Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints
Patrick Hiltbrand, American missionary in Japan.
It was faith that landed Patrick Hiltbrand in the path of a tsunami last week, but arguably it was also his faith that got him out —as he survived the deluge in the upper floor of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the small town of Tagajo. Despite the ordeal he has survived, he so far has no intention of leaving Japan soon, and that too has to do with his religious convictions.
“Right now, I’m here in Japan for two years to serve God,” said the 20-year-old speaking from a mission in Sapporo. He is determined to return to the disaster zone to help with recovery, but awaits instruction: “My (mission) leaders are receiving guidance from God,” he said.
For members of the Mormon church, going on “mission” is a rite of passage. At any given moment there are about 52,000 Mormon missionaries working around the world — most of them between 19 and 21 years old. In order to remain focused of their religious work, they are asked not to watch television, follow the news or call their families and friends. On their one day off a week, they can write letters or email.
Hiltbrand, from Pocatello, Idaho, is the third son in the family to go on mission, but the first to be sent overseas. Being chosen for Japan was "beyond his wildest dreams," said his mom, Corrie Hiltbrand. He had been evangelizing in Sendai area of Japan for about 15 months when the quake struck.
Dressed in the standard issue white-shirt-and-tie, he and his “companion” Yuji Aiura — Mormon missionaries always travel in pairs — had arrived by bicycle to a small restaurant in Tagajo, a river town about two miles from the ocean.
They were discussing the power of God with two local Japanese when the shaking began. They ignored it at first says Hiltbrand — there are so many small quakes in this region — but not for long.
The growing fury of the rumbling drove them to take shelter under a table. Then they decided to run outside.
“There was a loud bang and everything was moving in every direction,” Hiltbrand says. “Cars were rocking on the street.”
When it stopped, the two missionaries jumped on their bikes and rode to check on their apartment, then headed to the Mormon church in Tagajo, dodging newly created crevices and open manholes.
Along the way, Hiltbrand registered the shock and fear on faces all around him, wracking his brain for the right course of action.
“As we started toward the church I turned to my companion and said ‘our job today is to help people be happy as we can,'” said Hiltbrand. “I tried to smile and say hi to everyone.”
It is in Hiltbrand's character to try to cheer people, said his mother. She describes him as tough in the face of adversity, outgoing and enthusiastic about whatever task is at hand. Right before leaving on mission, the electronics student needed to make some money—and the only job he could get was standing on a corner wearing a big sign for a local pizza joint.
“He stood on a street corner flipping and spinning that sign. He never stopped moving,” said Corrie Hiltbrand. “He said, ‘If this is what I have to do for my job, then I’m going to go all out,’ and that’s what Patrick does.”
Any illusion that the disaster was over quickly passed as traffic built—with cars heading inland toward Sendai. Then police and fire vehicle sirens began blaring tsunami warnings.
The scene in Tagajo, Japan, about 2 miles from the coast, after the tsunami swept through the city.
Hiltbrand and Aiura climbed to the second story of the church, a building that is raised 4 to 5 feet off the ground.
The watched out the window as the water level rose rapidly, aided by the river that wraps around the town—and sucked their bicycles into a torrent, along with cars and debris.
Water began pouring through the church’s mail slot in the door of the first floor.
“From the second floor it sounded like a waterfall,” said Hiltbrand. “I went downstairs, and as I watched it coming in … the glass on the door shattered and water came pouring in.”
The water rose to about four feet before it started to subside he said.
It was 20 hours before the young missionaries could venture outside. They were not able to go to the emergency meeting site designated by their mission because they were isolated on the wrong side of the swollen river. There was no cell service to get instruction from higher-ups at the church.
“It was a real ‘what do I do’ moment,” Hiltbrand said in a matter-of-fact voice. “(Aiura) said, ‘We need to get to Sendai,'” about 20 miles away.
They trudged through standing water, navigating through the piles of cars and wreckage. Japanese residents were also wading through the remaining water, some carrying elderly family members on their backs.
A local church member driving toward Tagajo from Sendai spotted Hiltbrand and Aiura as he neared the town. He turned around them and drove them to the unscathed mission in Sendai city, about 24 hours after the quake.
The church has since moved all 200 of its young evangelists from Tokyo and the Sendai area to missions they believe to be a safe distance from the radiation leak at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.
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Hiltbrand is now at a mission in Sapporo — on the northern island of Hokkaido. On Friday he and other evacuees were getting health evaluations and briefings on the full scope of the disaster, including the radiation leaking from Fukushima — a crisis that has prompted the U.S. government to offer U.S. citizens evacuation from Japan.
Hiltbrand said he has no thought of going back to Utah early. And his mother said she is 100 percent supportive of his plans—even after a tense and prayer-filled 24 hours of uncertainty about her son’s survival.
“(To ask) for him to come home never even went through our minds,” she said. “Patrick is where he has planned to be all his life…. We knew he was where needed to be and when we heard from him that he had been protected. And we know that he will be protected.”
For his part, Hiltbrand is itching to get back to the disaster zone.
“I really want to be in Tagajo helping people,” he says. “I have many friends in Tagajo and I don’t know how they are. I don’t know how they will clean it all up and I want to help.”
But, as senior leaders of the LDS church told msnbc.com earlier in the week, the missionaries, although enthusiastic, may be more of a burden than a help at this stage.
So Hiltbrand waits until the church says it is OK for him to change his mission — from saving souls to salvaging lives.
“All I know is I’m now in Sapporo because I’m supposed to be,” he said.