MARCH 06, 2005, Vol 55, No 05

Gilbert Lau, a forensic pathologist and co-leader of the Christian Meditation group at the Holy Spirit Church, went to Thailand as a member of the Singapore disaster identification team formed following the December 26 tsunami. He found that experience life changing. This is an edited version of his reflection.ON NEW YEAR'S EVE, I left for the Thai island resort of Phuket as a member of the initial Singapore disaster victim identification (DVI) team formed after the December 26 tsunami.

My task, as a forensic pathologist, was to examine some of the thousands of decomposed bodies of the deceased victims for clues which might lead to their identification. We were assigned to a disaster site in Khao Lak, north of Phuket, where we worked under exceptional physical conditions.

(There) I beheld death with a poignancy and intimacy I never had in the past.

It may well be assumed that the vast majority of the deceased were innocent victims of a natural calamity which took practically everyone by surprise and destroyed the property and livelihood of, probably, at least as many survivors.

Many have since asked, with obvious and understandable indignation, agitation or cynicism, "Where was God when this happened?"

I can only say from my own experience that the God whom Christians believe in loved all humanity quite literally unto death and resurrection, is one who can and does make good come out of evil. I do not say that suffering and death, especially seemingly undeserved suffering and death, are good in themselves. But I have no doubt that good can arise from the very rubble of what appears to be horrific and unmitigated evil.

Our God is, indeed, an ineffable God. Our God is utter mystery and his ways are totally mysterious.

In the midst of such overwhelming devastation, I witnessed an immense and spontaneous outpouring of human generosity and goodwill. There was no shortage of volunteers; massive donations of cash, supplies and equipment materialised in a short time. The multifarious acts of human kindness, expressed in the humanitarian relief efforts, (and) to the identification of the dead and their proper disposal.

Consequently, by participating in the DVI process, I was pleasantly rewarded by a personal experience of the numinous in myriad practical ways. All this has only served to restore my faith in the essential goodness of humanity. In an altogether mysterious way, it has confirmed my growing awareness that, in life, what really matters is the seemingly small, often unnoticed and frequently neglected acts of kindness, as well as a fundamental openness to the truth about ourselves.

While the recent tsunami disaster has unequivocally emphasised the brevity of human life and the precariousness of human existence in a most stark manner, it has also taught me the importance of living my life a day at a time, a moment at a time.

At long last, what had, for a long time, resided in the remote recesses of my mind, has finally begun to take root in my heart.

Before I embarked on this journey, I intuited that it would be a life-changing experience for me. I was not disappointed, for it has been precisely that and much more.

I am finally beginning to realise what it means to "trust in the Lord".

The past five years have been a particularly difficult time in my life. For a long time, I felt as if God had unjustly been denying me the satisfaction of success.

I now know that much of this resentment was really unfounded for in God's time, I have been blessed with the sure knowledge of his presence in my life and his profound love for me. I have encountered him in the midst of suffering, death and disaster, and have allowed him to enwrap me in his warm embrace.

I now see that joy and peace, pain and sorrow, success and failure, suffering in all its forms, even death, must be embraced whole-heartedly and without reserve, if I am to live fully. Providentially (it simply could not have been otherwise), over that same period of time and up to the present, I have been using a bookmark which bears a quotation from the Book of Proverbs. It runs thus:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,

And lean not on your own understanding.

In all your ways acknowledge him,

And he shall make your paths straight. Proverbs 3: 5, 6

In all this, I take inspiration from a prayer attributed to the late John Henry Cardinal Newman. By God's grace, I have adopted it as my own. Let me share it with you.

Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom;

Lead thou me on!

The night is dark, and I am far from home;

Lead thou me on!

Keep thou my feet, I do not ask to see the distant scene;

One step enough for me. n

SINGAPORE - Amputations done in Banda Aceh were often not done properly. We saw people in Medan who had to be re-amputated, so that the stump of their leg could be fitted correctly with a prosthetic limb," recalled Samantha Teng, a nurse who went on a tsunami relief mission to Medan Jan 12 to 16 with a group of 10 Catholics from Singapore.The group comprised of priests and lay volunteers from the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) and the Missionaries of Charity. Medan was the logistical centre for many relief operations in Sumatra. Many Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from Banda Aceh and Meulaboh, the towns worst hit by the Dec 26 tsunami last year, were evacuated to Medan to receive medical and other assistance. Some of the volunteers made reconnaissance trips to these towns to better assess the needs of the devastated populations there.

The group arrived in Medan bearing money, medicine, stationery and food requested by the JRS office in Medan and by Father Joseph Due, a local diocesan priest and the main coordinator for aid bound for Aceh.

