Philippines: faith and community grow out of disaster

 Two are medical doctors, a handful are engineers. Some are small traders and farmers while others are professionals. In Cabalantian-the village in Bacolor, Pampanga, that bore what the late Dr Raymundo Punongbayan had called the "cruelest wrath" of Mount Pinatubo's volcano irruption and lahar (mudflow) in Central Luzon-this group of more than 50 men and women is known by the initials "PPC". That stands for the Parish Pastoral Council, and this one is enriching the ways in which the Catholic Church helps people respond to disasters. "That is what our leaders in the parish are doing. They continue. They move on. They are not discouraged," Fr Renato Sabile said in a message congratulating the PPC in April last year as it started another fund-raising musical concert. It was the witnessing of how the villagers live out their faith to fight life's battles, their faith in God and in their neighbours, that inspired the parish lay leaders to respond, according to Dr Ma Salve Olalia, PPC president for external affairs. To her, what befell Cabalantian on October 1, 1995 was a "test of faith" to the less than 20,000 villagers. At dusk and in just a little over two hours, Bacolor's biggest and most prosperous village was entirely gone, buried under 20-30 feet of lahar that Typhoon "Mameng's" rains washed down from the slopes of the volcano to the Pasig-Potrero River and its tributaries, mainly the Gugu Creek. The lahar killed some 1,000 people, mostly children. "What were left were keys to houses. The houses were all gone", said rice trader Nida Samia, one of the council's secretaries. "It was enough that we were alive," said Erlinda Cortez, who, after almost 24 hours of being marooned on a rooftop, was plucked out by helicopter-borne rescue teams from the military. Many others braved their way to safety, trudging on quicksand-like mud, sinking but rising at every step. Bacolor was devastated; people were leaving. Government had planned to let Bacolor serve as Pampanga's catch basin of lahar. Still, 30 families refused to leave Cabalantian. Ernesto Salvador, who belonged to that group, echoed a value from the past. "If you move out, it's like abandoning your village. You can't leave your birthplace just like that," his daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Quiazon, remembered the old man as saying-a reasoning that, she said, she could not entirely comprehend then. The decision of the 30 families to stay was what the council first defended. "There are people there," Olalia recalled, telling public works officials during meetings that most often ended in heated arguments over a plan to sacrifice Cabalantian. But then, those who had left for the evacuation centres returned during the day and left at night to take comfort from being just in the village even when it had become eerily unfamiliar, to reunite with neighbours or to think of ways to start all over again, Samia said. The village had no electricity, no water and no road. The council's members, who were also part of the Bacolor Core Group, decided to stay though they had the resources to restart elsewhere. They campaigned for the construction of the Gugu Dike to save the village from further lahar onslaught. They sought the reconstruction of the old MacArthur Highway to give back access to and from the village. And while the residents formed prayer brigades, the council scouted for funds. More people have returned in the last 10 years, counting 370 families to date, according to Barangay chair Jomar Hizon. Looking back, Olalia said the council had taken on other tasks aside from its traditional roles of assisting the priest in administering to the parish and helping in religious services. What the council actually did, together with the former parish priest, Nestor Tayag, is lead rehabilitation efforts anchored on deeper spirituality. The Mass resumed on November 1, 1995, held in memory of those who died. Then, the residents came out in full force on March 19, 1996, the Feast of St Joseph, with Pampanga Archbishop Paciano Aniceto leading the celebration on a truck set amid a gray landscape of lahar. Only when the life-saving efforts were in place did the council continue the construction of the church. "The community, which was struggling on sheer faith, was our living church," said Olalia. The makeshift chapel was built in Zone 5 in 1997, on a one-hectare lot the council bought from donations of the residents before the disaster. The new church has taken shape. Concrete pillars, as long as 32 metrss, have been driven into the ground; columns have been installed, and the retaining walls and ground filling have been done, according to engineer Noel Miranda, who was with the construction committee. The council had spent P5 million on those works. The money was raised from musical concerts, house-to-house solicitations, raffle draws, and donations from natives working here or abroad. It needs P30 million more to finish the new church designed for free by architect Yolanda Reyes, former dean of the College of Architecture of the University of Santo Tomas, Manila.

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