Don Arnold said he's been to 149 countries and seen a lot of things, but he'd never seen anything comparable to the destruction he saw in Japan last month.
"As far across the horizon as you could see," he said, "you might see just a small structure or two standing up. Everything was wiped clean."
Arnold, in charge of audio visuals for Chattanooga-based Baptist International Missions Inc., was in the country to document the humanitarian relief the agency was doing in the Miayagi Prefecture of Japan following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
The goal, he said, was to produce an informational film to show the agency's constituency the needs in the country and how Americans can assist in relief efforts.
BIMI, active in Japan since 1963, is providing food, clothing and gospel presentations to those who have lost homes and hope along the country's eastern coastline.
"Every time we handed out a piece of clothing or food, they got a gospel tract," Arnold said.
Dr. David Snyder, president/general director of BIMI, was in Japan for three meetings with agency missionaries when the earthquake occurred. He had previously experienced earthquakes while living in Alaska.
"We knew what it was," he said.
Snyder said he was in Misawa, about 200 miles north of the epicenter of the quake, which was off the coast from the city of Sendai, a city of 1 million.
"We lost electricity, and we didn't know what was going on," he said. "The next day when we got a newspaper, we saw the devastation everywhere. We weren't affected where we were."
BIMI swung into action immediately, Snyder said. Missionaries assembled teams, gathered items and drove them to the affected areas, even camping out in order to distribute them.
"We were just trying to give them the basic needs of life," he said.
Even though the earthquake and tsunami were more than two months ago, there will be an ongoing need in the country for months, Arnold said.
With a number of agencies offering assistance and the country's nuclear crisis waning, "people think the need is subsiding," he said. "But [the problems won't] be fixed in six months."
Arnold said he was struck by how much the Japanese appreciated the help from Americans. As a 6-foot-4 inch white man pushing a shopping cart carrying 100 rolls of toilet paper and prodigious amounts of seaweed and rice in a Japanese Costco, he was conspicuous and occasionally would be stopped by residents.
On one occasion, he said, when he described how the two countries were working together in relief efforts, a Japanese man insisted the Americans weren't working with the Japanese. Instead, he said, they were carrying them on their backs, literally saving their lives.
The Japanese, according to Arnold, are an industrial, educated, technologically advanced population that has, in places, "been reduced to Third World [residents] scraping for survival."
"The government is doing all [it] can," he said. "The Japanese know the whole world is watching Japan right now. They're motivated internally to fix this thing."
Since BIMI is also an evangelistic ministry, the disaster also has given the agency a small opening in "a very closed area," Arnold said.
"It's a huge, huge jigsaw puzzle," he said. "We just want to take one piece and make the best of it for the Lord."
On his team's last day in the country, Arnold said, he told a Japanese man in a conversation that his country would come out stronger on the other side of the tragedy.
The man, he said, reached up and, in a gesture not typical for the stoic Japanese, hugged him.
"Don't forget us," Arnold said the man whispered to him.
"We promise," he told the man, "we're not going to forget you."