Friday, March 7, 2014

Hard times, good times

By Denis Murphy

Life in the fishing communities of Tacloban City devastated by Supertyphoon “Yolanda” can be austere and sacred one day, and funny and quite beautiful the next. Here are some of those times.

On the altar at a capilla in Costa Brava, Barangay 88, is the strangest group of holy statues I have ever seen. A life-sized statue of the Blessed Mother has no hands, a statue of Jesus is headless, smaller statues lack arms and legs and angels have lost wings. At the center of the altar is a statue of the Sacred Heart with the heart missing. The embossed wooden heart was torn away in the storm.

The statues are the blind, the lame and the damaged of the spirit world. All the statues were recovered from the ruins of the people’s houses.

As I stared at the statues, I felt I knew them. These very statues seemed familiar, not just the persons they represented. I wondered for a while and then it struck me: The statues reminded me of the group of poor people we had met on entering the barangay. Those people had seemed especially troubled, crestfallen. The women were thinner, more harried looking, than in the other areas in which we work. A little girl looked at me with large haunted eyes.

The shoreline Barangay 88 was among the hardest hit in all of Tacloban. Some 719 people died; in the Costa Brava district alone, 122 were dead. These were all families living peacefully by the sea, as they had for 30 years or more. All the houses were blasted, so the area is now a field of shattered rocks and concrete as far as the eye can see. The people’s efforts to get help have largely failed, they told us. The women told stories of disappointment. No NGOs worked here, except for Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. In this chapel, the statues are the people and the people are the statues.

The story is that a woman in another town dreamed of the Sacred Heart statue buried under debris. She had no connection with Costa Brava, but she came directly to the spot where the statue lay, according to the local people, and found the statue. She wanted to take it away with her, but the people stopped her. They put the statue in the capilla that is now just a back wall and a meter of roofing extending out over the altar. They surrounded it with the other statues found in the ruins. People say the statue works miracles.

Miracles or not, it seems God has identified Himself with the typhoon victims. Is there any better place for Him to make His appearance than in this sad place where so many died, is there any better way to show that He and the poor people are one? How could this closeness be expressed more convincingly than to have Jesus, Mary and His saints and angels share the sufferings of the poor, the storm surge, destruction and helplessness, including the need to have others pull them out of the debris?

We have to know more about popular piety and folk religion to know how the poor feel about the statues, but I’m sure they are a most welcome presence in the area.

It was a different story a few days earlier in another barangay at the launch of 40 fishing boats organized by the Holy Spirit nuns. The nuns received the money for the boats and nets from donors; the fishers helped build the boats. The nuns and the fishers have signed a memorandum of agreement that includes a savings plan, and Archbishop John Du of Palo blessed the boats.

The boats and the memorandum of agreement are the first signs of a people’s independent organization arising in the coastal communities of Barangays 88, 89 and 90.

After the formal ceremony was over—which also included the presentation of 14 pedicabs—the boats were put in the water and the fishers, children, guests and nuns (including the superior general of the Holy Spirit congregation, Sr. Maria Theresia Hornemann, SSpS) piled in. Soon the boats were tracing beautiful designs on the sea that had done so much damage to the people only last November. The people have fought back from near annihilation with dignity. At the very end of the day, as we left, there were children swimming in the sea—tiny black silhouettes against the gray water.

On our first night in Tacloban we were told by the Redemptorist missionaries under Brother Karl Gaspar that there is shame and regret in many hearts. People did not act with the bravery that their children deserved. People saved themselves rather than their dear ones.

This guilt needs careful pastoral and clinical care, which the Redemptorists are extending. People are ashamed that they survived when their children died, though they may have done nothing wrong. Such guilt may be felt more by the poor than by well-off people who may have greater ability to excuse themselves.
Finally, last Feb. 15, a Saturday, we attended a feeding of 175 children in the Payapay district of Barangay 89. The children sang, played games, did exercises, and ate  arroz  caldo  prepared in cauldrons by the local mothers. The children were traumatized by Yolanda, we were told, but you’d never know it watching them singing and laughing. A child not yet a year old had a smile that made people laugh. Her mother and the children around chanted a certain song and the baby flashed two smiles as quick as the blink of an eye. Everyone laughed. The mothers repeated this little show, laughing harder and harder, as they realized, it seemed, that they could laugh freely once again.

If the people can laugh and form their democratic people’s organization to deal with a harsh and unjust world, and if they can hold on to their deep understanding of God, “all will be well … and all matter of things will be well.” (St. Julian of Norwich +1416).

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (

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