When disaster strikes in the Philippines, expect the Church and non-governmental groups to immediately respond and assist victims in recovering from tragedy and rebuilding their lives.
The same compassion and generosity they have shown in past tragedies, whether caused by natural disasters such as typhoons and earthquakes, were on full display when they mobilized people to provide relief goods, including food, clothing, and temporary shelter to thousands of families affected by the eruption of Taal Volcano in Batangas province, south of Manila, on Jan. 12.
The humanitarian assistance complemented efforts by both national and local governments, as well as the business sector, to lend a helping hand to those who were forced to evacuate from their homes due to heavy ash fall, amid fears a violent eruption could occur at anytime.
On Jan. 20, the Department of the Interior and Local Government ordered a total lockdown for 15 towns in Batangas and Cavite provinces, which were heavily affected by the eruption.
The move was aimed at preventing residents from returning to their homes while the situation remained at “Alert Level 4”, as the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology said a deadly eruption could happen within hours, days, or even weeks.
An estimated 450,000 people are residing within the danger zone around the volcano. Authorities have ordered them to leave the area.
Archbishop Gilbert Garcera of Lipa said people have been bolstered by their strong faith in God when facing these hardships.
“Amid these problems, they are still smiling. This is the Christian life,” said the prelate.
“We form as a community, as a people of God, not just here in Batangas but in the whole country,” he said. “We will rise again.”
The archbishop had earlier appealed for aid to augment ongoing relief operations. Among the most urgent needs, he said, are food, potable water, hygiene kits, blankets, towels, medicine, and face masks.
Parishes, some seminaries, and religious centers in Batangas and Cavite provinces have already opened their doors to evacuees.
As soon as news of the Taal eruption reached them, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines called on dioceses to perform acts of charity and solidarity in the midst of “this difficult situation.”
Archbishop Romulo Valles, conference president, called for a second collection in Masses, asking that those funds be given to “the most affected local churches.”
He also asked the faithful to respond to other needs, such as medical care and attention to those in evacuation centers.
In Batangas, more than 35,000 people fled their homes and evacuated in centers from 27 cities and towns in the province following the eruption. That figure is expected to rise as more residents within the 14-kilometer danger zone continue to be evacuated.
The Lipa Archdiocesan Social Action Center has also called for volunteers to assist in the repacking of goods at its headquarters at the St. Francis de Sales Major Seminary in Lipa City.
The archdiocese is working closely with emergency organizations. Several church institutions have been converted into temporary evacuation centers. Aside from relief goods, the archdiocese has also been providing “psychological first-aid” to the victims.
Archbishop Garcera thanked the volunteers who are helping the thousands displaced by the eruption. In the archdiocese, he noted, most of the volunteers were young people.
“Faith is service to [others]. You receive faith, you share faith,” he said. “Let us make this the moment of faith.”
“Aside from water and food that the government provides, what the Church can give is a strengthening of faith,” said Archbishop Garcera.
After the tragedy struck, retired Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales also posted a video message: “We want to thank everyone for helping the evacuees.”
The cardinal hails from Batangas and is a former archbishop emeritus of Manila.
At the same time, civil society groups are doing their part by preparing hot meals for thousands of residents displaced by the Taal Volcano eruption.
Among them is the Art Relief Mobile Kitchen, headed by veteran photojournalist Alex Baluyut, who is now based in nearby Laguna province. The group first set up its feeding center for more than 2,000 Taal evacuees at the Redemptorist Church in Lipa City.
Baluyut said his group not only aims to feed empty stomachs, but “to give hope and boost the moral” of evacuees.
They have turned tons of vegetables donated by farmers in Benguet province and Sagada, Mountain Province, into healthy dishes for thousands of evacuees.
Farmworkers from Cuenca, Batangas, also donated their harvest of pineapples to the center.
Aid efforts organized by the Catholic Church and NGOs in the aftermath of the Taal Volcano eruption are particularly vital, as the Philippines is among the most disaster-prone countries in the world.
The Philippines lies in the path of destructive typhoons from the Pacific Ocean that regularly cause flooding and landslides, which in turn lead to loss of life and property.
The country is also part of the so-called “Pacific ring of fire”, consisting of active volcanoes that can cause massive destruction once they erupt.
Apart from these, the country has geographic faults that trigger earthquakes and cause death and destruction in vulnerable communities.
The Philippines also has its fair share of man-made disasters, such as fires that exact a heavy toll, and armed conflict in various parts of the country.
Over the past 20 years, the Philippines has ranked fourth worldwide among countries hit by weather-related disasters, according to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction.
A total of 274 disasters were recorded in the Philippines from 1995 to 2015 alone. The Philippines is also among the top 10 countries with the highest absolute number of affected people — 130 million.
Both natural and man-made disasters exact a heavy toll on the Philippine economy, generating as much as 130 billion pesos ($2.55 billion) in damages annually, according to the Department of Finance.
All this provides ample reason for the Catholic Church, as well as civil society, to extend prompt humanitarian assistance whenever both natural and manmade disasters take place, in keeping with their mission to enhance solidarity and unity in building a kinder and more gentle society.