Archbishop Alexander Sample consoles Filipinos during Mass for victims of Typhoon Haiyan.
Faith abides amid devastation
In the week after Super Typhoon Haiyan, faith remained strong among the hardest hit.
At Villamor Air Base in Manila, Roel Gonzales, 42, of Leyte province smiled while aid workers sang "Happy Birthday" to him Nov. 15.
It was a sweltering late morning with the sun approaching its peak, but everyone was shaded under a covered court. They sat in circles on plastic chairs, eating noodles with the speed of those who had not eaten for days.
In fact, they had not. They were among the hundreds of thousands left homeless by the storm that tore through homes and damaged the infrastructure of a number of island provinces.
A storm surge that Haiyan churned up brought 17-foot waves to Tacloban, the obliterated city on Leyte's east coast that took the worst hit from the typhoon.
"All of a sudden all the houses were gone," including his, said Gonzales, who lived right outside Tacloban. "You can't find any trace of it, not one piece."
The storm surge left countless corpses in its wake.
Gonzales counted himself lucky. His wife and their three children were together with him.
"So many people were lost," he told Catholic News Service. "But we're still here. We're still alive."
His 14-year old daughter sat with a guitar in a soft case tucked between her lower legs.
"Even that survived," he said.
His eyes started to water when he described how, on the day before Haiyan slammed the country, he picked a high place on the wall to hang the guitar. Gonzales said he wanted to save it because it was from his daughter.
It floated away when the house washed away, but after the storm passed he saw it floating by a wall.
Gonzales said the family left for Manila because, like the many people the storm displaced, they were starting to go hungry, and he worried his children might get sick with no medicine available.
In Tacloban, aid was very slow to arrive to places beyond the city limits. Debris, dwindling fuel and poor communication lines made it hard for relief goods to move to the people who needed it.
"And the smell became too much to bear," he said, referring to the odor of bodies decomposing in the tropical sun.
Gonzales said he never once lost faith in God.
"You have to trust in the Lord first of all," he said. "If you don't have faith, it's very hard. And I really believe, this was really meant to be. He saved us. He let us live. ... He's given us more time on this earth to honor him."
Filipino Catholics from Oregon gathered in prayer Sunday night for victims of Typhoon Haiyan.
Some attending the somber Mass at St. Clare Church in Southwest Portland count relatives and friends among those missing and perhaps dead after the 370-mile-wide storm razed villages in the central Philippines. Haiyan brought sustained winds of 195 miles per hour and a 17-foot-high storm surge in Tacloban, the largest city in the devastated area. The death toll on the islands was approaching 5,000 by Sunday night and hundreds of thousands are homeless.
"All of our love goes out to you," Archbishop Alexander Sample said during his homily. "Your brothers and sisters stand in solidarity with you." The archbishop said in a halting voice that seeing the children at Mass reminded him of the dead and orphaned children of the Philippines.
One worshiper, Francia Olaguera of St. Pius X Parish in Portland, got heartbreaking news from an old friend. The woman, who graduated from high school with Olaguera in Manila in 1995, was caught up in the watery surge in Tacloban; the power of the water pulled the mother's month-old infant from her arms and the child drowned. Bereft, the woman and her husband evacuated to Manila with only the clothes on their back.
Lyn Peters, a member of St. Clare Parish, grew up in the town of General MacArthur on the hard-hit island of Samar. Last week, she pulled up photos of the town on the internet and her mother's house was missing amid devastation. She went through eight days of anguish with no news. While grocery shopping Saturday, a text message came. Peters was afraid to read it. But she got up the courage and discovered that everyone is alright so far — mother, siblings, nieces, nephews.
"It's horrific," Peters says of the experience.
Rita Starks of Queen of Peace Parish in Salem did not have such a grueling wait. She heard from her son and daughter in the region a day after the storm. By coincidence, Sunday's gospel included warnings from Jesus about natural disasters and strife that would precede his return.
"Jesus did not promise a life of ease and comfort," Archbishop Sample told the congregation. "I wish he had."
The archbishop went on to explain that Jesus took the path of the cross and pulled our death and suffering onto himself, changing everything. "Whatever natural disaster might destroy us, Christ is victorious and we will reign with him in eternity," the archbishop said. "He is our light in this darkness."
The archbishop told worshipers the dead in the Philippines have not been eliminated from existence. "They live beyond this typhoon," he said.
The entire collection went to Catholic Relief Services and its work on typhoon relief. Last week, Archbishop Sample called on Catholics to pray for those affected by the tragedy and to donate to Catholic Relief Services.
Pia de Leon, a Filipina and pastoral associate at St. Clare, thanked Archbishop Sample and the people of the Archdiocese of Portland for their support and generosity. "Thank you for standing with us through this difficult time," de Leon said. "Let our prayer and collective effort be stronger than the waves and wind."
There are 16 LaSallian schools in the Philippines. None were in the direct path of Typhoon Haiyan. Schools in the tradition of Jean Baptiste de La Salle across the world are rallying to provide food, shelter, water and other basic items for those who have been affected by the storm.
Last week, students from La Salle Prep in Milwaukie took up collections in front of the school, raising $6,000 in one day.
In Salem, St. Vincent de Paul Parish is holding a dinner to benefit relief on the islands. It's set for 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 30. The Filipino community will do the cooking and serving of traditional dishes.