by Rubén Solorio
On November 8, 2013, Super Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, leaving more than 6,000 dead and 1 million homes damaged or destroyed. Local parishes became places of refuge, even when they were practically destroyed. Thanks to the generous support of individuals and dioceses across the United States, Catholic Relief Services was able to deploy teams across the Philippines’ most heavily affected areas to identify–and address–the most pressing needs. Today, CRS continues to collaborate closely with communities and Church partners, providing a menu of options to rebuild homes, jobs … and lives. CRS is committed to a 5-year plan that will help 500,000 people get back on their feet with living supplies, clean water, sanitation debris clearing, innovative permanent housing, and jobs. I was blessed to journey with the CRS staff and witness first hand the amazing work of these teams across the Philippines. An encounter of mercy. After seeing so many pictures of the destruction, suffering and pain of the people in the Philippines, I began to wonder if I would even find hope or even a glimpse of new life.
I was wrong. The paschal mystery was alive in the Philippines. Through tragic suffering and death, there was indeed a resurrection that was real. Jesus was truly among the people, asking our delegation to touch his wounds and to believe. After doubting myself, I was continuously humbled by an encounter with Christ that many times made me fall to my knees in awe of God’s glory and outpouring of love, compassion and mercy.
My favorite encounters with Christ were with children. Despite having lost everything, including parents and siblings, the children would welcome me with great joy and love. A gentle high five and a loving smile was the perfect gift of hope. An encounter of love.
After a brief encounter in Manila, we traveled south to Mindanao. Our friends from CRS took us into the mountains where some of the poorest people live surrounded by coconut and banana trees. The community gathered in a small hut and provided us with great stories of hope that they shared about their encounters with Christ through CRS. The people of the region were assisted by CRS teams that helped them maximize their coffee production and increase their profits by selling directly to Nestle. It was a powerful example of community organizing and leadership development. An encounter of hope. After their wonderful stories, I encountered many children who were gathered outside; they were looking for an opportunity to sneak a peak at the Americans who were visiting their village.
I then reached into my bag and pulled out packages of cookies. One by one they lined up and received a cookie. The exchange was powerful and I felt as if the cookie was nothing in comparison to the gift they gave me with their smiles and loving embrace. An encounter of welcome.
Our next stop was in Tacloban, where the typhoon hit the hardest and CRS is working tirelessly to help the people rebuild their lives. I remember seeing a CRS t-shirt that had the tag line, “Harvest to Hope.” That was what I encountered in Mindanao and then again in Tacloban. Imagine all the coconut trees uprooted by the typhoon. Planting new coconut trees is very much needed, but it will take at least seven years before producing enough coconuts to provide a livelihood for the coconut farmers and their families. CRS staff are helping these families find other ways to farm and make a living. They took us out to meet a very special couple who used to be coconut farmers. With the help of CRS, they learned how to grow corn, sweet potatoes, squash and even rice. Together, they work all day in their fields. The couple shared with us that they were barely able to buy food to feed their children when they were harvesting and selling the farmers’ market and have enough money to send their children to school. An encounter of joy.
That same day, we visited a rural area that had already rebuilt their homes but were in the process of working with CRS to install septic tanks for each of the new homes. We gathered under the hot sun as two community leaders provided everyone a DIY demonstration. In the middle of the presentation, I felt a cool shade come over me. That was when I noticed that a young man was sharing his umbrella with me. With a gentle exchange of smiles, we continued to listen intently as the CRS team began to help the first family install their very own septic system. An encounter of compassion. months. Thanks to CRS, the family now has a new home in a community that is full of joy and hope. An encounter of gratitude.
We ended our journey to the Philippines back in Manila and visited with Cardinal Tagle. We thanked him for his partnership and continuous support of Catholic Relief Services. His smile and great sense of humor was a reflection of the kind of encounters we had the entire time we were in the Philippines. He summarized very well what I was experiencing…
real and powerful encounters with Christ.