BAGANGA, Davao Oriental—The façade looks like a place of worship for antichrists—a leaning statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and a hanging, almost falling, inverted cross.
Inside the church, on an elevation are a fit-for-royalty chair, a vigil candle, a rostrum and the purple-curtained tabernacle. Looking up, one would see the blue sky and clouds—as the ceiling had parted.
These scenes have nothing to do with good versus evil but rather with the wrath of Typhoon “Pablo” coming down on the Sacred Heart of Jesus church in Barangay Lambajon here. Half of its roof was blown off. The walls cracked; some parts had collapsed. The pews, like debris, are scattered all around.
Yet the faithful continue to come. And they are expected to be there when parish priest Darwey Clark celebrates Mass on the first of nine mornings that Filipinos call Simbang Gabi on Sunday.
“They may have lost their homes, everything, but they don’t have to lose their faith,” Clark, 43, said of his decision to celebrate Mass despite the fact that the church is barely there.
“This is where we will hold it,” he said, pointing to the hallway, with tent as ceiling, just beside the ruined church.
The hallway is filled with people, lining up for medicines and treatment being offered by volunteers of the private organization Operation Smile. People sat on pews as they waited for their names to be called—some needed paracetamol, antitetanus shots and treatment for more-than-a-week-old wounds.
It has been almost two weeks since Pablo struck this town but little help has arrived, thanks to a collapsed bridge that isolated it from the municipalities of Boston and Cateel.
“I was supposed to say Mass today (Friday) but the medical volunteers arrived. This (medical mission) is more urgent,” Clark said.
It was also on Friday that donated rice came in. In the middle of the open-air church, men repacked the grain but there is not enough for the village’s 7,000 residents.
“Please tell them (residents) to wait, we expect more help to arrive in the coming days,” Clark told the men as they leave to deliver the prepacked rice to Purok Dos, one of the 28 sub-villages in Lambajon.
But Clark said the situation is getting better.
“Immediately after Pablo hit us, people were down. You can see the pain in their faces. I myself could not afford to smile. Two or three days later, people were already smiling. That’s when I decided to say Mass,” he said.
Last Sunday, Clark celebrated Mass, not expecting people would come. They did.
Giving till it hurts
“During the offertory, I did not expect them to give anything since there was nothing to give but they still did. Somebody had found the sibot (collection bag) among the debris and passed it around,” he said.
But the Lambajon parish priest of two years should not have been surprised of the Lambajonons’ selflessness. When the first batch of relief goods arrived, some residents, after lining up under the scorching heat of the sun, went to the church and gave him his “share”—a pack of rice, noodles and canned goods.
“I was so touched,” he told the Inquirer.
So, in his homily during last Sunday’s Mass, Clark told his parishioners that despite what had happened, there were still reasons to be happy.
“Only three persons were killed by fallen trees here. We showed community spirit by helping each other. We pull strength from each other. And, we learned we have hidden talents,” he said, adding that some residents were forced to do carpentry to rebuild their homes.
Life after Pablo
“From nipa huts, they now have multicolored roofs,” said Clark now smiling, referring to the recycled GI sheets that residents use for their new homes.
Clark said life after Pablo would have been easy for him. “I could have stayed at the Clergy House (also known as Bishop’s House in Mati City) but I could not. I owe it to the people of Lambajon,” he said.
“The residents of Lambajon are very religious,” he added.
Clark was right.
Parishioner Emma Castillon, 39, said even if the church had been destroyed, she will continue hearing Mass, especially with the start of Simbang Gabi at dawn Sunday.
“Nakatagilid man sya, naandyan pa rin si Hesus (Jesus may be leaning but He’s still there),” Castillon said as she looked up at the bent Sacred Heart of Jesus statue above the entrance of the church.
This year’s Simbang Gabi in Lambajon would definitely be different. There will be no pealing of the bells. There will be no hour-long “wake-up” Christmas songs playing on loud speakers prior to the Mass.
“We still don’t have electricity. Besides, the speakers were broken beyond repair,” Clark said.
Where sunrise is first seen
To make up for the continued power outage, Simbang Gabi here will be held at 5 a.m. instead of the customary predawn Mass. It will be celebrated as the sun rises. Baganga is the next town to Caraga, where the sunrise is first seen in the country.
For Jing-Jing Panawayan, owner of a sari-sari store in front of the church, not having electricity during Mass or the lack of a beautiful church to go to is not important.
“Wala na ang simbahan pero naandyan ang tao, naandyan ang pari, naandyan ang Diyos (The church may be gone but the people are there, the priest is there, God is there),” she said.