(Photo: Don Haynes)
LAKE FOREST, Calif. – Seven months after Japan’s devastating earthquake and tsunami, about 50 members of a church that was located just a few miles from the destroyed Fukushima 1 Nuclear Power Plant are still looking for a place to call home.
Still leading his dwindled congregation housed in a campsite outside Tokyo, Pastor Akira Sato has authored a book about the story of Fukushima First Bible Baptist Church. Prior to the disasters, Sato’s followers were part of a rural four-campus, multisite church having about 200 members.
Rurou no Kyokai (Exodus Church) is currently the best-selling Christian book in Japan. Written in Japanese, Sato and his publishers are in the process of having it translated into several languages, including English.
Sato was in Southern California and the Chicago areas last week, sharing his story with the help of a translator. Asian Access, a U.S.-based ministry, sponsored his tour along with the help of World Venture, Saddleback Church's PEACE Plan International Pastors Training and Churches Helping Churches.
Shortly before his talk at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., Sato told The Christian Post that he feels called by God to tell the story of how the 60 members of his congregation evacuated their homes with only the clothes they wore. He wants to share the story of their exodus and survival, he said through a translator.
“We lost homes, communities, church buildings – everything has been lost but the church continued to exist. The church is resistant to this suffering,” Sato said. “In the midst of suffering, Jesus is real, and because of that, I think people pay attention to our story.
“I would like to share that in spite of the heavy and severe suffering, God’s grace is abundant. Through the many difficulties and hardships, God’s miracles are still there,” he said.
“One-fourth of our congregation stayed together and journeyed together as an exodus church. Three-quarters have been scattered, evacuated throughout all Japan … almost the same amount of distance that Moses led the Israelites in the desert, we have been traveling and [are] now settled in Tokyo.”
Sato has been chronicling the church’s journey in his blog (also translated in other languages) at F1church.com. The site receives about 200,000 views per day, he said.
When the disasters hit, he was at a college commencement outside of his church’s community. He had to scramble to return to his congregants. Just three days after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami he wrote:
"We have contacted 150 church members and they are safe. Hallelujah! One sister told me that waves approached her but she was able to swim to safety. My eyes fill with tears as I call members from a pay phone – fifty or sixty still need to be contacted."
Then, five days later, he writes in another blog post:
“About a third of our 60 church members live close to the Fukushima power plant. They had to go through radiation checks, so we all gathered in the afternoon for a time of worship. I could hear people sobbing and saw that they had been through hardship … People are so glad to find each other, which again led me to tears. Our nomad life has started. When I asked people whether they had any laundry, their reply was that there were no clothes to wash. All they have is what they are wearing.
“Now we need to find petrol and a place to stay. Sixty of us decided to move north to Yamagata hoping to be able to stay there longer. Nothing is clear to us – Will [we] be able to go back home? If so, how long it will take? Will we ever be able to worship in our church again, or will the town simply be abandoned? Like the Israelites in the desert, all we can do is follow God as He leads us with pillars of fire and clouds.”
Sato was trained in the Japan Church Growth Institute 20 years ago and now trains others in Asian Access’s pastoral training program. He led the growth of Fukushima First Bible Baptist Church into a thriving Christian community before the disasters struck.
“Despite having decades of ministry before this, Pastor Sato senses that this is the convergence of who God created him to be,” Jeff Johnston, vice president of communication for Asian Access, said. “He is really sensing that he is not going to shirk this responsibility.
“God has put him here for such a time as this and it’s only (Sato who) can do this particular calling. He sees the bigger picture of exalting God in the midst of this,” Johnston said.
Of the original 200 members of the church’s four campuses, some went to live with relatives or friends; others found homes elsewhere. Now, a core group of about 50 are trying to relocate from the Christian campsite they are now living in within the next several weeks to months, Johnston said.
“It has inspired me to see the faith of one man and one congregation and how their faith has not been shaken despite losing nearly everything,” Johnston said. “It’s connected me to the church worldwide. It’s really helped me to feel what the body is doing in another place. It’s motivated me to pray and be a part any way I can.”
Sato announced recently that he has purchased property in Fukushima. With finances still not secured, he has put his faith in God’s plan, he said.
“We have been helped by the global church tremendously,” Sato said. “I want to thank the global church and testify that God is real in the midst of all the suffering."