A version of this article was published in the South Bend Tribune on Nov. 23, 2013.
As I turn on the water for my shower, I hear a radio interview with a Philippine typhoon survivor talk about their desperate need for water; clean, disease-free water. The kind of water so critical to life. The kind of water I use to bathe my body and nourish my lawn.
It’s been hard to listen to radio reports about the typhoon devastation in the Philippines and the stark human need it has produced. It’s been even harder seeing the images on my television screen. I see anguish and fear on faces that are so familiar; faces from the country I grew to love during my years of service in the late 80’s. I see faces that look so much like my two sons who are native to this amazing country and I imagine them in the midst of this devastation and desperation. I see familiar-looking faces of mothers who know all too well what this may mean for her children. The younger ones are especially vulnerable to the effects of either dehydration or one of the many diseases carried by the readily available, but dirty water.
Water. There are so many ways that it is a part of our lives. All of us. All around the world. Water connects us all; both because of our shared need for it and our shared reality of being surrounded by it. It’s not too much of a stretch to think that a small amount of that water that flooded those islands may have touched the shores of my country sometime during my lifetime. And maybe, sometime in our ancient history, perhaps even flowed beneath the soil on which live. I think about the abundant, disease-free water I use many times a day without a second thought, and what that would mean to the families and communities on those devastated Philippine islands, some who won’t receive it in time.
A “water moment” flashes through my mind as I shower. It was over 20 years ago, but the image is fresh and clear, the feelings easily accessed. I was on a human rights fact-finding team on one of those islands. We had hiked for hours up and down mountain paths under a scorching sun and I was thirstier than I had ever been in my life. Our team’s water supply long since depleted, we were completely dehydrated and utterly exhausted. Witnessing deserted, burned-out villages, one after another, had drained us emotionally as well. Para-military groups had visited these villages, looting them then burning the nipa-hut homes to the ground, scattering their inhabitants into the hinterlands for safety. The same kind of hinterlands that provided no safety when the monster typhoon came through last week.
We had seen no water, dirt-filled or clean, during our long trek. We saw no people either – village after village was deserted. Then, when I thought I could go no further, she appeared. Where did she come from? We had no idea but I can still picture her ancient, clear eyes and her gnarled fingers curled around a battered oil can. In that can, she carried water. Precious, life-giving water, and we eyed it lustfully.
She could see our desperation and she held out that priceless can without hesitation. When I finally got my turn, I drank deeply of that water, feeling relief in every part of my parched body; feeling like life itself was returning to my limbs and organs. The water analogy Jesus used when he said, “I am the water of life” makes more sense to me now. Indeed it felt like my physical, and even my emotional life was returning. My need had been met by a woman who had nothing but the clothes on her back, and an oil can filled with life-giving water that she freely shared. She had given me strength for the long hike back. Indeed, she had given me a glimpse of Jesus.
I am suddenly jarred back into the present. I had run the shower water much longer than I needed to and I grimaced at the irony of that. No, I can’t transport any of this precious water to those desperate Philippine families any more than I can transport my warm, dry, spacious house to replace their destroyed ones. How, then, can I be helpful? What can I do about the current, overwhelming needs on those islands? And, more broadly, what do I do with this reality; the reality of my abundant riches compared to their wrenching scarcity ? A reality that was present even before the typhoon, but compounded by it.
There are no easy answers to either question. I can give money. Certainly the Philippines needs financial support to heal and rebuild. I know that I must be wise in my giving because this disaster, like many other things in life, provides the temptation for some to exploit the needs and make easy money. I also know that I can afford to give more than I’ve given so far. So I make the commitment to continue giving, even as I have been given to.
The second question is even more difficult and it’s tempting to throw up my hands in helplessness; the justice gap is too big to have my puny efforts matter. But it does matter, I know that it matters.
So I offer four simple responses, not answers, but beginning responses.
1. I can be way more generous with my money. Even with a significant debt, I am wealthy beyond the imagination of the 1.1 billion (yes – billion) people in the world who live on less than a dollar a day. May I never forget my privilege.
2. I can get involved in addressing climate change with both support and advocacy to those in power, as well as living sustainably myself. This is urgent for all of us, but especially for those in developing countries who bear the brunt of weather-related disasters even though they have not been the main contributors to climate change. Nor do they have the infrastructure or resources to withstand the disasters when they occur.
3. I have other choices about how to live my life. The cliché, “Live simply so that others may simply live,” holds truth beyond my understanding. I can choose to take some steps away from the pull of consumerism (even on Black Friday). I can refuse to submit to the god of many things.
4. I can open my eyes to the needs right around me, whether they are physical, social, spiritual or emotional. There have been many times in my life when I have thought I could go no further, and someone has appeared, holding out some precious, holy water. I can return that gift. I can stretch out my hands and open my heart to share life-giving water to those in need within my reach.
It may feel like these small contributions to the enormous problems of our community, our country and our world don’t really matter; can’t really matter. But they do.
Carolyn Schrock-Shenk is an associate professor of peace, justice and conflict studies at Goshen College. She spent three years serving in the Philippines in the 1980s with Mennonite Central Committee.