Mission Among the Survivors of Haiyan

by Bro. Karl M. Gaspar, C.Ss.R.

On 8 November 2013, super-typhoon Haiyan devastated Central Visayas in the Philippines. Worst hit by the strong winds (368 kms./hour) and the ensuing storm surge was Tacloban City which consequently attracted the global media’s attention. But massive devastation took place across the central islands of the country including those of Samar, other parts of Leyte, Cebu, Panay and Palawan.

The national government’s official statistics indicated that 6,500 people died mainly because of the floods resulting from the storm surge, with 1,500 still missing. Millions of people lost their homes and property. But as practically all the coastal villages from Eastern Samar to Eastern Leyte were wiped out by this calamity, the number of deaths could total 20,000.

Because of the significant presence of the Redemptorists in Tacloban City (where we have a parish, a shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help and a base for a mission team that has served parishes and mission stations in Samar and Leyte for a long time), the community members found themselves literally in the eye of the storm. We are located quite near the city center which is near the sea and part of our parish include the coastline. When the storm pushed 20-feet high seawaters inland, much of the city proper and our parish were totally destroyed.

As the entire city was largely devastated, there were very limited resources available to respond to the urgent needs of the survivors. Fortunately, the church and convent survived the storm and floods so these became evacuation centers where 3,000 people sought shelter. They stayed as evacuees in our compound until November 30. As part of disaster preparedness, the Redemptorist community had stacked up on food supplies. But given the extent of hunger, the supplies run out quickly.

Mobilization of resources as well as relief operations – with the purchasing, packing and delivery of relief goods to Tacloban – got underway in the various Redemptorist units, especially those in the cities Cebu and Manila. The members of the Tacloban community did their best to heroically respond to this emergency situation in collaboration with other Redemptorists, international and local non-governmental organizations and relief agencies. Parishioners who were survivors assisted the Redemptorists in distributing aid to the survivors..

Picture6During the meeting of the Extraordinary Provincial Council (EPC) of the Cebu Province held in the last week of November 2013, there was a discussion on how best the Province could further respond to the needs of the typhoon victims. A General Mission had been arranged by the Redemptorist Tacloban Mission Team in the parish of Mercedes, Eastern Samar in early 2014. When Fr. Cris Mostajo, C.Ss.R., the Provincial Vicar, visited Tacloban after the tragedy, he raised with the mission team the difficulty of pursuing the mission in Mercedes, and suggested instead to conduct a mission in another parish in Eastern Leyte. This agenda was taken up at the EPC meeting with Fr. Edwin Bacaltos, C.Ss.R., the Rector of the Tacloban community. After consulation with the members, his community who agreed to the proposal.

The EPC then appointed Bro. Karl Gaspar, C.Ss.R., Fr. Gerardo Matriano, C.Ss.R. and Fr. Pio Makabenta, C.Ss.R. as the members of the Coordinating Team to organize the General Mission. They immediately invited the confreres of the Manila Vice-Province to join this mission. Fr. Ariel Lubi, C.Ss.R., Manila Vice-Provincial, responded favorably to the proposal and asked for volunteers from his unit. The word was then sent to the confreres, the lay missionaries and the formation communities to mobilize volunteers to join the mission set to begin 26 January and end 20 April 2014 (Easter Sunday).

A group of 13 Redemptorists and lay missionaries served the mission team full-time from January 15 to April 20. A total of 133 Redemptorists, lay collaborators and formands (from Cebu and Manila) came as volunteers. Most stayed for only a week (we insisted that they begin on a Sunday and end on a Sunday so they spent a full-week in the mission) but a few stayed for almost a month. There were also other religious congregations who joined, especially the Columbans, as well as diocesan priests from Palo, Calbayog and Cebu.

The devastation of Samar-Leyte provided the Redemptorists in the Philippines with an extraordinary opportunity to be at the service of the most abandoned – specifically those whose lives were shattered by the super-typhoon. Taking place at a time when the Redemptorists were gathered in a Missiological Conversation in Cebu City (7-9 November 2013) where they reflected on how best their missiological praxis could be aligned to the call of the last General Chapter, the tragedy has highlighted the need to evolve new approaches in terms of their ministry. One of these is in the manner of conducting a General Mission contextualized in a post-disaster setting.

The theme of this General Mission is: Re-nurturing Faith, Re-kindling Hope, Re-building the People of God. Re-nurturing Faith is to take place in the context of a people’s shattered faith in what was perceived to be a situation where God was “absent” or had abandoned the people in their times of great grief and sorrow. Re-kindling hope in the face of the people’s trauma, despair and deprivation. Re-building the People of God where families, neighborhoods and communities who were fragmented by the disaster could be reunited and strengthened once again.

A core group of five Redemptorists and eight lay missionaries from the three mission teams constituted the full-time members of the team. Eleven other Redemptorists from both units have served a few weeks in the mission since it began along with twenty lay missionaries from the various units across the country including Laoag, Legazpi, Baclaran, Cebu, Iligan and Davao. For a week or two, postulants and college seminarians on immersion stage have also joined. Four MPS Sisters have also joined. In the last four weeks of the mission, there will still be many confreres, lay missionaries and formands who will be joining including those from the college seminary and the St. Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute.

