This church lost part of its roof

This church lost part of its roof

This house was stripped of all but the top of its roof

This house was stripped of all but a few sheets of metal roofing

The elementary school on Salvacion - a ruined classroom

The elementary school on Salvacion – a ruined classroom

Tent classrooms from UNHCR on Salvacion

Tent classrooms from UNHCR on Salvacion

The island of Salvacion was submerged by a huge wave

The island of Salvacion was submerged by a huge wave

A fisherman on Salvacion, mending nets - and remembering

A fisherman on Salvacion, mending nets – and remembering

Children in the Salvacion school watching a film

Children in the Salvacion school watching a film

Manang Fely lost her entire family.  Lina listened to her story.

Manang Fely lost her entire family. Lina listened to her story.

             There are many thousands of stories of survival and loss in the wake of Super Typhoon Yolanda.  It is hard to hear story after story without being overwhelmed.  I remember this from working in Kosovo 13 years ago.  I found myself overcome by tears one afternoon and realized I had to find a way to release the terrible stories I had taken in.

This was not such an issue for me in Tacloban, as I did not sit still and do a lot of listening.  I was building a house, I didn’t have the local language and in my spare time I was really tired from the heat, sun and labor, so I rested.  Yet still, this morning, I found myself in tears as for a moment I let in the impact of what I saw and heard.

I picked up some anecdotes, such as one of a woman who saved five children by putting them in a refrigerator with the door taken off.  This became a boat and they were able to float in it until the water subsided.

One evening we went to visit Alice, the sister of our close friend Ellen.  Her son picked her up at work near our house, and four of us followed them in a motor trike to their house on the outskirts of Tacloban.  We arrived after dark in a neighborhood with a few generator-powered electric lights.  We ate a delicious candlelight dinner cooked by Alice’s husband Gerry.   And we heard their story.

At 7 in the morning of November 8 the sea arrived in their house from the beach 500 meters away.  By that time the sheet metal roof had blown away, but the cement walls of their house still stood.  As the water rose, they climbed up onto their countertops about a meter above the floor.  The water was swirling as in a powerful clothes washer, and it swirled around their ankles.  Had it gotten much higher, they would have had nowhere to escape to.  But it did not.  They stood for three hours as the rain stung them through the open roof, and then the water began to subside.

They stayed in their home for three days until they had to go out for food.  When they ventured out, their neighborhood was destroyed.  They saw many dead bodies and could not avoid walking on the dead as they traveled the road toward the city.  They were blessed not to lose anyone in their family, but so many friends and neighbors were not so lucky.  They told us of one man who goes to the beach every day to call for his wife and son, both lost, telling them that dinner is ready.

Alice and Gerry told us these stories without minimizing the horror of the storm and its aftermath, yet also with laughter.  It seemed to me that they are fully engaged in their lives today – Alice works with survivors to bring them the services they need – without denying or suppressing what has happened and its impact on them.   They are very healthy and courageous survivors.

Lina traveled the roads of Leyte delivering packages of grain and beans from the US to churches as far as 75 miles away: this was a nine hour day, much of it spent in the back of the truck in the full sun.  She crossed the bridge that links Leyte to Samar to meet with a group of 12 pastors and later took a boat across to a small island, Salvacion, to have lunch with one of those pastors.  Everywhere she heard stories.

Lina stopped to talk with some fishermen mending their nets.  They told her of seeing an unprecedented low tide expose the land all around Salvacion on the morning of November 8.  They knew something was very wrong and then saw a huge wave, sucked upward as if through a straw, coming toward the island.  They sounded the alarm and all ran for the highest spot, near the school.  The wave washed over that high point.  Those who survived were able to cling on to something.  When the water receded, they saw bodies and shreds of clothing in the tops of coconut palms.

This conversation had a profound impact on Lina, and I suspect it did on these fishermen as well.  She was willing to listen deeply to what they had to tell and to hear their anger and despair.

Our friend Ellen commented that when she came before Thanksgiving, the people she talked to were sharing their own stories.  On this trip she noticed that people were sharing the stories of others.  They had taken on the burdens of friends and neighbors.  Ellen said that whatever material aid we may deliver, helping them to carry that burden is the most important gift we bring.  We do this by witnessing and listening.

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