Many IDPs from Banda Aceh were housed in the Jalan Metal refugee camp in Medan. Here, between 2,000 and 3,000 tsunami survivors received three meals a day, as well as medical care and financial assistance. The camp also had a database for missing children and family members. JRS Medan informed the Singapore volunteers that the organisation was trying to reach out to towns near Banda Aceh, like Calang and Lum No. Despite having 5,000 and 16,000 refugees respectively, Calang and Lum No had received little aid due to the lack of media attention.The volunteers found the situation to be more desperate in Meulaboh and Banda Aceh. From Medan, Jesuit Father Colin Tan, Country Director of JRS Singapore, got a ride on a Singapore Armed Forces Chinook to Meulaboh. JRS volunteer Vicky Quek and a JRS Medan staff travelled some 15 hours by public bus to Banda Aceh, where they witnessed appalling living conditions in refugee camps. The other team members, Father Joachim Chang, assistant parish priest at the Church of St Bernadette in Singapore and nurse Samantha stayed on in Medan.

At Meulaboh, Father Colin experienced the overwhelming stench and sight of death and observed that "90% of town was destroyed." Miraculously, the JRS office remained intact in Meulaboh, as did a Catholic church and a mosque in Banda Aceh.

Vicky Quek remembered the long smoke-filled and bone-rattling bus ride to Banda Aceh. The loaded bus drove through two-feet high flood waters and finally broke down at the border of Aceh where she boarded another bus and finally arrived at the capital two hours later.

"The heat and stench in the refugee camp was overpowering," said Vicky. "Imagine, about a thousand refugees sharing four makeshift toilets. It was unthinkable that these people who have lost their loved ones, homes and livelihood were now going through another hell.…". Vicky reported her findings at the Civilian Military Aid Conference (CMAC) when she returned to Medan. The Indonesian authorities held a daily CMAC, providing updates on all the relief work being undertaken by the various international and local NGOs. The CMACs, with the emphasis on the pooling of information, were a good way of discovering what else had to be done for the tsunami victims.

Father Joachim Chang was impressed that there was "no politics" - everyone "just wanted to help, like a family working together," the world community pulling together for the sake of entire communities torn apart.

The JRS teams found that IDPs from the areas worst hit by the tidal waves still required relief aid; paediatric doctors, orthopedic and plastic surgeons were particularly in short supply. More than a month after the quake, plans for the reconstruction of infrastructure, transportation and telecoms are also beginning to be put in action.

Father Colin said that JRS is looking to start "livelihood projects" to help the tsunami survivors who are now "rebuilding their lives from absolutely nothing."

JRS Aceh has provided help to IDPs since 2001, and over the years, has become their trusted friend who supports them with emergency relief, income generating activities, accompaniment and protection, advocacy and pastoral care and counselling.

While media interest in the tsunami disaster has waned considerably, JRS ground staff in Aceh, Medan, Meluaboh will continue its mission of providing help to the most needy by focusing its relief programmes to tsunami victims living in the remote areas, the poorest families and the most needy villages.

Projects include emergency relief, medication, health and sanitation, education and trauma healing especially for children.

For information on JRS work, call 6463 6022 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

ChinaeraSINGAPORE - Have you ever thought of being a missionary? You can actually be one without leaving home by making a commitment to pray each day for missions, just like St Therese of Lisieux, the patroness of missions, who never left the Carmelite Convent. You can begin with Chinaera, an initiative of the Institute for World Evangelisation - ICPE Mission to promote effective evangelisation in China.

Through its 31 day Faces of China prayer calendar, Chinaera, introduces the various people groups of China and their needs for our prayers. ChinaeraThis calendar can be used by individuals or groups and can begin any time of the year.

In addition to praying for the peoples of China, you too, can join with St Therese in adopting a priest or seminarian in China as your spiritual brother offering a commitment of prayer and fast of one meal once a week for the support of this brother and ministry.

This is a simple response to join with the church's vision that "just as in the first millennium the cross was planted on the soil of Europe, and in the second on that of the Americas and Africa, we can pray that in the Third Christian Millennium a great harvest of faith will be reaped in this vast and vital continent". Contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call Esther Fong at 91873802 for a copy of the Faces of China prayer calendar and further information. Visit www.icpe.org for information on the Institute for World Evangelisation-ICPE Mission.

Tsunami iconSINGAPORE - An icon specially written by the Eastern Orthodox Church to commemorate the Asian tsunami will be exhibited for the first time in Singapore.

This new icon, called Our Saviour of the Tsunami, was finished in January 2005 by a monk of Mount Athos in Greece. It is part of an exhibition of a collection of 30 icons of the Eastern Orthodox Church, from Greece, Rumania, India and Indonesia.Tsunami iconThe exhibition is jointly organized by Mr Andreas Goros, the Honorary Consul of Greece, with the Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church of Singapore. It will be held from March 10 to March 12, 2005 at Red Sea Gallery, 232 River Valley Road. Entry is free. Orthodox Church Archbishop Nikitas of Hong Kong and South East Asia, who will open the exhibition, said "This new icon shows how this ancient art form can commemorate current events. These objects (icons) are a window into a culture and a view of the universe expressed in a manner that goes back to the early Christian church nearly two thousand years ago."

The Orthodox community of the Holy Resurrection in Singapore is part of the Metropolitanate of Hong Kong and South East Asia, under the spiritual jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I. The local community currently comprises roughly 30 families - half of them Singaporean - and is slowly growing. Very Rev Archimandrite Daniel, himself a convert to Orthodoxy, is the first Orthodox priest to reside in Singapore.