Picture7Other congregations and the local clergy have also volunteered to be part of the General Mission and more will be joining in the coming weeks. They are from the local church of the Archdiocese of Palo. Seminarians from the St. Mary’s Theologate and the Palo Theological Seminary will also be joining once semestral classes are over. All in all, a total of 133 Redemptorists, lay collaborators and formand (from Cebu and Manila) came as volunteers. Most stayed for only a week (we insisted that they begin on a Sunday and end on a Sunday so they spent a full-week in the mission) but a few stayed for almost a month.

As part of the preparation for the General Mission, the members of the core group and the first set of volunteers underwent a six-day preparatory seminar-workshop. These included sessions on the biblico-theological underpinnings of evangelizing work among survivors of a disaster, psycho-social-spiritual integration theories and techniques (specifically related to approaches in trauma healing and stress debriefing e.g. story telling, art and theatre therapy) and ways of dealing with climate change and disaster preparedness. There were also sessions on team-building, and a deepening spirituality that could be a source of grace for those accompanying survivors in their struggle to recover. Exploring relevant and appropriate rehabilitation methodologies was also part of this preparation.

On 23 January, there was a sending off ceremony for those going to conduct the General Mission. Three days later, the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Palo, Msgr. Jimmy Villanueva, officiated at a Mass to open the General Mission across thirteen parishes in the Archdiocese including the Redemptorist parish in Tacloban City. Because of the big number of villages that constitute these parishes and given the limited number of personnel and the timeframe, this mission prioritized only the coastal villages which were the most badly hit by the storm surge. There are a few more requests from adjacent parishes but we had to turn these down owing to our limitations.

After the Entry Mass in our parish church in Tacloban City, the team members – within 3 weeks – reached close to 6,000 households in the barangays within our parish to include Barangay No. 49 to 61 and 110. This was followed by two barangays in the parish of St. Jude (Anibong and Rawis where the 9 cargo boats got stranded after being pushed to the coastland by the storm surge). From there we moved to San Jose in Tacloban City, the two parishes in Palo (Pawing and San Joaquin), the two parishes in Tolosa, two parishes in Dulag, two parishes in Tanauan and, finally, the parish of Mayorga.

Various activities are conducted by the missionaries in these villages. We begin usually with a visitation to the families of their survivors living in evacuation centers, tents and temporary shelters provided by the government, international aid agencies and non-government organizations. In these homes, we listen to the people’s stories of struggle and survival. In many cases, the retelling of the stories still bring tears as the people are continuing to process their grief and sorrow at the death of so many relatives.

Picture8Our presence among them and the mere act of just listening to their narratives already bring relief for which the people are grateful. Many have received relief goods and material assistance from various groups and agencies but we usually are the first to spend time listening to their stories in their homes and to provide them a listening ear as well as words of consolation. We do family rituals in these homes that help to assuage their fears and anxieties as well as bless their newly built shelter. We also visit the sick, persons with disabilities and senior citizens.

As thousands have died in the areas we have been covering – and many of those presumed dead remain missing – there have been different kinds of liturgical celebrations and rituals to commemorate the event, remember the dead and to pray for the living. Masses for the dead are celebrated in which the lists of dead people prayed for are quite long. We do blessings and cleansing of spots where dead people were deposited for a while so they can be identified before being brought to cemeteries (if they were identified) and mass graves (if unidentified and unclaimed by relatives). We also conduct these rituals at the mass graves where thousands of people were hastily buried days after they perished in the deluge.

Picture4We have been doing psycho-social-spiritual integration sessions with children (7 to 12 years old) and the youth (13 above) giving special attention to those who lost significant elders of their families and clans. We usually have feeding programs during these sessions as the kids go hungry during these kind of sessions. We also have done this for adults, separating the mothers from the fathers. These sessions always end with either a Eucharistic celebration or rituals to provide them solace in their sense of guilt, grief and desperation. If these take place on a Wednesday, we incorporate the novena to Our Mother of Perpetual Help.

With the arrival of Lent, we organized a journey through the Stations of the Cross which are usually held across the devastated areas of the villages. We developed a model where the journey of Jesus from the Last Supper through the streets of Jerusalem up to Golgotha is juxtaposed by the journey of the survivors just before Haiyan struck them up to the deaths caused by the disaster. Such an activity has brought to them in an inculturated manner the meaning of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of our Lord.

It will take a long while before the thousands of survivors will be able to rebuild their lives and have the kind of normal lives they had before tragedy struck. It will take a while before their will be a closure to the traumas they faced as a result of the massive loss of lives of their dearly departed. It will take a long while before the communities will be able to rise up again and provide for the basic needs of the citizens.

But perhaps as the General Mission has touched the lives of some of the survivors, by God’s grace, the missionaries have been able to help them realize that God did not abandon them when the super-typhoon struck them.; that despite the tragedy, God remains a deep source of compassion for them; that there is a meaning as to why they survived the deluge and have been gifted a second life. This meaning could be connected to a mission that has been handed to them by God, a mission involving conversion and a commitment to be God’s co-workers in bringing forth plentiful redemption.

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