Fifty Catholic volunteers went to Banda Aceh recently to build homes for tsunami-victims. Edwin Sim, a parishioner of the Church of St. Bernadette, writes about their experience.

IT SEEMED THE right thing to do when the email came in. "Advent housebuilding mission: one week of your time, one home for a family".

One of my closest friends had sent it to me. She and her husband were thinking of going. I hesitated, as usual, worried about how I was going to plan my work schedule around the trip, how to explain to my parents that I was going to Banda Aceh, whether my wife, Meng, wanted to join me for the trip, whether I would be able to ….. Yet it seemed the right thing to do.

For some time now, Meng and I had wanted to join a housebuilding mission but we could not find the time. This time around, going with the Archdiocesan Crisis Coordination Team (ACCT) had the added "angle" of spirituality. So Meng and I signed up.

We joined a team of 50 mostly Catholic volunteers led by Trip Leader Willie Cheng, and would undertake a week of backbreaking, foot-blistering construction work to help the survivors of the Dec 26, 2004 tsunami in a small fishing village called Tibang, in Banda Aceh, Indonesia.

The team ranged in age from 21 to 60, and was made up of people from all walks of life, including our Spiritual Director, Father Anselm Phang, and Dr Philip Choo, taking a break from running Tan Tock Seng Hospital to head up the trip's medical/emergency preparedness team.

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I had no idea what to expect before the trip. I just knew that I wanted to do more than just give money to the survivors. It helped that during a pre-trip briefing, Father Charles Sim, SJ, had prayed with the team and reminded everyone of the parable of the Good Samaritan and that it was not how much we could do but what we could be to the people there, i.e. be a good neighbour.

We wanted to be with the people of Tibang during the time close to the one-year anniversary of the disaster to let them know that they are not forgotten. We wanted, in our own simple way, to share our time and our hands and hearts with them. Father Colin Tan, SJ, and Father Chris Soh, SJ, also aided in the team's spiritual preparations.

And so with these intentions, together with lots of mosquito repellent and sun-block, the 50 of us set off on a cold wet Sunday morning for Aceh, with a few hours transit in Medan.

In Medan, we visited a Marian Shrine called Graha Maria Annai Velangkanni, inspired by a namesake Indian shrine noted for its healing of pilgrims and built with significant funds from Singapore Catholics. The uniqueness of this shrine lies in its Indo-Mogul architecture, in its ornaments anddisplay of colours done by amateur hands and above all in its Biblical content right up to parousia.

The shrine is run by Father James Bharataputra who warmly welcomed us and concelebrated a special English Mass with Father Anselm just for the team. This was also to be our last stop before we departed Medan for Singapore on the last day of our trip.

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Getting down to work

The ACCT team was divided into four groups, each of which chose an Indonesian name to embody their mission. Day two of the trip started with a briefing by the local worksite supervisors.

Cultural and religious sensitivity to the largely Islamic Tibang community was to be the order of the day. Other than that, we were told to follow the instructions of the foremen at the various work parish, the only Catholic church in Banda Aceh.

This was a beautiful old church also affected by the tsunami. Other notable highlights during the trip were the dedication ceremony and a trip to the worst tsunami hit region of Banda Aceh. The dedication ceremony saw the homeowner of one of the houses we worked on, receive a symbolic key from the team.

In his thank you address, he spoke of Tibang's appreciation of our help and most poignantly, he requested for mattresses, as it is one of the pressing needs of the community. Then he led everyone in a solemn and heartfelt prayer for the victims and the survivors. We could only imagine that they had been sleeping on, at best, cold concrete floors every night.

The journey to the tsunami-hit regions may have been the most emotional part of this trip. We saw a huge tanker resting about six kilometers away from the shore, brought in by the tsunami. We could only gasp as we imagined the sheer power and force which brought in the ship. On the shores where thousands of Acehnese used to bustle with their daily trades and chores, there were left only piles of rubble everywhere.

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As I reflected on the destructive force of the tsunami, I pondered how fragile life is. I felt very small and very sites and do what we could manage. The members of Harmoni (Harmony), Sehati (Togetherness), Aman (Safety) and Cinta (Love) soon found themselves lugging huge batu (rocks) onto wheel-barrows, hacking away old foundation to make way for new ones, digging trenches, mixing cement, twisting steel wires to construct beam supports, moving bricks and laying bricks.

Work was interrupted on certain days by torrential monsoon rains but everyone did their best to soldier on, as did the locals. Although the work was grueling and there was not much shelter from the elements, everyone was determined to do their best. Lighter moments came in the form of kopi breaks at a small makeshift roadside café run by an enterprising Indonesian man. Lunch was comprised of packed local meals.

All in all, simple fare that was hungrily wolfed down by everyone after a hard morning's work. Work usually ended at about 4pm and everyone would get back to either the volunteer guesthouse or Hotel Cakradonya to freshen up before meeting at the volunteer house for Mass, daily reflection and fellowship.

On one of those evenings, the team arranged to celebrate Mass at Hati Kudus (Sacred Heart) insignificant. I wondered why  God had let this tragedy happen. Someone in the group shared later that he saw the people who did not survive as martyrs for peace in Aceh, which had beensuffering from civil unrest prior to the tsunami. This certainly resonated as a peace deal between the separatists and the government - and indeed - prompted by the tsunami.

I could only trust that God, in his infinite wisdom, is in control of every situation and that his ways are mysterious to us.

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On the last day of the trip, we visited a local Catholic school, where we distributed many bags of toys and goodies collected from friends and other well-wishers in Singapore, for the children of Aceh. We were treated to a concert from the children who were clearly eager to show off their singing and dancing skills. Their bright smiles and cheerful laughter  belied their difficult surroundings.

Our Aceh mission was capped by an evening of trip reflection led by Father Anselm. We warmed up with a slideshow recap of the trip highlights, reflected on Scripture and moved on to a heartfelt group sharing on what this mission meant to us individually, our empathy for the Acehnese, and our remorse and  guilt at leaving them the next day.

Each of the 50 of us then lit a candle to form a shimmering cross symbolising our faith in Christ. Father Anselm then led us all in praying over and blessing each group in turn.

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A humbling experience

Despite a five-hour delay to our flight from Aceh to Medan, we made the most of it with more fellowship and interaction amongst our fellow trip members. When we finally landed at Changi Airport at 11pm, everyone departed with many hugs all around and promises to keep in touch and to meet up in the future. A week of hard work, sparse living conditions and heartfelt sharing helped everyone in the team bond with one another.

Personally, this trip had clearly given me back a lot more than what I had given. I came to better appreciate all the things I take for granted every day, like a hot shower and a good bed. I also gained what I believe to be many lifelong friends in the Catholic community. Most of all, I have new-found respect for the people of Aceh.

Their indomitable spirit in rising up from such devastation, gave me a lesson on perseverance in life which I will never learn from any school. I am both humbled and inspired. I will never see my personal struggles with the same myopic vision ever again.

Our Catholic volunteers shared a week of Advent with the Acehnese, building their homes and bonding with the locals. Right, they bear the letters 'ACCT', made from wooden planks as they pose for a shot on-location. 

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