SALT LAKE CITY — The LDS Church is moving its missionaries out of the areas of devastation and radiation threat in Japan and has taken the first steps to initiate humanitarian aid aid to Japan following Friday's magnitude-9.0 earthquake, aftershocks and destructive tsunami waves as well as the subsequent damage to nuclear power plants in the affected areas.
"We express our sympathy and support for all of the people of Japan," said Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in a media conference Tuesday afternoon at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building.
"These are solemn times, these are sobering times for the world as we watch," he said, adding a plea for prayer of faith, assistance and gratitude. "We want the faith and support and prayerful interest of people from all over the globe."
Joining Elder Holland in providing remarks and perspective was Elder David F. Evans of the First Quorum of Seventy and an assistant executive director of the church's Missionary Department; he had served previously in Japan as a mission president and area president.
The powerful quakes and tsunamis resulted in massive destruction themselves. "But no one counted on the radiation issues," he said, adding that in terms of emergency response, "it does introduce a new element that we've never dealt with before."
It took more than 24 hours after the initial quake to do so, but by Saturday morning Utah time, LDS leaders were able to account for all 638 missionaries serving in the church's six missions in Japan. That count includes some 220 local Japanese missionaries, another 342 from the United States and the rest from other countries.
Elder Holland said the church will be moving as a precaution most — if not all — of the nearly 200 missionaries comprising its Sendai and Tokyo missions to other parts of Japan, where missions there will absorb them into their accommodations and operations.
All in the affected areas will be relocated well out of radiation-risk zones. "Whatever the government says, we're doubling or tripling that distance," Elder Holland said. "They will not want to leave. They will be determined to stay if we were to allow it — and I can tell you that we won't."
Another reason to move the missionaries is for the welfare of the local Japanese LDS members. "We don't want anybody to worry about the missionaries," he added, explaining the Japanese members should care for themselves and their own families first while food, water and fuel supplies are limited.
Elder Evans said that soon after quake and tsunami, missionaries were gathered in evacuation areas well beyond risk zones even before nuclear reactors began having troubles And Elder Holland said called radiation projections "unclear, unscientific" and added "we don't think the levels are that high."
Missionaries destined for those missions will temporarily be put on hold — kept either at the Provo Missionary Training Center for a time or distributed to other missions where they can be productive, Elder Evans said.
While missionary safety is of upmost concern, sending missionaries home from Japan is a last resort that isn't being considered now, Elder Holland said.
The LDS Church has nearly 125,000 members in Japan, and local church leaders have been able to assess the status of members of all units except one ward and two branches in the Sendai area.
"We know of no loss of life of a member — yet," he said, adding that despite limited communications, the church will try to keep local members information of what relief becomes available and where..
Elder Holland's voice choked with emotion as he praised church leaders and members in Japan who had worked days and nights without sleep or rest
"There are bishops who have lost their own homes who are out trying to find members to help. There are Relief Society presidents who have lost their own homes out there trying to find the sisters and the children," he said.
"They understand the [church's welfare] program, we understand the program, and those principles tie us."
The church is directing its members and others interested in following Church response in Japan to its lds.org and newsroom.lds.org web sites, where future developments information and detailed on how to help or donate will be posted.
"We're trying to position ourselves right now to know how to help when we can help," Elder Holland said.
The church has 50 meetinghouses and buildings in the affected areas in and around Sendai, with all but one having been visited on site by church leaders and visially inspected (but without a thorough structural evaluation). About half are reported as being damaged, Elder Hollad said, "but nothing overly serious, nothing overly substantial."
The buildings can be used if needed to gather individuals in need of shelter and to distribute food and relief supplies.
Elder Holland said substantial financial help has already been committed to Japan, including directly to the Japanese Red Cross and other relief agencies, with more monies forthcoming.
Local church leaders in Japan are assessing possible response avenues, with welfare leaders en route to Japan from Utah to help.
Identifying needs is one thing; getting relief to those needs is another. "There is no train, road or air access to the areas of devastation," Elder Evans said.
One drawback to the moving of missionaries out of the affected area that Elder Holland cited is that in the church's previous humanitarian and emergency responses, the missionaries are involved in the distributon of food, blankets and supplies. "We won't be doing that with any missionary there," he said.