The sun burned hot in Tacloban, Philippines, on March 21 as more than 9,000 people poured into Leyte Sports Development Center for the opening night of the Greater Tacloban Celebration of Life with Will Graham.
Following music that had the audience on their feet and waving their hands, Graham took the stage in the waning light to share a poignant message of brokenness and grief, as well as the hope that can only be found in Jesus.
“I want you to know that God still has a plan and a purpose for you,” Will Graham said. “God has not forgotten about you.”
Having toured the typhoon-damaged city prior to the start of the Celebration, Graham had seen reminders of the disastrous 2013 storm.
“Your city looks like it’s being rebuilt after Typhoon Yolanda, but in your heart you’re struggling,” he said. “God wants to come into your life tonight and make you whole. God wants to give you joy and purpose and peace. Despite your circumstances, God wants to work in your life tonight.”
When Will Graham invited the audience to begin a relationship with Jesus, hundreds of people flowed forward in response. Many trained counselors ministered personally to multiple people in order to cover the mass of inquirers, answering their questions about Jesus and praying with them as they began a new life in Christ.
Responding to Crisis
In November 2013, punishing winds lashed the coastal Philippines town of Tacloban as Super Typhoon Yolanda (also called Typhoon Haiyan) began to bear down. The people of the community braced themselves, waiting for the gales to subside.
They were not expecting the tidal surge. They feared the wind, not the water, but it was the ocean spilling over the land that changed the area forever.
“It was almost like a tsunami really, and it wiped out the whole city, not just Tacloban but the surrounding areas as well,” said Joe Kim, Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s (BGEA’s) resident director who is helping to oversee the ministry’s efforts in the community.
“It really took a direct hit, and a lot of people were displaced,” Kim said. “We’re a year-and-a-half out and they still have thousands of people unaccounted for.”
Thousands confirmed dead. Thousands more missing. Utter hopelessness, and all in one of the Philippines’ poorest cities.
Franklin Graham, president of both BGEA and the Christian relief organization Samaritan’s Purse, called for an immediate response after the typhoon hit. Samaritan’s Purse has been involved in rebuilding Tacloban ever since, providing everything from construction materials to potable water.
Franklin Graham personally visited the area immediately following his evangelistic Festival in Chiang Mai, Thailand, the same month the typhoon struck.
At the same time the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association was already planning a Will Graham Celebration on the neighboring island of Cebu.
The regional efforts of the two organizations, along with the passion of local Christian leaders who desired to share hope with their struggling community, ultimately resulted in the Greater Tacloban Celebration of Life with Will Graham.
The event was scheduled for March 2015, just a few days before the events already scheduled to take place in Cebu.
After the Storm
Joe Kim still remembers his first visit to Tacloban last June, seven months after the destructive and deadly typhoon claimed the lives and property of so many.
“I remember driving from the airport,” Kim said. “On the way to the hotel there’s a venue called the Astrodome, and half of its roof was gone. I was surprised that the building was still standing.”
“If you were to drive a little east, there’s a huge commercial boat that had been swept into the roads, sitting in the middle of a squatter area where they were setting up houses,” Kim continued. “Words just can’t explain it, but it tells you the sheer force of the water. A lot of people have gone through a horrific tragedy.”
Now in March 2015, one can still see remnants of the storm and areas that will never look the same, but the people of Tacloban are settling into a “new normal.” As Kim put it, “they’re getting back to living again.”
Before taking the stage to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ in Tacloban on March 21, evangelist Will Graham spoke with local pastors about the recovery efforts.
“There’s been a lot of change in this city,” Graham said. “I’ve been told that there’s physical and economic recovery, and the land is beginning to produce again. But the pastors have said that there hasn’t been spiritual recovery. Deep down the people are still hurting and searching.”
Searching for Hope
The Filipino people are known around the world for their smiles and their happy dispositions, but there’s been a sadness behind the smiles as the horror of those dark days in November 2013—and the accompanying loss of family members and security—have haunted them.
Many are actively searching for hope in a world that has been torn apart with death and decay.
“In all of my travels, in every culture and country, the desires of the heart are the same,” Will Graham said. “People want to know that they have a purpose. They want to know that life has meaning. They want to have hope in this world, and hope for eternity.
“The people in this city have been through something that is almost unbearable. With so much pain, there’s literally nothing that I can offer to make a dent in their suffering. But Jesus has so much to offer: peace, love, hope and purpose. All I can give them is Him.”
According to Kim, hope is one of the greatest desires of the people in Tacloban.
“When we talked to the local pastors and community here, they really felt that due to the devastation they’ve gone through with Super Typhoon Yolanda they were in need of help and desperate,” Kim said. “They needed to cling to something, and I think it came at the right time with the Cebu Celebration of Life.
“In dealing with not just the churches but the general public here in Tacloban—everybody that I talk to and tell them about the Celebration of Life—whenever the word hope is mentioned, their faces just light up. You can tell that they’re wanting this hope.”
The second and final night of the Greater Tacloban Celebration of Life will take place on Sunday, March 22. Following that meeting, Will Graham will travel to neighboring Cebu for the Cebu Celebration of Life, March 27-29.