MAGUINDANAO DEL NORTE, Philippines – At a distance, darkness covers the landslide area, the foot of Mount Minandar where the tragic landslide that claimed more than two dozen lives took place in late October.
The cone-shaped mountain has been covered by fog, glistened only by the shimmering stars above and the glow of the last-quarter moon.
In the foreground was electric light reflected by a newly-built shanty that serves as a chapel for the Episcopal Christian faithful.
While ground zero still has eerie surroundings, songs of worship broke the silence and emanated from an adjacent corner at 4 am during the Misa de Gallo (Midnight Mass), a gathering of around 70 members of the Episcopal Church.
The churchgoers were mostly members of the Teduray indigenous people’s group in the predominantly Muslim town of Datu Odin Sinsuat in Maguindanao del Norte.
During the gathering, Christmas songs filled the air as the sea breeze from a few meters away calmly slapped the shoreline while crickets kept buzzing from everywhere.
Despite the community’s misfortunes, the morning mood was a bit Christmassy on December 19, a day for the village’s Misa de Gallo.
It was not as happy because many of the villagers died in the tragedy brought about by Severe Tropical Storm Paeng (Nalgae) in late October.
The old chapel, now gone, was just around 200 meters from where the shanty was erected.
“Faith is something we have not lost, and we are thankful that even after what happened, we are still here and able to worship,” said Daisy Fering, one of the landslide survivors.
Fering lost a grandson during the disaster, and she was recovering from injuries she suffered after being swallowed by the mud.
Around 26 innocent souls were buried in the sloping ground, and four remained missing as of this posting.
Episcopal lay minister Melita Unting, who led the church service, said, “Even though we are poor, our faith has remained strong. Whatever happens, we will be resilient and see to it that we will be able to hold a church service.”
When the landslide during the onslaught of Paeng struck the community, many of the villagers rushed to higher ground and sought refuge in the old chapel, clueless that their sacred ground was going to take a direct hit. The chapel was wrecked by boulders and everything, and everyone in it was swept away and buried in mud.
Teary-eyed, Fering recalled that fateful night: “We called on God, our Lord, to help us. While we were struggling for life, we were praying and asking God to save us.”
She said what she missed were other church members and fellow Lumad who attended the same Misa de Gallo in their community a year ago.
“We had shown our love for each other and shared. They are no longer here,” Fering told Rappler.
While the church service was ongoing, a couple living near the makeshift chapel prepared some suman, a traditional Christmas rice or cassava cake in coconut milk wrapped and steamed in banana leaves.
The couple, whose house was spared in October, also prepared kettles of boiling water from their wood-fired kitchen for the native coffee that they served to churchgoers for free after the church service.
“We may have lost some of our members but the spirit of love and sharing is still in our hearts, especially during Christmas. This will continue, and this Christmas, may we remember those who died,” Fering said.
That same day, Fering left the Kusiong Elementary School where she and her family had been sheltered since the devastation in October. They moved to a relocation site that was identified by the local government and environmental officials. – Rappler.com