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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. ...




Samoan Islands: The Long Road to Recovery

By Kirk Noonan
Jan. 3, 2010

At first light, Sept. 29, 2009, promised to be just another day in Lotoipue, Samoa.

The Pacific Ocean’s crystal clear, turquoise water lapped the shoreline. Palm trees swayed in gentle breezes as mothers prepared for the day and children trotted off to school. In the verdant hills above the village, men were already busy working the rich soil of their family’s taro plantations.

But at 6:48 a.m., about 120 miles south of the Samoan Islands, a vertical slip of the earth’s crust — deep below the ocean’s surface — caused an 8.3-magnitude earthquake that rocked Lotoipue.

Mitaina Sefo, a young mother and wife of an Assemblies of God minister, immediately turned on the radio to listen to the news. Other residents cautiously stepped out of their modest homes to search for damage or check on neighbors.

Feagai Fuimaono, another young mother just down the road from the Sefo household, raced to the back of her property to watch the ocean. She knew that if the water receded a tsunami was coming.

The water never receded — at least not where she stood. But unknown to her and hundreds of other villagers, several miles down the coast the receding water was giving its silent warning. 

At around 7:15 a.m., Mitaina was listening to the radio when she heard what sounded like a low-flying jet. The electricity in the house suddenly went off, and an instant later she heard the frantic ringing of village bells — bells that call people to church on Sundays or warn them of danger.

“The wall of water was brown, swirling and moving fast,” says Soala, a neighbor of the Sefos. “It was higher than the buildings and filled with debris. I started running, but it caught me.”

The tsunami caught hundreds of unsuspecting residents in Samoa and neighboring American Samoa. In a matter of minutes, entire villages were flattened, thousands of homes were destroyed and nearly 200 people were killed.

Though devastating, the tsunami provided unprecedented opportunities for the Samoa Assemblies of God to reach out in Christ’s love to its own and to hurting families throughout the islands.
 
Relief comes
Stacks of boxes and piles of bags filled with food, clothing, kitchen utensils, hygiene products, water, bedding, tools, and even bunches of taros and bananas fill a wing of the cavernous Assemblies of God convention center in Apia, Samoa. A line of volunteers — consisting of Bible school students and local pastors — quickly load the food and supplies into several trucks.

“After the tsunami we issued a call on the radio, asking all Assemblies of God people to send what they could,” says Tavita Pagaialii, general superintendent of the Samoa Assemblies of God. “When our people learned of the damage done to our churches and families, it prompted a spirit of cooperation and sacrificial giving.”

With the trucks loaded, Pastor Pagaialii, an assessment team from Assemblies of God World Missions and Convoy of Hope, and local volunteers head toward the southern end of the island where most of the tsunami damage occurred. An hour later, the convoy slows to a stop in the village of Samusu in front of a small, but tidy, AG church at the side of the road.

As team members unload food and supplies, Pastor Faamanu Mote greets them. With tears in his eyes he describes how Selau Farani, a 29-year-old member of the church who was nine months pregnant, was killed by the tsunami as she walked to a doctor’s office with her two young children.

“The Assemblies of God family is helping her family through this,” he whispers sadly. “The help is encouraging, but her children … they’re still in the hospital.”

Minutes later, the convoy enters the hardest-hit area, a 10-mile stretch that runs along the coast. Slabs of concrete and splintered stubs of timber are all that remain of many homes. Cars and boats twisted like tinfoil toys are scattered across wide swaths of barren ground that was once lush and green. Piles of debris are stacked high around trees.

Malo Sefo, Mitaina’s husband, sits on the stoop of Lotoipue AG, the church he pastors. He looks discouraged, his shoulders slumped and eyes red from crying.

Everything in the church is a loss. Rusted microphone stands, soundboards and instruments are testaments to the corrosive saltwater that surged up to a mile and a half inland. Piles of wooden pews are warped and faded. Windows are broken and doors hang oddly from their frames.

“Seeing our Fellowship help us is very edifying to me,” he manages to say as he watches volunteers unload food and supplies for his family. “It builds me up.”

