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In Japan, the Mormon network gathers the flock

The only thing that rivals the Mormon church’s ability to spread the word is its ability to cope with emergencies.

Within 36 hours of the earthquake striking off the coast of Sendai on March 11, the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced that all 638 of its missionaries in the country -- 342 Americans, 216 Japanese and 80 from other nations – were safe.

Within a few days, the church also had accounted for all but about 1,000 of its 125,000 members in Japan.

 “Whether it is Haiti or Japan,” said David Evans, a senior leader in the church who serves in the missionary department. “This is how it works everywhere.”

Chalk it up to a culture of discipline and emergency preparedness. The church has a detailed hierarchy and network that works in ordinary times to maintain cohesion among followers, and in disaster to locate them.

Worldwide, some 14 million members of the church are divided into thousands of units, most of them made up of 300 to 400 people. A bishop presides over each member unit, which keeps detailed records—address, phone, work address and other information on each member.

“When you break it down to that small a group, it’s not as if anyone has to contact thousands of people,” said Richard Hinckley, executive director of the church’s missionary operations. “With four or five calls from a bishop — using phone trees — we can locate any one of 14 million church members in the world in a matter of minutes.”

In emergencies, if communication systems are out of order -- as they were in large swathes of Japan after the quake and tsunami — an intricate church network kicks in.

Under what they call the “home teaching program” each church assigns a member four to 10 people to visit at least once each month, checking in on their physical and spiritual wellbeing. So essentially everyone checks in on others and is checked in on themself. That means when a disaster hits, church members know exactly where to look for the folks that are normally part of their rounds.

The missionaries — young men and women who work in pairs – all have cell phones, but with cell networks down in most cases, they instead followed disaster plans that directed them to predetermined locations. Most of the young evangelists were accounted for within 18 hours. The last four, who had to walk out of one of the most devastated areas of Sendai to reach their assigned site, were contacted within 36 hours of the quake, church officials said.

As the threat of radiation emerged, the church network swung into motion again, quickly shifting 72 young evangelists out of harm’s way to missions in Hokkaido in the north and Nagoya in the south of Japan.

“We’re very confident that we have moved everybody far, far away,” from the radiation leaking from the Fukushima nuclear power plant, said Steve Allen, a public affairs officer with the church. Not only did they do so for safety reasons, he said, but for practical reasons — to get them out of the way of relief efforts.

Now the church has shifted into the next phase: relief operations.

Under a separate organizational system, the Mormons have dispatched a team to Tokyo to determine how they can actually deliver aid — not only to followers but the devastated region at large.

They quickly inspected 50 LDS church buildings in the disaster-stricken coastal areas — all but the one in Sendai, because the earthquake damage made it impossible to reach — to determine whether they could be used for relief efforts.

On the relief side of the operation, the church is not just focused on its own flock.

The church has made substantial contributions to the Japanese Red Cross and is coordinating with other aid organizations to assess the need for food, housing and fuel in the disaster zone. 

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“We strive to help people whenever there is a disaster,” said Allen. “Our desire to help is not based on religious affiliation or any other affiliation.”

The elders say that none of the missionaries has asked to leave Japan, and if anything the evangelists—most between 19 and 21 – are itching to return to the areas where they have been working to help. But the relief effort doesn’t really require evangelists, whose job it to share the Gospel.

“We would love to have missionaries be involved in any way they can be helpful,” said Allen. “But they are not equipped to be particularly helpful. They are better deployed elsewhere until they can come back in and not be a burden on the relief effort.”