On the Sunday after Typhoon Haiyan ravaged the central Philippines, killing at least 5,000 people and damaging or destroying more than 1 million homes, local churchgoers across the stricken islands did what they do most Sundays: They flocked to church.
At the Santo Nino Catholic Church in the hard-hit city of Tacloban, the scene was apocalyptic, but the tone was comforting: A priest standing on a mud-slathered floor used a battery-powered microphone to encourage parishioners to seek strength in the sufferings of Christ.
As the official death toll rose to 5,200, at least 1,600 people were still missing after the monster typhoon (known as “Yolanda” in the Philippines) brought 174 mph winds and a 15-foot storm surge. The storm obliterated whole coastal towns, and displaced millions. The Philippine government reported the storm destroyed at least 600 schools and 500 hospitals or clinics, and estimated recovery could cost nearly $6 billion.
For now, many residents remained focused on surviving. And in a nation with one of the largest Catholic populations in the world, churches and other Christian groups became a primary source of relief.
Catholic churches became shelters, and evangelical churches delivered aid to hard-hit communities. Campus Crusade for Christ—which maintains a staff of more than 200 in the Philippines—continued to deliver aid to needy areas, and worked with the Christian group Global Aid Network to package relief supplies in Manila.
World Relief reported it would provide supplies to the relief arm of the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches. The local network of congregations planned to provide supplies to churches, while local pastors and volunteers provided manpower, facilities, and transportation to deliver aid to rural regions still waiting for help two weeks after the storm’s landfall.
Though hundreds of thousands of survivors fled hard-hit cities, thousands of residents remained trapped in rural villages with few supplies and limited communication.
Meanwhile, governments from around the world sent manpower and supplies to the crippled region. The U.S. Marines used an MV-22 Osprey transport plane to deliver tons of aid to the country each day. Other nations—including Japan and China—also poured relief into a country viewed as a critical player in Asian politics.
Beyond politics and reconstruction, churches prepared for some of the most difficult recovery work: Helping survivors cope with immense personal grief and loss. Back at Santo Nino Catholic Church in Tacloban, locals continued to gather for aid and comfort. Parishioner Nancy Callega told NPR she grieved the damage to her beloved church, but said her faith transcended buildings.
“I really trust in God,” said Callega. “We cannot rely on our concrete houses and our powers. It’s nothing compared to God’s help through prayers.”
A secularist organization is threatening to sue public schools that participate in Operation Christmas Child (OCC), a Christian program that delivers holiday gifts to impoverished children around the world. The American Humanist Association (AHA) recently sent letters to two schools, warning them that “in order to avoid the necessity of litigation to end your unconstitutional practices,” they should immediately break off any involvement with the program.
OCC is the most visible ministry of the relief agency Samaritan’s Purse, led by Franklin Graham. The program has given shoebox-wrapped gifts to more than 100 million children in over 130 countries in the past two decades. When Samaritan’s Purse distributes the gifts, it also makes a “creative gospel presentation by local churches and ministry partners” and offers an evangelistic booklet. This is the aspect of the program that raised the AHA’s ire, with AHA calling the toys a “bribe” to pressure poor children to embrace Christianity.
East Point Academy of West Columbia, S.C., was one of the schools targeted by the AHA. East Point’s principal, Renee Mathews, quickly informed parents that East Point would discontinue its shoebox collection in order to avoid a costly lawsuit. Mathews emphasized, however, that the program had been entirely voluntary, and that they had only accepted toys, not religious literature, for the project. —Thomas Kidd