Religion helps Vanuatuans through cyclone shock

 Celine Jimmy prayed three times before running out of a clubhouse into the darkness to a family home as Cyclone Pam roared through her village in Vanuatu, her four children close by her side.

Port Vila: Celine Jimmy prayed three times before running out of a clubhouse into the darkness to a family home as Cyclone Pam roared through her village in Vanuatu, her four children close by her side.

"The trees were falling down and we jumped over them," Jimmy, 42, told AFP in Saama village some 76 kilometres (47 miles) north of the capital Port Vila, of her race to move to a building with more shelter.

"The next morning, we thanked God because he protected us."

More than a week after the maximum category five storm destroyed the crops she grew to feed her family, Jimmy`s neighbour Glenes Lulu is also praying, asking God for rain to help seeds grow and so she can have clean water to drink.

Religion is important in Vanuatu, whose population is largely Christian, with the majority Protestants and about 12 percent Catholic. 

There are also so-called cargo cults, which mostly sprang up during World War II, when hundreds of thousands of American troops poured into the islands, bringing supplies.

Most have fizzled out although the John Frum movement on Tanna island, badly-hit by the cyclone, continues to have a significant following, with believers expecting the mythical Frum to return bearing loads of cargo from America.

Tanna is also home to the Prince Philip Movement, which reveres Queen Elizabeth II`s husband, worshipping him as a divine being.

Since the cyclone hit on March 13 -- affecting about half of Vanuatu`s 267,000-strong population, according to the United Nations -- faith-based organisations have joined humanitarian agencies in rushing to the Pacific nation to help.In Saama, Christianity plays a central role in the village`s activities. 

Two small, unfinished concrete churches -- one Presbyterian and the other Assemblies of God -- stand out between the wooden and metal sheeting homes, painstakingly built slab by slab over several years from villagers` donations.

Standing beside the Assemblies of God church, which had been under construction for two years but collapsed during the storm, Pastor Jimmy Obas looked exhausted but struck a positive note.

"I`m thinking about what sermons I should preach on how to help them," the 52-year-old said.

His wife, Leah Obas, has already decided what to tell the children who attend her Sunday school church classes.

"I will tell them that God cared for them," she said. "We did not have anyone lose their lives. None of us died."

The death toll from the tempest, according to the UN, is currently 16, although the government insists it is only 11. 

Despite the low number of deaths, the government and aid agencies have warned of a food crisis, with many people fast running out of crops to eat and fresh drinking water sources.

Large packages of food, water and other basic supplies are being brought into the country, with planes, helicopters and ships mobilised to deliver them to the far flung islands of the archipelago.

But for some villages such as Saama that have yet to receive any government aid, support has come through donations from other churches or individual Christians.

One batch of food came from a visiting Australian psychiatrist, Colin Kable, who has been supporting the village`s school set up by a Christian organisation several years ago. 

Kable arrived at Saama Saturday with more than 50 kilogrammes of rice, mineral water, canned tuna, medical supplies and balloons for the children.

Watching the food being distributed, Euan Chuck, 49, said he had been attending the daily 7pm devotion in the Presbyterian church`s old building to pray for other villages across the islands.

"We pray for them -- we are just the same. Everyone needs something," he said.

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