ORMOC, PHILIPPINES — The Philippines paused to pray Sunday, nine days after one of the worst recorded storms devastated the central part of the country, killing thousands of people. In many of the affected areas churches and charities serve as critical hubs for relief and recovery.
In this devout Catholic country typhoon survivors are filling damaged churches, looking not only for shelter, but solace. It is a trying time for priests and nuns, viewed as community leaders, now taking on the overwhelming task of helping distribute aid while trying to make sense of it all.
The Philippine people have maintained their faith despite repeatedly enduring disasters of biblical proportions, according to the pastor of this Ormoc church, Father Gilbert Urbina.
“Scriptures describe apocalyptic times in terms of the natural calamities, floods, volcanic eruptions, wars and what the scripture says is we need to be prepared for all this to persevere, these are trying times, have faith,” said Father Urbina.
At the heavily damaged cathedral in Palo, a town just south of Tacloban, also flattened by the typhoon winds, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the 83-year-old Archbishop Emeritus of Washington, D.C., led mass.
Speaking to VOA later in the day in Ormoc, he acknowledged some traumatized survivors might initially find scripture inadequate.
“I think it is probably not, right at the beginning, because at the beginning everyone is hurting so. And they lost so many, they lost so many friends and family. And they do not know why God is doing this to us. Well, in a real sense we say it is not that God is doing this to us, he is allowing these things to happen, probably for a greater cause,” said the cardinal.
Whatever the cause, a sudden effect is a global outpouring of good will. Among those at the forefront of the civic response: Catholic charities, on the ground in some of the worst-hit communities.
Martha Skretteberg, secretary general of Caritas Norway, said they are coordinating closely with local Catholic churches.
“The people run to the church at the first [chance] in order to get protection, in order to get food, some help.”
Many who lost their homes in Ormoc were relocated to the area after a 1991 typhoon-generated flash flood destroyed their community. Now they have to decide whether to try to rebuild here or move on again.
With her grandchildren hovering about, a 72-year-old widow, Demetria Omega, is hoping to sell some fruit and vegetables. She borrowed $25 to start a modest store in what remains of her residence. Most of her home blew away in the storm.
“I do not even have a place to lie down to sleep, I have to sleep sitting. I move aside my fruit and vegetables and place on the stand a [plastic] mat that I use as my roof during the day.”
Hers is one of 5,000 households the priest at the damaged church down the road now struggles to provide the barest necessities for body and soul.