Christmas is a time to be with family and friends, a time to attend parties and enjoy festive delicacies. However this year, I together with some members of the Neo Catechumenal Way of the Philippines went to Leyte for a mission. We decided to go to Leyte and spend Christmas there to give and share whatever we could. Little did we know that instead of giving it was we who received so much.
I arrived in Tacloban with my partner in the afternoon of December 25. It was really devastating to see the makeshift airport, tents instead of houses, and children begging on the streets. Words cannot even describe the devastation we immediately saw. What warmed my heart was the welcome we received as soon as we got down from the plane. We were welcomed with a greeting and applause by some airport staff.
On our way to Palo, it seemed clearer that almost nothing was left. There were no houses and no stores. Cars and trucks were still overturned, electric posts were still down and mountains of uncollected debris and trash were still everywhere. Also, mass graves were a usual site.
After more than a month, one would expect that at least electricity would already be running, some businesses would already be open or that trash and debris would already have been collected, but that was a wrong notion. Leyte was in a worse condition than I imagined. The news reports do not even give justice to the real situation there. I tried to hold the tears that were about to fall because I knew I had to be strong. If I were to spread the good news that God loved them, I had to believe and show it was true.
I was in Tanauan, Leyte for four days and in Tacloban for one day. During our mission, we went around the areas we were assigned to hoping to be witnesses of God’s love. Little did I know, that instead of sharing God’s love for me, it was I and my companions who were enlightened.
Despite all the hardships and difficulties, the people I met were so grateful to God. Of course there were some who questioned God and their existence saying things like “Di ko nga alam bakit andito pa ko,” but majority of the families I met, were so thankful to God that even I felt ashamed of how much I complain about my life and my problems.
We invited them to Church to listen to the good news we brought. We didn’t have relief goods or money to share, instead all we had was the good news that Jesus loved them in spite of deaths they were experiencing.
Of course we were not able to fill the church. I’m sure that if we had goods with us, more people would have come. The people came each day as soon as we started singing in front of the Church. They’d listen and participate in the catechesis. What touched me was when we went around to give people a more personal sign of peace, and two women I approached and hugged started to cry. I felt that sometimes a hug or a tap on the shoulder was all they needed to feel better. We ended the catechesis with a penitential rite and the Holy Eucharist.
What struck me was what the parish priest said in one of the Masses. He said, “ Relief Goods won’t be there forever. After the relief efforts, what’s next? Why are we living? What is the purpose of life? God has a plan and our lives cannot revolve on the material things that sustain us.”
This was the first time in my life where I saw that money truly couldn’t buy everything. People repeatedly told me that money was of no value to them because up until now they cannot buy anything because most stores are empty or that they cannot rebuild their houses because there is no place to buy the materials.
In the past years, my life has revolved around my career and earning a living. I have forgotten what truly mattered in my life. I realized that in a snap of a finger all these could be gone.
I was also amazed at how it was so easy for them to thank God and to talk about losing their loved ones and their securities in life. Some even shared that they no longer have a job because their jobs, buildings have all be washed or blown away. I cannot imagine being in their situation, I can easily talk about God and His love, but when faced with that situation I don’t think I would be as faithful as they are
During this trip, I gained so much. More than what I even gave. I discovered that in times of death, struggle and great difficulty, when money and material things fail, it is where you can find Christ. Amidst all these sufferings, God was present and living in these people.
It is when we have nothing that we discover how rich we are with the love of God.
I do not regret spending on such an expensive airfare or for spending Christmas away from my family, eating skyflakes and canned goods for five days, taking two-minute baths in their public toilets, inhaling the foul smell of trash or the dead who haven’t been retrieved or sleeping in a Church with bats, frogs and deadly mosquitoes. I don’t even regret losing five days of my Christmas break because in this mission I have been given a gift to see things in a new light. I am grateful that even for five days, I have seen the goodness of God in each and every person I met. I discovered that I can still do so much more, that I am blessed and that God is present even in the sufferings we experience everyday.
On days, I feel tired or drained out or when I just want to give up, I’ll forever remember the sweet smiles of the children who welcomed us in the church we slept in and the beautiful voices singing praise to God during the masses we had. I’ll forever cherish the inspiring and courageous stories especially that of a mother who just surrendered to God and accepted his will but were saved without harm, and all the unsung heroes like the nuns and priest I met who are practically giving their lives up until now to help people they don’t even know.
In this journey and mission, I discovered that despite a lot of stories of bad and corrupt people, I found out that there are still a lot of people with good and kind hearts, who are willing to help without gaining anything in return.
This Christmas, I was hoping that through the mission, I would be able to give something to them, but instead I received so much more than what I was able to give.
In my own little way, I pray that the people in Leyte may find the strength and will to stand back up even when relief efforts have ceased, and most of all, I pray that even in times of difficulty, we may all keep firm to our Faith, and know and believe that God is present even in the worst of times.