Written by Emily Mullins
With friends and family living in the Philippines, members of Filipino-American United Church of Christ in Richmond Hill, N.Y., were nothing short of devastated by the impact of Typhoon Haiyan that ripped through the island nation last month. The Rev. Ruben Cedino, the church's pastor, lived in the Pilipino city of Cagayan de Oro until 2006. And while he has seen his fair share of storms, he had never seen anything like this. Knowing the challenges the people of his home country will face, he and his congregation quickly took action to do what they can to help their brothers and sisters suffering on the other side of the world.
"When the first pictures came in, it was really a shock," said Cedino. "We've experienced typhoons back at home but not as massive as this. The amount of destruction and loss of lives was so high – and we know in a country like ours it will be very difficult to build up and rise up from the situation."
When the typhoon struck, Filipino-American UCC had already collected more than $1,000 in donations to assist with recovery from a 7.2-magnitude earthquake that struck the Philippine island of Bohol in mid-October. The church has since collected another $3,000 for typhoon relief, and has planned a fundraising concert for Dec. 14 that will feature Philippine artists and musicians. After that event, Cedino said they plan to combine the donations to both campaigns and send the total to the UCC's national offices to add to the denomination's church-wide goal of raising $250,000 for typhoon recovery.
"Our target was to have the information disseminated as far as possible," Cedino said, adding that local news outlets have publicized the church's efforts. "People know about what we're doing, so friends of friends have helped us with this campaign."
Peace United Church of Christ in Santa Cruz, Calif., is another UCC congregation with ties to the Philippines that has rallied together to help with relief efforts. During worship on Dec. 1, the church collected $2,600 – the largest emergency offering the 180-member congregation has ever collected – which they will also contribute to the national setting's fund.
"I'm still amazed – almost shocked – by the response of a fairly modest congregation to a huge need," said the Rev. Dave Grinshaw-Jones, pastor of Peace UCC. "This offering, so generous and remarkable, is a sign of our faith and our commitment to bear witness in all the ways we can.
"It also reflects, I hope, our shared determination to care for the suffering in all places, and especially those affected by global warming and climate change," he continued. "We wish not to be silent about the huge human costs of this ongoing crisis."
Grinshaw-Jones credits his church's "stunning outpouring" to two special appeals during the Dec. 1 worship. The first was a traditional island hymn sang by the young-adult choir. The second was an original poem read by Peace UCC member Jimiliz Valiente-Neighbors, one of the congregation's "profound young voices." Valiente-Neighbours, who was born and raised in the Philippines, was inspired to write the poem by a photograph of a procession of women carrying religious statues taken 10 days after the storm.
"After meditating on the photo, wondering what the women in it were thinking, and imagining what was going on at that moment, I was moved to write the poem," she said. "I wanted to bring the stories of the women in the photo in a way that's hard to ignore. I wanted their stories to be pressing. I wanted the women to be present, among us."
But Valiente-Neighbours also wants her poem to address larger issues. She said this typhoon only solidifies the divide between the rich and poor, as people in the Philippines wait, day after day, for relief. She also wanted to bring attention to ways the Philippine government has failed to address the needs of its people affected by the typhoon, citing an example that some politicians used the opportunity to promote themselves for the upcoming elections by printing their names on relief items before distributing them. She also hopes the poem stresses the urgent need to address climate change and highlights its impact on poor communities. Since she can't be there, Valiente-Neighbours said, the poem was a way for her to communicate the facts and figures, as well as her feelings.
"I wanted to fly there immediately, like some sort of an action hero, and comfort people," she said. "But I couldn't. It hurt. And it still does. The best I can do now is continue to pray for them, pray for more affluent people to open up their hearts and give to the relief, and pray for governments to take action. The poem was one action, but there is more work to do."
In the three weeks since the UCC issued the $250,000 appeal, more than $200,000 has been donated to the denomination's Typhoon Haiyan relief effort. To donate to the fund, visit the Typhoon Haiyan response webpage.