By Karl MALAKUNAS
Returning to their destroyed village after a catastrophic typhoon that killed thousands in the Philippines last year, a weary band of Catholics vowed a lifelong sacrifice to thank God for saving them.
They had walked through the streets of their hometown for three consecutive days before the storm with icons in hand while praying and asking the Lord to spare them from the looming disaster.
Although giant ocean surges that swept through their coastal village destroyed many homes, and some of the most powerful winds recorded on land tore roofs off others, all of the roughly 3,500 residents of Opong survived.
The devotees’ ensuing vow was to perform a religious procession similar to their pre-typhoon marches at least twice a week for the rest of their lives.
“We want to thank the Lord for giving us a second chance at life. We want to thank Him for giving us the strength of our faith,” says Elsie Indi, a mother-of-four, who is one of the regular members of the procession.
Indi, 42, her invalid husband and four children fled their home just after dawn on November 8 as knee-deep water rushed in, racing ahead of the torrent to a rice paddy at the base of a mountain about one kilometre away.
They, along with many other residents of Opong, sheltered in the muddy field for about six hours, waiting for the storm surges to recede into the Pacific Ocean and the intense rain to pass.
During that time, the typhoon killed or left missing about 8,000 people in towns and cities of the central Philippines near Opong, making it the country’s deadliest storm on record.
“Everyone in Opong survived, we can thank God for that,” Indi says.
During the most chaotic and desperate period immediately after the typhoon, some of the residents of Opong held their processions twice a day. The procession, involving anywhere from a few people to more than 20, took more than an hour.
“After being saved, we had to make some sacrifices. The procession is one form of sacrifice,” says primary school teacher Virginia Piedad, 47, adding that they continue their hour-long marches every Wednesday and Saturday with the same Jesus statues in their arms until they died.
But despite the relentless giving of thanks, life for Indi and many others in Opong often feels like an abyss of anxiety and exhaustion.
She estimates it would cost more than 150,000 pesos (Bt108,000) to repair her house, an impossible amount when her work as a market vendor brings in most of her family’s only income.
Indi borrowed she 15,000 pesos from a local lender to reopen her stall after Haiyan, with an interest rate of 33 per cent over the term of the six-month loan adding to almost unbearable financial pressure.
But she insists she and the other residents of Opong are fortunate simply to be alive, and that was reason enough to continue with their religious procession.
“We are thankful... and it gives us comfort,” she says.