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When a common goal casts aside entrenched differences

In the Philippines, 'inter-religious collaboration' has become an important factor in responding to calamities
When a common goal casts aside entrenched differences

Members of faith-based organizations deliver relief goods to families affected by a landslide in the hinterlands of San Marcelino town in the northern Philippines on May 24. (Photo by Mark Saludes)

Published: May 31, 2019 04:32 AM GMT
Updated: May 31, 2019 04:39 AM GMT

Thousands of people fled their homes when a volcano in the Philippine province of Albay erupted in 2018, turning day into night as ashes blocked out sunlight.

Families sought shelter in schools that were turned into makeshift evacuation camps. Food was scarce and there were children and elderly who needed immediate medical assistance.

Aid agencies had less than a week to get all their resources ready.

Among the first to arrive at the evacuation centers were faith-based groups that focused on humanitarian aid in Legazpi Diocese.

Father Rex Paul Arjano, the diocese’s social action director, said the local Church has already developed a response mechanism that can be activated in the quickest possible time.

The priest said every parish-based social action center should be aware that the "most pressing issue" during the first days of a humanitarian crisis is "how to survive with a limited food supply."

"We have teams of lay people who can be deployed in times of emergencies to prepare relief packs, conduct rapid assessments, and perform ground operations," said Father Arjano.

Collaboration on the ground

"Inter-religious collaboration" with other faith-based groups has also become an important factor during emergencies.

Father Arjano said there is "no single formula" in making partnerships, "but when you open your organization to collaboration, you must set aside any differences."

During the January 2018 volcanic eruption, Legazpi Diocese entered into partnership with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, informally known as the LDS Church, or Mormons.

"We have to move quickly. And to move quickly, we have to have ground partners," said George Kenneth Lee, project manager of LDS Charities.

Lee said his group did not have enough people to distribute aid. "We need another organization to do it for us ... so we tapped those who are already on the ground," he said.

LDS Charities provides clean water, food, vision care, immunization, maternal and child-care, and wheelchairs for people with disabilities.

The collaboration between the Catholic diocese and LDS Charities started with the sharing of information, especially data from the ground.

"Relevant information allows us to identify what kind of aid we must bring to the community," said Lee. "We brought in support and the Catholic Church delivered them to people," he said.

Members of the Aeta tribal community in the northern Philippine province of Zambales receive relief goods on May 24. Among the most affected people during disasters are those living in hinterland tribal communities. (Photo by Mark Saludes)


Setting aside differences

Both Lee and Father Arjano said that during times of disasters, differences among faith-based groups are set aside.

"They do not think of scriptures or who is greater because we don’t preach while extending aid," said Lee. "We are here to help. That is the mission," he said.

Father Arjano said faith-based groups aim to ease the suffering of the poor. "To extend mercy and compassion is not a subject of a debate," he said.

Once ignored, faith-based groups have now become "emerging actors" in the field of humanitarian work.

On May 24, a network of church-based groups carried out a "relief operation" to aid tribal communities affected by a landslide in the northern Philippines.

Volunteers from Protestant and Evangelical Churches came together to distribute food packs, and nobody talked about religion.

Pastor Conrado Manuel Mangalindan Jr. of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines said the church is there "to accompany the poor in their struggle and suffering."

"Our presence tells them that they are not alone. We make ourselves available because it is our mandate to serve the needy," he said.

Bishop Rex Reyes of the Philippine Episcopal Church said humanitarian work "transcends or knows no political or faith distinction."

He said humanitarian work does not only provide food and medicine to those in need but also ensures the "protection and restoration of human dignity."

The Protestant bishop said faith-based groups must "put the people at the center of humanitarian work" and "ensure that human dignity is at the core of the endeavor."

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