A Gift From God
News | April 13, 2017 by Tzu Chi USA
The 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Ecuador on April 16, 2016, left many coastal communities in rubble, the small beach town of Canoa among them. Here, just a few miles from the epicenter of the earthquake, nearly 90% of the buildings were destroyed, leaving most of the population of approximately 5,000 instantly homeless.
Among those in this dire circumstance, were the Catholic nuns of the order of Franciscanas de Maria Auxiliadora (Missionary Sisters of Mary Help of Christians) whose church and residence were destroyed.
“It was something that nobody expected to have lost, in the blink of an eye.”
Even months later, the four nuns from Canoa still feel the pain of their loss since the church where the community they served could congregate was the very heart of their life.
“Everything still feels fresh to me, and it all impacts me in a very emotional way.”
Although they prayed, their hope of rebuilding the church and grounds was weak since so many people are still in desperate need of help and only limited resources are available.
“The archdiocese does not have enough resources for everyone. All this belongs to the archdiocese and they do not have enough to help us rebuild.”
The Missionary Sisters of Mary are present in 12 countries in the world, where they serve local communities with love and devotion in any way they can. What they hardly expected was that Master Cheng Yen - a Buddhist nun following the same compassionate vow of helping people - would answer their prayers through our volunteers.
During our disaster relief mission following the earthquake, we brought the Cash-For-Relief program to Canoa and local residents joined to clean up their town. When Master Cheng Yen learned of the plight of the Catholic nuns here, her heart was touched, fully aware of their dedication to uplifting others while sacrificing their own needs. And, she was determined to help them by rebuilding the town’s spiritual home.
On March 9, 2017, the plans for Tzu Chi’s rebuilding of the church and grounds were revealed at a groundbreaking ceremony in Canoa, where the entire community assembled. The nuns, still living under difficult conditions nearly a year after the earthquake, were overjoyed that the rebuilding project had manifested.
“It is a dream come true for us after the earthquake. Being homeless, without a church, without catechetical rooms. And, as we have always said, ‘At the end of the tunnel you always see a light.’ I think God blessed us with this … with this offer they have made to us.”
The nuns were especially moved by Master Cheng Yen’s decision to begin Tzu Chi’s long-term aid with this rebuilding project, and by the choice of a church as the first building to go up.
“You could have just said: ‘We are going to build houses, we will help people, and then we will organize other things.’ But no, you saw that the most important thing to us, that would help us the most, was to lift up the material temple to God. Suddenly, we felt a great wave of spiritual relief.”
The nuns deeply share Master’s vision about why a church is of such central importance in any community, as a place that brings people together, that nourishes hope, and sustains faith when the road ahead demands great effort.
“Our people and our community are very happy. We find God everywhere, but it is true that we need a place specifically to pray and praise God.”
Indeed, a sacred space is so much more than just a building: It’s a place that can inspire us to bring out the purest part of our human nature, lighting the way for social harmony.
“The rebuilding of our church, yes, it is a material house, but it is also a symbol … it is rebuilding the church that is within each of us, the temple that is each of us, united.”
The four nuns were moved when they discovered the thread of commonality between Buddhism and Christianity, that a root aspiration is shared by both faiths.
“I was reading a little about [Master Cheng Yen’s] teachings [about] feeling compassion for people. I think that brings us together, feeling compassion and helping people.”
The dedication of Tzu Chi volunteers was also something that touched the nuns’ hearts, as they recognized its ability to motivate others and create a chain effect of love.
“With that earnestness that they have shown us, that effort to want to help our people … it motivates one to move forward. I think they are just like this presence that helps people get up despite the pain they still carry. This is called hope and it must be kept alive … people are motivated by it. It motivates me personally, it really motivates me. I think those folks who have spent some time with the volunteers, are also motivated by this great gesture, one that is so noble and so charitable”
The groundbreaking ceremony itself was a source of inspiration that created an interfaith bond.
“I was able to experience the love of God between both of our spiritual organizations which I consider to be related to each other like brothers, because love is the one that unites and conquers everything. No matter what religion, no matter what race or skin color, regardless of any differences, Tzu Chi carries on with a great love for humanity, and it is something inexplicable.”
Embracing this message of universal love and commonality in the human condition is as critical today, as always - if we examine the trajectory of intolerance of difference throughout history. There is another path, but we must follow our hearts and choose to embrace it.
“Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to share and coexist with those from another group of people.”
The nuns are filled with gratitude that they wish to express to Master Cheng Yen, in whom they recognize the qualities of Christian saints.
“Who was Saint Francis of Assisi? How long ago did he live? 1,200 years ago! A man seemingly poor, small, and illiterate, and look how he has inspired, and we are benefitting from 1,200 years of inspiration. I think that this woman is a saint. And when she dies, I think that they will worship her as a saint, because the saints are those that really inspire.”
“She will always be in our minds and our hearts.”
“I would really like to tell her, ‘May God bless you and continue to give you life and good health.’ We really are grateful for this help that we have been given and that we will continue to receive.”
“It’s a gift from God.”
Please support our Disaster Relief mission, which serves those in distress after catastrophes around the globe. We stand by our commitment to be among the first to arrive and the last to leave after a disaster, providing emergency, mid-term, and long-term aid as need be.
To learn more about what’s happening in Ecuador a year after the earthquake of 2016, watch our documentary series Rebuilding With Faith.