Starting over in the Philippines

After the storm came the smile. It may sound strange, but after the earthquake and the horrific tropical storm the people on the Philippines are smiling again and thanking God. The reason is that following these trials, life has acquired a new meaning.

Every new day is like a blessing. Never have people on the Philippines been as poor as they are now, and yet they have learnt to see every new day, every new week and every new hour of their life as a gift. They have rediscovered the meaning of life. 

Father Edwin PontejosIn fact, many Filipinos live in unimaginable misery. The few possessions they had were taken from them by the earthquake and the storm. They lost practically everything in these hours of fear, but on the other hand they gained a new life. And that is invaluable. That's why they are smiling and, with their smiles, conveying hope for a new beginning. 

In the early hours of November 8, 2013, the typhoon Haiyan hit the Guiuan region in the north-east of the country on the island of Samar with full force at twenty to five. 

Even in the Philippines, even in this country stricken by natural catastrophes, nobody had yet seen a storm like this. The super-typhoon destroyed everything in its path. Nothing, absolutely nothing, was able to withstand the storm, which swept across the island state at wind speeds of up to 211 miles an hour. 

The suffering inflicted was immense. Many people on the Philippines had just begun to rebuild a new life after the terrible earthquake that struck the center of the country on October 14th. Now they were hit in their sleep by a natural force that uprooted trees, destroyed houses and devastated settlements. 

The tropical storm razed whole villages and towns to the ground. Whoever survived learned the value of life. It was a hard, cruel lesson. Nearly everybody in the region affected suffered deaths in their family. The number of people who felt the direct impact of the typhoon's consequences is estimated at being as many as 16 million. 

Archbishop John Forrosuelo Du of the Palo Diocese compared the consequences of the tropical storm "Yolanda" with the "explosion of an atom bomb.” 

At a meeting with children in the communities affected, in the presence of the Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), he asked the children what the storm had taken from them. Some talked about their mobiles, others about toys, houses … One little girl went up to him and asked him to bring her mother back. 

This child will never forget this particular November 8. The tropical storm passed across the islands in three stages and steadily developed into a monster storm with ever stronger winds and ever higher waves. The little girl was forced to look on as her mother was swept away by the waves. But what answer can you give to such a child? 

More than 8,000 people died or are still regarded as missing. The international community reacted without delay to the initial reports of the tragedy. Non-governmental organizations such as the United Nations and many neighboring countries provided emergency aid. The world shared the people's suffering. 

But things look different today. The people are used to getting by with little. And so they are not surprised that many aid organizations have already withdrawn again, even though the reconstruction work has only just begun. The global public is directing its attention to other tragedies and other disasters. 

That's how things go. But how will houses, villages and towns get rebuilt? How should the people build a new life? How can the population be helped to begin again from scratch? 

In this sea of devastation, the Church offers a safe haven. But simply talking about the disaster is not enough for those who have lost everything. 

The Parish of Santo Isidoro Labrador in Bohol is a place with approximately 5,000 inhabitants. Holy Masses are celebrated every day and every day the people thank God for sparing their lives. 
But when they look around … they see a church in ruins. Almost everything has been destroyed. Where walls once stood there are today only rubble and ruins. A tent is being used as a place of worship, but the worshippers don't complain.  

Sister Pilar has been working on the Philippines since 1975. She assists families, teaches them and tries to haul them out of poverty. "How can we promulgate the Gospel on an empty stomach?" she says with a kindly look she has managed to retain. 

Poverty has reached almost dramatic levels in some areas of the Philippines. If this Sister did not do her work at the mission hundreds of people would surely starve. 

Even before the earthquake and typhoon hit, the people lived in pitiful conditions, but now their situation has come to a head. The poor, who didn't have much anyway, are the hardest hit. For many, family solidarity has become their only lifeline. 

Sister Pilar Go, who comes from an immigrant Chinese family, smiles when she is asked about the poverty. Her community is small. A total of five Sisters live on only 300 pesos a day, or less than $7 for five people per day. Too little? For her it is enough. Sometimes there's even a little left over. 

Clearly moved, she explains that she experiences every day anew what it means to be exploited and how a suffering people has nevertheless kept a living faith. She gives the example of a woman she encountered by chance on the street and who said to her: "Sister, we've got nothing to eat, but we go with God and light a candle. God is great. You can always rebuild a house, but we're alive!" What answer can you give to someone who has so little and yet still gives thanks to God?

A trip to the Philippines is like a lesson in life and faith, such as in the Diocese of Isabela de Basilan. The Christians are a minority here who are harassed by the radical Islamist group Abu Sayyaf. Being a Christian here means combating poverty, forces of nature and armed terrorism. 

Significantly Isabela de Basilan refers to "our" Queen Isabel, the Saint with the miracle of roses, protector of the poor and oppressed, keeper of the peace. In nearly every house on this island of the Philippines there hangs an image of the Saint right next to that of Our Lady of Fatima. 

