Haiyan/Yolanda 001: When Cyclones Roar

They say that the floodwater came pungent and thick, the kind you could sink into and never rise from.

It’s been eleven days since super typhoon Haiyan, locally known as Yolanda, hit land in the Philippines. The news says it was the second deadliest typhoon to ever hit the country. A woman I met this week told me that her relatives described the sound of the storm like heavy weaponry being fired without stopping.

On that night, I was enjoying a quiet evening at home on the couch, while outside the wind blew with incredible strength. It rattled the open screen windows in our living room. I did nothing more than marvel at the force of the wind, close the windows and say a breath of prayer for those braving the storm in harsher conditions. I yet had no idea of the heartache this one storm would cause. In my mind, it was just another typhoon,  one of the very many we experience each year.

Super typhoon” was the term people were throwing around. In the days immediately before and after the storm, I stayed away from reading the news, insisting not to worry. Perhaps it was an exaggeration by the media, especially from nations unfamiliar with our local typhoons and cyclones. But really it was denial.

"Survivors walk on a road amidst heavy downpour after Typhoon Haiyan battered Tacloban city in central Philippines. One of the most powerful storms ever recorded has killed at least 10,000 people in the central Philippines province of Leyte, with coastal towns and the regional capital devastated by huge waves. Typhoon Haiyan destroyed about 70 to 80 percent of the area in its path as it tore through the province, according to local authorities." Reuters
“Survivors walk on a road amidst heavy downpour after Typhoon Haiyan battered Tacloban city in central Philippines. One of the most powerful storms ever recorded has killed at least 10,000 people in the central Philippines province of Leyte, with coastal towns and the regional capital devastated by huge waves. Typhoon Haiyan destroyed about 70 to 80 percent of the area in its path as it tore through the province, according to local authorities.” Reuters. From the International Business Times

People began to talk about the damage. Slowly the news from far-off Leyte and Samar trickled in. Calamity was more than confirmed. The world began to talk about it. And I continued to stay away from the news. Hearing about it was enough. Perhaps it was survivor guilt, or the mere physical distance from harm, or the crippling feeling like I couldn’t really help from where I was.

By this time, I was flooded with messages from friends around the world, asking me if my family and I were affected by the storm. As it is when you are far away, many friends seem to have imagined the worst. Friend’s messages were full of incredible concern because to them, I could have easily been on any one of those islands that were struck with the hardest blows. I live far north of those islands, but those unfamiliar with Philippine geography wouldn’t know that. Messages kept coming in. Some of them thickened with worry. Many of them from friends I hadn’t spoken to in a long time. And more and more, these messages connected dots that drew lines closer and closer to me. Though I had felt so physically and emotionally distant from the tragedy in the Visayan islands, the storm was finally coming to me.

An aerial shot from a Philippine Air Force helicopter shows the devastation of the first landfall by Typhoon Haiyan in Guiuan, Eastern Samar province, central Philippines. From National Geographic. PHOTOGRAPH BY BULLIT MARQUEZ, AP
An aerial shot from a Philippine Air Force helicopter shows the devastation of the first landfall by Typhoon Haiyan in Guiuan, Eastern Samar province, central Philippines. From National Geographic.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BULLIT MARQUEZ, AP

I haven’t even had a chance to respond to all the messages, but made sure to post a general message on my Facebook timeline, to ease any unnecessary concern for my safety.  Much like the overflow of well wishes and concern in my direction despite my distance from tragedy, the Philippines is experiencing an outpouring of generosity from resources at home and abroad. The response to the immediate need has been incredible. In Manila, it seems we have all been mobilized- working on packing relief goods, raising funds or even driving survivors from one drop off point to their families in the city. A look through this collection of photos on the international response to the typhoon warms your heart. Sure, as with all disasters, there has been much talk about the pitfalls in the relief efforts, but to me that is negative energy we can do without. (I found this article quite appropriate.) There is still so much good being poured into the channels that need it. Let us continue to pour in.

We sang this song in worship, Still, at church on Sunday. And the words just cut my heart. When the oceans rise and thunders roar / I will soar with You above the storm/ Father you are King over the flood / I will be still, know You are God. I sang. I closed my eyes. And there I was, standing in the expanse of flattened wreckage of the damaged cities, now all but rubble. As far as I could see was gray sky and brown ruin, not another person in sight. Tears ran down my face, and I finally mourned with the millions that survive the disaster. 

When the storm of this news has lost its power completely, and the world has moved on to respond to other tragedies, I will not move. I will not let this rest. When international concern has blown away, I will find myself standing in the rubble, praying over the land, and playing with the children who have survived.

They say that the floodwater came pungent and thick, the kind you could sink into and never rise from. But life will be restored. And life will grow. 

The Weekend, Only Busier Than The Week That Precedes It

Despite the recent extra long weekends thanks to official holidays, the tail ends of my work weeks have remained packed with excitement. They’ve somewhat embodied some of the things I would really like to stay busy with (apart from my lovely day job) for a really long time: fitness, advocacy, spoken word performance, dance and non-profit work.

