UPDATED (11/21): Join me in Philippines — Tragedy, Beauty, Complexity

Port at Dumaguete City the day after Typhoon Yolanda

As some of you know, am in the Philippines on a month-long teaching assignment at The Silliman University Divinity School. This was made possible by a new partnership between Silliman University, the Presbyterian Church (USA) World Mission Office and The United Church of Christ in the Philippines. I am based out of Dumaguete City, one of my favorite places in the world, where I will teach, write and play until early December.

And yes — I arrived a just in time for the arrival of Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan). I blogged my way through the storm, and over the next month, I’ll provide updates that I hope will give folks another view of the Philippines from one more set of eyes. It’s easy, especially for those of us from the United States, to make sweeping judgements and assumptions about “distant lands,” so I’ll try to be one more lens through which you can get to know the Philippines a little more/better/differently.


While there are many organizations who are doing amazing relief and recovery work in the Philippines, if you want to know where I send my money, here are the three trusted funds that my family supports, all given through the Presbyterian Church (USA):

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance [GIVE] Working through the global relief agency, ACT Alliance, these funds to to short and long term recovery efforts. [Situation Report]

United Church of Christ in the Philippines [GIVE] Funds go to support education, anti-trafficking initiatives, environmental projects, disaster services, community organizing and other ministries support by the denomination.

Cobbie and Dessa Palm [GIVE] Good friends and mission co-workers in Dumaguete, Cobbie and Dessa are well-respected by local folks and do amazing things here with the arts, community organizing and relationship building. Also, be sure to sign up for their newsletter.

National Alliance for Filipino Concerns [DONATE] I have some friends who work for/with NAFCON, so if you would prefer a secular agency, this Fil-Am group makes sure that donations go to families and communities who need it the most.

Again, I will post updates on this blog every so often over the next month, but if you would like to keep up with my day-to-day activities here in the Philippines, as I said on my initial blog post feel free to tag along via FacebookTwitter and/or Instagram, I don’t mind at all — the more the merrier. And if you only want the pictures, here is my ongoing Facebook Photo Album.

I will offer updates below with the most recent at the top . . .

UPDATE: 11.21.13  Webinar and a few thoughts.

If you all were not able to tune in during the live Philippines Webinar, never fear you can watch it here. Included in the conversation Miss the Update on the Philippines webinar from World Mission? You can watch it here! Thanks to our moderator, Neal Presa, and our panelists Cobbie Palm and Dessa Quesada-Palm, Mienda Uriarte, Laurie Kraus, Bishop Reuel Marigza of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) and myself.

We touched upon such issues as:

  • What’s the current situation: Young Adult Volunteers in the Philippines, Tacloban City and surrounding areas, history of Presbyterians in the Philippines?
  • What can people do to help? Should people plan on coming to help in the Philippines?
  • How does Presbyterian Disaster Assistance response so events like this?

It was a good conversation and I think helpful for those who want to get a good foundation for what’s been going on.

UPDATE: 11.18.13 – I’m baa-ack . . .

Well, I made it back from a very intense few days of travel and exposure to the damage caused by the typhoon. I was able to be part of a relief convoy and see some of the Tacloban City and some of the surrounding areas. It was intense to say the least.

In the next day or two, I will definitely get a blog post together reflecting on the experience, but in the mean time, if you want to see some of the pictures I took you can look at the 40+ I put on Facebook or skim all 150+ that I have on smugmug.

And I made a quick video (more to come)

And if you didn’t hear about my wallet saga, here is what happened.

UPDATE: 11.14.13 – I’m headed towards Leyte

Maria Averas Diploma, Leyte High School, 1941

At midnight tonight I hop onto a boat to Cebu on my way to Leyte and possibly into Tacloban where so much damage has occurred. Breathe — I am not going to anywhere that does not make sense for me to go and I know that my hosts will not put me in harms way, so please, please, please DO NOT WORRY.

