For weeks before we left, we were telling people we just felt like the Lord had something for us to do – and lo and behold, here we are, now 1 month later, our preliminary ‘honeymoon’ plans forgotten [we'll always be on our honeymoon] and the ‘something to do’ making a whole lot more sense.
Things are happening for us here.
Some might find it weird that we drive around for a ministry we don’t know in a car we don’t own in a Filipino frenzy that’s entirely uncharacteristic of us out of a church we’re not a part of in a city we’ve never heard of, organizing volunteers we have no authority over with family-like staff we had no intention of meeting, speaking a language we didn’t know existed to people who have no reason to trust us to give them meals that they wouldn’t otherwise consume. We just moved into an apartment (our 19th place to stay in the last month – fine nineteen) with no door owned by a family we just met, with tarps over the windows generously donated by the good old US of A. But the weirdest part is that it doesn’t feel weird at all – it feels completely normal.
Fisherman’s village, devastated by the 30 foot storm surge
Sheri and I have been constants here in Tacloban for a localized relief effort that has seen a whirlwind of doctors-nurses-army men-construction crews-engineers-locals-Racers-social workers-volunteers-counselors-drivers-visionaries-businessmen-evangelists and cooks in the last two weeks – which is odd considering how little of our lives is actually constant. But as we’ve seen people come and go around us, we’re beginning to see how we fit into the transition from short-term planning to long-term, as the city around us is doing the same.
In a word, the situation here is horrific. The storm caught people off-guard badly enough, but it was nothing compared to the storm surge that sent 3 progressively larger waves over the coastline, the last one topping the palm trees and residing 45 minutes later. Whole rooms of people, who had fled to evacuation sites in schools and conference centers for refuge, were completely submerged in a flash, killing people dozens, sometimes hundreds at a time. It’s rare for us to find families that are complete. And a family is considered lucky if they were able to find all of their family members. We’ve talked to little girls who have been looking for their sisters every day for two weeks. Young boys who wandered the streets for days turning over body after body, until the subsequent moisture and heat left the corpses unrecognizable. Wives without husbands, husbands without wives. Old women, recently widowed, not possessing enough digits to tally the family members they’ve lost. We still pass rubble clearing crews who are unburying the dead. Chaos reigns here, 2 weeks of fear and looting after the prison was badly damaged in the storm, and the now-escaped convicts roam the streets after curfew with the spoils of the gun store they robbed. Houses stand empty and condemned, and nobody can say which way or the other how things were and how they should go, and who should rightly claim what. However many aid organizations are here, communication is only just starting to exist among them. And hopes for a systematic distribution effort have all but washed away. Daily we hear the awful stories, of kids swimming for their lives, swimming swimming swimming until their feet touched ground again, 2 kilometers displaced from their homes; fathers who only managed to save some of their children, the ones they were able to tie to their waists in time; school teachers who reported Monday for an attendance check in, and didn’t have a single student from their grade report safe and alive; teenagers who spent a half an hour with their arms wrapped around a telephone pole while their friends floated away. Every day we meet kids pushed into adulthood too soon, forced to fend for themselves and their remaining siblings, and adults pushed into hopelessness, moving only on inertia, empty, hollowed shells. People still fear the water. The 16th day after the storm was rumored to be the day that the bodies would start floating again. In the span of a night, everyone’s livelihood disappeared. Everyone’s house, (they tell you in a sweeping motion with their hand) has been washed away. There’s a family just down the street that threw a tarp and some scavenged tin over a heavily slanted streetlight, and have built a makeshift house in the middle of the road. And still, now a month later, some people haven’t gotten any relief goods at all.
“I look for my sister every day, because I love her.”
