Typhoon in the Philippines: People of faith respond

Faith communities are offering prayers and scrambling to help as the Philippines reels from a typhoon characterized by some climatologists as the most powerful ever to make landfall.

The full extent of the devastation wreaked by Typhoon Haiyan has yet to be determined, but reports Monday (Nov. 11) indicated that as many as 10,000 people may have perished in one city alone and more than 650,000 nationwide were displaced from their homes. All in all, reported The New York Times, some 10 million people in the island nation’s midsection have seen their lives upended by the storm.

The largely Roman Catholic country was already struggling to recover from a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in October, as well as ongoing issues of poverty.

Tragedy on such a scale can be almost unfathomable, raising many questions, challenges and opportunities for all, including people of faith. ReligionLink offers story ideas and resources for covering this and other natural disasters.


Web resources

  • Alertnet

    Thomson Reuters Foundation’s Alertnet.org posts articles about disaster response, refugee crises, disease and other pressing humanitarian issues.

  • CIA World Factbook — Philippines

    See the CIA’s World Factbook entry on the Philippines for extensive background and data on the nation, including its religious makeup (in the People and Society section).

  • Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma

    The Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma provides resources to help ensure “informed, innovative and ethical news reporting on violence, conflict and tragedy.” The center is a project of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

    Extensive resources for covering the typhoon and its aftermath can be found here.

  • Who Does What Where

    Who Does What Where, also known as 3W, is a directory of organizations, agencies and others that provide emergency humanitarian response. The United Nations’ emergency response coordination office maintains the list, which is searchable by country and type of organization.

    Find names and detailed contact  information for groups working in the Philippines on this page (scroll down to the International NGO section).

Articles and blog posts

Relief efforts

Issues to explore

Where is God?

In times of tragedy, even the most faithful can ask, “Why us? How could this happen? Who can we blame?” The typhoon and other natural disasters offer an opportunity to explore, in local communities, how universal questions play out in different faith communities. As the media flood the public with images of the dead, the grieving, the hungry, the injured and the emotionally drained, questions resonate across all faiths, as well as with people who have no connection to organized religion. How are faith groups in your area responding? Look for stories that show how their faith understandings play out in religious rituals, grieving and aid efforts. This story explored theological questions raised by the tsunami that devastated South Asia in late 2004:

Biblical-scale disasters in the modern world

Like the Old Testament disasters, the typhoon and other modern cataclysms bring death, famine, chaos — and questions about God. Yet these stories aren’t told in sacred texts; instead, they are told through television, the Internet and satellite photos. Hours after a tragedy strikes, people around the world turn to technology to get information, to look at photos and video of the devastation and, in many cases, to find loved ones. Does seeing a modern-day disaster of seemingly biblical proportions help people to better understand the tragedy, or does it create spiritual despair? Are religious leaders and people in the United States and abroad turning to religious texts describing disasters to help them cope with the typhoon’s aftermath?

The compounding issue of poverty

The typhoon’s impact is particularly burdensome for those in extreme poverty, relief officials say. Ongoing help will be needed for fishers, farmers and others who were already struggling to get by. International organizations are involved in this work, but look as well for initiatives in your community to address this aspect of the crisis — both now and for the long term.

Healing psychological scars

For the most part, governments, international organizations and secular and religious aid groups focus on getting disaster survivors medical treatment, shelter, food and water. But long after those needs are met, experts say, survivors and those who helped them may struggle with psychological and spiritual scars that take time to heal. How do relief agencies in your community help victims and volunteers alike? Tell the stories of local people who have given aid in international disasters who can say how it changed their perspectives about the world, themselves and their faith. Most denominations and large religious organizations employ disaster response specialists, many of whom also have religious training. Many are ordained. They can address how faith-based disaster response is different.

  • A report posted online details Church World Service’s psychosocial care for children traumatized by the 2004 tsunami. Early intervention in such cases is crucial, the report says.
  • Rosemary Chinnici

    Rosemary Chinnici, a disaster specialist, Roman Catholic nun and pastoral theologian, considered the psychological and theological aftermath of disasters in a talk she gave after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In every disaster, she says, after an initial “honeymoon” time of helping, sharing and altruism comes a period of disillusionment with aid efforts before rebuilding begins in earnest. During times of frustration, when aid does not reach people quickly or effectively, she notes that people — even those not directly affected by the disaster — often seek a sense of security. She warns that comforting talk about God can sometimes be a safety device that keeps people from embracing and responding to the suffering of others, both at home and abroad.

  • American Association of Pastoral Counselors

    The American Association of Pastoral Counselors promotes the integration of religion and psychological counseling. It maintains a searchable database of accredited pastoral counseling centers by state. Douglas M. Ronsheim is the executive director.

  • National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

    Merle Jordan wrote “A Spiritual Perspective on Trauma and Treatment” for the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The center offers resources on the psychological impact of disasters.

Responses to suffering

Personal stories from natural disasters are wrenching. Parents whose children were swept away. Children whose parents were swept away. People starving while grieving. Disasters illuminate life’s painful injustices and typically bring a global outpouring of help. Yet many times affected regions were already suffering mightily even before disaster struck, and the world paid little notice. What makes people respond to some kinds of suffering and not others? What makes them reach out? People who study charitable giving are always trying to unlock the answers to such questions. Why will people call by the hundreds to adopt an abandoned puppy featured in the news but barely consider what they might do to address poverty in Third World countries? As donations pour forth from America, talk to local clergy and aid agencies about what triggers people to give and how they try to influence that.

  • “Getting Into a Benefactor’s Head”

    In a Nov. 8, 2012, Q-and-A with The New York Times, philanthropic psychologist Jen Shang discussed how understanding donor behavior can lead to increased contributions for nonprofit organizations.

  • “Science of Giving”

    Brittany Shoots-Reinhard, director of special projects for the Foundation Beyond Belief, writes in this blog post about the role of “psychological distance” in providing aid after the Philippines typhoon. Shoots-Reinhard has a doctorate in social psychology.

The difficulties of doing good

As thousands of Americans donate money and supplies for disaster relief efforts, video images remind them that it is often hard to offer effective help. Reaching people in remote areas and working with governments unprepared for such large-scale relief efforts involves frustrations. As aid efforts unfold, reporters can examine what is going well and why and what new challenges relief agencies are facing. Many of these can be told locally, as community groups and organizations gather supplies and money.

  • Humanitarian Disaster Institute

    The Humanitarian Disaster Institute is an interdisciplinary research center based at Wheaton College in Illinois. The institute examines the humanitarian needs of underserved and vulnerable communities throughout the nation and world. Jamie Aten, whose research focuses on the psychology of religion and disasters, is founder and co-director.

The global community

Does tragedy promote global community? Talk to people in your area about what inspires them to give when tragedy strikes the other side of the world. Have they visited the region or done business with a company there? Do they know someone from there? Has their place of worship — and its global affiliations — inspired them to help? How do places of worship that include members of different countries use individual stories to connect people to the tragedy? How do workers at international companies that do business in the area respond?

What to pray

Worship often focuses on praise and thanksgiving to God, but Christianity, Judaism and other faiths also have rich heritages of expressing anguish and lament. After the Sept. 11 attacks, certain psalms and prayers took on special meaning for victims and relief workers. What psalms and prayers are they turning to now? What religious rituals do Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims use in times of anguish? What can the traditions learn from one another?

  • Religious leaders of different faiths can talk about arguing with God and expressing anguish in their tradition. Seminary professors and professors of religious studies and comparative religion at local colleges and universities are also a good resource.

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