My heart sank when I heard about Typhoon Haiyan on Saturday, November 9, and I immediately sent Max an email. “Oh, no,” I lamented, “After all he’s been through this year.” Max and I became friends at the 2012 General Conference in Tampa. Max, pastor of Zamboanga City United Methodist Church in the Philippines, was in my legislative group, and we often talked often about our love for Jesus and desire to spread God’s grace and hope throughout the world.
I learned much from Max about the harshness of life in the Philippines, about the widespread poverty, political instability, and vulnerability of the country to natural disaster. I also heard about the incredible resilience and faith of the Filipinos. When Max, a former district superintendent, was appointed four years ago to Zamboanga City, he was willing to leave his wife and family, who are living three hundred miles away in Ormoc City. A plane ticket to visit his family costs as much as one month’s salary, so the church made a commitment to send Max home once a year.
Early this year Max and I lost contact with each other after having been in regular communication. I finally heard from him in June. In early January 2013, Max was hospitalized for two weeks with a high fever and a loss of blood platelets. Max was diagnosed with dengue fever. After a long recovery, Max was hacked, and it took months to recover use of his computer. Since September, communication has been more frequent.
“I am fine now and stronger than ever through the energy and power which God has granted me to carry on the burden of my ministry here in Zamboanga City UMC.” In subsequent emails Max began sharing alarming stories about the difficulties Zamboanga City was experiencing because of political conflict.
“Zamboanga City is in trouble for four days now. All banks and all business centers are closed until this time. Our members are confined in their homes for safety… We heard heavy gunfire from the church. The city is now isolated, airport and seaports are closed, and buses here are limited, at risk for ambush. There are 12,000 people in an evacuation center just a kilometer away. I am part of the stress debriefing group in the evacuation center.”
“This war caused 20,000 people, including children, to flee in evacuation centers for safety and refuge, but this huge number of people is not easy to sustain with daily food. More than five hundred homes of those who evacuated were burned down during the war. Another day would be prolonging agonies from the innocents. Thank you for the prayers and to all pray-ers.”
“Between yesterday and today, the reported number of people fleeing to evacuation centers increased to 44,000. The MNLF has more than eighty hostages and made human shields so that the government troops could not easily attack and destroy them. Food is running out even for us who were just staying home. Our church worship this morning had only ten in attendance. Many decided to just stay home for safety.”
Max’s next email a month later became even more distressing because of several natural disasters that afflicted Zamboanga City.
“Greetings of peace and joy in serving the Lord in spite of all these calamities that hit us. I have been too busy in the church in these past three weeks as flooding (after the twenty-two day war) occurred in almost the entire city of Zamboanga (Oct 4-8). Our church was also flooded by five feet of water. Much of our church equipment was destroyed.
“We were about to stand up again from war and floods, but here another calamity happened. A 7.2 magnitude earthquake occurred two days ago in Bohol and Cebu. Many of the three centuries old Roman Catholic church buildings collapsed, roads cracked, bridges were down, and so many homes partially or totally damaged… Many of our people were in panic, especially those who were victims of the war, then floods, and now an earthquake.
“There were dozens of them who already came to me and asked me almost the same question, ‘What does this means to us, from war to flood, then earthquake?’ I know they want me to answer back from the biblical perspective as a sign of the times, but I just simply say… ‘This will happen in any place in any part of the world. God wants us to remain faithful and be sober… love, help and care for each other.’ Thank you for including us in your prayers always. God will always take good care for us!”
After hearing about Typhoon Haiyan on Saturday, November 9, I emailed Max and received this reply on Sunday morning.
“Thank you for all the prayers. This is the hardest crisis (from war, flood, earthquake and now typhoon) that I and my family, neighborhood and all other survivors of the strongest typhoon have ever experienced. My family is in Ormoc City while I am here in Zamboanga City. When Typhoon Yolanda hit the eastern visayas, Ormoc City was one of the hardest hit by the typhoon the other day. It seems it is worse than Tacloban City. Almost all the houses in our neighborhood were wiped out, only very few remain standing.
“My wife was able to relate to me what had happened fifteen hours after the strong wind affected the area, just before her cellphone lost power. She and our two children with our seven-year-old granddaughter were in our house. We thought our house could survive and stand, but only the hollow block walls remained after the typhoon. With them are three neighbor families whose houses were made out of light materials and were blown out like paper houses. All of them in our house were soaked in the rain after the roof was blown away. But, praise God, they all survived from that dreadful storm.
“I wish I could have been with them, but because I am three hundred miles away, all I could do was pray for their safety that time… My church has already purchased a plane ticket for me for Cebu tomorrow to be with my family in this time of crisis. We lost our house, all electronic devices, beds and kitchen wares, but thank God, my family was spared and safe. I will update you on what happened there when I arrive. We need your prayers and support for a quick recovery… Thank you!”
How can Max keep on going when his family, church, city, and country experience one major disaster after another? Max signs his emails, “In Christ, Max.” When we are “in Christ;” when Christ lives and moves in and through us, we can do all things through the One who strengthens us. When we are “in Christ,” we bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.
Max’s theology is simple yet profound. He understands that natural disasters make no distinctions between Christians and non-Christians. Rather than shake his fist at God or attempt to explain what can never be fully understood, Max chooses instead to see the presence of Christ because our God is a suffering God.
Where is God in all of this? God is there through the love, hope, and care that Filipinos are giving each other. God is there in the resilience of survivors and the generosity and prayers of strangers. God is there through the United Methodist Committee on Relief and other disaster relief organizations. God is there through you and me as we pray and contribute money to UMCOR. God is there as we support people like Max, whose call it is to be the eyes, ears, hands, and heart of Christ to the Filipino people even as they care for their own families.
I finally heard back from Max last night. He was in a neighboring city sending emails because there is no internet, water, or electricity in Ormoc. He is hoping to take back food and roofing materials for his neighborhood. Gracious God of illness, war, flood, earthquake, and typhoon as well as gracious God of life, care, perseverance, and trust; watch over the Filipino people and all rescue workers during this desperate yet tender time. In the midst of unspeakable grief and loss, may the power of the Holy Spirit move gently across land and sea, bringing healing and hope to a troubled land.