For two reasons, travelling to Leyte will be an important trip. First, I hope I am helpful in bringing another, possible different perspective to peoples view and experience of the Philippines, and second, Leyte is where my maternal grandmother, Maria Averas was born and raised. In fact, in 1941, she graduated from Leyte High School which is located in Tacloban.

As a guest of Silliman University and the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, I will also meet with church leaders, see some of the damage and offer as many words of care and support that I can on behalf of so many in the United States. When I get back, I will share some images, reflections and again, hopefully offer another view into what is happening.

Speaking of other views, here are two blogs posts that I think would be very helpful: in Typhoon Haiyan: Four Questions About This Super Storm and Major Humanitarian Disaster by Elizabeth Ferris we are provided with some nuanced cautions that we should keep in mind as we follow news and media reporting [h/t: Shana Montesol] and Conrado de Quiros in his op-ed piece, Resilience, challenges us not to lean too much on a warped understanding of the Filipino people and their ability to come back from tragedy.

Feel free to pray for me and/or direct some good vibes my way, but also pray for my family who I am SURE are not paying attention to the whole, “DO NOT WORRY” thing. I am tentatively scheduled to come back in three days, so I’ll update then if not sooner.

Peace be with you all!

Yolanda Prayer Service at Silliman University Church

UPDATE: 11.12.13 Next storm enters the Philippines

As I write this I am safely inside listening to the pounding rain from tropical depression Zoraida which is rolling through the Philippines over the next few days. While it is nowhere near the intensity of Typhoon Yolanda, it is very slow moving and full of rain. Not only will this hamper rescue and recovery efforts in Layte, but people will be on the lookout for flooding.

In terms of Tacloban and other areas hit hard by Yolanda, we have received word that Bethel Hospital (Founded by the Presbyterian Church) as well as many church building were closed because of roof damage. More folks are beginning to gain entry into the area, so the hope is that food, water and other supplies will be able to be brought in more regularly.

Silliman University, where I am based held a service of prayer last night and they too are gathering supplies, donations and other things to send to Tacloban. More importantly, they are tending to the students who have family there by sending a team of folks to the area to try and find family members. There are about 30 students, staff and faculty who have family in the impacted area. I have been really impressed SU and how committed they are, not only to their students, but to the surrounding community.

Arrangements are still being made, but it looks like I will head to the area on Thursday or Friday to see the area first hand and visit with some of the pastors. Rest assured, I am only go to attempt to travel to Leyte if it is safe and my presence will be helpful in some way. I’ll trust my hosts to make the call.

Hopefully the Philippines will be left to dry out for a while after Zoraida leaves the area, but folks know this will not be the end as there are predictions of more typhoons hitting the Philippines this year than ever before.  Please do consider giving to any of the of the resources that I have shared or other trusted source.

Peace all and I’ll update again as needed.

Dumaguete City street life

UPDATE: 11.11.13 – Tragedy, Resilience and Beauty

Do not get me wrong, in and around Tacloban, Leyte, one of the areas hit hardest by Typhoon Yolanda, there are reports of growing death counts, widespread looting and a breakdown in infrastructure.

It is bad there. Really bad.

But what the Philippines has shown, over and over again, is that their resilience and resolve in response to these kinds of tragedies is nothing short of breathtaking. Who knows why this is, but I suspect that after generations of tragedy and destruction both at the hands of humanity (Spanish, United States and Japanese occupations) as well as natural disasters, resilience and survival are just the norm.

I am already experiencing some of this.

Over the next few weeks I am tentatively planning on visiting Tacloban, Leyte to offer symbolic support to friends and church partners and yet, with those very same church folks and friends, I will be invited to celebrate local festivities and engage in activities of rest and relaxation. Already I have been invited to a local theater to see this month’s Manny Pacquiao fight, I am going scuba diving with some locals and the signs of the upcoming Dumaguete Festival are popping up all around.

And yet, just 300 kilometers away, a city has been destroyed, thousands have died, panic is taking hold…

Now some might see this as strange, callous or insensitive acts by those who have been so impacted by these tragedies both directly and as a country, but the more I am here, the more I am convinced that, in our well-intentioned need to save and rescue others, we expect those for whom we offer our support to behave in ways that we deem as acceptable — especially if we are going to help them heal.

