As I wrote in my previous post, the best stories of transformation and recovery aren’t about buildings, but about people. Last week I told the story of Mr. Aoki, a gentle Japanese man who has come to Christ in his old age. Today I’d like to introduce Maya Konno, an inspiring (and awe-inspiring) young woman who has lent enormous strength to the relief effort. If you’re interested in pitching in and/or volunteering as well, you can sign up at http://www.b-1.jp/tohoku/en/. Trips still leave from Osaka twice a week.
Helianthus Annuus Ishinomakiae
I saw this dedication on a gift of mix CDs: “To Maya Konno—you are the vibrant sunflower of Ishinomaki.” This is absolutely right. Maya is tall and bold, bright and colorful, and complex as any sunflower should be. I was resting once at the Be One house, with my eyes closed, and she came and sat down next to me. I didn’t notice her at first – but I should have guessed she was there, as the air filled with the paradoxically warm scent of summertime kakigori (Japanese shaved ice). I woke up to catch a glimpse of her just as a half-dozen children buzzed in, nuzzling and covering her – or almost covering her, as it’s hard to hide completely that giant’s bloom, the strong and dauntless champion of the field.
(Something terrible happened to Maya’s brother. He is alive, but he witnessed the deaths of many others all around him, and could do nothing. This, anyway, is what I’ve been told: That he felt helpless, and now is haunted by it. I do not know his story exactly, but I heard another that may do – about a man who spent the night trapped in his car, up to his neck in tsunami water. Before the sun set, and after it rose again, he watched as monolithic bales of paper, floating free from the local mill, crushed the cars stalled out to his left and right. He told me he shivered for hours in the dubious water, waiting for his turn to be next. He survived, but he is haunted now; he was helpless at the time.)
Maya Konno is anything but helpless. At twenty-three years old, she is fearless, upbeat, driven, and strong. In fact I’ve heard her described as having “the strength of ten grown men.” When she first introduced herself to my wife, she said, “Hello, my name is Maya. I’m hyper!” And then she ran off to knock down some walls. She was a karate champion as a high school student, and a karate instructor until recently. I could not dream up a more amiable or terrifying person to try to block from kicking you in the head. For Maya is truly the vibrant sunflower; she focuses on her goals with the natural tenacity of a heliotrope encircling the sun.
For two – three? – four? – months now, Maya has volunteered for Be One Tohoku Aid every day, doing the hardest jobs imaginable. She shows up well-groomed at the work site in the morning, with immaculate makeup and tasteful hair. Then she steps into a pair of orange coveralls and starts tearing up the floor. She is always the first to dive into the crawlspaces underneath houses, wriggling on her elbows in the toxic muck for hours at a time. Keeping up with her is a challenge, but working with her is a joy; she screams and laughs whenever she sees a cockroach. Here’s a sample of some typical dialogue:
MAYA: (from beneath the kitchen floor) Ahhh!!! Kumo! Yucky!
VOLUNTEER 1: (standing above her) Kumoyaki? Fried spiders?
VOLUNTEER 2: Are you eating spiders again, Maya?
MAYA: (a pause.) Yes!!!
Actually, Maya couldn’t speak a word of English when she first started to volunteer. Of course she didn’t let that stop her. Be One was either the first or most active relief group in the neighborhood, so she joined up. Her city had been laid waste, but she was still kicking, and she was going to help. It didn’t matter that few of the other volunteers spoke the same language as her, or that she didn’t understand the Christian religion at all; Be One provided her a framework within which she could take action against the despair that loomed over Ishinomaki. She speaks English almost fluently now, of course. She absorbs idioms like she’s photosynthesizing them, practicing phrases while heaving bags of rubble into the bed of a truck. Climb into the passenger seat next to her: She’ll turn to you, blink, and ask, “Are you prepared to die?” before she turns the key in the ignition.
Maya brings a ton of energy to everything she does, and so Be One has relied heavily on her this summer. Officially she is just another volunteer, but in reality she is a towering leader within the group. I knew her by reputation long before I met her in person. I worried about her before I met her, too – after all, how can someone bring that much upbeat willfulness to such grueling, emotional work everyday, for months? Maya knows the people that we’re helping; she knows the fathers and daughters that were lost; she knows who lived in the empty house next door. She obviously has deep reservoirs of strength and resiliency – perhaps deeper than most. Still, they’re finite. She’s human. For most of the week that I worked alongside her, I watched her with a mixture of awe and apprehension. There was such a colossal weight upon her head. When would the sunflower begin to droop?
On the day before I left, something wonderful happened to allay these worries. I’m still concerned for Maya, but not nearly in the way I was before. It happened on a slow Saturday afternoon. We had just one small job, helping an old man load ruined furniture into a truck. He’d dragged his chairs, tables, and bookshelves out of his house and stacked them in the driveway. It must have taken him hours to get the stuff that far on his own, but the ten of us volunteers had it strapped down and headed to the dump in less than twenty minutes. Normally our group leaders offer some informal counseling to the people we serve, and we usually gather as one for a prayer before we leave. This time, however, because we’d only been there for twenty minutes, we were all prepared to depart with just few bows and a quick “sayonara.” It was Maya who stopped us as we climbed into our seats.
“Wait,” she demanded; “we should pray.” So we got out and took each other’s hands, Maya Konno boldly bringing the little old man into the circle.
“We should pray in Japanese,” I suggested, “so that he can understand.”
When no one took me up on this, Lora (one of Be One’s official staff members) turned to Maya and said, “I’ll pray in English, and you translate.”
What followed was more than just a statement of good wishes, or an affirmation of Maya’s skyrocketing language skills. When I first learned to pray. . . for me it was an almost dizzying sensation. My first prayers were shouted from a spiritual rollercoaster. It was overwhelming to have a sense that the Provident Being who created the universe would stoop to hear me, would want to know me. . . . I experienced that same wonder and exhilaration as I listened to Lora and Maya entwine their words together, joining my thoughts to theirs. And when it was over, Maya smiled and said, “That was my first time talking to God.”
There’s a proverb that says the Japanese are Shinto at their birth and Buddhist at their funeral. Shintoism prevails on happy occasions – births, weddings, New Year’s – when everyone goes to the shrine to ring bells and clap their hands. Buddhism’s main business is the somber sutras that prepare souls for whatever awaits them after death. But as I watch the recovery effort in Ishinomaki, I’ve come to wonder: What about the times on the other side of those? What about when everyone else dies, and you are left alone? What about when new life arises in the face of total devastation? What hope, what God can the Japanese people turn to then? Maya Konno knows the answer – and so does Mr. Aoki. Please join me in continuing to pray for them; and with them, please continue to pray for Tohoku and Japan.