The lush landscape of Ormoc City, Leyte, Philippines is dotted with stalks of coconut trees protruding from the ground, fruitless and leafless. It takes a powerful storm to bend a palm tree, let alone snap it in half. But the strongest storm to ever strike the Philippines made sure the area won’t have fruit-bearing trees for another 10 years.
For a storm that lasted nearly an hour, the damage to the palm trees destroyed the income for many of the people who made a living from harvesting the coconuts in these areas. Filipinos depended on the harvest of the coconuts to feed their families, without any hope of income for many years.
And yet, just a few miles away, in a church rebuilt with sheets of galvanized metal and wood scraps, Filipinos are worshiping God. Calunangan Christian Light of Life Church has baptized many people since the typhoon, and other churches throughout the hard-hit islands are reporting expansive growth.
Benjamin Vicentillo, post-disaster coordinator of the Conservative Baptist Association of the Philippines (CBAP), shed light on the spiritual climate of the people.
“We thank God for WorldVenture who came into the picture and really facilitated relief, reconstruction and restoration of this livelihood,” said Vicentillo. “Churches are becoming stronger, members are increasing, and they are now revived in their Christian life. Spiritually they are now open to the Gospel, and Christians who were at one time lukewarm and slipping are now awake.”
Survival After Disaster
In the town of Tanauan, Bernardo Gomez and his family watched in horror as the flood waters continued to rise in the building sheltering them. All 13 of them, spanning the ages of 2 to 60, climbed into the steel tresses as part of the roof blew away. Thankfully, the portion of the roof above them stayed intact. The family clung to the rafters for four and a half hours, waiting for the storm to pass and the water to subside.
“No church, no house, no food, no clothes. Barangay completely decimated.”
It was Nov. 8, 2013 when typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines with record-setting force. Waves as tall as two-story buildings and winds as strong as 155 miles per hour crashed onto the shores of Tacloban City, as well as the Leyte, Samar, and eastern Samar provinces. Haiyan left 6,300 people dead and more than 1,000 people missing in its wake.
It wasn’t that the Filipino government wasn’t prepared for the disaster. The government and people knew the storm was coming, and knew it would be bad. But no one even had a word for the “superstorm” Haiyan would be, as it surpassed the strength of anything the islands had seen in recorded history.
Soon after the waves and winds subsided, Brent and Chris Ralston, WorldVenture missionaries in the Philippines, received a text message from one of their partnering pastors:
“No church, no house, no food, no clothes. Barangay completely decimated.”
The text was from Pastor Apollo Ybanez in Calunangan, a town 30 minutes away from Ormoc City. This was a man the Ralstons had known since he was 19 years old. They were sponsors at his wedding, godparents to his children and supporters of his church-planting attempts for many years. Apollo had experienced some hard knocks, from a failed church plant to struggling to support his family (and a daughter with asthma) on a small salary. Everything that Apollo had worked so hard to build—his church, his house, his sari-sari store—Haiyan had completely ruined.
When Brent arrived in Calunangan, he stood where the church used to be. Sheets of metal and building scraps now piled in heaps of wreckage. Pastor Apollo’s church had taken more than a year to build. In the community, only 20 percent of the buildings survived unharmed. But Brent didn’t find Apollo and his church members wallowing in the destruction, overwhelmed with self-pity or anger. They were singing “To God Be the Glory” and “How Great is Our God” on the concrete slab that used to be the church.
How WorldVenture Helped the Philippines
It’s been a year since many Filipinos began picking up the pieces of their lives left behind after the typhoon. The resilience of the Filipino culture has been evident as WorldVenture and CBAP stepped in with immediate relief and continued restoration projects.
Eighty-six churches and 8,355 families with CBAP were severely affected by Haiyan. Now, many of these churches are thriving like never before, thanks to the efforts of relief teams focused on evangelism just as much as providing food, clothing, medicine and shelter.
