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Four “Marys” of Batan

Thursday, December 19, 2013
After receiving UMCOR food relief packages, this 66 year-old woman above said, "Alleluia! Thank you! Thank you very much!" Her thankful spirit wasn't defeated by Yolanda's (Typhoon Haiyan) fury.
Photo: UMCOR Philippines 

By Ciony Ayo-Eduarte*

Batan, in Aklan Province, in the central Philippines was the hard hit by Typhoon Yolanda (known outside the country as Typhoon Haiyan). Ninety percent of livelihoods and homes were devastated due to the town’s coastal location. Thanks to preemptive evacuations there were few fatalities in the November 8 storm, but the people will die slowly if the loss of livelihoods and shelter is not soon addressed.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) and Dambana, an ecumenical disaster relief organization whose name literally means “altar,” traveled together last week to Aklan to deliver emergency food packages to communities in Batan. The long trip included two ferry transfers and hours of road travel, with around 25 tons of relief goods in a huge truck. We visited the communities, or baranggays, of Mandong, Songcolan, Mamboquiao, and Napti. Because the debris from the typhoon still litters the roads, we faced many challenges getting to the communities. For instance, our team had to pull up and carry an electric post just to allow our truck to pass. We also had to clear fallen wires and cut tree branches that blocked our way.

But all along our route, I was reminded of the Advent story (Luke 1:26-56) in which Mary is visited by the Angel Gabriel, who announces to her that she will conceive and bear the Son of the Most High. As a betrothed virgin, the supposed “good news” is not easy to accept. Troubled, Mary accepts and bears that news. But in the end, her song of praise loudly resounds: "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name." (Luke 1:46-49)

In Batan, four such “Marys” welcomed us warmly. Like Mary of the Gospels, these women also were troubled by the events that surrounded them. They were living in the midst of loss, confusion, and other effects of Typhoon Yolanda. Many of the people in their communities had lost their homes, fishing boats, coconut trees (a major source of livelihoods), and their own family members. Yet, in the midst of this devastation, they were full of hope, and this hope resounded loudly in our hearts.

In Mandong, we were welcomed by former Baranggay Captain Excelsa Doroteo, whose damaged home became our place to meet, rest our tired bodies, and fill our empty stomachs. We were so moved to learn she had killed a pig to give us decent food. We told her that she doesn't need to do that, but she said we were helping a lot of families, and this is just a simple way to return goodness.

We were not able to reach the community of Mamboquiao as planned, due to obstructions in the road, so we distributed our emergency food packages in Napti. And that is where we met the other three “Marys.”  The second one happily came to me and said, "I am the only Methodist in this community. I used to live in Palawan and transferred here when I got married. I am so proud that as Methodists you are not only reaching out to our fellow members but to the entire community."

This “Mary” stayed near and kept watch over us during the distribution. When it began to get dark, she asked me, “Where will you eat?” I responded, “Wherever we have the opportunity along the way.” Then I realized that the whole time she was watching us, she was sizing up the number of our group, trying to determine whether the emergency food package she had just received from UMCOR would be enough to feed us and provide for her family for an entire week. She wanted very much to welcome us into her home, but we knew that to agree would be to take food from her family. I was so blessed by the spirit and gesture of this woman.

Our third “Mary” is a 66-year-old woman. I had asked our team members to relieve me for a while, and I went around and started conversing with people who had assembled. This “Mary” was waiting with other townspeople at the side of the road. I caught her in my camera lens, and started clicking. When I went to her, she made the sign of the cross and said, "Alleluia! Thank you! Thank you very much!” Then she hugged me and kissed me. I felt sincere and warm gratitude from this elderly woman. The devastation all around her had not broken her thankful spirit.

Diding Dela Cruz is a 55 year-old baranggay community health worker, helped those who could not carry the 16 kilos (35-pound) food packages. Photo: UMCOR Philippines

The fourth Mary was the strongest woman we have ever met. Usually, in the course of a distribution, we ask men and younger volunteers from the community to help those who are older, pregnant women, people with disabilities, and others who are unable to carry the 16-kilo (35-pound) food packages Diding De la Cruz, 55, helped a lot of the beneficiaries and, in fact, she kept coming back and forth to assist. We were so amazed that we asked her where she gets her strength. She said, “I’m a baranggay health worker. I’m used to helping others, and I am happy doing this. I cannot help with material resources, for I also suffered devastation, but what I can offer is my strength.” I was humbled. She gave what she had, and she gave it all.

Like Mary the mother of Jesus, these four women bring us back to a deep Advent spirituality: Radical hospitality in the midst of uncertainty, even in the midst of devastation. They show us the true meaning of “open hearts, open doors, open minds,” by giving to all without regard to faith affiliation; by nurturing a thankful heart and a hopeful spirit even in the midst of ruin and death; and by extending their helping hand fully and unconditionally to others in need.

Likewise, to the many people around the world who are supporting UMCOR in different ways, we send you the warmest embrace: "Alleluia! Thank you! Thank you very much!"

*Ciony Ayo-Eduarte is the director of UMCOR’s office in the Philippines. Follow the Typhoon Haiyan relief and recovery work of UMCOR Philippines on Facebook.

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