Philippine typhoon sparks global Baptist relief effort
Baptists in Japan, Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and Italy have already responded to the crisis or are pledging their support, as have numerous Filipino Baptist churches in the United States. Some are coordinating efforts through relief organizations such as Baptist Global Response (BGR), a key International Mission Board partner in disaster relief ministries, while others are channeling aid through Philippine churches.
Images of destruction in places like Tacloban City bring back haunting memories for Joel Cuellar, evangelism and missions pastor at Tokyo Baptist Church. During the past two years, Tokyo Baptist has sent more than 300 of its members to serve in relief and rebuilding efforts following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that decimated parts of northeast Japan.
"It's hard to accept the reality that thousands of people passed away in such a short time," said Cuellar, 47, a native Filipino who moved to Japan more than 20 years ago. "It's becoming more natural for us to respond with the love of God when calamity strikes, because we've learned from firsthand experience."
When Cuellar heard the news about the extent of Haiyan's damage, he said he immediately began praying about how Tokyo Baptist Church might help.
"Our purpose is to rebuild lives, both physically and spiritually, with the Gospel of Christ," he said. "It's based on the Great Commission and Matthew 25, when Jesus asked us to feed those who are hungry."
Cuellar's congregation has given $5,000 to aid typhoon victims through BGR and plans to continue giving through a special offering to be collected during the next few weeks.
"No one can see the pictures of the Philippines on TV and relate more directly than the people here who were in the tsunami," said Dennis Folds, Tokyo Baptist's senior pastor. "The devastation looks the same."
Folds emphasized that the typhoon is a reminder that Christians must work quickly to meet both the physical and spiritual needs of victims.
"The urgency that we have right now to help the Philippines should remind us as believers to have a continual urgency to share the Gospel ... because we never know how an individual might be affected in a tragic event," he said.
Though the majority of Tokyo Baptist's membership is Japanese, it is an international church with about 40 different nationalities represented. Among them are more than 100 active Filipinos including Raneil Ensomo, who is from a small village on the island of Leyte, where Tacloban City is located. Ensomo's parents told him that 60 percent of the homes in his hometown were destroyed; only 10 percent still have roofs. His parents are among the 10 percent, but their next-door neighbors weren't so lucky.
"Everyone is focusing on Tacloban, and for a good reason, but the typhoon affected a very large area and I think there are lots of places that are not getting enough help," Ensomo said. Many outlying towns and villages, particularly in remote mountain areas, have yet to see any aid. "They don't know what to do; they don't have money to rebuild their houses," he said.
That thought has kept other members of Tokyo Baptist's Filipino congregation awake at night.
"I've been praying, I've been crying -- I can't even sleep, because I see all those people asking for help," said Karen Damian, who is thankful her family wasn't affected by the storm. The show of international support in Haiyan's wake has been encouraging, she added.
"It's really overwhelming to me; they really love the Philippines, they really love my people," Damian said.
Folds and Cuellar are meeting with Filipino members like Damian and Ensomo to help determine how Tokyo Baptist can meet typhoon survivors' needs most effectively, with the goal of working primarily through local Baptist churches in the Philippines.
Folds adds that he sees God's providence in Haiyan's timing since many of Tokyo Baptist's Filipino members typically return home during the Christmas season.
"Almost always those that return use that opportunity as a mission trip of sorts, and they share the Gospel in their local community," Folds said. "I know they'll go with a heart for evangelism because they always do."
Filipino Baptists respond
As Baptists in Asia and elsewhere around the world reach out to the Philippines, Filipino churches in the United States also are responding. Many Filipino Americans have families who live in areas affected by the typhoon, including Jerry Lepasana, who pastors Bible Church International in Randolph, N.J.
Lepasana's uncle by marriage lives in Tacloban City and survived the storm, as did 10 other church members' relatives living in typhoon-ravaged communities. Though Lepasana's church is multi-ethnic, it started as a Filipino congregation and Filipinos still comprise the majority of its members. Lepasana himself is Filipino and grew up in Manila.
Bible Church International (BCI) is serving as a coordination and collection hub for Philippine relief efforts in the area, gathering clothes, bedding, food and other supplies. The last time a large typhoon hit the Philippines, slamming metro Manila two years ago, BCI collected 100 boxes of clothes that were sent to victims. Lepasana said he expects to send much more in response to Haiyan.
"Our church has always felt that though we are here in the U.S., we are very much connected with our country in the Philippines," Lepasana said. "We've been sending medical teams every two years from our congregation; so, when something like this happens, we are deeply touched and want to be the hands of the Lord to lift the burdens of the people suffering in our country."
Paul Sasis is a Filipino pastor and church planter working in Fontana, Calif., in partnership with the North American Mission Board. He was on a mission trip to Manila when Haiyan struck; as the typhoon's winds buffeted the Philippine capital, it was surreal to watch the news on TV and see people dying just a few hundred miles away, Sasis said.
"The city (Tacloban) is wiped out, that's how terrible it is," he said. "And those who have survived are dying [trying to find] food and water. ... We cannot wait -- they need the help now."
Sasis' congregation at Be the Message Church is collecting boxes of clothing, toiletries and other supplies to send to Haiyan victims.
"I think this is one of the greatest opportunities for us to share the love of Christ. People are desperate. I heard about a Philippine mayor [on the news] who was saying that God had forgotten them. I think it's time for us to show that God has not forgotten the people in Tacloban or the Philippines."
Churches and individuals interested in going as volunteers to help with the disaster response should contact the Disaster Relief director of their state Baptist convention. International disaster response requires teams to be certified in certain skills, and the mobilization of volunteer teams to overseas disasters is coordinated with state conventions.
To contribute to relief efforts, visit imb.org/helpnow .
Don Graham is a senior writer at IMB. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).