Was God Alive in Estancia?

By Jimmy A. Badilla

In obedience to the call of the Church to spread the Good News, Neocatechumenal Communities all over the world initiated a ‘Great Mission’ during the recently ended Year of Faith - reaching out to as many people as possible and hoping to share the love and mercy of God that they themselves have experienced in their lives thereby offering hope and salvation to the desolate, the forsaken, the downtrodden. Yolanda victims need the love of God more than all the material things that many of us want to comfort them with.  It is good, proper, and just that we give them whatever relief items we can afford, but above all as Christians we are called to let them feel how God works in our sufferings, how He wants to be with us as we agonize and bear our burdens, how He wants to give us hope and invite us to believe that after all ‘Man does not live by bread alone but by the words that come from the mouth of God’.  Popular Missions of the Neocatechumenal Communities in various typhoon-hit places in the Philippines are ongoing.

Estancia, Iloilo, is the Tacloban of Western Visayas. People died. Houses and properties were destroyed. The future seemed bleak and uncertain as no immediate chance at normalcy could be gleaned, except some reported plans from Canadians and other foreign groups to give sustained support for rehabilitation to those severely affected by Supertyphoon Haiyan/Yolanda. And the Philippine Government's usual promises that yet await concrete results.

This is what I ask of you. Be shepherds with the smell of the sheep. POPE FRANCIS

Meanwhile, the people of Estancia needed to grab at any good thing that might come their way just to survive: food, used clothing, tarpaulin or thin roofing--anything that could help them try and rebuild their lives once more. They need to move on. And they need people, too, to talk with them, feel their pain, their loss, their suffering. They need somebody to empathize with them. They need some shoulders to cry on to. They need to feel that God is alive through their fellow men.

When Father Angel Mojica from Colombia, Neocatechumenal catechist coordinator based in Rome who has been to the Philippines a number of times, asked for volunteers, my wife Flor and I stood up without really realizing how this mission would affect us. Never did Flor and I fully grasp the gravity of the situation, and felt some helplessness in trying to carry out our tasks. It was only when we were already given the instructions on how to go about our assignment that we became so unsure on how to actually proceed. We were asking ourselves: How do we approach these typhoon victims who are so filled with bitterness, problems, and pain? Father Angel said that some of them were even losing their faith in God already!

So we would talk with them and try to let them feel that God is still alive. With us, at least. And we were not supposed to give any material things to these people. Just plain talking with them and to try to pray with them, if possible.

So, how do you bring hope to the hopeless? How do you tell people about God in a place where God seemed to have been absent? How does one lift the burden from his brothers' shoulders? Wow. Might not these people have a violent reaction to us? Gosh, this is some Mission, I thought grudgingly. But I didn't complain when finally we were sent off two-by-two with a blessing by the parish priest of Estancia, Fr Macario N. Sortido. At least my companion was a brother who was a resident of the place and a victim of the typhoon. At least he would know his town-mates, and I could expect a better deal. Or so I hoped. I was terribly in fear of rejection. 

And so, like soldiers ready to be killed in battle, we approached the tents. And I experienced how to deal with my fear of being rejected by others for Christ's sake. With my brother I was able to initiate a few pleasantries with a woman and her daughter who was a minister in their Congregation. Surprisingly I started feeling at ease talking with the victims and hearing their stories, their ordeals, their fears. I cried with them, too. And I shared my own ‘Yolanda’--those unbearable sufferings that I encountered in my life, my problems, my own fears and sufferings--and they cried, too.

We noticed then that we were not different from each other after all. We were brothers and sisters, fellow human beings with all our weaknesses and our sins. But the most wonderful thing that we realized is that despite Yolanda, God manifested Himself in many ways and in many instances where we felt His most powerful presence, His mercy, and His love. We thanked Him for giving us another chance at life, and blessed His name for His endless mercies. We read His message from the Bible, and prayed. Finally, we kissed each other and asked for God's peace and blessings. And we parted like brothers and sisters. In Christ. For Christ. With Christ.

That was unbelievably wonderful. We did that for two weekends. What gloriously blessed weekends! And one Mission: To share oneself for those in need. To talk, not to preach. To suffer with those who suffer. To cry with those who cry. To empathize. To be one with the poor and miserable. To live the Gospel, not in comfort but in dire adversity. Pope Francis said: ‘Be with the sheep and smell like the sheep’. We did just that.

I kissed and smelt the awful smell of typhoon survivors, and experienced two days smelling practically like them, and guess what--I felt deliriously free and happy! And we went back home rejoicing. We were victorious. Not because we were seasoned, strong, and courageous warriors. No. It was God's grace working on our fears, weaknesses, and inadequacies. We felt His power in us every time we asked for His guidance and support. And we felt His love and tender mercy overflowing with us as we go along the way.

This is one of my most memorable and blessed Christmas. I felt God alive in the Mission, and the spirit of that sojourn still haunts us. Flor and I have no Christmas lights in our home, and we did not put up a Christmas tree either. No party and no feast. No fancy holiday things whatsoever. Just a simple glorious peace at home. We're doing this because, first, we want to cherish the memory of those people in Estancia, and second, because we want to be reminded that Christ did not come to give us an easy and comfortable life as many would like to believe, but the one that is everlasting, truly happy, and eternal.