Turning Poison Into Medicine
On the heels of several major hurricanes, SGI-USA members embody the spirit to treasure the person in front of them and instill their communities with hope.
by Martin Saito
After Hurricane Harvey submerged Houston in floodwater, Britany Lovett found herself holed up in her home for eight days.
During that time, she kept the names of the Central Chapter young women in a journal, with notes on their status from her daily check-ins. Although she felt helpless at times, she pushed herself to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to give the members hope.
“I did this every day because everyone’s life was at risk,” said Ms. Lovett, the vice chapter young women’s leader. “If one person like SGI President Ikeda can have as much of an effect on an entire population globally, there’s no reason I shouldn’t believe in that potential in my own life. It was a humbling experience.”
From mid-August to September, hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria sent punishing winds and torrential rains that flooded cities, snapped power grids and severely damaged and destroyed homes, while displacing tens of thousands.
Though it is not unusual for several storms to develop in a month, it is unusual for storms reaching Category 4- and 5-levels to occur so closely together, or to pass through the same region just weeks apart.
President Ikeda sent several messages to the members in affected regions, expressing his heartfelt sympathy and concern for them, while encouraging the members to turn poison into medicine based on resolute faith.
For the Wu family, this means rebuilding their home in Houston into an even nicer and stronger one for the members, so they can once again offer it for district discussion meetings. “It’s difficult, but we are trying to keep our hopes high,” said Sherry Wu. “We want to show actual proof and encourage everyone in the district. We all have the same mind of faith that, as long as we have the Gohonzon and don’t give up, we will win.”
SGI-USA members proved to be a powerful force of unity as they chanted for the safety and protection of those impacted by the storm, while taking immediate action to care for and support the members.
“WE LEARN TO TAKE CARE OF THE PERSON RIGHT IN FRONT OF US,
WHATEVER THE NEED IS.”
In Texas, SGI-USA Austin members drove 160 miles one way to Houston to deliver basic necessities. And as soon as the floodwaters began to recede, a crew of about 20 local members got to work helping other members tear down drywall, pull out carpets and flooring, toss damaged furniture and bag wet items to salvage what they could. Their sunny presence and quick united action were so palpable that one SGI-USA member was asked by a neighbor what contractor she was using, and if she could hire them.
The local SGI-USA leaders checked on as many members as they could through phone calls, texts and visits. Everyone they had accounted for was safe. Such behind-the-scenes efforts were a source of reassurance and hope to many, as members prayed to turn poison into medicine based on President Ikeda’s encouragement.
Brittane Lewis, the Houston Region young women’s leader, volunteered at the state’s largest evacuation site, the George R. Brown Convention Center, which provided shelter to 8,000 individuals. There, she coordinated activities for children and ensured that they were fed.
When organizers asked where she learned such leadership skills, Ms. Lewis responded: “I’m a Buddhist, and we have very specific training for young people in our organization. We learn to take care of the person right in front of us, whatever the need is. We don’t wait to be asked to do something. We see the need and fill it.”
“THOSE WHO ALWAYS HAVE
HOPE ARE HAPPY.”
On Sept. 6, Houston Region held its Kosen-rufu Gongyo meeting with SGI-USA General Director Adin Strauss at the Houston Buddhist Center, which sustained no damage and was filled to capacity with many members reuniting for the first time since the storm.
Mr. Strauss presented the members with copies of President Ikeda’s seminal poem “Hope Is Life’s Treasure” (see Feb. 3, 2012, World Tribune, p. 1), which he wrote on Jan. 2, 2012, his 84th birthday. It contains the lines: “Those who always have hope are happy.”
In a presentation titled “Transforming Our Environment,” Mr. Strauss reassured the members that, by basing themselves on SGI Nichiren Buddhism, they could transform even the most difficult suffering into joy. “We can never rewind our lives, redo our lives,” he said. “What’s far more important are the causes we make in the present to transform our future.”
He went on to relay an episode from The New Human Revolution, when, in 1967, President Ikeda visited the Japanese city of Matsushiro, which had been experiencing a series of earthquakes over two years. Residents feared a major earthquake was imminent. Understanding this, President Ikeda encouraged the central leader of the area, who then relayed the guidance to the members of Matsushiro. President Ikeda said:
In light of the principle of the oneness of life and its environment, transforming the destiny of the place where we reside requires nothing more than transforming our own destiny through doing our human revolution. Toward that end, let’s stir up a great wave of propagation here in Matsushiro. And let’s transform this community into a model realm of kosen-rufu! (vol. 12, p. 100)
Mr. Strauss stressed that the way to repay one’s debt of gratitude on a life-to-life level was through sharing Buddhism and creating strong bonds of trust in the community for the expansion of kosen-rufu. This is the quickest and surest route to transforming the land, he said.
