New York, NY, March 22, 2011--Despite extensive earthquake damage, a rural mission training center in Japan plans to welcome its new class as soon as possible, perhaps only a month late.
The Asian Rural Institute (ARI) at Nasushiobara expected its 2011 term to open as usual in early April--until structural damage by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami was compounded by the threat of radiation. ARI is some 60 miles from the disabled nuclear plant at Fukushima Dai-ichi, and it has found itself host, a kind of way station, for people moving out of more seriously endangered areas.
The ecumenical institute is a long-time United Methodist mission partner. It equips grassroots leaders from around the world to work with the poor and marginalized, especially to encourage sustainable agriculture. It has a new class of 30 men and women each year for a nine-month session.
A March 22 email from ARI staff member Steven Cutting set May 2 as the new start date. He said that none of the anticipated participants had requested withdrawal. While buildings were damaged, the major reason for the delay is the institute's proximity to the Fukushima power plant.
Close United Methodist Ties
ARI has close links to The United Methodist Church, including UMCOR, the relief agency of the General Board of Global Ministries; United Methodist Women, and the leadership development office of Global Ministries. UMCOR was a major sponsor of ARI when it was organized in 1973. Jonathan McCurley, a United Methodist missionary, and his wife, Satomi, are currently working at ARI.
No staff or volunteers were killed or seriously injured in the earthquake, but roofs and farm buildings collapsed, requiring extensive clean-up and eventual repair. ARI director, Kenichi Otsu, and Global Ministries' chief executive, Thomas Kemper, were in touch within hours of the earthquake.
"We are very worried about many missing people," Otsu wrote, echoing a concern that would be repeated over the following ten days. As of March 21, the death toll in Japan stood at 8,000, and 12,000 persons were still missing.
Eye on the Power Plant
"We continue to clean up with an eye on the [power] plant," missionary McCurley wrote. "Please pray for God's wisdom as we plan this year's program. Ask for God's mercy so that we can have the program this year."
A March 22 letter from McCurley indicated that things were moving slowly in clean-up.
He said that the structural damage to a primary building, Koinonia House, is not as bad as first believed, and the entire structure would not need to be replaced.
"We still have to tear down most of the inside of the building and fix some floors and walls," he wrote.
ARI is working on a local refugee center to care for persons displaced by the earthquake and tsunami and being evacuated from the radiation zone around the power plant. Although limited in space, the center is housing a few refugees. It is providing food through other facilities to those coming into the area, and is sending food to the hardest-hit areas around the coastal city of Sendai.
UMCOR is in touch with ARI staff about collaboration in caring for refugees and eventual facilities restoration.
Persons who take part in the annual training sessions are called "participants" rather than students. Many of them bring valuable experience of their own to share.
In the 2010 term, Global Ministries sponsored two ARI participants, Daneth Him from Cambodia and John Nday Kyoni from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Both young people are now deeply involved in ministries with the poor in their home countries. The 2011 roster includes a United Methodist participant from Haiti.
United Methodist Women, working through the Women's Division of Global Ministries, has provided numerous scholarships to ARI over the years. The institute has also served as a placement for Global Justice Volunteers, young adults who engage in justice ministries through a joint program of Women's Division and the Global Ministries' office of mission volunteers.
"We are supposed to make placements at ARI this year, but will now need to see how things develop," said Carol Van Gorp, executive secretary for international ministries of Women's Division. The institute has many hundreds of volunteers each year. Cutting, in his March 17 report, indicated that many of those persons present at the time of quake had been evacuated.
Founded by Pastor in 1973
The Asian Rural Institute was founded in 1973 by the Rev. Dr. Toshihiro Takami, a Christian pastor who had worked with a disaster-relief project in Bangladesh following the devastating 1970 floods. He decided to organize training to help local leaders cope not only with disasters but with acute poverty and hunger. The facility and farm at Nasushiobara is 100 miles north of Tokyo and addresses the issue of small subsistence farming in Japan as well as food issues and land use in other parts of the world. Integrated organic farming and animal husbandry are at the foundations.
Takami became a Christian in the early 1950s when he worked as a cook for a missionary. A US youth group made it possible for him to attend college in Nebraska, and he earned a seminary degree from the Yale University Divinity School. Back in Japan, he was ordained by the United Church of Christ in Japan, a denomination formed in World War II years by the merger of 33 churches, including Methodist groups. Takami retired from the ARI leadership in 1990 but continued an active role for many more years.
Based in Love of Jesus
The work of the institute is rooted in Christianity, specifically in the love of Jesus Christ, but it is interfaith in scope, including members of other faith communities among its participants. The mission statement says that the institute intends to "build an environmentally healthy, just and peaceful world, in which each person can live to his or her fullest potential." The motto is, "That we may live together."
ARI has more than 1,000 graduates, 90 percent of whom continue in their careers in grassroots development. Participants in 2010 came from 16 countries.
A broad range of denominations and international-development organizations make use of ARI's services. For more information, consult the ARI website.
Prayer Request from Missionaries
Letters from staff at ARI always include requests for prayer. Missionary McCurley ended his letter of March 22 with prayer requests for rescue workers, for safe control of the power plant, and for safe food for the hungry. He closed:
Pray for Satomi and Jonathan as we seek to comfort and minister to others and do recovery work. We have seen in ourselves and other missionaries tiredness. Pray that God will give us strength to continue to serve and witness to people. Pray people's hearts will be open and the gospel communicated clearly. Finally, pray that we will know our limits and rest when we need to, continually relying on God to fill us up with his strength in our weakness.