initiative, Palmer said.

Two disaster relief specialists from the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief Network are working with Tokyo Baptist Church leaders to conduct training sessions on mass feeding, kitchen setup and distribution strategies, reported Pat Melancon, BGR’s disaster management specialist. The team also received a briefing from an internationally recognized expert in radiation safety, in anticipation of heading into northeastern Japan, where an ongoing crisis at a nuclear power plant has complicated disaster relief efforts.

Apart from logistical problems like acquiring relief supplies in bulk quantities, the team also faces challenges of gaining access to the disaster zone, Melancon said. Government permits to access the area via main roads are hard to come by, and navigating back roads is complicated by fuel shortages.

Until access to the tsunami zone around the city of Sendai, where the nuclear crisis is most serious, is resolved, relief projects will focus on earthquake survivors outside the tsunami zone, Palmer said. “The area outside the tsunami zone that was devastated by the earthquake is large and the conditions there are very serious. We can do a lot to help people in desperate need because of the earthquake while we wait for the nuclear situation to be resolved.”

The initial relief strategy devised by the assessment teams has three prongs, noted Ben Wolf, who with his wife Pam directs BGR work in the Asia Rim.

“One element of the strategy is the training in mass feeding being conducted by disaster relief specialists from Alabama and South Carolina,” Wolf said. “A second element is distribution of water, food staples, blankets, warm clothing for the elderly and kitchen utensils in an area 45 miles north of Sendai. The third element will be a similar distribution in Sendai that also will involve assessment of the needs in that area.”

The response teams in these efforts will be made up of personnel from Tokyo Baptist Church, the Japan Baptist Convention, the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief Network, Baptist Global Response and the International Mission Board, which partners with BGR in disaster relief situations, Wolf said.

Because Japan Baptists can mobilize significant numbers of volunteers for the relief effort, the primary need for U.S. volunteers will be limited to people with Japanese/English translation abilities and Southern Baptist Disaster Relief Network volunteers with specialized disaster relief training, Wolf explained.

Baptist Global Response has allocated $100,000 from Southern Baptist relief and hunger funds for the initial phase of the response. To date, nearly $200,000 has been donated to the relief effort through IMB and BGR.

While the Japanese government has a well-developed plan for disaster recovery, Southern Baptists can make a tremendous contribution, Palmer said.

“The Japanese government has described this as the country’s greatest crisis since World War II. Estimates are that it will take five years and $309 billion to rebuild,” Palmer said. “But Japan’s people have experienced an awful trauma, and their needs in this time of crisis go far beyond physical things like roads and buildings and even food.

“With the tremendous partners God has given us to work with, Southern Baptists have a unique opportunity to both demonstrate and proclaim the love of God in a place where people have little opportunity to experience God’s love for themselves,” Palmer said. “It has been inspiring to see how Southern Baptists have sensed God’s leading to respond to a whole series of disasters this past year, from Haiti to Japan.

“We are delighted to be able to offer their partnership to Japanese Baptists as our brothers and sisters in that country reach out to their neighbors with the love of Christ.” –Mark Kelly is senior writer and assistant editor for Baptist Press. The International Mission Board has established a relief fund for the Japan earthquake. Donations may be sent to: Office of Finance, International Mission Board, 3806 Monument Ave., Richmond, VA 23230. In the memo line write “Japan Response Fund.”

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