Healing Through Basketball

August 15, 2014 • Philippines

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.

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, the occasional sounds of life emerged from the bounce of a basketball. 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.

Healing Through Basketball

After Typhoon Haiyan, Filipinos turned to basketball to ease their minds.

Filipinos love basketball. Like football reigns in the U.S., basketball is king in the Philippines. 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 offers a public court, sometimes more than one.

Life, not just games, 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 other emergency supplies on basketball courts. Now it’s where healing is found.

As I looked around at the scenes of destruction, I felt like I had been thrust into a post-apocalyptic film. Instead of palm trees, there now was a seemingly endless horizon of splintered stumps. I wondered how anyone could ever recover from something so devastating. I asked several Filipinos that question.

“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 was met with a need for basketball.

“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.”

Healing Through Basketball

From the youngest ages, Filipino children gather at the basketball court to watch games.

This is a time where sport transcends mere pleasure and competition. On the cracked courts with broken backboards and bent hoops, each game liberates its players 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 Filipino national staff worked there as well. All of them were proud to be rebuilding their country, and several of them were a part of the Samaritan’s Purse basketball team as well.

Many of sports’ best clichés personified the lumber production team as they’ve 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.”

“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.”

Healing Through Basketball

After work, the Samaritan’s Purse Timberwolves take to the court for some fun amidst the long, hard days.

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 member of the Timberwolves. “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.

Healing Through Basketball

Basketball provides an opportunity for Samaritan’s Purse to share God’s Word.

“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.