Jody Magtoto (Jesuit seminarian, Philippines)
We called ourselves the Tokyo 12. I found myself among this group of five men and seven women who responded to Mr. Sakagawa’s call to help in the relief efforts of Caritas Japan. We had not known each other prior to this volunteer work since our lives were rather different – from a middle school teacher to a real estate finance manager to Jesuit seminarians such as Bony James and myself.
I had just come from the Philippines to be introduced to the various ministries of the Society of Jesus in Japan. When the superior of the Jesuit scholasticate in Tokyo asked me whether I was interested in volunteering for Caritas Japan, I initially hesitated since my command of the Japanese language was not good. Yet I felt strongly attracted to help out despite this disability.
The Philippines is no stranger to natural disasters – the most recent one being the massive flooding that occurred with typhoon Ketsana in September of 2009. Hundreds perished while thousands of families had to be relocated. I had volunteered with the relief efforts in the Philippines at that time and I saw no problems in doing volunteer work for Japan.
Tokyo 12 left for the coastal town of Kamaishi on the 5th of April. We stayed in a small convent that was not so much affected by the tsunami since the convent and chapel are located on a slightly elevated area. Upon arrival, we volunteers were briefed about the types of work involved: first, to clean up nearby houses that were devastated by the tsunami; second, to help in the sorting and distribution of relief goods; third, to assist in the preparation of food for those affected by the disaster.
The clean-up operations were grueling and rather dangerous. The volunteers had to clear up debris in and around the house – thick wooden planks, car parts, water-logged containers, even a heavy stairwell that the tsunami water had jostled onto the lawn. The debris was at times several meters deep, and the volunteers dug out the wreckage with a shovel or by their own hands in order to move the rubble to a nearby lot. Several volunteers had even accidentally stepped on beams with exposed nails that had been rusting under the corrosive salt water. And this dangerous work seemed to have no end.
After a day’s work, while I was cleaning my soiled overalls, one religious sister asked me whether I was exhausted from all the heavy labor. I replied that the work was by no means easy, but I realize that, as a volunteer, at least I had an option to rest a while. After a week I would be resting comfortably in the scholasticate. For many in the town, there was no option – this ravaged town was their only home.
My father once told me that after a typhoon he, as a child, would anticipate hearing the sound of a broom’s bristles brushing against the wet pavement. He said that he always associates the sound with hope. It is a sound that tells him people have begun to pick up the pieces after such devastation. It tells him that people have decided to hope again and move on.
I suppose the exhaustion from all the hard labor did not matter so much as seeing people placing their hopes on the future. As I was helping out cleaning the house of an 80-year-old woman, I listened to her frightful stories of the disaster. Wiping off the mud from her things, I looked at her and she smiled. Not speaking so much Japanese, I truly wanted to utter words of consolation but I couldn’t. Yet I believe she understood what was in my heart – that I too, like her, am placing my hopes on the future.
This is just one of the many stories of moving on that are now woven into the lives of the Tokyo 12 volunteers. For although we may not fully make sense of such a tragedy, we sense that somehow through our being there we served as instruments of hope – that, as volunteers, though coming from different faiths, we find hope amid such uncertainty, and perhaps unknowingly and imperfectly somehow reflect and resound God’s greater hope.
Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. (1 Corinthians 13:12)