In this spirit, two new youth joined the Soka family at the meeting. Oshin Malhara expressed her appreciation to everyone who supported her along the way. “Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my happiness of getting the Gohonzon with you all,” she said.
Added Adrian Calzada: “I never felt the chant as I did last night. I felt it in my heart completely. I’m more than happy that I got my Gohonzon, and I’ll definitely be practicing every day.”
“I SEE IT AS A TIME TO
STRENGTHEN MY FAITH.”
On Sept. 6, Hurricane Irma made landfall in the Caribbean islands, packing winds of up to 185 mph, causing severe damage to 90 percent of the buildings in the region.
As Hurricane Irma struck Southern Florida, SGI-USA members across the nation continued to chant fervently for all who remained in the storm’s path.
While the Florida Nature and Culture Center in Weston, Florida, reported no structural damage, members’ calls were redirected to the New York Culture Center. “We realized that no one was recalling the centers,” said Lenny Bogdonoff, the New York Zone young men’s leader. “So we decided that we would start calling the Florida Zone members.”
In New York, several dozen youth, together with men’s and women’s leaders, established the Hurricane Irma Emergency Control Center. Within two days, they called 1,000 members in the path of Irma, recording their locations, hearing their needs and connecting them to local members who could offer support. “We shared with them that there were thousands of people throughout the country chanting for their safety and protection,” Mr. Bogdonoff said.
A live map was created to indicate the path of the storm and whether the members residing in those areas had been contacted, including many members who haven’t attended SGI meetings in some time.
Among those making calls was Shobhan Giterson, St. Maarten Chapter young women’s leader, who hadn’t been able to return home for more than three weeks since departing the island for the SGI Youth Training Course in Japan (Aug. 30–Sept. 5).
“It’s been tough, but I see it as a time to strengthen my faith,” said Ms. Giterson, who has a 5-year-old daughter, Sevahnna, back home. “My daughter told me she is being very brave and chanting for my safe return. That lifted my spirits.”
While Ms. Giterson returned home on Sept. 22 via a humanitarian relief flight, SGI-USA Caribbean Region reported that the members were safe and hopeful, with some even playing key roles in the relief efforts throughout their communities.
“Above all, it is the time to strengthen our faith more than ever and lead others with our hopeful outlook.”
Ms. Giterson said that learning about SGI President Ikeda’s efforts to spread Buddhism outside Japan and having many genuine dialogues with SGI youth from around the world made her realize that her mission was right where her feet were planted—in St. Maarten. “It’s up to me to stand up with Sensei in the Caribbean,” Ms. Giterson said.
Florida Zone Leader Ingmar Soto, who had to evacuate his home in South Florida, reported that members were determined to use this difficulty to redouble their efforts to spread the Mystic Law and help many people become happy.
Taking aid in Nichiren’s words “Great events never have minor omens. When great evil occurs, great good follows” (“Great Evil and Great Good,” WND-1, 1119), Mr. Soto emphasized that one’s faith determines everything. “This experience has made us understand the power of unity and prayer,” he said. “Sensei has said many times that the crucial moment is when our faith will be tested. This is an opportunity to take our faith to the next level. This is not a coincidence or punishment. We are rejoicing because we will jump back in tremendously to create ‘great good.’ ”
“WHEN GREAT EVIL OCCURS,
GREAT GOOD FOLLOWS.”
A new powerful storm, Hurricane Maria, made landfall on Sept. 18 on the Caribbean island of Dominica as a Category 5. After passing over Dominica, Maria pummeled St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands before striking Puerto Rico on Sept. 20 as a Category 4, becoming the worst hurricane to hit the island in nearly a century. Puerto Rico continues to be paralyzed in the aftermath of the storm, which left 3.5 million people without power. Today, most are still without electricity and phone service, with food and medicine scarce. San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz has called the disaster a humanitarian crisis.
Valerie Giterson, the SGI-USA Caribbean Region women’s leader and lifelong resident of St. Maarten, echoed the spirit of countless SGI members to bring hope to their communities. Just the other day, she donned an SGI-USA “Never Give Up” t-shirt to the bank. “A woman approached me, saying, ‘You have the right shirt on,’ ” recalled Mrs. Giterson. “I shared Buddhism with her because if it weren’t for this practice, my family and I would be distressed and defeated. That’s why, above all, it is the time to strengthen our faith more than ever and lead others with our hopeful outlook.”