But in the two weeks we’ve been here now, things have begun to change. Every day I record these changes in a small notebook, next to the Waray words I learned for the feedings – Day 16 traffic definitely increases; Day 18, people noticeably start using bicycle taxis again; Day 20, roadside markets and stalls are back up and running, and traffic is obnoxiously bad; Day 21, the first electrical poles are set up, and by Day 24 the entire main drag between Tacloban and Palo is illuminated by temporary streetlights. By Day 20, people are up on their feet, entire communities cleaning out the rubble into piles, and by Day 23, the army had finally gotten around to clearing them. We’ve seen fruit return to market, local jeeps start transporting people again, runners reappear on the road, and families turn around from getting relief goods to helping distribute them. By around Day 18 we started seeing people make noticeable changes to their houses, and now reconstruction is in full swing, a chorus of hammers and saws. The temporary evacuation centers have officially closed down, the families staying there forced to move on.
There’s an incredible amount of resilience that we’ve witnessed. Many families have already turned that corner, from helplessness to hopefulness. You can hear joy in their voices somehow, and read genuine appreciation on their faces. There is a lot of help here, and not a small portion of it is locally funded, resourced, and distributed. Signs painted on the streets and on fridges and overturned cars, ‘SOS,” “HELP US,” “SAVE US FROM DYING”, have started to fade and altogether disappear, and new graffiti has started to replace it – “We will rebuild Tacloban”, “Never Give Up”. The hills have started to green over once again, and the puddles and lakes have finally dried up. There’s been a shift, and not only have we seen it, but we’ve become a part of it, moving on to the next part phase of this reconstruction effort along with the people we hug and help, and say goodnight to as we pass them on the way to our apartment; our initial focus, immediate relief, has slowly but surely begun to change.
Tacloban rebuilt, the telephone poles in front of our apartment getting installed
Sheri and I find ourselves at an interesting crossroads, at home in a place that can barely offer more than the word ‘home’ to it’s 220,000 inhabitants. Family to people whose families have recently drastically shrunk in size. An integral part of an organization, where affiliation goes no deeper than ‘same place same time’. And with our future here still largely uncertain, we’re restlessly curious to see how the Lord uses us here next, as the need for us in the daily feedings has drastically reduced, and Tacloban nears that tipping point towards more long-term sustained planning.
Sheri and I don’t feel any particularly strong ties to Tacloban. We’re not planning to move here forever, we’re not feeling ‘called’ here long-term – but we have become extraordinarily touched by its people. With a long history of moving all the time, Sheri and I have both had our hearts touched by the relationships we’ve made; the kitchen staff, the kids that we’ve all but adopted, the girls we drive with every day to the feedings, little Joseph sandwiched between us on the front bench, his hand on mine on the gear shift and that goofy grin splashed across his face, Bill and Debbie, like parents or mentors or just good friends or all three, the families we see day after day that thank us profusely, laughing prematurely at the Waray words I haven’t even shouted at them yet (LUGAO LIBREEEEEE!!!) to announce the feedings, old Aunt Edith who wanders vacuously around the apartment (sometimes even into our room, unannounced except for her absent-minded clapping and permanent frown), Pops who practically moved us into our apartment without our help, the chef that quotes us Scripture and thinks Sheri’s with child, Alvin who serenades us with the national anthem and his own composition (“Sheri you’re so beautifuullll… and you’re pregnant”) [we're not pregnant], the girls whose competitive streak during Uno games eclipses even our own – it’s hard to even feel upset that we might miss Christmas again, hard to imagine it any other way than here in the heat, generator humming from 5-9, fish in vinegar for dinner yet again; hard to even feel like we’re very far away from home at all.
It’s been a privilege to be here, to become a part of these peoples’ stories, and to so heartily learn from their hope, their trust, and their optimism. It’s been a joy to serve alongside them, and a blessing to look them in the eyes and share their hurt, share their hope, share their lives. It has transformed our marriage, transformed our plans, transformed our faith, and transformed our lives. And these people who thank us for the (way too hot) porridge we give them, day after day, in their buckets and casserole dishes and baggies and pitchers and mugs and washed out instant-noodles cups and any other suitable dish they can find, almost catch you off guard – it’s this subtle feeling that we really have no business being here, intruding on their hurt, invading their personal worlds. And yet, their humble eyes, filled with brightness, welcome us intently. And as they walk away with dishes full, laughing, smiling, waving, shouting SELAAAMAAAATT at us as we pull away, deep in your heart you somehow feel like the thanks should go the other way around.
Danny and Sheri