A Baptist congregation displaced by radiation from the nuclear plant meltdown after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami can't go home again. But members are determined to rebuild as close as possible.
One chapel owned by the Rev. Akira Sato's Fukushima First Bible Baptist Church was only three miles from the doomed Fukushima power plants in the village of Okuma. The area was hit by the tsunami, but it was the radiation that left it a ghost town.
Sato recently laid out the plight of his congregation six months after the disaster for a small group in Arlington Heights. The minister, who makes occasional short trips to the U.S. to raise funds, also spoke at the Chicago Japanese Mission Church in Schaumburg.
Seventy members of the 200 who made up the congregation before March have found refuge at a German Christian retreat center near Tokyo, Sato said. Four members died in or soon after the disaster, and the remainder scattered across Japan.
The 60-year-old congregation, founded just after World War II by Frank Horecheck, a Minnesota missionary, had four chapels along the northeastern coast of Japan, including one just 3 years old, Sato said through interpreters.
"We are a church that belongs to the Fukushima region," Sato said. "That's our country. We need to go back to that place."
While Sato was out of town when the disaster initially struck, an assistant pastor who drove through Okuma, the congregation's home village of 10,000 people, said all the drivers he saw were crying.
"Most of them tried to get to the elementary school or kindergarten to get their children and couldn't reach them," he said. "That's the reason most were crying."
Water black with mud tore up cement triangles that sat down by the water's edge to protect the land from normal waves.
"A 20-year-old lady witnessed the tsunami coming to her house from the second floor. She got married after this incident. However, at the wedding she announced she didn't want to do the wedding and would rather wear a funeral suit."
The tsunami forced residents to evacuate immediately, leaving their pets behind because they thought they would return the next day. But then the government said no one could return because of the radiation, and the pets were abandoned.
Months later when the government said residents could make a quick trip to their homes to recover items, the pet owners did not want to go because they knew what they would find, Sato said.
"Some people were able to go back to their houses, and they just cried and came back," he said, telling of houses with wrecked roofs and soaked interiors.
Sato and his wife, Chieko, were near Tokyo when the tsunami struck. They were able to charter a bus and made it to an evacuation area near their village, where they were reunited with 70 people from the church.
"We heard 17 church members were there. It was 70. It became a survival game for us after that."
The group was ordered to leave due to radiation and headed into the snowy mountains in the chartered bus and a few cars.
"It was very difficult to get food for the 70 people at once. We had no gas. The mountain road was not very well paved and icy. We thought we were going to die if we slipped," said the minister. "It was a drama like a movie."
Evacuees are discriminated against in Japan because people are so fearful of the radiation, said the Rev. Yugo Kobari, pastor of the Schaumburg church that hosted Sato. Kobari, who also is building a church in Arlington Heights, is originally from northeast Japan.
Refuges get overcharged for necessities, Sato said, adding that depression and suicide are big problems.
Eventually, the 70 congregants ended up at a retreat center owned by German Christians near Tokyo. Each family has a room in a building similar to a dormitory, and they will be allowed to stay until April.
The congregation has been able to buy land in a town called Iwaki outside the evacuation area but still in Fukushima prefecture, or state.
They are raising money to build a church, but since rental housing is so scarce in the area, they also purchased a small apartment building for members to live in. Ironically, many of the jobs that congregants lost were at the power plants.
"I was surprised the church never died because of this," said Sato, adding that the disaster has strengthened the ties among its members. "We became an everyday church, not a once-a-week church."
Aside from fundraising, he traveled to the area also to talk with a publisher about producing an English translation of his book about the catastrophe and his vision for recovery. The volume, "Exodus Church," has already been printed in Japanese, Korean and Chinese.
He compares the congregation's journey to Bible stories of the Israelites being forced to go to Babylon and Moses wandering in the desert for 40 years after leading his people from Egypt.
Citing the simple pleasures of a mattress after sleeping on the floor for five days, warm food after days of cold meals in the winter, not to mention the joy of a shower, he said, "We realize that there's not many things that we need in order to live."
Sato said a good thing about the March tragedy is that it tore down walls: walls between the few Christians in Japan and the Buddhist majority, between the different Christian denominations, and between Japan and the world that came to help. "We lost everything and we receive many things," Sato said. "We are very happy people."
The church can be reached at its website, f1church.com.