Reflection and Connection: Religious Celebration in Times of Crisis

In this piece, Olivia Wilkinson reflects on the implicit and explicit roles faith celebrations play in local responses to crises in the Philippines. Drawing on her research there, Wilkinson offers a compelling argument: despite misunderstandings, international humanitarian responses to crises should aim to more effectively engage with local religious ceremonies as part of their overall response. How this can be done effectively and sustainably in other contexts, particularly in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, is of key interest to the Refugee Hosts project. Over the next two months we will be exploring this theme further as part of our Faith and Displacement: Adopting a Theological Lens series.

Reflection and Connection: Religious Celebration in Times of Crisis

By Olivia Wilkinson, Trinity College Dublin 

As I sit down to write this post, I have just finished preparing for our Passover meal. My husband was brought up Jewish and this is the first time that we have hosted Passover for a group of friends. In my preparations, I have spent time reflecting on the story of Passover. This report of West African migrants traded in slave markets in Libya happened to come out on the first day of Passover; the suffering of the Israelites as slaves in Egypt has felt jarringly close to contemporary news of those enslaved in our modern world. Our Passover Seder brings us together to consider what we can learn from the Passover story, while also allowing us time for a community celebration. It provides a place for reflection and a place for connection.

This is also the period of Easter for Christians around the world – a time to come together with friends and family, but also a time to reflect on Jesus’ suffering on the cross and those suffering in the world now. I was in the Philippines for Holy Week in 2015, towards the end of my PhD fieldwork. For many, the arrival of Holy Week meant holidays and an important time to gather together with family members for celebrations. From a sociological perspective, I am drawn to the role of religion in gathering people together, in bringing us into collective experiences, of giving us time away from the everyday to think, and of reconnecting family members and friends.

As Passover and Easter remind us, it is the ideas of connection and reflection that underline the importance of religious celebration for people following trauma. Going back to my thoughts sparked by the story of Passover, we have a growing number of people in the world living through the traumatic experience of forced migration. Although my research in the Philippines was not on forced migration, but on the humanitarian response to Typhoon Haiyan, it also represents a traumatic experience for those affected from which we can gain insights about the place of festivals and ritual during and following crisis.

When speaking with those who had been affected by the typhoon, I heard the same thing time and again: their faith was important to them because a) it brought them personal, inner strength (their reflections on God’s love for them and their trust in God) and b) it brought their community together and encouraged them to help each other. Yet, there were occasions when actors in the international humanitarian system failed to understand the importance of this religious reflection and connection in celebrations.

I remember one Filipino staff member from a large international organization commenting on a misunderstanding about Christmas. The typhoon hit on 8 November 2013 and the run up to Christmas was still within the period of the emergency response. The staff member noted that while beneficiaries and Filipino staff were looking for different timelines that accommodated the Christmas period, some organizations tried to push through, operating as though Christmas was just an inconvenience to the emergency response.

This approach fails to take into account two points. Firstly, that many people affected by the typhoon started to recover immediately meaning that this continued sense of urgency, which couldn’t even stop for Christmas, simply didn’t make sense in some cases as organizations could scale back on emergency response and wait to engage in recovery. Secondly, that people do not lose their sense of place, culture, or, indeed, religious beliefs, because of a typhoon. Some may question their beliefs, but in all my focus groups (with 200+ people), I only met one person who said they felt abandoned by God entirely. In fact, most people said that their faith had intensified because they had relied on it so consistently for personal and community strength throughout the experience of the disaster.

This was not just any Christmas therefore. This was the Christmas after the typhoon. People wanted to show that they had recovered enough to continue with Christmas festivities both as a sign of normalcy and of celebration – again, to provide a space for reflection and connection after the devastation of the typhoon.

In a small town along the south shore of the island of Samar, I met a group who explained the situation in their community. They had had a concrete chapel before the typhoon, but it had been seriously damaged, with the roof blown away and the walls severely battered. As Christmas was coming, they came together quickly to provide a tent-like structure for this celebration – in fact, making sure they had a place to celebrate Christmas was a priority for the community in the month or so after the typhoon. The next large celebration that uses the chapel was their town fiesta in May. Again, with help from the community and local benefactors, they came together to build a wooden chapel, in front of their damaged concrete chapel. When I met them in the wooden chapel roughly a year later they were still working on bringing together the finances to repair their concrete chapel, but were using the wooden chapel for everything from weekly mass, to fiestas, and community meetings in the meantime.

While misunderstandings from international organizations existed, there were also many organizations – secular, faith-based, and somewhere in between – that included religious and spiritual elements in handover ceremonies. Organizations recognized that these were important parts of the ceremonies and meant something to their beneficiaries. Beneficiaries confirmed to me that these were important rituals for them when they received a new boat for fishing or moved into a new shelter, for example.

This is something of note for all organizations, not just the local or the faith-based. In a humanitarian system that places ever more emphasis on the “community”, “localization” and the “resilience” of people following disaster, I offer these examples as snapshots of the place for religious celebrations in our responses and what they offer for people have lived through traumatic experiences. It’s time we support these celebrations of connection, reflection, and, ultimately, hope.

Featured Image: Festive decerations for sale in the Philippines (Wiki Commons)

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