In Memory of the Victims of Super Typhoon Yolanda (international name: Haiyan).
During the Christmas season in 2013, I volunteered to help the parish priest in San Antonio, Basey, Western Samar, one of the worst-hit coastal towns, celebrate dawn and evening Masses (a nine-day Misa de Gallo in the Filipino tradition) in all the areas in his parish.
During the day, I had time to talk to people in their tents and makeshift houses or help a group of nuns in their work among the farmers and fisher-folk.
What follows are narratives that I heard, read, seen or felt at Ground Zero, which for me are also real expressions of (post)apocalyptic spirituality.
GOD’S ABSENCE IN SOLIDARITY AND PAIN
‘Where was God when Haiyan came?’ Shrouded in darkness, one cannot help but confront these nagging questions: ‘If God is all-powerful, where is he or she in all these events? Why did it happen to us?’ — questions which classical theodicy had triCd to answer long time ago. Those I talked with were not afraid to ask them all over again. Yet, listening to their tearful conversations delivered in trembling voices, one can sense their fragile hope.
True, God was not powerful enough to stop the storm. But he or she became a God of love who now suffers with them, someone at their side even as things do not yet make sense. When all was washed away, all that people literally held on to was their religious statues and rosaries. For many, these are all that they have recovered.
Since what was left in that parish church was its sagging wall, they returned to its altar and the headless statues of their saints, and started praying amidst the debris. At a Mass the Sunday after the storm, one woman-survivor said: If there is no God, who else is there?’ Another woman, who still could not locate her aging mother, keeps relentless faith in a God who never abandons us: I know God will lead me to my mother. He is our only hope.’
During those early dawn or evening Masses which we celebrated together, people were just there inside their cold roofless chapels, waiting in the dark with the flickers of their candles or flashlights; and in many instances, under the rain. You could still sense their fears and their suffering in their somber stares. But they did not leave. They kept on with their prayers and their songs.
The God in solidarity with them was close, particularly in their moment of pain and loss. Love and solidarity, in the words of Metz, ‘remembers not only what has succeeded, but also what has been destroyed, not only what has been achieved, but also what has been lost and in this way is turned against the victory of what has become and already exists. This is dangerous memory.’ As they were standing there, their living faith became a stinging indictment of all the world’s indifference and complacency — inside my own heart too.
FRAGILE HOPE AND DEFIANT WILL TO SURVIVE
Before phone signals were restored, survivors wrote on small sheets of paper to be projected on screen by TV outfits. The overall message of these pieces of paper was quite touching as it was courageous: ‘Do not worry about us, we are alive!’ Even as there was nothing yet and everything was uncertain (the relief goods were not yet in sight; there were no roofs to protect them from the rain; loved ones were still missing and many others were already dead and unburied; there was no electricity, or food and water; there was darkness everywhere), these same battered people had the strength to assure their families and friends in much better conditions somewhere not to worry about them.
International journalists couldn’t help but be amazed. ‘Can you imagine the strength it takes to be living in shock, to be living, sleeping on the streets next to the body of your dead children? Can you imagine that strength? I can’t. And I’ve seen that strength day in and day out here in the Philippines’, CNN’s newscaster Anderson Cooper reported with his voice cracking.
This fragile yet defiant hope is seen in the survivors’ strength, sense of humour, and creativity. Instead of deep despair, a smile here or a waving hand there is what one sees. On a tree in front of what is left of one little hut is a board which announces to those doing relief operations: ‘We need house and lot, car, swimming pool!’ A little joke is a sign of a sheer will to survive — and resourcefulness, too.
Some pieces of plywood and metal ring taken from the rubble could form part of a makeshift basketball court for children to play again. An old refrigerator could substitute for a lost boat so that they could go fishing again. A barber in one small town started cutting hair again in his roofless shop. He said that though there were no houses yet and food was slow in coming, at least people would look good and handsome.
A group of mothers started to plant together in communal gardens. A few weeks later, the green leaves that had started to sprout served as the much-needed beacon of hope for all to see. In one of those reflection sessions, I asked a group of farmers and their wives: ‘What is next after Yolanda?’ ‘We need to go back to our farms, was the simple reply. Since it was raining on Christmas Day, some farmers began to plant. As I watched them from afar, I told myself: ‘No angels came down singing Alleluia, but Jesus is born here today.’
DISCIPLESHIP AND COMPASSION
A Navy man was on duty on the far-distant island of Mindanao. Days earlier, his children had called him up, asking when he was coming home and if he could bring some of their favorite food. He heard that Yolanda had badly damaged his city. He hurried home to take them food. Before he reached his house, his neighbors told him that his three children had died and, at that very moment, his wife was in the cemetery for their funeral. Out of despair, he wanted to throw away all the food that he brought for them. But he didn’t waste it, for he realized that many other neighbors and their children had nothing to eat.
We also heard of a helicopter pilot who could not bear the thought of thousands suffering from hunger while so many relief goods had not been delivered. On his own responsibility, he decided to fly his chopper and drop the goods to open spaces where there were survivors. The act could have cost him his job. But he risked it anyway.
Metz reminds us that ‘Our apocalyptical consciousness is not threatened with a paralyzing fear of catastrophe. It is, on the contrary, called upon to display a practical solidarity with the least of the brethren; this is clear from the apocalyptical chapters at the end of the gospel of Matthew’. For the ‘Christian idea of imitation and the apocalyptical idea of imminent expectation belong together.’
[November 8, 2023, marks the 10th year after typhoon Yolanda. I have written this text a year after the event (2014), an excerpt of a longer article in Concilium, I am sharing this today in honor of the victims and those who survived, those who keep on struggling today.]
Father Daniel Franklin Pilario, C.M., is a theologian, professor, and pastor of an urban poor community on the outskirts of the Philippine capital. He is also Vincentian Chair for Social Justice at St. John’s University in New York. The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of LiCAS News or its publishers.