A Day in a Life of UMCOR and DAMBANA

IMG_0384Disaster Response Knows No Boundary

Poverty. Indebtedness. Landlessness. Insufficient social services.—These realities gripped the people of Batan, Alkan, even before a Super-Typhoon ripped through their communities.

“Nakikisilong lang po kami sa isang bahay, (We are sharing a roof in one of the houses)—my family does not have a home of which to speak,” narrates Leni Astrolavio, mother of five.

Her means of daily survival, before the storm, was to make do with whatever fish could be caught daily from the river.  At times, her husband participated in copra production.  By plucking coconuts direct from a tree, her husband could earn P4.00 (US$0.09) for each tree he climbed. When Yolanda hit the area, the house where their family stayed was totally destroyed.

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Lorencia Penalba, 48 years old, shed tears as she recalled how the family was saved during this strongest storm ever to happen in her lifetime.  The comforting words of her children were no match for the intense wind and rising water:  It will be alright Mama; Don’t be afraid; Let’s pray.  The wind was so strong, like an enraged and pounding foe; the water quickly rose, surrounding the house made of nipa and bamboo.  Lorencia and the younger children ran to the house of their neighbour.  Her eldest daughter went in the other direction.

“First, she ran to the Multipurpose Hall, but it was destroyed.  So, she ran to the covered basketball court, and she was hit by a falling ring stand.  Luckily, she was not badly hurt.  Then, she tried to take refuge at the small chapel, but the roof was ripped off.  She found her way to where we sought protection,” said Lorencia.

The family went back to their home, only to see that their house was heavily damaged. “I cried and cried, asking why it had happened.  I have faith, but at that time I began to ask: how can we move on from here?” added Lorencia

Lorencia’s dream is for her children to get schooling. “It’s so hard if you are not able to get an education, so I have been praying and dreaming that all of my children will be able to get an education,” she said.

Lorencia is a seasonal farmer and also a seasonal pawid(nipa) weaver.  She can earn about P100.00(US2.32) per day farming or weaving,  but the work is not regular.   “I am also a recipient of the government’s Conditional Cash Transfer for the indigent.  My family qualifies to get P1,600 (US$37.20)a month.  But, if I do not attend a meeting called by DSWD(Department of Social Welfare and Development), an amount of  P500.00 (US$11.62) is deducted from my support,” shared Lorencia.

Her eldest daughter is in her third year of college at a nearby school.  When asked how she is able to manage her daughter’s schooling, Lorencia replied, “I am heavily indebted. In fact, I do not know how I would be able to pay my debt.  I just trust that when she finishes her course, she will get a job and help me pay.”  Between sobs, she continued, “I already owe P35,000,00 (US$819.95) borrowed from people. With this recent storm, I do not know what to do, other than to live each day and hope for a better day than today.”

The unpaid loan continues to accrue interest on top of the principal debt.  Since Lorencia has no stable job, the spiralling indebtedness only leads her to further impoverishment.  No permanent job, no land that she can call her own—one wonders how she will be able to carry on.

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There was another woman with extra-ordinary strength in the distribution line for relief goods.  As we prioritized the elderly, pregnant, and persons with physical challenges, we also requested volunteers to assist them in carrying their 16 kilos of relief goods.  The woman volunteered to carry the packs of those who needed help.  With a smile, she quickly and graciously worked.  She seemed tireless.  Volunteering from the beginning of distribution, she was one among the last who got their relief package.

Didinga dela Cruz, 55 years old, is widow with one child and four grandchildren.  When asked where her extra-ordinary strength comes from, she gingerly replied, “I am a barangay(local community) health volunteer.  I just want to help and that’s all.”

Her house was swept away by Yolanda.  “Well, I just could not do anything.  My house was made of light materials.  I mainly survive by gardening.  At times, I do reflexology-massage services; sometimes, I am paid P50.00. If the person is rich, I might receive as much P200.00, but that is very unusual,” she said, smiling again, “with this recent typhoon, I am again indebted.  The vegetables I planted were destroyed.”

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These stories are typical amongst the people affected by Super-Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) in the municipality of Batan, Aklan.  On this island considered among the hardest hit by the recent typhoon, the people’s poverty made them extremely vulnerable.  Already enduring insufficient economic resources (land, job) and access to social services, the poor ones were living in homes made of light materials that could not withstand natural catastrophe or storm.  Now, they face even more difficulties, as they seek to piece their community and homes back together.

Sharing Relief Goods, Without Religious Borders

Batan, Aklan is an island where UMCOR(United Methodist  Committee on Relief) and DAMBANA(Damayang  Simbahan sa Panahon ng Disaster- Ecumenical  Disaster  Response) recently visited for a relief distribution.

Reaching the place from Dasmarinas, Cavite(UMCOR office) took a full day of travel by land with two inter-island, ferry-boat rides.  The team left at 10PM on December 10 and arrived at Kalibo (the nearest  town), Batan at 11PM on December 11, 2013.  Relief distribution was done on the December 12, 2013.

UMCOR and DAMBANA partnered together with a clear desire to reach out those who have been severely affected by the recent typhoon.  DAMBANA has a sectoral/grassroots network through  Task Force Tabang , a disaster response of grassroots organizations.  Through these partnerships, the Church continues to strengthen a ministry of presence and grace unto the people without focusing on religious differences.   The Church’s great capacity for concern and service has been summoned by sorrow and woe, economic and social distress, homelessness and hunger that have gripped the people.  In the aftermath of Super-Typhoon Yolanda, considered as the most powerful storm in recorded history[1] that hit the islands of the Visayas and left more than 6,000 people dead, infrastructures damaged and homes destroyed, the economic resources of the people are miniscule and non-existant.  The poor and the poorest  ones have be catapulted into an unspeakable state of poverty.

The effects of the storm not only bring forth our tears but also stirs our souls and humanity.  In the midst of so much suffering, we continue to be amazed by the powerful expressions of  generosity and  love by people who share their resources and presence to the typhoon-ravaged communities.  A meaningful expression of kinship sends a message of hope that we shall rise.

In situations like these, our faith inspires and challenges us to share in the grieving and partake in the rebuilding.   At the very least, this is a worth opportunity when the barriers that usually spur religious prejudice can be torn down.  Rather than feeding the parochial tendency of limiting services to those who “belong” in the household of faith, these moments of need help us to dismantle religious prejudice and deconstruct any notion that one religion/denomination should feel superior to others.

Disaster response knows no boundary, just like when a widow fed the Prophet Elijah;[2] out of her impoverishment, she shared the bread to the prophet, knowing well that too soon she and her son will die.  Disaster response knows no boundary, just like when a boy offered his bread and fish[3] to others even if the narrative did not count the children in those who needed to be fed. Disaster response, knows no boundary, just like when Jesus said, “A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” [4]

The recipients of the relief packages were clearly thankful and grateful for the visit.  They repeatedly thanked us, but we told them that we are just instruments of the collective response of people from different places, who believe that their generosity will reach those who need them most.  We also thanked them for being hopeful, for sharing with us courage that has been tested by storm, and for keeping alive the dreams that they have for their children, family and community.

As we continue to journey together, our creativity and sensibility are challenged in discerning how institutions, like governments and churches, complement the capacities of the people.  Must they remain landless and jobless? Must social services continue to be insufficient and inaccessible? Must the poor remain poor so that charity can prevail? Or must our responses lead to deeper commitment in restructuring our relationships so that we address the causes of vulnerabilities in so many communities?##


[2] I Kings17:7-16

[3] John 6:5-13

[4] Matthew 13:34-35

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