Who am I to tell them how to respond,”You know, you really should be more . . .” or “How can you be doing x when x is happening in your country?”

We from the US must be careful not to judge as those who are looking in from the outside – and often only through the lens of mainstream media – and trying to find ways to appropriately support disaster relief. For what I have experienced from past disasters seen from afar and now being here in the middle of one, is that the people here understand and live the complexities of life in a way that we could all learn from.

Too often we compartmentalize the Philippines into rigid charity or tourism boxes where there is nothing but political corruption, human trafficking, and poverty at every turn OR it is a tropical and magical paradise where you live on the beach, everyone wants to serve you with a smile, and you wake to fresh mangoes every morning*. So when tragedy hits, we go into a kind of hyper-compartmentalization when it comes to how we think a people should act, respond, grieve and heal. To avoid this kind of fetishizing, patronizing and colonial mindset, we must remember that, like any people, in any country, there is complexity of life that occurs between the joys and the struggles, the tragedies and the celebrations, the destruction and the healing.

So . . . as you wander along with me and as you see people “moving on” in a way that makes you feel weird or uncomfortable, know that as diverse as any people in any country respond to and heal from tragedy beyond the imagination, that same complexity exists here.

The Philippines may just walk this journey our of tragedy a little differently — dare I say full of beauty and resilience.

* Truth be told, I do actually eat fresh mangoes every morning — and rambutan, lanzones, etc.

Why I Pray in Times of Disaster

As it should be, the airwaves have been filled with reporting and accounts of Hurricane Sandy and its impact the eastern part of the the United States. For many of us who are not being directly affected by the storm, it often feels like all we can do is follow the news coverage on TV, track our friends’ updates on Facebook and follow the immediate reporting through our Twitter stream.

The struggle for me during these times is how to not treat such times as some voyeuristic movie experience that can be paused or halted by powering down my device, but instead find a healthy way to participate in the healing and support. Honestly it is difficult to do, because in times that seem overwhelming and almost surreal, it’s much easier to pretend as if it’s not really happening, to distance oneself from the pain or romanticize the situation all together.

So here is what attempt I do.

I pray.

I give.

I connect.

I pray some more.

While prayer often seems to be birthed out of moments of fear, hopelessness and disbelief, I believe that prayer is ultimately an act of courage, hope and faith. Some think prayer is an act of convenience and an justification for inaction, and I get that, but for many people of faith, prayer is a powerful reminder to be the people we say we are. For me prayer is about remembering that there are always people in need of knowing God’s peace in body, mind and spirit; prayer is about remembering that even out of times of our deepest despair, new life will emerge; and prayer is about trusting that, somehow in some way, the Spirit of God is moving.

Prayer is not a set of demands or a wish list for God, but a powerful statement of my faith in God

And so I pray.

And my prayers compel me to give.

While for some, giving of physical or fiscal resources is not possible or prudent, I choose to give through my own denominational disaster assistance program, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. There are others as well, Church World Service, The Red Cross and many others* doing the front line and long term work of response and rebuilding.

And I connect.

I keep up with friends and family, I try to leverage whatever social networking influence I have for good and I make sure that the lives of those affected so directly remain at the forefront of my mind for as long as possible. From my distance it’s one particular – and hopefully helpful – way to be part of the response and recovery.

And then I pray some more.

Here is a prayer that was lifted up by Diana Butler Bass last night.

I speak for Christ:
Your God is not high in heaven
playing wild games with nature.
Your God is deep within each storm.
Your God is the suffering God,
revealed to us at Calvary,
and suffering with all who suffer
in the aftermath of storms.
Your God is the God of resurrection and new life

Below is an info graphic from my friend Sarah Cunningham. Please feel free to share it or simply consider doing some or all of what it calls us to do: pray, give and remember.

God in your mercy, hear OUR prayer . . .*


* Please feel free to leave comments with organizations that you think are worth supporting and/or any worship resources or prayers that you have found meaningful.