Last November the strongest typhoon ever recorded slammed into the southern islands of the Philippines, with winds reaching 195 miles per hour. The storm caused more than 6,000 deaths (a thousand people are still missing) and 27,000 injuries, many of them bone fractures caused by collapsing buildings and flying debris.
Hurricanes and typhoons, earthquakes, violence in Syria and Nigeria, a missing Malaysian airplane, wildfires, floods, droughts—the tragedies keep on coming, relentlessly. And wherever they occur a volunteer army from private and government agencies deploys to rebuild houses, treat the injured, comfort families, and bring a measure of hope. “Look for the helpers” was the advice a young Fred Rogers (Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood) got from his mother whenever tragedy struck nearby—good advice for all ages.
I recently heard from Craig and Margaret Sutherland, two close friends who work in the Philippines, who had just returned from one of the areas most affected by last year’s typhoon. They saw miles and miles of fallen coconut trees scattered like toothpicks along the ground. Entire villages were simply missing. Many of the four million who lost their homes were still living under plastic shelters, four months later.
The Sutherlands distributed 300 filters to help purify water and keep down disease. They handed out a hundred copies of the British edition of my latest book, The Question That Never Goes Away, a title that seems all too apt in such a setting. And they put individual faces to the tragedy.
- One missionary couple, an Australian married to a Filipina, cried out, “Why, God?” many times during the past few months. They were huddling in their house along with their teenage son when the storm blew the roof off, causing major damage to their computers, generator, and many of their books and belongings. The church, student center, and school where they worked were all destroyed. Two toilets sitting in a field marked what had once been a bathhouse.
- An engineer had the best view of the typhoon as it swept in. He was sitting at his post atop a weather tower on the highest hill, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Windows blew out, his desk hurtled across the floor, and a co-worker had to cut a hole in the wall to rescue him.
- The Sutherlands came across a priest at a pile of rubble that used to be a beautiful 16th-century church. As Margaret reports, “He looked at me with sad eyes and asked me to sit down next to him. He was so discouraged because the people were angry with him since he had not permitted them to take shelter in the church. Good thing, because the walls and roof fell and would have killed many. I was able to comfort him and pray for him.”
During the past two weeks, whenever I turned on CNN I would hear endless speculation about what might have happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Like vultures, the media circle every tragedy these days, which may be one reason they seem so relentless and overwhelming. As I read my friends’ report on the efforts of the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, and many other agencies still hard at work in the Philippines, I could only wish for similar attention for those who follow in tragedies’ wake, the helpers who bring comfort, hope, and practical help.