When news of the catastrophic earthquake/tsunami began to break from northern Japan on March 11, the Rev. Sharon Lee MacArthur responded with a wave of humility.
"At the time, we were in shock, so we did something very small," says MacArthur, 10-year pastor at Sycamore Congregational UCC in El Cerrito, Calif. "We started letting the community know we were opening up our sanctuary to people who wanted to pray, meditate, be in community, or have other congregations or pastors join us."
The "very small" gesture has prompted considerable disaster-relief activity at the San Francisco Bay-area church that serves nearly 100 Japanese-speaking families with solid links to Japan. The community of El Cerrito is across the bay from San Francisco and was founded by refugees from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
"We seem to be a center for information gathering and communication," says MacArthur, who is Chinese-American. "It feels like folks know that we have Japanese connections. We've been visited by several TV channels and had stories about our receiving donations for Japan relief."
Sycamore's preschool serves 35 families, of which, MacArthur estimates, 60 to 70 percent are immigrants. "Close to 90 percent speak Japanese," she adds.
As of March 18, MacArthur said all loved ones and family members of the Sycamore community who live in Japan had been accounted for and were safe
MacArthur and Koji Sahara, Sycamore's UCC-ordained Japanese language minister, recently addressed a group of 30 local African-American pastors eager to learn how they can help.
"Bless his heart, Koji stayed up half the night to compose a presentation in English, which, of course, is his second language," says MacArthur. "One young pastor talked to me afterwards and will be working with us to have their annual gospel concert in May benefit Japan disaster relief."
Among early stories touching MacArthur's heart were those regarding a 7-year-old and his mother who brought in donations – in both U.S. dollars and yen – and a phone call from a woman who recently came to worship at Sycamore while living in her car.
"She said she saw me on television and called to help," says MacArthur. "She doesn't have much money to donate, but she has materials and time, and can create some craft items like keychains to give to Sycamore to sell to benefit Japan disaster relief."
Groups in the Sycamore extended community are planning bake sales, Japanese craft sales, pizza bakes, "Take Home Sunday Night Dinners" and "Saturday Obentos (lunchboxes)" – all to benefit Japan disaster relief.
MacArthur says various UCC congregations in northern California have been in contact with each other about ways in which they can combine efforts to help Japan.
She adds a final inspiring anecdote about an email she received from a Japanese student whom she'd met not long ago; a student who has returned to Japan.
"She wrote that she was so grateful and pleased that there's been no evidence of looting or any of the other kinds of things that often follow such a national disaster," says MacArthur. "I think this speaks volumes for the Japanese people and their culture."
Donations to emergency relief efforts in Japan can be made at <ucc.org/disaster/japan-earthquake-2011/>.