Think You've Got It Rough?

(photo: Photo by Marge Fenelon)

“Pretty sure I won't complain again about what I don't have. If I do, you have my permission to smack me.”

That’s what I posted on my Facebook timeline last week.

I was traveling with Catholic Relief Services and three other journalists in the Philippines as part of the 2015 Egan Journalism Fellowship. Our task was to observe and report on the reconstruction efforts in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Haiyan and the effects of climate changes on the Filipino people.

This was my first time in a Third World country, and for as much as I thought I’d mentally and emotionally prepared myself, I discovered once there that I wasn’t truly prepared at all. The poverty and meager living conditions in the outlying areas was beyond what I’d ever imagined.

We set out early each day to visit the various barangay – Philippine neighborhoods – in order to visit the homes and interview the beneficiaries of CRS relief and reconstruction programs. The humidity and heat were stifling. Sometimes there’d be a bit of a breeze, but for the most part the air was still, its effects compounded by the overcrowding.

After the first day, I understood why folks carried handkerchiefs and even towels with them wherever they went. The sweat literally poured down our heads and backs, even when we were shielded from the sun by the umbrellas our hosts so graciously carried for us. The Filipinos apologized to us and explained that it’s usually much cooler in late October.

They had no need to apologize. The weather is completely out of their control.

And that’s exactly the reason for our visit. Super Typhoon Haiyan – or Yolanda to the locals – was a wicked, devastating force that was completely out of the control of the Filipino people.

It struck on November 8, 2013 and to this day evidence of its power and destruction can be seen everywhere. It’s particularly evident in the areas of Tacloban and Palo where Haiyan unleashed a storm surge that caused a 20-foot wall of water to roar across the land, sweeping away everything in its path.

In all, more than 6,300 people were killed, 4.1 million people displaced, and 1.1 million homes damaged or destroyed.

People were left with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Although the metropolitan areas fared better, the areas in the outlying provinces were poor to begin with. Haiyan made things even worse because what little there was had been taken away.

Many of the houses we visited were made from debris that was scavenged from the mud after the flood waters receded. Their furnishings were meager, a mixed collection of whatever they could find that could be made useful. From these, the Filipinos fashioned a home, and while it was sparse, it was dignified because of their indomitable and religious spirit.

The Filipino people are people of great faith, and I have a lot to learn from them.

During my interviews, I listened to the stories of people who had watched siblings, children, nieces, nephews and neighbors wash away in the flood waters and tales of begging God for mercy and pleading with him for help. I was told stories of tremendous heroism in effort to rescue others. Sometimes they were successful. Sometimes they weren’t. I heard about their fear as they huddled in the deadly-silent darkness those first few nights after Haiyan, with the dead laying all around them and the wild dogs howling. I was told about starvation and looting out of desperation. I listened to the struggles of trying to rebuild without anything to build with.

Each time, I asked, “Are you angry at God?”

Each time, the person looked back at me in wide-eyed surprise. The response, for the most part, was always the same.

“Angry at God? Why should I be? Ultimately, he is the one who saved me.”

 For as surprised as they were at my question, I was surprised at their answer.

That the Filipino people can endure such tragedy and poverty and yet give glory to God is beyond remarkable. While they certainly mourn their losses, they look to the future with hope. Part of that hope is due to the amazing relief and reconstruction work of CRS.

But the bigger part stems from the awesome spirit of the Filipino people.

Their spirit has moved me to think hard about how I do or don’t appreciate what God has given me in my own life. Looking back, I’m ashamed at the countless times I’ve complained about what I don’t have. Now I’m praying that I can look to the future with hope and gratitude for what I do have.