On the long drive to Hagnaya Port, from which we were to catch a ferry to Bantayan Island, Fr Mark shared with us an anecdote that another Jesuit had shared with him. A Filipino town was considered to have “made it” when branches of three establishments had opened in the town – an SM Department Store, a Mercury Drug Store and a Jollibee fast food outlet.
The department store and fast food outlet have yet to reach the shores of Bantayan. Yet this was the precise charm of the place, a pristine oasis of about 110 square kilometers and about a 4-hour journey away from Cebu City. An hour-long ferry from Hagnaya Port, about a 3-hour drive from Cebu City is the main port-of-entry to the island. Home to about 135,000 people, the main economic activities on the island are fishing and poultry, as evidenced by the many chicken farms on the island. It is also an increasingly popular resort destination.
Together with Fr Mark, Fr Gil and two other Jesuit candidates, we travelled to Bantayan for a week-long mission trip. Much changed on the island following the 2013 Typhoon Yolanda, which caused severe damage to many parts of the island. It was a chance for us to contribute in a very small way to the rebuilding of their lives.
Our main mission was to paint several of the houses which had been newly built with funding from CHARIS Singapore, in cooperation with Jesuit Mission Singapore and the Tanging Yaman Foundation in Manila. It was a simple task if not for the fact that most of us in the group had never painted before. After three days of painting, our small team was able to complete 7 houses in two different areas.
However, we did more than just merely painting, and a major part of our trip also was about understanding how Yolanda had affected the people in Bantayan. On one of the afternoons, we paid a visit to some 20 families who had benefited from the rebuilt houses donated by CHARIS, and we were moved by how their spirit remained strong despite all they had gone through, and how they were filled with gratitude for the houses they now had.
Personally hearing and seeing their stories of the people – a child suffering from bad skin rash, a father suffering from cancer, a mother who had lost her husband to illness and who was now running a convenience store out of her home to support herself and her children made real the struggles of the people. We were glad to see that 50 houses had been completed. Although the project sponsored a fixed design, most of the families had taken ownership of the project and built their own extensions in the form of extra rooms or covered kitchens, for example, and some had also painted the houses on their own, one even in a bright green hue.
In addition, our group also participated in other activities together with the local community. On Tuesday, Fr Mark and Fr Gil, together with Fr Roy Bucag, parish priest of Santo Nino Catholic Church, concelebrated the Flores de Mayo mass for children at the church. We also helped to pack hundreds of stationery sets, donated by various donors from the community, meant for children who were about to begin a new school year.
The trip was also an opportunity for spiritual renewal for us, and the tranquil and peaceful environment at Kota Beach provided for an ideal place for reflection and for rest. We took time each day for daily mass, as well as sharings and reflections on our experiences during the trip. These added meaning to our work and allowed us to learn from one another on how God has been present during the trip.
After a short 6 days in Bantayan, we left with a heavy heart, sad to be leaving not just the beautiful island, but also the many friends we had made there. Our contributions to the people in Bantayan is perhaps but miniscule, but in many ways our time on the island was a source of great peace and of great encouragement in our faith lives, seeing the piety and devotion of people who lead far simpler lives than ours. As Fr Mark shared during the trip, these all were merely numbers prior to our visit to the Philippines – only dollar amounts of financial aid, a number of houses being built communicated in the many emails sent between Singapore and the Philippines and numbers of people affected by the typhoon. This trip was about turning the focus from those numbers to that of the people, whose lives have been deeply affected and changed by the typhoon. Even if we had done only a little to change Bantayan, it was truly Bantayan that had changed us for the better.
We were glad to be able to make a small contribution to the project, a project not about 100 houses or the amount of money it cost to build them, but a project about the people who live in them and their families.
Bantayan Island, Philippines
24th – 31st May 2015