Creating a Refuge after the Storm

By Ruth Ebbs, Jan 22, 2016

A Filipino family took shelter from the typhoon in a sewer culvert, but soon it was apparent that this wasn’t safe. Although they were protected from the winds, the strongest in recorded history, they had not been warned of rising water.

In addition to the relentless rain, the city experienced three successive storm-surge tsunami waves. Joel*, and his wife clung to their baby daughter and young son and started swimming as the waters rose in the culvert. They managed to endure the remainder of the storm while clinging to a standing structure.

Joel was a new believer and a member of a small, fractured church characterized by broken relationships. The church had recently expelled their divisive pastor. This small body of believers needed healing and hope before the storm. And now as storm survivors, Joel’s family and their church community needed it all the more.

Surviving Haiyan
On November 13, 2013 the city of Tacloban, Philippines, took a direct hit from Typhoon Haiyan, known locally as “Yolanda.” Among the estimated 10,000 that perished, were Joel’s sister and her family. Most of the survivors share similar stories of trauma and tragedy.

Heartbreaking reports filled the news and people donated generously. World governments responded. Non-government organizations (NGOs) rushed in and worked to make a difference. Significant sanitation projects were completed. Buildings were restored.

But two years later, people are still traumatized. As recently returned MTW missionary Josh Roloff explains, “They panic when the wind blows or it starts to rain.” They are just beginning to be able to talk about the horrors they witnessed, and in a place where 1 out of 200 people died, everyone still grieves.

Many of the sanitation projects have since failed—some due to poor location choice and others due to poor construction. And local people view the building restoration projects with ambivalence--most buildings were emblazoned with the sponsoring NGO’s name and the outsider ownership of these efforts still linger.

Change that lasts
MTW sought to make a lasting difference. Our Global Disaster Response teams visited the area soon after the storm and connected with Pastor Zuriel Bernardino, trained under Redeemer’s City-to-City church-planting program**. Zuriel was working in Manila and also looking to reach out to the hard-hit city of Tacloban. Zuriel had connected with Joel’s struggling church and saw great potential for both mercy ministry and church renewal there. And so we came alongside Zuriel, glad to support both the revitalization of the church and outreach to the surrounding community.

Creating a refuge
As part of this partnership, Josh and Nicole Roloff and their family have been serving alongside Pastor Zuriel and Heroes Church (as it is now called) for the last year. While Zuriel concentrated on pastoral ministry, Josh focused on a restoration plan for the church building itself. Josh explains that the goal was to “create a refuge.”

After much hard work, that goal is being realized. The church community agrees—it’s been an amazing transformation. The facade of the building is still recognizable as the church that preexisted the storm, but there have been great changes within:

  • The building has been reinforced so that it will withstand future storms.
  • The sanctuary has been expanded so that more people can gather to worship, hear the gospel of grace, and the church can continue to grow.
  • The building now houses a medical clinic operated by Dr. Hannah Bernardino, Pastor Zuriel’s wife. This space is also available to host visiting short-term medical teams. Once such team is preparing to visit in September 2016.
  • There is now space for children’s ministry, accommodating the 15–30 children who attend regularly. The children used to meet outside.
  • There is expanded space for community activities, including events like local Disaster Response Training, or for short-term teams to gather and serve. Recently a short-term team visited from Redeemer New York and hosted an art and music festival, sharing beauty and joy with people who have so little and lost so much. 
  • There is room to keep emergency supplies in preparation for future disaster situations.
  • Heroes Medical Clinic has been able to hire a full-time nurse, and will be able to host future medical teams.
  • In addition to Zuriel as lead pastor, Heroes has a full- time pastor, Fortune Remigio, who leads worship, does community outreach, and preaches.

Looking ahead
The Roloffs returned to the U.S. after a year in Tacloban still excited about the work there. There is good reason to celebrate a job well done. But they are also excited because Joel is excited.

After finishing his work with another NGO, Joel was asked to work alongside Josh and others in the renovation of his own church, giving him a sense ownership. Heroes is Joel’s church. It still looks like his church, the one that existed before the storm. The inside may be renewed, but enough of the outside remains that it is clearly the same place that belonged to a hurting group of believers before the storm. The sign outside says Heroes Church and not the name of an NGO. This place is truly theirs, evidenced by the many volunteers who helped with the renovation alongside hired workers. It is now a place of trust and healthy relationships. And it is a place where Joel has learned to give of himself because it is the right thing to do, not for the public recognition. He is full of enthusiasm and many new ideas for ministry and outreach.

This is now a place a grace and joy. And a place to find the healing and hope the people of Tacloban still long for. “At the end of October we were pushing to have things ready for Reformation Sunday,” Josh explained. “It would be the first official church service in the new building. The crew put in overtime hours, the church members came on Saturdays and evenings after work. It was such a boost to our family to watch our friends rally around their new space. It was fun to be together and laugh and be part of the joy that comes from making a place beautiful. Even through the building was not completely finished [by Reformation Sunday], we ushered in new life into the space. It was a fun glimpse of things to come.”

Prepare now so you can serve with us when the next global disaster strikes. Attend the next Global Disaster Response training.

*Name has been changed.
** Redeemer City to City is a leadership development organization founded by Timothy Keller and Redeemer Presbyterian Church.

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