It is a distance that seems even longer when family members are in the path of one of the strongest storms in recorded history.
Fr. Albert Sescon will guide his parishioners at St. Therese of Lisieux Catholic Church over the next two weekends as they participate in the Diocese of Knoxville’s fundraising efforts to assist the people of the Philippines who were ravaged last weekend by the forces of Typhoon Haiyan.
It is not only a mission of the church for Sescon. It is far more personal.
Although he is assigned to pastor the Cleveland church, Sescon is also a priest of the Catholic Archdiocese of Cabu and has watched from afar while in prayer for friends, neighbors and family.
“They need food, water, medicine, everything,” Sescon said. “They are crying for help because almost the whole Philippine island was devastated.”
Getting the help there has been made difficult because of the lack of transportation venues available to accept deliveries of supplies.
“If you fly, the airports are destroyed and you cannot land,” he said. “The airport in Tacloban is for military only. People are trying to get into a military plane to get out of the city. Some are still clinging to the city to find their friends or family.”
Hearing the initial reports and seeing early pictures of the storm’s wrath made Sescon anxious and worried.
Those feelings were intensified knowing his sister was there.
“The whole subdivision where she lived was wiped out,” Sescon said.
He said two days before the typhoon hit, he advised his sister to move into a hotel.
“She went to the downtown area to find the hotel was fully booked,” he said. “So I told her to find one on the outskirts of the city.”
When she found a hotel with a vacancy there were no rooms available on the first floor.
“It was a blessing, because when the typhoon came the first floor was flooded to the ceiling,” Sescon said.
The flooding caused those on the main floor to move to the second floor. According to Sescon, it also caused occupants of the upper floors to move down because the storm had blown the roof away.
“They stayed there soaking wet for two days,” he said.
Sescon said several days went by without any communication from her.
“I was worried and really in agony,” he said.
He called his brothers on the other side of the island and asked them to find their sister, but there was the problem of the crippled transportation system to overcome.
“So, they walked 50 miles and it took them almost two days with all the rubble and trees down,” Sescon said.
There were also dead bodies in the streets strewn along the way.
“They went directly to the subdivision not knowing she was at the hotel,” Sescon said. “Luckily someone was asked if they know my sister and they did. They said she was at her house. They went to the house and she was there.”
Sescon’s brother found their sister had left the hotel and journeyed back to survey the remains of her neighborhood.
“It’s kind of a miracle, the whole subdivision was wiped out. Only her house was standing. Not even her roof was blown [off]. The house next to hers was a bigger house, and it was destroyed.”
Sescon said it was a happy occasion to find his sister safe and he asked his brothers to take the family back to their place.
“I have now heard where my brothers’ place has no more food, no electricity and no water. The whole island is crying out for gas, food and everything,” he said.
Despite being a man of faith, Sescon said it was difficult contemplating what might have happened to his family as he watched coverage of the typhoon.
“It’s horrible. The first time I heard the village was wiped out I just thought, ‘They’re dead. They’re dead.’ What could I do here? I just prayed that we could find the body,” Sescon said.
“I said to myself I would rather think they were dead so that if they were alive I would be happy. If I am thinking they’re alive and they’re dead, I would be very sad. I just waited for the Lord,” he said.
Sescon said he knew worrying would not be a help in the situation.
“I just prayed and prayed that whatever happened I was ready to accept the will of God and that my brothers and sisters would be ready. That’s all I prayed for, because we do not own life,” he said.
Sescon later learned the hotel his sister had been in had been totally destroyed.
He said neither his sister nor his brothers were injured from their ordeal.
“Not even a single cut,” he said.
Sescon said people will have to search themselves concerning giving to the relief effort.
“I just want them to see the pictures and let their conscience work,” he said. “Help comes from the heart. Yes, there are people in need here. But there are people who need more than what those need.
“I told my nephew he always has complaints about his problems,” Sescon said. “I told him to look at their problems. ‘You should be thankful for your problem. Would you rather have their problem?’”
Donations received at St. Therese of Lisieux will be distributed by Catholic Relief Services.
Sescon said donating funds helps provide relief much quicker.
“The Filipino community within the Diocese has been giving funds,” he said. “There is one who has gone back home, because she can buy the supplies there and knows better how to deliver the needed goods.”
A survey of the denominations who serve the Cleveland area show most of them are participating in some way to provide relief to the Philippines.