After praying with Malo, Pastor Pagaialii promises to return the following day with fresh water. The team then moves farther down the coastline, stopping at one Assemblies of God church after another. At each location they hear stories of believers who escaped death or lost loved ones. Tears come easily, prayers are offered, and promises to return with more supplies seem to lift spirits.

 Mafutaga Tamatoa, pastor of Faleatiu AG, lost 12 family members, including two nieces under the age of 5.

“We found some of them,” he says, looking at what is left of his family’s home. “Others, we did not. But we have faith that the Lord will provide for our needs and help us.”

Some of that help comes immediately from fellow Samoans or from supplies provided by AGWM and Convoy of Hope. In the weeks to come, it will also come in shipping containers filled with thousands of dollars worth of food, hygiene kits and ice chests sent by Convoy of Hope.

Jerry Jacob, area director for Pacific Oceania, for a week in Samoa immediately after the disaster, helped coordinate the initial response. “This has really been an effective united effort of the Samoan AG, AG World Missions, Convoy of Hope, HealthCare Ministries and the Australian AG,” Jerry says.

“Sending money into countries to meet initial needs immediately after disasters strike and then following that up with shipping containers full of food and supplies is the most efficient way to respond,” says Randy Hurst, director of communications for AG World Missions, who has been involved in many relief operations. “By doing so, we can provide immediate and long-term relief for churches and communities.”

Steve Irwin, director of agency services for Convoy of Hope and leader of the assessment team in Samoa, agrees.

“Because of Convoy of Hope’s strategic partnerships, we can leverage each dollar we receive to provide up to $7 worth of groceries and relief supplies,” he says. “If we can empower the Assemblies of God churches in Samoa so they can help their countrymen, and those countrymen say that God helped us, we’ve done our job.”

The next morning Pastor Pagaialii and his team buy hundreds of gallons of water and two large plastic vats with funds provided by AG World Missions and Convoy of Hope. Once again, they travel down the coast, stopping at each AG church affected by the tsunami. Pastors and laypeople eagerly take the water and other provisions.

In the hills above Lotoipue, refugee camps have sprung up among the taro plantations. The land is verdant, but hilly — not an ideal spot for pitching tents. But the people don’t seem to mind. It feels safer, they say, especially since aftershocks continue to rattle the ground and people’s nerves.

At one camp Pastor Pagaialii and his team see a group from Lotoipue AG building a temporary house for Malo and Mitaina Sefo. A large plastic vat that can hold hundreds of gallons of water is offloaded near the site as Irwin and other team members find a suitable spot to set it up. The vat will stay outside the Sefos’ hut but will be accessible to the entire camp, which consists of several families from the church who lost their homes.

As the finishing touches are put on the vat, Malo becomes emotional. He thanks the Lord for sparing his wife and 2-year-old daughter when the tsunami struck. Then he turns his attention toward the team. 

“We are overwhelmed and so happy to receive this,” he says to Steve. “It will help not only us, but also our church family and the village.”

Some of the team members climb back in their trucks. There is more water to distribute and another vat to be put in place.

Rick Salvato, a missionary with HealthCare Ministries, also has medical supplies to dispense. Though the team has already done much for the tsunami survivors, the recovery effort promises to be ongoing and lengthy.

“Our commitment is to see that all of our churches and people recover fully,” says Pastor Pagaialii, “because we are determined to finish what we started.”

As the team heads down the hill toward Lotoipue, another tsunami alert is issued. Handfuls of men, women and children run from the village and into the hills. Warning bells ring as cars full of people race toward higher ground. Within minutes, Lotoipue’s streets are emptied. 

The alert ends up being a false alarm, but it serves as a grim reminder that months — maybe even years — will pass before life returns to normal in Samoa. That’s exactly why AG World Missions and Convoy of Hope are committed to do whatever they can to meet immediate and long-term needs when disaster strikes. By helping those in need, we demonstrate the compassion of Christ.


KIRK NOONAN is communications director for Convoy of Hope.

View more photography of Samoa at world.ag.org.

Email your comments to pe@ag.org.