BOOK REVIEW: Seeing the emergence of a new kind of chaplaincy in the Philippines

Book title: DESPERATELY SEEKING GOD’S SAVING ACTION: Yolanda Survivors’ Hopes Beyond Heartbreaking Lamentations. Author: Karl Gaspar, CSsR.
Publisher: Institute of Spirituality in Asia (ISA), Quezon City, 2014, 361pp

Try taking in that long title. It’s like battling wave after ferocious wave –desperately, seeking, heartbreaking, lamentations. It is after all a book about surviving cyclonic winds, storm surge, post-traumatic stress. One simply manages to grab floaters to hang on to –God. Saving. Survivors. Hopes. Beyond.

Karl Gaspar’s latest book grew out of his direct involvement as leader of the Redemptorist congregation’s response to the ravages of Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan). For a country visited by an average of two typhoons a month and with the increasing frequency and ferocity of the new normal, the book is unreservedly welcome. First of all, there is a dearth of literature on the topic. Not since the early 1990s when the National Council of Churches in the Philippines published two slim but informative volumes by Stefan and Erika Kramer has a religious entity published anything on disaster mitigation and response.

Unlike the Kramers’ books which focus on the technical aspects of disaster risk management, Gaspar documents not only survivor narratives but also the politics of aid delivery and survivor perceptions. He pulls together a critique of dole-outs, the privileges of aid agencies, and the “unspoken competition” among them in the face of the slow, disorganized and ultimately frustrating fumbling of state agencies.

The critique is important, but this is not what will make Desperately Seeking distinctive. Confronted by “a completely new context of mission,” Gaspar argues for the inclusion of anthropological discourse and political ecology into the psycho-social-spiritual integration (PSSI) that is finding its way into disaster response in the Philippines. After all, the task of the general mission that Gaspar was coordinating on behalf of the Redemptorists was “to be present…to accompany those who are grieving and healing.” This is at the conscious heart of the book.

Arriving in Tacloban in January, weeks after the typhoon hit, he is struck by the large number of bodies that lie under the debris, the stories of ghosts –and importantly the dismay and sadness that accompanies the disposal (or lack of it) of cadavers. He is after all an anthropologist and theologian who sees human relationships where others would see health and safety protocols. Advocating a move beyond the modernist approaches as reflected in the Tacloban Declaration of June 2014, Gaspar emphasizes, using multiple illustrations, a “far cry from our indigenous world view with its many cosmologies Filipinos of various ethno-linguistic groups throughout the archipelago have always dealt with the spirit world embedded in nature. “

In this harsh though liminal space, Gaspar and some 100 volunteers spread out to talk with survivors knowing it would open up a new direction for the congregation. Instead of despair in a wrathful, helpless or absent God, they heard in the communities affirmations of belief in a “living God as Protector and Benevolent Provider.” A chapter describes how honest and caring liturgies honor the lives of worshippers and connects them to God, to one another and to the world. In the appendix is a Via Crucis, the Stations of the Cross, adapted to the suffering of those who survived Yolanda. Together with an evaluation and recommendations, It presents a model of how faith-based groups could carry out their work, not as bleeding hearts but as professional pastoral carers.

About a fourth of the book (95 pages) is Gaspar’s journal, providing the field notes of disaster response. This exercise in mindfulness (and theological reflection!) constitutes part of good practice so easily neglected even by social scientists and chaplains under extreme pressure.

In Desperately Seeking, Gaspar demonstrates that ethical conduct for anyone involved in disaster response goes beyond transparency in the use of funds and even adherence to humanitarian aid standards, both of which are essential. It includes setting boundaries in competence, professionalism, and self-care for aid workers. The sub-text is: We are not your saviors, but you can trust us to walk alongside you. We’d like to learn how to prepare, to respond better, and to care for the carers.

Through the book we see the emergence of a new kind of chaplaincy in the Philippines. It would make good sense for theological seminaries and colleges of social work to include the book in their required reading list. It would make valuable if technocrats in disaster management take it also to heart.

Almost immediately after his work ended in Tacloban in April, Gaspar assumed the position of Dean of the Redemptorists’ seminary. It is a feat and a testimony to this new ethic that this book went to press just six months later.

[Ma. Sophia Lizares managed the Indian Ocean tsunami response in Sri Lanka and Indonesia as Asia Executive Secretary of the United Evangelical Mission (UEM) from 2005-2008. She drafted the UEM’s policy paper on disaster preparedness and response and has qualifications in Sociology and Theology]