Arriving to help victims of natural disasters
Youth with a Mission (YWAM) teams have been working in war zones, crisis and natural disasters for the past twenty-six years. However, nothing has impacted us more than the 2004 tsunami. A red flag in Aceh was a sign to the military or the police that there was a dead body under the rubble needing to be recovered. In Sri Lanka, a white flag was a sign of mourning. Flags continue to fly over the Indian Ocean a year later as we remember those who died in the horrific event.
Jesus, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, has been our model to love even when the pain of seeing others hurting overwhelms us. Although the generosity of the world has also shown that people do not go through tragedy alone, crisis is also an opportunity for the Church to be the Church.
Unknowingly Walking into Tragedy
Nine of us left Bangkok at 5 a.m. on 26 December 2004 to drive to Phuket, Thailand, for a much-needed rest at the beach. Marie, my wife, had been trying for six weeks to get us a hotel room near the sea; however, all rooms were full and we had to settle for a place inland, far away from the beaches of Pkuket. It looked like Thailand was finally recovering from the 1997 economic collapse, the SARS epidemic and the Avian Flu crisis. The Thais had high hopes that this would be the year for significant recovery. It was a good sign that tourists were returning.
The last two years had been especially difficult for us as Marie and I returned to the United States six times for the illness and subsequent deaths of three parents. In early December 2004, we also had three friends in Thailand and Uzbekistan suddenly die, one in a plane crash, one from a heart attack and one from a brain aneurism. Uncertainty and grief were common.
We were returning to Phuket to spread the ashes of a co-worker who had lost a two-year battle against cancer. Our friend was only 48-years-old. She taught us much about loving God and worshiping him for who he is in the midst of pain and suffering. She also loved the beaches and sunsets in Phuket and according to her wishes, we, along with her husband, were going to spread her ashes in the land which she cared for so deeply.
We arrived at the Sarasin bridge that connects Phuket Island at about the time the third wave of the tsunami hit. Little did we know what had happened in Sumatra, which is south of Phuket, only a few hours earlier. At 7 a.m., the most powerful earthquake to strike in more than forty years began deep under the Indian Ocean, 160 kilometers off the coast of Sumatra.
This 9.2 magnitude earthquake triggered massive tsunami waves that demolished entire villages and cities in a dozen countries, killing hundreds of thousands of people and displacing hundreds of thousands more from Indonesia and areas of Africa. No one will know how many actually died, but estimates say as many as 500,000 may have perished on that fateful day. One mass grave near the airport in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, contains 36,000 bodies.
Many building were destroyed in 2004 and 2005
With the tsunami, floods in China, landslides in South America and the earthquake in Pakistan causing some of the greatest loss of life in history, 2005 could easily be called the Year of Disaster. Hurricane Katrina and the hurricanes that followed are said to be the costliest natural disasters to ever impact the U.S.
These victims of all these disasters are people with names, with family, friends and neighbors that are still missing. They have lost homes, livelihoods and dreams. Many are still traumatized. Would you pause for a moment from reading this article and pray:
- that God will be with them;
- that he will walk with them through the dark valleys of death and of recovery;
- that he will be all that each one needs at this time; and
- that we will remember those who continue to serve.
These people are not “over” the disasters and some will never be able to move beyond the disasters for the rest of their lives. Even though the disasters may be long gone from media attention, many individuals and communities will never be the same. They are Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Animist, Christian and more. May God's love be real to them.
An Opportunity of Love
This has been an incredible opportunity for the body of Christ to love God and to love our neighbor. Doing this has been a powerful witness of self-less work, prayer and service. By rebuilding houses and boats, providing loans for new businesses and offering care and counseling, Christians have helped many get back on their feet.
Discipleship important in caring for others
Particularly in times of crisis, people need to see the gospel before they can hear its message. This thought was confirmed at a recent Micah Network consultation in Thailand which reflected on integral mission and what we have learned and are still learning from the tsunami. According to Dr. Melba Padilla Maggay, at least seventy percent of communication occurs non-verbally. She added that in some cultures up to ninety percent of communication occurs non-verbally. When there is a conflict between verbal and non-verbal communication, people usually believe the non-verbal.
An alliance of 2,600 Thai churches and more than twenty Christian relief and development agencies came together under the banner, “We Love Thailand” (WLT). Christian volunteers, governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and others responded immediately with much-needed relief items. Christians, however, did something many governments and larger organizations did not do.
