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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Compassion in the Flood

Churches in the Philippines respond in the wake of disaster

By Bill Snider
Jan. 3, 2010

Metro Manila's 11.5 million people are accustomed to rain and flooding. But when Typhoon Ketsana inundated the region during the closing days of September, no one was prepared for the scale of the disaster.

In just one 12-hour stretch, 17 inches of rain fell. Water quickly burst past normal levels as nearby Lake Laguna backed up into cities and towns. Initial government reports placed more than 4 million people within the flood's reach - more than 880,000 families in 30 cities. In Metro Manila alone, 172,000 families were affected.

The crisis intensified. With a one-two punch reminiscent of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Typhoon Parma followed Ketsana and slammed into the northern reaches of Luzon in early October. This time the storm system hovered overhead, dropping more than 6 feet of rain. Again, the number of those endangered and displaced quickly rose past the million mark.

During the 21 years I have served in the Philippines, I have experienced both joy and heartache. Joy comes as I see Christ transform lives and I watch churches multiply across the islands. But my heart aches for the millions who have yet to encounter the Savior and for countless families who live in grinding material and spiritual poverty. In the aftermath of Ketsana and Parma, I sensed both emotions keenly.

As our churches confronted the massive devastation of these twin typhoons, church leaders felt the need for an army, but all we had was a platoon. The need was so great, yet relatively few organizations were able or equipped to help people put their lives back together.

But as the Philippine church responded to this catastrophe during the following days and weeks, a sense of hope began to grow. Believers realized that even a platoon of Christ's committed followers can bring about an army-sized victory.

Marshaling churches
Within just two days of the initial flooding, the Philippines Assemblies of God national church leadership met. General Superintendent Rey Calusay and his executive team joined presbyters from Metro Manila, missionary Mike Williams and Convoy of Hope personnel to strategize an effective relief ministry.

Team members quickly helped local churches develop feeding efforts in several areas around Metro Manila. Two of the hardest-hit areas, Marikina and Rizal, were initial zones for food distribution, and a collection center began receiving used clothing.

These steps intensified in response to Typhoon Parma. In addition, grief counseling and spiritual encouragement were offered, since many families lost loved ones.

Missionaries Tom and Connie Bohnert in Baguio met one family in particular.

After six days of steady rain from Typhoon Parma, the city of La Trinidad lost electricity. At Highland Metropolitan Assembly of God, a group of believers had just returned from a funeral for a family killed in a nearby landslide. Around 10:30 p.m., the church began to shake, and those gathered heard a roar coming from the mountain above - a fearsome, ceaseless rumbling accompanied by glass breaking and the crashing of metal. It seemed to last for several minutes.

In an instant, all became silent; then the darkness outside echoed with scattered screams of "Tulong! Tulong!" ("Help me!"). In the pouring rain, with no electricity or even the light of the moon, fear and confusion followed. Those whose houses were spared by the landslide were too afraid to enter the pool of sinking mud.

Before long, the crying ceased, and a disheartening silence permeated the valley. No one slept. Instead, they waited for sunrise to rescue anyone who might still be alive.

Marlon Soriano, 18, went to bed early that night, concerned only with the next day's exams at school. He awoke in terror as a mound of earth carried him with his shattered bedroom down a slope. Scrap wood and metal pinned him in on all sides. He was still trying to figure out what had happened when he heard his 8-year-old sister, Jhema, crying and his older brother Randy calling out to her.

Marlon yelled to Randy for help. Moments later Randy lifted what was left of the tin roof from the house. "I can't help you," he said. "I can hardly walk. I'm going to get help."

Randy coaxed Jhema to go to the house of the governor of their tiny village area and wait there while he went to get help.

Meanwhile, in the darkness, Marlon reached around and found a solid piece of wood overhead. I am not going to die! he said to himself with a sense of divine encouragement. God has a purpose for me! With renewed strength, he hoisted himself from the mud that nearly became his tomb and quickly headed for the flashlight he could see in the distance.

Soaked and in pain, Randy was taken to a crowded hospital while Marlon found dry clothes at a friend's house nearby. All he could do was wait until morning.

At dawn, Marlon and several neighbors carefully walked to the ruins of his house, unsure what they might find. Within a few yards of the rubble, Marlon heard a muffled cry. Waist deep in mud, the group carefully began to dig. By then, Marlon's oldest brother, Ferdinand, had joined in the search. Pinned under a couple of 2-by-4s held together with a piece of sheet metal, they found their 2-year-old nephew, Xyrus Sapao, in a tiny pocket of space. He had miraculously lived through the night. They freed him, and Ferdinand rushed him to the hospital.