“Churches are becoming stronger, members are increasing, and they are now revived in their Christian life. Spiritually they are now open to the Gospel, and Christians who were at one time lukewarm and sleeping are now awake.”
Take the city of Bogo on the island of Cebu, for example. WorldVenture and CBAP helped bring relief goods to more than a thousand people in this city and built homes for many residents there. About 100 families also received loans to restart businesses they lost. In addition, the evangelistic efforts in the area resulted in hundreds of people receiving Christ, more than 60 people getting baptized, and weekly Bible studies starting.
That’s the pattern in many of the cities affected by Haiyan where WorldVenture and CBAP helped. In the town of Maya, as many as 100 people prayed to receive Christ and became involved in weekly Bible studies.
In Tanauan, Leyte—where at least 1,300 died from the typhoon—the Ambassador for Christ Church had a regular church attendance of around 20 people. Now, after a team from the United States came to evangelize and provide relief, attendance has grown drastically after 151 people became Christians. Most of these people had lost a family member in the typhoon, and yet they say the storm was why they accepted Christ.
One such person was the 65-year-old man who had clung to the rafters during the storm.
“[He] was so caught up with emotion as we were sharing the Gospel…that as he pondered it for his own life, he would take out a handkerchief and start dabbing at his eyes,” said Brent. “It was a genuine conversion.”
Meanwhile, Pastor Apollo, with the help of groups from the United States, was able to rebuild his house and church, as well as the sari-sari store that provided a source of income for his family, thanks to WorldVenture’s relief efforts. Many churches have experienced tremendous growth, just like many other churches reporting double or triple attendance.
Beyond church growth and baptisms after the typhoon, WorldVenture was also in the business of restoring the semblance of the Filipinos’ livelihood after the typhoon. A great amount of money and attention went toward job creation, in the form of fishing, agriculture and other business ventures.
Fishing is a way of life for Filipinos. Their fishing boats—which resemble long, thin vessels slightly larger than canoes—are quick and easy to navigate. But with many of the boats destroyed during the storm, yet another source of income was no longer available for many of the people. WorldVenture stepped in to provide new boats, whether by helping to build them or providing the funds to build them. WorldVenture equipped residents with 34 boats in Tanauan, while 25 boats went to the island of Homonhon.
Other projects for business rejuvenation included livestock and agriculture, textiles, retail and service stores, like sari-sari stores, barber shops and auto shops. Perhaps one of the more unique projects started in the Philippines, according to Brent, was a coconut-carving business. Since many of the mango trees—another source of income—had been destroyed, Filipinos started to carve coconuts that had survived. They carve monkeys on the coconuts and sell them to resorts in the United States, who make cups out of them. Eventually, the business hopes to hire 50 to 100 workers.
Geographically, Cebu and the northern islands are predominantly Catholic, while the southern portion of the islands are Muslim. However, Cebu and the surrounding Leyte provinces are the least-reached, non-Muslim area of the country.
On a sunny, clear Tuesday this September, members of Filipino churches gathered on a beach in Cebu. Residents of the area piled into trucks, smiling and shouting joyfully as they drove onto the sand and jumped out. Families congregated together on the beach, unpacking food for the hundreds of church members. All around, from the small children to the grandparents, excitement filled the air.
President Jeff Denlinger stood waist-deep in the pristine blue water off a Philippine beach. One after another, Filipinos approached Jeff.
“I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit,” he said. To the left and right of him, five Filipino pastors were repeating the same statement, as young children and old grandparents emerged from the saltwater, wide smiles spread across their faces.
There were no 40-foot waves on this day, as 173 Filipinos publicly committed their lives to Christ, and the CBAP church network welcomed new members into its family. For this area of the Philippines, seeing this number of Christian baptisms is unprecedented.
The fruit of these mass baptisms has been huge for WorldVenture and CBAP. Mission fields don’t always see results this tangible. But when they do, it’s a victory for the whole organization, and a reassurance that God continues to work in and through the missionaries and movements, turning tragedy into rejoicing.
Click here to view a video of the Philippines’ restoration.