Love from Afar
Tsunami survivors invited to summer camp in New York
On March 11, 2011, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated the Tohoku region of Japan. The disaster killed more than 15,000 people, severely damaged much of the area’s infrastructure, and led to mass evacuations due to nuclear accidents and radiation leaks around the Fukushima nuclear complex.
Although the devastation occurred more than four years ago, residents of the Tohoku region have not been forgotten by leaders of the Special Ministry to Japanese (SMJ), a mission sponsored by the Synod of New York, in partnership with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church (New York Conference), and the Kyodan (United Church of Christ in Japan). SMJ raised money for aid immediately after the earthquake and tsunami, but has recently been looking for other ways to reach out.
“Some children lost their loved ones; others lost their houses and live in unfamiliar places outside their hometown—and still others have lived in the fear of radioactive contaminations,” says Jun Yoshimatsu, acting chair of SMJ. “While observing such a harsh reality, the question kept coming back to many of us who live in the U.S.: What can SMJ do in order to support and encourage those survivors?”
For churches in New York, the answer became clear: Discovery Camp, a two-week, bilingual summer camp serving both Japanese-speaking and English-speaking children in the greater New York metropolitan area. This year, SMJ is working to raise money in order to bring five to 10 children from the Tohoku region to participate in Discovery Camp.
“[We] believe that bringing those children to a Christian camp in America provides them not only joy and fun of camping, but also shows them solidarity, saying, ‘You are not alone—even though we live far away, we think of you, pray for you, and love you always,’” says Yoshimatsu. “We believe it is a fine manner to express the love of Jesus Christ.”
Held in July at Camp Quinipet on Shelter Island, New York, Discovery Camp offers third- through tenth-graders a traditional Christian summer camp experience with arts and crafts, swimming, sports activities, campfires, Bible studies, praise time, and devotions. Two things set it apart from other Christian summer camps: all activities are conducted in both English and Japanese, and most campers come from non-Christian families.
“It is a very new experience for many campers because it is the first time they are in a Christian atmosphere,” says Yoshimatsu. “Most of them do not know the Lord’s Prayer on the first day of the camp, but by the end of the first week, all of them can recite it.”
Japanese American United Church (RCA), a supporting church of SMJ, helped the fundraising efforts by hosting a recital featuring pianist Yukiko Tanaka this spring. Discovery Camp was founded in 1977 by then-JAUC pastor Justin Haruyama, and the camp has been a cherished part of the church’s ministry ever since.
Current JAUC pastor Kaz Takahashi says the camp’s mission impacts not just those children who will come from Japan, but also the Japanese Americans who attend.
“Years ago Discovery Camp was an important program to keep ties with their homeland [Japan],” says Takahashi. “These days people’s mobility is greater than ever. We have stepped into a new time of globalization. It is important for our children to be prepared and equipped to live and work with friends from a different shore. In God’s eye, we are the citizens of Christ.”
Even as fundraising efforts continue for this summer’s guest campers, Yoshimatsu says SMJ’s goal is to eventually establish a scholarship fund, which will enable more children from both Japan and the New York area to attend Discovery Camp.
“This project--inviting the children from Tohoku--sends a message to them and their families that 'God loves you; so do we.' If some children start going to church in Japan after this summer, we will continue to pray for their comfort and salvation of their souls continuously.”