A Samaritan's Purse team taps into the love for the sport to help Filipinos recover from Typhoon Haiyan.
Joe Benson is a video producer with Samaritan’s Purse. He traveled to the Philippines a week after Typhoon Haiyan to document the damage and relief efforts and recently went on a follow-up trip. He produced the video above.
August, 2014—With towers of smoke swelling into the gray skies, blank stares searched for anything salvageable in the piles of debris that crept into the damp streets. In the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, trauma seized the city of Tacloban, once a lively tropical getaway.
Amid the eerie silence, occasional sounds of life emerged. The bounce of a basketball and the clang of a rebar rim reverberated through the humid air. Friends laughed while they enjoyed a game.
It seemed so out of place and so right at the same time. I didn’t expect to find this as I slid back and forth in the bed of a pickup truck, swerving through the remains of Tacloban one week after the typhoon.
Filipinos love basketball the way Canadians love hockey. In the summers, children play all day and at the end of the workday, the adults take the courts into the night. Basketball is a constant. Every barangay has a public court, sometimes more than one.
It’s more than just a game. Life happens on the basketball court. Weddings, celebrations, meetings, festivals and memories occur there. After the typhoon, Samaritan’s Purse gave out food, tarps, building materials and of other emergency supplies— from basketball courts.
These days, they’re where healing is found.
As I looked at the scenes of destruction around me, I felt I had been thrust into a post-apocalyptic film. Instead of palm trees, there was a seemingly endless horizon of splintered stumps. How could anyone could ever recover from something so devastating. That’s what I asked several Filipinos.
“Faith in God,” many of them said, “and basketball helps.”
In the wake of one of the worst storms in recorded history, the immediate need for food, water and shelter combined with a need for basketball. After Typhoon Haiyan, Filipinos turned to basketball to ease their minds.
“Two days after the typhoon, I brought all the people of our barangay together and told them we need to clear off our basketball court and begin playing again,” said Nelson Montilla, chairman of the Tibak barangay. “We need the release.”
There comes a time where sport transcends mere pleasure and competition. Even on cracked courts with broken backboards and bent hoops, basketball liberates Filipinos from the horrors they’ve suffered, the demands of recovery, and the uncertainty of tomorrow.
“When we play, we can be happy again,” said Larry Pasacao, a member of the Samaritan’s Purse lumber production team and the basketball team.
Larry milled lumber at the Samaritan’s Purse warehouse in Santa Fe. At the height of production, close to 300 other Filipino nationals worked there as well. All of them were proud to be rebuilding their country, and several were a part of the Samaritan’s Purse basketball team as well.
Many of sports’ best clichÃ©s personified the lumber production team as they not only worked together to help rebuild homes but also bonded through basketball. The one that resonated most with me was, “Great teams come together in times of adversity.” From the youngest ages, Filipino children gather at the basketball court to watch games.
“Our team’s named Timberwolves because timber is a name for lumber and wolves… wolves just come from the forest,” said Marwin Elumba through a self-conscious, yet proud, smile. “I know it’s an NBA team, but I think it’s much better to [name our] team like that.”
A game, a distribution and a Bible lesson
Hundreds crowded the local barangay court to watch the Samaritan’s Purse Timberwolves play. Vendors sold tropical smoothies and popcorn. Fans adorned with faded basketball jerseys waved handmade signs and chanted for their team. This was the place to be on a Friday night.
It was also the place to be during the day when Samaritan’s Purse distributed shelter kits to hundreds who still needed to rebuild their homes. While the adults took their building materials home and began to work, the Timberwolves hosted a basketball clinic and Gospel presentation for the local children.
It played out like an Equip or an Upward practice would here in the U.S. While basketball lessons held the attention of hundreds of children without any distraction (which is a miracle in and of itself), they learned from the Bible.
“The shelter kits, the clean water, the food—its all so important,” said Paul DeSchiffart, the Samaritan’s Purse warehouse production manger and Timberwolves player. “It’s a critical way to help. But basketball is the way to their hearts.”
Paul worked for several months in various roles with the Samaritan’s Purse relief effort, and he saw God’s Spirit move when he met Filipinos on common ground.
“Filipinos are a resilient bunch,” he said. “They’re always smiling, even after the tragedies they’ve suffered. It’s amazing, but you know underneath it all, they’re still hurting. Those walls come down when you share a passion like basketball and meet them there. Real ministry can happen.”
Personally, basketball has been a passion of mine since I was a little kid in a Suns jersey rooting for Charles Barkley to end Michael Jordan’s reign of greatness. Yeah, I was that guy. The game bound me with friends and teammates, much in the same way I’m bound to my brothers and sisters in Christ. I know the power it has.
But basketball isn’t the savior of the world. It’s a platform, just like our work. To see doors open wider when our two cultures coincided in the Philippines was nothing I expected when I traveled there to cover our relief effort.
“We’re half a world away, but we have this one common thing of basketball and it’s helped us come together,” Paul said.