Marlon was left to do the unimaginable alone. He found his mother, Editha's crushed body; his 11-month-old brother, Ezer; and his 14-year-old sister, Joy. Next to Joy were Marlon's oldest sister, Jocelyn Sapao, and her two daughters, Shekinah, 3, and Shareign, 2. Together with his friends, in the continued downpour, Marlon moved the bodies out of the mud.

The Bohnerts met the Sorianos a few days after the tragedy. In spite of losing their home and six family members, the family's faith has been strengthened.

International response
Within days after the disaster, the Assemblies of God World Missions provided funds for relief efforts, and a crisis team formed by local AG churches in the Philippines began to identify where those monies could best be invested. HealthCare Ministries also sent a team to assist with medical needs. An earlier team sent to the island of Mindoro regrouped and stayed an additional five days to help with the crisis on Luzon. These teams set up ministry sites near affected areas, some of which still had knee- to waist-deep water.

Dr. Deb Highfill, director of HealthCare Ministries, came with Dr. JoAnn Butrin, AGWM director for International Ministries, and two other HealthCare professionals. Joining them were five Filipino doctors and a team of Filipino nurses. They worked from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. in a small church, seeing as many as 400 patients each day for five days.

A front-end loader outside scraped up debris, garbage, waste, mud and the remains of houses for eight hours to clear part of the street. The waste was piled some 5 feet high for about 50 meters. Similar work took place in hundreds of neighborhoods affected by the floods.

I met one pastor who spent more than a day on the roof of her church waiting to be rescued. We walked through her church together. Her clothes, Bibles, computer, the church sound system - everything - was buried in mud.

Looking at her neighborhood, she could be overwhelmed with grief. Instead, she believes God is going to bring good out of this disaster. The church met a few days later on Sunday, and people came in wearing the only clothes they possessed. They worshipped fervently, and the pastor preached from memory. Together they celebrated that they were alive, that Jesus is Lord, and that life goes on.

I am amazed at the resilience of Filipinos and how quickly they have worked together to clean up their neighborhoods and bring back a semblance of life in the most difficult of tragedies.

Convoy of Hope and HealthCare Ministries teams that come from the U.S. are catalysts for a broader base of activity to continue. Funds that help mobilize response also prompt national believers to work together. As a result of this show of support, HealthCare Ministries is organizing as a ministry of the Philippines Assemblies of God.

Vision for long-term recovery
The world suffers from collective amnesia. People can only focus on a disaster for so long before the news becomes old. But God continues to raise up compassionate believers who are working sacrificially to address the long-term needs of their Filipino brothers and sisters in Christ.

No missionary or single congregation can make a sustaining difference in the wake of a disaster of this scale. But as our missionaries, local churches and national leadership work together, God is faithfully bringing about miraculous results. The body of Christ finds a degree of expression in the worst of circumstances unequaled during seasons of calm.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Parma, Highland Metropolitan Assembly of God buried 39 people lost in a landslide. Churches in the Baguio area came together and began organizing food and clothing drives. Our missionary team joined the national Fellowship to give assistance.

Russ Turney, regional director for Asia Pacific, served for 15 years in the Philippines and has watched the national church develop. "They took offerings immediately after the disaster," says Russ, "demonstrating their responsible and compassionate desire to touch the suffering."

Convoy of Hope and a Philippine HealthCare medical team are serving long term in northern Luzon. They organize feeding programs, give away household items and oversee continuing recovery. Thousands of people receive food with each distribution, and 400 to 600 patients receive treatment with each medical outreach.

I am filled with gratitude for the rapid response from AG World Missions, the missionaries who faithfully work on the ground, the national church that maintains a vision for reaching all of the Philippines with the gospel, and Convoy of Hope, which has a Philippine branch. All of these elements represent seeds of the gospel in ground once unreached.

The end result of believers' compassionate response during a disaster is this: The church's visibility in the community rises. The church's compassion mirrors the compassion of Christ and gives a vision of His love that might never be achieved during years of uneventful ministry. In the end, people are added to the church. And when the storm is past, the renewed and enlarged local church has a better visibility and stronger relationship in the community. Out of disaster God is able to bring about wonderful things in communities and in people's lives.

The deep waters of Ketsana and Parma have been no match for the deep love and compassion of God's servants to communities in need. God has orchestrated local churches, the national church, the missionary fellowship and Convoy of Hope in an unequaled team effort. We are a small platoon in comparison to the need, but that platoon has responded rapidly, obediently and effectively. My prayer is that months from now, we will see hundreds if not thousands added to our local churches because the church responded in times of great need.

BILL SNIDER is Southeast Asia area director for Assemblies of God World Missions.

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