After the victims had their basic relief needs met, many had a need to tell their story. A Christian witness occurred by spending time with the people, listening to their stories and entering into their pain, grief and suffering. Many wept, prayed and shared losses together. Today, many of these relationships continue. Christians have loved their neighbor by listening to and walking with those in need through each phase of relief, reconstruction and long-term recovery.
A Story from Thailand
A WLT driver found twenty-nine Muslim fishermen who had lost their boats (and thus, their livelihoods) standing near the end of the airport runway in Phuket. Although their village was inland and no one died in the tsunami, two months after the disaster no assistance had been offered to them. These fishermen had no way of earning a living.
However, with materials and tools supplied by WLT, the men began rebuilding twenty-nine larger boats. Each boat took a month to construct, and during this time there was an increasing measure of hope in each of the men.
I met with the fishermen four months after the tsunami hit and we talked about the fish they caught and the fishing methods they used. We talked about a future celebration when all of the boats would be finished and we would eat some of the fish they caught together. During each visit, I saw an ever-increasing hope of a different and productive future.
Rebuilding lives in Thailand
In November 2005, I and several others visited the seventy-plus WLT projects that were taking place in thirty Thai communities. When we went to visit the fishermen, we were excited to see that there were no boats on the beach. They were out fishing in the bay. Through an alliance of Christians who loved their neighbors, life after destruction and loss was returning to normal for these men and their families.
When the men had come in, we asked them if they had time to eat some fish with us. They said yes and we went to a Thai market where the head fisherman’s wife was selling the night's catch. We gathered the fish and headed to a local friend’s food stall to celebrate.
When we sat down to eat, the head fisherman asked, “What is WLT doing in Pakistan?” Recently a massive earthquake had destroyed many parts of the country. I told him that WLT was formed for work in Thailand after the tsunami. “Oh,” he said, with a little disappointment. “We have been watching the TV and the terrible earthquake in Pakistan. Some of us fishermen can build houses, too. We thought that if WLT were working in the Pakistan earthquake area, we could…help rebuild some houses that were destroyed.”
We were witnessing how the mustard seed of the kingdom had taken root in the hearts of Muslim men who had lost their livelihoods. They wanted to love their neighbor in the same way they had been loved. We had a relationship that was built on trust. Despite the fact that these fishermen were not doing as well as they had in the past (they had made their living selling fish to hotels and guesthouses and the area still has only a tenth of the usual amount of tourists), they still wanted to help.
A Story from Aceh
Ae was with her eleven-member family on the second floor of their home near the sea when they saw the wave coming. Seeing the graveness of the situation, Ae’s older brother said, “We can’t outrun the wave, so let’s gather around and we’ll all die together.” The siblings put their mother in the middle of the circle and stood with their arms around each other. The wave then struck.
Unable to swim, Ae was carried a kilometer and a half away. Amazingly, she survived. Ae woke up alone and noticed all the clothing was ripped from her body. To date, she has not found any of her twenty-five extended or immediate family members.
All the homes in the neighborhood were destroyed as well, so Ae gathered a few pieces of wood for a makeshift shack, which she piled at the top of five concrete steps, all that remained of her family home. The team will never forget the heartbreaking sight that greeted them when they arrived at her new “home.” Ae was on her hands and knees, cleaning those five steps.
They asked her what she was doing and Ae replied, “My mom and I used to clean these steps every day. We would talk together and watch the sunset. Cleaning them helps me to remember my mom.”
On Easter Sunday, we were in a village in Aceh that had twelve thousand people living there prior to the tsunami. After the tsunami only one hundred people remained. As we prayed in that village, we felt as though we were on holy ground.
How does God come near those like Ae who have lost everyone they love? What does the resurrection power of Christ look like for such a place as the village that lost more than eleven thousand people? Questions like these remind us that there are many challenges of faith in the midst of disaster. The following are four things we, as Christians, must do in times of crisis:
- Hold on to God when things seem impossible.
- Trust in God's character, that he is good, kind, loving and faithful to a thousand generations, even when one does not see it in present circumstances.
- Partner with others to multiply our efforts.
- Remember that when another crisis hits, we must love God and love our neighbor, for this is the gospel of Christ.
The nine of us who left for Phuket on 26 December 2004 were unable to spread our co-worker’s ashes due to the tsunami. However, in August 2005 we returned to an isolated Phuket beach, to an incredible sunset, to worship God, to remember a life well-lived and to mourn with all who had lost someone in the devastation.