One recent afternoon in a small community room in an apartment building in Chuo Ward, Tokyo, people streamed in carrying big boxes and bags full of food, beverages and clothing.
The room was bathed in sunlight and the air was charged with positive energy as mothers busily packed the items in boxes to be sent to the disaster areas up north while their children wrote colorful messages of support.
What started as a small group of missionaries at Grace City Church Tokyo quickly expanded into a wide local network, as many Japanese and foreigners gathered to help the disaster victims of the deadly earthquake and tsunami that hit the Tohoku region on March 11.
Abi Lowther, a Mission to the World missionary at Grace City Church and resident of the Tsukishima neighborhood, said she decided to ask a small group of other mothers she knew to help out after seeing how many seemed afraid to leave their homes amid repeated aftershocks and fear of radiation exposure.
“I thought it would help us not think about our own fears so much if I asked them to come and help if they wanted to,” Lowther said.
They started off at her apartment, but in less than a day it was too packed and they needed to find a bigger space to organize the mountains of goods donated by friends and others.
By the end of the second day, they had enough to fill a 2-ton truck, Lowther said.
“I learned the power of a woman’s cell phone,” Lowther said with a smile, saying word spread amazingly fast, from one friend to another.
Kikuko Nishimura, a neighborhood resident and Lowther’s soccer buddy, said she was grateful that Lowther and other Grace City Church members began the activity because so many wanted to help but didn’t know how.
“There were many people who felt the same way, wanting to do something for the disaster victims,” Nishimura said. “We didn’t know what to do as individuals, so it’s great that someone stood up to start” the relief activity.
Nishimura brought a large box full of new underwear, which she said was sent by a friend visiting her home in Shizuoka because Tokyo stores have been running low on various products.
“All of our hearts are united in thinking of this activity as long term,” Nishimura, a mother of three, said. “But we all are mothers, so we need to think about how to balance families with the activity.”
And their activities have not gone unnoticed.
Aside from individual contributions, Hoppy Beverage Co. lent a 4-ton truck to the group, a neighborhood greengrocer donated 75 boxes of fresh vegetables and fruit, and a dentist provided toothbrushes.
Now the hundreds of Tsukishima volunteers, both Japanese and foreigners, are turning their attention to people living in groups at homes — not shelters — where help is extremely scarce.
Through their network, they found a family in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, living on the second floor of their half-destroyed home, completely isolated and in desperate need of food and other items.
According to Lowther, these are the kind of people the volunteers are hoping to help, the people who have fallen through the cracks of support from the government or major nongovernmental organizations.
“We want to help fill in the gaps,” Lowther said. “We’re just mothers, we can’t go up there. But if there are men who are going and are willing to find those gaps, we will help them.”
And people like Lowther’s husband, Roger, also an MTW missionary with Grace City Church, have been going back and forth between Tokyo and the disaster area to make sure their goods reach the people who need them.
Roger has already been up four times since the earthquake struck three weeks ago. He said the volunteer group was first going around to shelters, but after noticing that the evacuees were receiving necessities, they started going through neighborhoods.
“There are a lot of people living in their homes, especially in Ishinomaki, but there are no stores open or restaurants — there is really no way for them to get food,” Roger pointed out, adding that many were actually living in groups of 50 or so in homes that were not completely destroyed.
During his trips, he met many people who lost their homes and families, including a woman who had lost all three of her children.
But he noted that many found comfort in the fact that people in Tokyo cared about them and were doing what they could to support the disaster victims.
“I got the impression . . . that people were happy about organizations and the government providing things, but to know that there is this community of people in Tokyo who really cared, that connection seemed to be very powerful to them, that they weren’t alone,” Roger said.