The Power of Prayer in Reviving Localities in Japan

the start of training accredited religious professionals who can offer psycho-spiritual care without pushing their faith on others

by Kyoko Isa

Asahi Shimbun November 20, 2012

The Great Eastern Japan Disaster of March 11, 2011 has brought the opportunity to re-evaluate  “the power of prayer” in sharing in the sorrows of the victims and bringing them psycho-spiritual ease. However, at hospitals all over the country and at temporary housing facilities in the disaster areas, there is the general “refusal of all religious persons”. In order for religious persons to make a social contribution, how can they be publicly acknowledged as specialized staff with credentials in the way doctors are? Amidst ongoing concern on this matter, the cultivation of such credentialed religious persons has begun.

It is mid October in the disaster hit city of Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture. Amidst a driving rain, a group of twelve religious professionals make their way on pilgrimage on the road running along the Kyu-Kitagamigawa River. A Buddhist monk at the head of the procession carries a flag reading “repose of the souls”, while a Christian pastor with a red cross, a Muslim shaykh, and a female Buddhist follow along. There were many young victims of the tsunami in the 5 km area around the Okawa elementary school where they march while chanting various prayers.

The pilgrimage, supported by the donations of various local religious groups, is part of the first “clinical religious professionals” in-service training of the “Endowed Course for Practical Religious Studies” established by Tohoku University in Sendai City. “Clinical religious professional” is the term for a specialist who can offer psycho-spiritual care in places like disaster areas and terminal care facilities not for the purpose of conversion. In the United States and elsewhere, in professional environments that deal with death, like hospitals, the military, and police and fire departments, there are clergy called “chaplains” who have publicly accredited qualifications. The in-service training of the Tohoku University program has the goal of cultivating such “chaplains” within a Japanese context. The program has been built on the basis of the experience of religious professionals, medical professionals, and researchers who have continued to provide support in the disaster areas. These professionals have been invited as lecturers in the program.

Most participants come from the Tokyo and Osaka metropolitan areas and have been on this first in-service training running until November 16th for eight days. On this day, as the evening draws near, they are dropped off at a temporary housing complex facing a tract under restoration by a car that comes to a halt carefully without splashing water. They will shortly begin a “café event” to practice “deep listening” to the experiences of victims. They learn how not to force their own faith on these people and to create intimacy and offer helpful words of support and prayer when asked. The program has been running such events over this training period while also providing lectures from instructors.

The most unique feature of the program is that these participants are learning to understand and respect each other’s religions. Participants take turns leading the morning and evening prayers for the group; for example, when a Buddhist priest is leading and chanting from his holy text, the Christian pastor will call out in unison. One participant who completed the training remarked, “I am a Buddhist priest, but it was moving to see the figure of the Christian pastor reading out the words of his holy texts in a strong voice or watching the Muslim shaykh doing his prayers in the prescribed form.” Another participant reflected, “I was able to make companions with those had a shared intention.”

The head of the course, Associate Professor Hara Takahashi, remarks, “In the disaster areas, Buddhist priests and Christian pastors walk in one line but also listen and get encouragement from the victims. Overcoming sectarian religion and cooperating together, they draw a line before engaging in the kinds of activities for commercial or sectarian gain that other religious persons have done in these areas. They are creating a space for activities that are of public service.” The course is scheduled to last for 3 years. Next year they will do in-service training at medical facilities.

The Rinbutsuken Institute for Engaged Buddhism in Tokyo also has a plan to begin in April a course open to the public to cultivate “clinical Buddhist chaplains”. The target group is young Buddhist priests and Buddhist followers with the aim of cultivating Buddhist chaplains. The plan is to provide training for a broad field of environments such as hospitals, youth development centers, and free spaces for reclusive shut-ins (hikikomori ).

The head of the course is the senior researcher at the Rinbutsuken Institute, Rev. Hitoshi Jin. He remarks, “Until the beginning of the Meiji Era in 1868, Buddhists had roles in education and medicine. From now on, the problem of caring for the elderly living alone will become acute with the sharp increase in their population. [The role of priests] shouldn’t be confined to performing funerals but to the necessity of offering care. So we must develop qualified people.”

translated by Jonathan Watts

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