Monday, November 18, 2013

Reflecting, Praying, & Believing

Stained glass window of the Paoay Church before the earthquake.

In November, the question, "What are you thankful for?" can quickly turn cliche.  It's everywhere, from social networks, retail merchandising, ads in the newspaper and on television, to the little known celebration marking the end of the month.  But ironically, with that question saturating our everyday, many of us can lose sight of it.  It's so constant that we forget that it's even there - that there can be a far greater meaning behind the question, beyond pleasantries and politeness.  An unexpected event, whether fortunate or tragic, often serves to take away our blinders and bring a more expansive view of the world into focus.

And the disasters in the Philippines have done that for me - bringing not only the world around me into view, but also my world within, and how it all fits together so delicately.

Less than two months ago, I was there.  Marveling at the wonders of it all - new to my senses, but comforting and familiar to my DNA.  I pictured myself living there, being with "my people," regardless of the fact that most of them would never believe that I was Filipino based on my looks and height.  There was a sense of arrival, of being in the right place at the right time, and a feeling of affirmation, pride, and connection.  It was my third visit to the Philippines, and while all were special in their own way, this one felt particularly so.  Particularly vivid.

Upon returning, when people would ask me how my trip was, all I could say was, "Amazing.  Exactly what I needed."  And while I could have elaborated further and talked their ear off, that was really all I needed and wanted to say.  I was changed for the better, and I was not the only one who felt it.

The wondrous Chocolate Hills of Bohol at sunset.

Baclayon Church, over 2 centuries old, before the quake destroyed it.

Dancing the tinikling on the shores of the Loboc River in Bohol.

View from the ferry as we approached Bohol from Cebu.

So hearing about the 7.2 earthquake a few weeks ago, I felt a wrench within my gut.  Bohol, the island at the epicenter, was one of the highlights of my last visit.  Largely protected from industry and development, its beauty verged on indescribable at times.  So green, lush, and peaceful.  While I tried not to take too many pictures, doing my best to take everything in first hand, there were times when I couldn't help it - the photos would not just be for me, but for those who may never see it in person.  Looking back, I realized that most of my photos were taken in Bohol, and they suddenly became valuable in a way that felt very grave.

Unfortunately, the wrench in my gut would remain, as news of a super typhoon descending on the Philippines began to be whispered on the internet and in small talk.  When I say "whisper," I really mean it - I heard about it the day before it made landfall and even my parents didn't know what I was talking about when I called them in a panic.  Touted as perhaps the largest and potentially most destructive typhoon to ever make landfall, I began spreading the word, enlisting prayers, lit candles, and good thoughts from anyone willing to offer them.

At first, news was fairly silent.  Yes, there was destruction - decimated cities, barges pushed into the middle of cities riding storm surges up to two stories high, forests flattened.  But it wasn't until the second day and the days to follow until now that we would learn of the death toll, beginning modestly in the hundreds, but ballooning within hours to tens of thousands.

I had to make myself look up the photos, not because I wanted to see them, but because I had to.  This is my people suffering, grieving, and surviving.  This is my homeland ravaged, destroyed, and crying out for help.  And though all my family and friends survived, for which I could not be more thankful, the immense sadness in me continued to grow.  Because though I am here physically in the States, I am there in heart and spirit.  Connected.

My sister, mother, and I before the wedding.

My father wearing the traditional barong tagalog.

The Basilica Minore del Sto. Niño in Cebu pre-quake.

Over the last few days, so many people, many who I would not expect it from, have asked about my family and have expressed their sympathies.  And while it hurts to talk about it, it's also comforting - knowing that this disaster is not just happening "over there."  This is real to other people, not just Filipinos, not just those of us with family or friends in the Philippines.   All over the city, all over the nation, all over the world - help is on the way, both physically and spiritually.

So when I am confronted with the question now, "What are you thankful for?,"  my answer is sincere and heartfelt.  I am thankful that I was in the Philippines just before these disasters, so I can reflect on what was once there.  In my photos, and in my mind, the beauty of those churches, those cities, and the people, can be shared and live on.  I am thankful for the power of prayer, that like the flutter of a butterfly's wings, the simple words and thoughts of a single person can multiply and grow in strength to be felt by hundreds and thousands.  And I am thankful for faith, and knowing that from darkness stems the greatest potential for light to guide our way so we may see each other with compassion and truth.

May you find the same opportunity to find gratitude in the blessing of every day and every moment.

Scarecrows in a rice paddy in Bohol, flashing by at the speed of life.


  1. Beautiful pictures, Jonathan. They lend such a richness to your story. Many blessings to you and your family.

  2. People have been asking about our family, calling, sending letters, telling us that they are praying for us and our loved ones. When speaking face to face it does hurt and hard not to cry when talking about it, but it is good to know that people truly care. It is also wonderful to see how our cousins, relatives and others banding together to volunteer, making, sending relief packages to the badly hit regions. The people are strong and resilient and they will make it through. I know that they can feel our love and support from across the seas and continents. Mahal kita, Pilipinas.

    1. Sometimes the ugliest tragedies can give way to the most profound acts of kindness, compassion, and unconditional love, ading.

  3. What a beautiful reflection. Thank you for sharing.

    1. You're welcome. Thank You for reading and allowing me the opportunity to share.

  4. This is wonderful, thank you for writing it. I remembered reading some things you had written previously about your family being from here, so I came to see if you had shared about the devastation there. I'm glad to read that your family is safe. My prayers and thoughts remain with all those who are there, and who are helping.

    1. Thank You, Caneel - I am quite happy to hear from you! Your prayers and thoughts are appreciated and felt.

  5. I remember your posts at this time because they reflected my own panic when things happen back home, half a world away with me stuck here trying to figure it all out because news comes to me in bits and pieces. I truly believe there is a purpose to us being somewhere right before devastation hits, whether we are tied to it or not. I haven't quite figured out the purpose yet. One day.


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All the Best,

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