Hardly a day passes on the Philippines, where a deep bond with Portugal is cultivated, without prayers being offered to Saint Isabel or the Virgin of Fatima. Many an Ave Maria or Lord's Prayer is spoken in their name in this country so sorely stricken by storms. 

The faithful on the Philippines pray in a loud voice, without shame and with happy and spontaneous gestures, thus testifying to the world how strong their faith is.  Even in the regions where there is a threat from Islamist fundamentalism, where bombs are thrown at churches, villages are looted and set ablaze, priests are abducted and murdered, it is the people's strength and joy in faith that is so moving. 

The Bishop of Isabela de Basilan, Martin Jumoad, calls these Christians the "courageous ones," for they are fearless in their defiance of the threats and set an example to the world. 

ACN has long given support to the Philippine Church. This support ranges from the construction of simple wells, for instance to give a seminary in Barrio Tabe in Malolos Province access to potable water, the construction of schools, churches, catechism center, right through to the training of seminarians and the distribution of religious literature. It has been doing this since 1984.

Yet the need is now immeasurable. Time and again the forces of nature destroy the basis of people's lives, but they don't lose patience. In the Parish of Santo Rosário, the diocese erected 127 houses for the large number of families who had lost everything in the floods three years ago. 

Today, after the tropical storm, the Bishop celebrates Holy Mass in a stable. There's a lack of everything, but not of smiles or of the word "thanks," which is repeated continuously. 

In the Parish of Santo Isidoro Labrador the typhoon raged and tore off the roof of the church like a sheet of paper. It's impressive. No-one had seen anything like it before. Even today people are still sleeping in holes in the basement or in the church. They're afraid. They're traumatized. 

Since the tropical storm raged across the country and robbed them of practically everything, many parishioners have been surviving simply on what the Church gives them: food, clothing and a little construction material to rebuild their houses. There, as in practically all the other parts of the country, the word that is most often uttered is: "Salamat," "Salamat"… Thank you, Thank you. 

On the island of Bohol, the typhoon destroyed the church, but no-one has forgotten the real tragedy here: the earthquake which left a trail of devastation. The people direct their complaints to the government, who promised to help in the reconstruction but has not followed up its words with deeds.

And despite this the people who live here need something to eat, they need work, they need a place to sleep …

The Bishop of Tacbilaran Diocese, Leonardo Medroso, also criticizes the government. It only assists in the reconstruction of churches which are listed monuments. All other churches get nothing. He calls them the "orphaned churches." The 2013 earthquake lasted only 33 seconds. But that was enough to turn 25 of the 60 churches in the diocese into rubble. 

The church of the Parish of Nossa Señora de la Paz y Buen Viagem also only has a provisional facility. The people are still suffering from the traumatic events. But Father Alexander Nalitan says: "We have the hope that we will overcome this difficult time." The earthquake and typhoon have not only revealed the extreme poverty of some regions on the Philippines to the world public at large. The world has also witnessed the tremendous readiness to help others shown by the country's people. Devastated by the news of the destruction, an 8-year-old boy asked his mother for a special present on his birthday: "Mama, if I get birthday presents I'll give them all to the children in Leyte who have lost everything!" 

To lose everything means starting from the very bottom again. Since the people on the island of Mindanao, one of the poorest regions in the Philippines, don't have very much to give, hundreds of carpenters have said they are willing to give what they do have: their labor. 

Gerard is 11 years old. The courtyard of the São Joaquin church has been transformed into a gigantic cemetery. Gerard is standing next to a crucifix and is praying. He has done this every day since the tornado uprooted trees, swept houses away and brought mass death to his village. 

Gerard survived, but his mother and his 7-year-old sister didn't. When the typhoon struck the village he was in the church saying the rosary. Today he says with complete conviction: "When I'm grown up, I'm going to be a pastor!" Gerard's fate is representative of the tragedy which occurred on the Philippines. He wears mourning, he's lost his mother and sister, but he still feels a bond with God. Never before has he prayed so fervently. 

Every day Gerard lights a candle at the grave of his mother and sister. Every day Gerard gives thanks that he is alive, that the storm spared him. Perhaps that's why he says with such conviction that he intends to become a pastor. It is his way of saying "salamat," "salamat" to God, just as many Filipinos say it to the benefactors and friends from Aid to the Church in Need. 

Thousands of people are still homeless and unable to make a living. After all, they have lost everything that would enable them to do this, the implements to work the fields, the boats with which they went fishing, the animals with which they earned money, the factories where they worked, tractors, vehicles, bicycles. They have lost their family members and friends, but they haven't lost their faith and their hope. And they smile and thank God for being alive. 

And we, who are not able to conceive of such a tragedy, should we remain inactive? Can't we help? 

With picture of Fr. Edwin G. Pontejos in Santa Fe, Philippines (© ACN)  


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