HIGASHI MATSUSHIMA, JAPAN
Walking through what was once a thriving costal community in Higashi Matsushima, Japan, on June 15, Presiding Bishop H. David Burton reaches down and picks up a porcelain cup from a massive pile of rubble.
He gently examines the cup — which is surprisingly intact — before returning it to the exact place he found it.
It has been more than three months since an earthquake and tsunami changed the landscape here.
Looking at the breadth and depth of the destruction left by the March 11 catastrophe, Bishop Burton lists some of the disaster sites he has visited around the world.
"I have never seen anything like this," he adds.
The piles of rubble are somber remnants of the homes that once dominated this desolate landscape and the people who lived in them; a pot, a baby blanket, a fisherman's boot, a stuffed doll and Bishop Burton's cup each tell an individual story. They are stories of devastation and of resilience.
"The emotions that you find here as we go about meeting people are just from one end of the spectrum to the other," said Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Seventy and president of the Church's Asia North Area. "At once you are feeling these emotions of hope and restoration and at the same time they are mixed with these emotions of tragedy and loss."
Bishop Burton traveled to Japan to survey the landscape and to view some of the many Church relief efforts being undertaken here.
Helping the disaster victims in Japan through the Church's humanitarian fund is a priority, he said. "I don't know where we could spend our money any better."
In addition to sending water, food, blankets and fuel to refugee centers in the weeks after the disaster, the Church is now undertaking efforts that will help the community rebuild. The Church has donated funds to each of the three prefectures impacted most by the disaster and to the Red Cross. In future days Latter-day Saint funds will be used also for education and employment initiatives, and for an agricultural effort in which Church leaders hope to use a new technology to restore fields damaged by sea water, said Elder Stevenson.
But perhaps the greatest Latter-day Saint relief in the area has come with the more than 10,000 volunteers who have donned Mormon Helping Hands T-shirts and given more than 100,000 hours of service.
Elder Stevenson said the yellow vests and T-shirts have become well known. Residents say, "If you see a yellow vest, grab them and get them back to your house."
The Church will continue to send volunteers into the impacted areas until the work is done, he added.
Elder Stevenson said that throughout the summer, local missionaries and Church members from across Japan will come to the area. "Two to three groups a week will be here," he said.
Indicative of the Church's humanitarian efforts here is a Latter-day Saint donation to a local fisherman's union in Watabe, Japan.
Of the 90 fishing boats in the cooperative, only two were not damaged by the tsunami. And although the men are fixing their boats and reclaiming some of their equipment from the land and the sea, they cannot go back to work without ice to preserve their daily catch.
In an informal ceremony, Bishop Burton pledged the Church's help.
He presented Shinetsu Kikuchi, chairman of the Miyagi Prefecture Fishing Cooperative, with a certificate promising an ice maker, a refrigerator, a cooler truck and other equipment and supplies.
"We are honored to make this donation," Bishop Burton said. "But along with the donation, we offer our hearts and prayers as you press forward in building for your future. We hope in some small way this will assist you. We wish you well."
Bishop Burton said the Church will be involved with other projects, like this one that encourage self-reliance, in future months.
Before leaving the area, he took a moment and looked into a fisherman's boat. The boat — unlike the porcelain cup — is now, with the Church's help, a symbol of rebuilding and moving forward.
"When you see whole communities just destroyed it is something that stays with you," he said.