1. I had my biggest Zumba gig so far.

I arrived at the location, expecting at the very least, a hundred attendees at the sports fest I was opening. However, the lines of people spilling out of cars, jeepneys, and even a bus, took me by surprise. When I walked into Cuneta Astrodome, I realized that my humble estimate was clearly mistaken. Music was blasting, energy was high, and there were already at least five hundred people there. There must’ve been at least 800 by the time I finished my set. We kicked some serious Zumba butt at seven in the morning!

 

2. I performed a spoken word piece for the first time in Manila.

The International Justice Mission, an international human rights organization that, held it’s annual Manila Prayer Gathering. My brother gave the main message, after which I had the privilege of sharing a poem I performed and dedicated to my brother months ago while I was still in college. It’s a poem called Sold, written from the perspective of a victim of human trafficking and sexual slavery. What an honor to perform it for people who advocate for the very individuals that inspired my words. I was so happy when they asked me to perform – I had been secretly hoping they would!

 

3. I co-hosted the 50th anniversary of the Precious Jewels Ministry. And with my brother too!

PJM is an NGO, near and dear to my heart. They are my family, my mentors and my friends. They have reached out to so many of the broken in the Philippines and Uganda – serving families and loving children from the poorest and most high-risk communities. Another honor.

4. Played tour guide for a visiting friend, AND filmed a mini-dance video with him!

TRYBE, my amazing multicultural and hiphop dance group at Wheaton, was finally represented in the Philippines by someone other than me! Shannon came to visit and we couldn’t pass up the chance to dance. Unfortunately, both YouTube and Facebook have been taking down the video every time I try to post it, even after I slaved for hours trying to get the large file uploaded. I’ve sent it over to Shannon to deal with.

 

5. Had Buhay Makulay’s first major strategic planning session with my newly formed executive team.

AKA a couple of my childhood friends – all creative, intelligent and big-hearted. It was an inspiring couple of hours of brainstorming and vision-casting. The next few years look very promising with them on my team!

 

6. Spoke about the grace of giving through dance.

Pastor Scott had approached me months ago with the idea of using dance as part of a Sunday morning message at church in November. He and I worked together over the past couple of weeks, the product of which was a great experimental episode in interweaving live art into the Sunday morning church service. It was an amazing experience (of course it involved chairs – I have an unexplainable long standing delight in chairs) and although I had a bit of prepared choreography, I ended up improvising much of my movement, directly responding to Pastor Scott’s words. If you’re interested, check out the full message video here, to see the first out of three services.

 

Now this weekend, compared to the last few, is a little tame. I made sure not to plan anything for the day and I even got to read a whole book this afternoon. Just enjoying a bit of the calm before another whirlwind week and another big Buhay Makulay activity on Saturday – our first young women’s fair at local girls’ shelter!

So Thankful This September

Now whoever thought I would be writing up business plans in the shadow of my recent painting experiments, pinned up on the glass windows of our living room? Whoever thought I would be eagerly discussing supply, demand, finance plans and marketing plans by choice, on evening drives with my older brother? Or trying to convince community leaders, with decades and decades of experience over me, over coffee in teeny tiny mugs, sweetened with Bailey’s, in the shelter of a in a nipa hut, that they should engage in business with the social enterprise I represent? Or that a 62 year old priest named Father Boy would teach me how to shoot guns and nickname me Lady Bond after a long day of discussing livelihood initiatives for thousands of families?

Whoever thought?

Well I definitely did not see this coming, and I’m not just talking about this new experience with firearms. I will not write too much yet of specifics about my work, but it is hand down the best job I could’ve been offered straight out of graduation. And just in case your wondering or worrying, this new job does not involve any guns.

My actual Bachelors Degree as a Major in Studio Art (Surprise! Not many people at home have discovered that I love to draw and paint) and a Minor in Dance, does not yet directly connect to my work. But certainly all the experience I have had in the past six years of living, studying and leading away from home, has allowed me not to begin this new journey completely blind and unequipped. Even the experiences I took as on complementary to my education and experience have now become my primary to my performance and involvement today. There is so much room to learn and so much room to grow, and I look ahead with such anticipation! Not to mention, I am surrounded by people that are anxious to support me, cheer me on, mentor me and work alongside me.

(More about this photo here.)

Before I returned to the Philippines, all I had hoped for this soon after arriving (roughly seven weeks now)  was to be slowly plugging myself back into community and investing in new and renewed connections with others. But life is in full swing now and I can barely believe it. As usual, I have to work hard on slowing down. Just as some younger friends back at school begin a new school year, I’ve got a job I love, wonderful people to work with, a weekly Zumba class to teach and the non-profit organization I founded and continually direct is set to jump into a wonderful new phase of service and community engagement.

Whoever thought?