Relief provided by religious and spiritual groups plays an important role in the aftermath of earthquakes. It is also part of the history of Tai Ji Men.
by Stefania Cerruti*
*Introduction to the seminar “California Land of the Free: A Call to Freedom and the Tai Ji Men Case,” co-organized by CESNUR, Human Rights Without Frontiers, and Action Alliance to Redress 1219 on October 8, 2023 at the Hilton San Jose, San Jose, California.
An article already published in Bitter Winter on October 25th, 2023.
California is the land of the free but for disaster experts it is also the land of earthquakes. California has had more than fifty major earthquakes in the 19th, 20th, and the 21st centuries. The San Francisco earthquake of April 18, 1906, was the deadliest in American history, with more than 3,000 victims.
In terms of injuries and monetary damages, the second worst earthquake in California history happened in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles on January 17, 1994. It became known as the Northridge earthquake. Its peak ground acceleration was the highest ever in a city in North America. 57 died and more than 9,000 were injured. With damages estimated at $50 billion, it was the worst natural disaster ever affecting U.S. economy.
One subject that has been studied and emphasized is how non-state actors were crucial in the relief efforts after the San Francisco earthquake, and also played a role in the Northridge earthquake. Religions mobilized and helped significantly. The story is often told of how Dorothy Day, who survived the San Francisco earthquake at age eight, always remembered the dedication of Catholic volunteers after the disaster. This reminiscence eventually became a factor when she converted to Catholicism at age thirty in 1927 and went on to become one of the most famous lay Catholic activists in American history. As an Italian, this story reminds me of the heroic deeds of Father Annibale Maria Di Francia, a priest whom the Catholic Church later proclaimed a saint, when the earthquake of Messina in 1908, two years after the one in San Francisco, with a death toll of 30,000 became the worst natural disaster in European history.
While the contribution of traditional religions to earthquake relief is generally acknowledged, social prejudice makes it more difficult to recognize the good work of new religious movements. Christian Science, for example, was particularly active in raising funds for the survivors of the San Francisco earthquake. Scientology volunteer ministers played an important role after the Northridge earthquake. This was the first major disaster response for the Churches of Scientology Disaster Response organization, which now has twenty-five offices in the United States and is also active internationally.
It is also important to note that the role of religious and spiritual organizations when disasters hit is not simply to supplement the efforts of secular relief agencies. In addition to material help, their unique role is to inspire and console, based on their spiritual understanding of human suffering.
One of the reasons I deeply respect Tai Ji Men and its leader, Dr. Hong, is their good work after earthquakes. In 1999, a devastating earthquake hit Taiwan, in addition to two others in Colombia and Türkiye. On September 25, 1999, Dr. Hong held a prayer ceremony, inviting nearly 40,000 people from all walks of life, to unite their intentions and prayers to comfort the survivors. Dr. Hong also issued “Love of the World, A Declaration of Peace” after the earthquakes.
More recently after another devastating earthquake happened in Türkiye, in addition to Syria, in February 2023, Dr. Hong led a delegation of volunteers to Istanbul in March 2023 to deliver a message of love and peace and comfort the suffering country.
There are physical earthquakes and there are also moral earthquakes, such as the one that shocked the hearts of Tai Ji Men dizi as a consequence of the ill-founded confiscation of their sacred land in 2020. This was a human-made earthquake, that should never have happened. Unlike natural earthquakes, it can be undone, and their sacred land can be given back to Tai Ji Men. We are here to make this act of justice happen soon.