Surigaonons turn to faith, each other for help in Odette's aftermath

Anjo Bagaoisan, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Dec 26 2021 10:00 PM | Updated as of Dec 27 2021 08:09 AM

SURIGAO CITY - John Andrie Penados stood at the pulpit of their small church in Oslao, San Francisco town on Sunday morning, clad in the only good shirt he had saved when typhoon Odette hit.

The 18-year-old youth pastor was barefoot in slippers with his smart casual outfit—his shoes also lost to the storm.

With parts of the roof especially behind him torn off and without power for their sound system, John Andrie raised his voice as he led worship and the day’s preaching.

The singing of Visayan and English songs could be heard from the roadside where the church is a few steps away.

The Bible in front of John Andrie had swelled from being drenched in the rain. It was the only Bible he had saved from his house and was now the only physical Bible left at the church.

“You must choose to rejoice in the Lord!” he said, exhorting from 1st Thessalonians chapter 5.

He was met with amens from the handful making up the congregation, which included his relatives.

“We are rejoicing spiritually, we are rejoicing physically, because we are alive despite the greatest havoc of the super typhoon,” he continued. “Because the Lord is our protection!”

It’s a message of optimism echoed by many others in the storm-hit province as Christmas coincided with the still-growing need for basic goods and relief amid its rehabilitation.

Many who were also left homeless volunteered to help feed those like them.

Others answered the call of duty to manage evacuation centers or respond to pressing needs.

During the singing, one of the attendees, Elma Tubahon broke into tears.

Her nearby house was spared by the storm save for its nipa and wood roof, but her husband’s boat was not.

They had moved it hundreds of meters from the shore before evacuating, thinking the storm surge would not reach it. But they found it ripped into pieces, now only good for kindling.

Like him, the livelihood of other fishermen in the coastal town was also paralyzed by the typhoon.

“I asked God to provide for our needs,” Elma said in Tagalog later, again tearing up. “I hope someone would help us.”

Her first source of aid was their church, the Fishers of Men Christian Ministry, which had pooled funds to buy rice and some goods for both affected members and local indigenous peoples.

John Andrie referenced this too as he preached on “cultivating an attitude of gratitude”:

“The Lord is providing us food, the Lord is providing us covering. The Lord is not done in you. The Lord has a bigger plan in your life. Choose to react differently!”

This coming from a teenager who lost both his home and his mother within 2 months.

John Andrie and his family now live by the roadside of Barangay Lipata in Surigao City, far from their wrecked home. 

His mother, previously the pastor of the church, died of cancer in November, the house she had built a reminder of happy memories for her son.

But seeing his house again, John Andrie took his biblical word to heart.

“After nalaman ko na wala na kaming bahay, sabi ko na, ‘Lord thank you, dahil alam ko na bibigyan mo kami ng bagong bahay kasi wala na ang bahay namin’,” he told this reporter.

(After I learned that our house was gone, I said ‘Lord, thank you, because I know you will give us a new house because this one is no more.)

His energies, aside from leading at church, are now focused on volunteering at the village’s relief efforts—repacking and distributing food aid to nearby communities along with fellow members of their local youth advocacy group.

Rhea Cayetona, a fellow org-mate, saw their family’s eatery destroyed by the typhoon. 

She admits with no school and no home to go to, they have “a lot of time” to help out.

“Wala pong ibang mag-aano sa amin na mag-repack kundi kaming mga volunteer kasi para din naman ito sa barangay namin,” she said.

“Kahit may bagyong dumaan, laban lang. Sinasabi parati namin, ‘Bangong Surigao’!”

(No one else could help us repack the relief but us volunteers because this is our village. We still press on even whatever storm comes. We always say: ‘Rise up, Surigao!’)

For John Andrie, what they’re doing is following 2 divine commandments to its letter—loving your neighbor as you love yourself and doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.

“Kung tutulungan ko sarili ko lang, hindi ako makakatulong sa iba. So sinabi ko sa sarili kong mas mabuti pang tumulong sa iba, at the end of the day matutulungan nila ako,” he said.

(If I only help myself, I wouldn’t be able to help others. So I tell myself it is better to help others because at the end of the day they would also help me.)

The youth leader’s next days will be busy with him helping his own village and using his contacts to redirect help for others he finds in dire need.

Ultimately, he said, when their community finally gets back on its feet, he is sure he and other volunteers will be standing along with it.