Typhoon Haiyan, known to Filipino locals as Yolanda, touched ground on the island of Leyte on November 8, 2013. Storms are expected annually in the Philippines, but never one of this magnitude, which boasted the strongest wind speed ever recorded. Moreover, no one was prepared for the tsunami-like waves that followed suit, flooding entire cities and plowing cargo ships across multiple neighborhood blocks. By the end of its course, Haiyan had left 11 million people in the Philippines affected or homeless. The death count is 6,200 and counting.
The decision to send a relief team from Grace City Church Tokyo was a simple one. My roommate and I had been following the progress of Haiyan from our home office via BBC. The same night we proceeded to draft a trip proposal to the rest of the church staff team, who responded with green lights all around.
Going to the Philippines made sense for multiple reasons. Members of our community present in Japan during the Tohoku disasters of 2011 remembered the same exact devastation at the time. Those who were beneficiaries of aid, whether physically or emotionally, now embraced the opportunity to provide the same help to a neighboring country in need. Also, being an extremely young church with many new Christians, it was a blessing to be able to show members that they were part of a larger outward facing movement, one that had a biblical responsibility to react to such occurrences.
Aside from all the positive energy, it was obvious that motivation alone would take us nowhere. Having no idea what we were doing or where to start, we turned to Gary Watanabe, one of City to City’s Asia church planting directors, who put us in touch with Pastor Zuriel Bernardino of Heroes Church in Fort Bonifacio, Global City, Manila. Gary had been instrumental in the development of both churches, whose pastors had undergone intensive church planting training together at Redeemer CTC in New York. The collaboration was a natural fit, and the opportunity to work alongside a church within the same network that shared the same vision was very exciting. Early on, we recognized the potential of our cooperation as a catalyst that would spur on a trend of City to City churches working together in the future. Yet neither of us would realize the spiritual importance of us coming together until much later.
We arrived in Tacloban on Wednesday January 15 via a less than comfortable plane, ferry and van, carrying four hundred kilograms of medical supplies, construction tools, food, and tents. We got to work, and over the next four days our medical team treated over 450 patients, and our makeshift construction team repaired four-and-a-half homes. Meals were prepared in the dark under candlelight and bucket showers were taken outside by the water pump.
At night we worshiped together with the local church, United Church of Christ in Tacloban, which headed up all of our relief activity coordination, and slept in the wall-less sanctuary under mosquito nets. Daily instances in which we encountered homes beyond repair and crowds of displaced families asking for help continued to remind us of our lack of control and inability to provide help despite our earnest intentions. However, the main objective of the trip continued to be the spiritual support and encouragement of the Filipino Church, its workers and the long term gospel-centered relief that they were committed to. On Saturday afternoon, we left behind our tents and our tools, and carried with us expectations to return someday soon.
Before returning to Tokyo on Sunday, our team spent our last hours worshipping at Heroes Church. Pastor Zuriel came up to bring the service to a close, and began to share his thoughts regarding the past week. He described his visit to the memorial of American General Douglas MacArthur in Tacloban, and proceeded to share about the Japanese oppression during WWII.
Zuriel, being a student and lover of Filipino history, spoke about his heart turning cold towards the Japanese at a young age. However, after eating, drinking, traveling and working with our team throughout the week, he found himself finding joy with Japanese people for the first time. In seeing a congregation of Filipinos, Japanese and Americans worshipping in the same room, he recited Psalm 133:1 “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people dwell together in unity.”
Heroes Church was by no means in any position to make any national political statements and nobody was expecting one. But Zuriel decided that on behalf of all the Filipinos, he wanted to forgive the Japanese for all the pain that they’ve caused, and also to apologize for the all the sins of the Filipinos against the Japanese. The entire church was in tears, and we cried together for the millions who died throughout our past, and for the hatred that continued onward.
For those of us present, everything had come to a climax at that moment, in the small room of thirty people behind a McDonalds off of Rizal Drive in Global City. From the very beginning, we had questioned the meaning and effectiveness of our trip to the Philippines. Neither of us could have comprehended the magnitude of the spiritual reconciliation that God was starting through our two churches. It felt like we wanted to fix houses, and He wanted to fix us.
Haiyan was a wake-up call that revealed to us a suffering that was much deeper than the damage visible above ground. 70 years ago, the Japanese were forced out of the island of Leyte in a manner that had crippled both sides both physically and spiritually. I like to think that after 70 years, a small group of Christians from Japan, with more to follow, were brought back to Leyte by a force greater than ourselves, to share in a common brokenness and to stand together in watching it heal by renewal of God’s kingdom.
Kevin Yu is a Chinese-American member of Redeemer Presbyterian Church who is currently spending a year in Tokyo, working with Grace City Church, a plant of Redeemer’s that launched in 2010.