Q&A: Capital area minister’s latest mission is Typhoon Haiyan relief

Through the years, the Rev. Jeanie Shaw, pastor of River Valley Church in Rancho Cordova, has devoted herself to helping disaster victims across the country and the world. As part of the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance national response team, she ministered to the families of the 19 firefighters killed by wildfire this summer outside Prescott, Ariz. After Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast – and earlier, after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans – she deployed with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to those zones of destruction, as well.

Now, in the midst of a 10-day mission that’s separate from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance efforts, she’s on the ground in the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, the powerful storm that left almost 6,000 dead and thousands more missing. With her daughter – 23-year-old Keele Shaw Connelly, a recent Santa Clara University graduate who plans to do graduate work in disaster relief – and a group of three other volunteers from the Bay Area, Shaw is helping what she calls “the poorest of the poor,” the people of the hard-hit city of Tacloban who have been left without homes and livelihoods. All they have left, Shaw said by cellphone from Tacloban, is hope.

Other much-needed relief efforts in the Philippines are focusing on providing medical help and food. What is the focus of your mission?

We’re going to the poorest of the poor and giving them the things they need to rebuild their homes. Solar flashlights. Tools. It’s a fishing community. We brought nails specific to boat building.

We are bringing livelihood goods for the poor. We’re bringing solar chargers for phones, so people who have lost their homes and jobs can charge customers 10 pesos an hour to recharge their phones. We’re hopefully enabling people to have job skills.

There’s no unemployment insurance in the Philippines. When the jobs are gone, there’s no money coming in.

When did your interest in relief work begin?

I worked with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, and I did earthquake relief in Peru. They call me “the disaster pastor.” My church teams have rebuilt houses in Joplin (Missouri) and Nashville after the tornadoes there. We’re leading two trips this coming spring to rebuild houses in Jamaica, New York, that were destroyed by Hurricane Sandy.

The mission of our church is mission.

Does the magnitude of need in Tacloban surprise you?

I’ve been many places where there have been terrible disasters, but this is indescribable.

This is where my voice will break. People here have many typhoons every year, and usually they’re Category 2 or 3 storms. With Typhoon Haiyan, they hunkered down for an ordinary typhoon. The evacuation centers were schools and hospitals, many right by the ocean. All of these people died when the 40-foot wall of water came through. Whole families were killed.

This morning, I was with a family in a village. They live in just indescribable poverty. When the water came through, they had their three children cling to a wall. Their 10-month-old baby fell into the water. I was helping the mother and father dig through the rubble to find their baby.

The stories sound heart-wrenching.

One local nurse who’s helping us lives in a boardinghouse with three other women. As the water rose, it reached up to their necks. They had to decide whether to stay where they were or go onto the roof, where 200 mph winds were sending debris through the air like missiles, or they could leave the house and be caught in the tide sending people out to sea.

They stayed where they were, thank God, and the water subsided after it reached their chins.

What’s it like on the ground there now?

As far as you can see, everything has been destroyed. On the new buildings, the mall and hospital and schools, the rebar is bent like licorice twisted into knives. The roofs are blown off buildings.

On every street, the debris rises like snowdrifts. Graduation photos are in the mud next to car tires and children’s shoes. SUVs were lifted up and thrown into the living rooms of beautiful homes.

Those who were poor lost everything but their faith and their hope.

Where are you staying?

We’re staying on the floor of a professor of agriculture here. She’s a friend of the man from Hayward who put this strike team together. Her family has taken in the neighbors and us. There are probably 22 people staying in this one house.

We have the highest grade of water purification you can get, and there are water stations all over the city. But there’s no running water and no electricity. Electrical workers are trying to get some electricity restored by Christmas Eve, but in other parts of Tacloban, they’re saying it will take two more months.

Why do you feel called to do relief work?

I believe this is what Jesus Christ called us to do, to be with those who are most in need. Any time I can help someone in Sacramento understand what a gift it is to help someone in direct need, it’s a privilege.

Is there one last thing people should know about your trip?

I’m here because of the generosity of my congregation. It’s a generous congregation that allows its pastor to leave during the Advent season. I’m here because of them.