Church's 'Servant boat' brings aid to thousands of islanders impacted by Cyclone Amphan

Aid workers with the Believers Eastern Church distribute relief items to residents of Kankandighi island in West Bengal impacted by Cyclone Amphan in June 2020. | Believers Eastern Church

A charity boat operated by a network of over 12,000 churches in Asia has provided humanitarian support to thousands of people impacted by Super Cyclone Amphan, a Category 5 storm that forced millions of people in Eastern India and Bangladesh to evacuate their homes last month.

In the wake of the storm that lasted from May 16 to May 21, thousands of families are suffering from the loss of their homes and need food and humanitarian aid.

Believers Eastern Church, a Christian denomination that says it has nearly 4 million members in 16 countries planted by the United States-based missions organization Gospel for Asia, has come to the aid of many who live on the Sundarbans cluster of islands in the Bay of Bengal. The region was already battling a health and hunger crisis amid the coronavirus pandemic before Amphan made landfall. 

“Remember in America, we had this unforgettable hurricane in Lousiana, Katrina. Of course, [another] in Houston, Texas, [Harvey]. When you take a country like Bangladesh, Assam and the East coast of India, you have to remember that these are tens of thousands of mud houses. People live on the barest of essentials,” Believers Eastern Church presiding bishop and founder K.P. Yohannan told The Christian Post. 

Believers Eastern Church has reached islanders off the east coast of India and Bangladesh through the use of its “Servant Boat.” 

“Devastation was so huge. Along with the COVID-19 virus crisis, by the grace of God and His mercy, we have 54 congregations on 54 islands,” Yohannan said. “Our boat carries people to provide help for the suffering people with food and materials and all these things. Although [the storm] happened three weeks ago, every day the need increases because millions are displaced.”

Cyclone Amphan made landfall in West Bengal on May 20, bringing hurricane-force winds and heavy rains that caused widespread damage across the region. According to the International Water Management Institute, Amphan was the strongest tropical cyclone to strike the Ganges Delta since Sidr in 2007. It is said to be the first super cyclonic storm to occur in the Bay of Bengal since 1999. 

Yohannan, who also founded Gospel for Asia, said that he's heard stories of families who have lost all their livestock, homes and their livelihoods as a result of the hurricane. 

“One of the saddest and worst things is these islands, the main way [the people] make a living and get food is basically [through the] ponds they have beside their huts where they raise fish in clean water. When this cyclone happened, all the seawater flooded all the ponds and killed all the fish,” he added. 

“In America, when this type of thing happens, the whole country converges to help with roadways and helicopters and everything. It is nothing like that there. These people have been left on their own.”

Yohannan said that Gospel Asia has been serving in the islands for more than 15 years, and he expects the recovery efforts in the region to continue for “months and months.”  

“The poverty is maybe 90% of the problem right now,” Yohannan said. “They lost their jobs. It is a very sad thing. I am getting reports on a daily basis. I thank God for people who are praying and doing everything they can to help.”

Aid workers with the Believers Eastern Church distribute relief items to residents of Kankandighi island in West Bengal impacted by Cyclone Amphan in June 2020. | Believers Eastern Church

Since the cyclone, Yohannan said the boat has been to over 80 islands in the Sundarbans.

“These are islands that can only be reached by boat,” he said. “We used to hire boats but now we have our own boat that can carry 75 people. There are 15 brothers that live on the boat and they go island to island continually ministering. They are going to islands they have never been to with food, rice, beans and oil and basic needs to help the people.” 

The relief team is led by Justin Mor Thomas Episcopa. 

Yohannan said the boat is stocked with essential items that also include wheat, sugar, tea, oils and medicine to help treat common illnesses. Along with dry rations, the team is also handing out cloth and masks. 

The effort is part-funded by donors in the U.S., Europe, as well as local donors, Yohannan said. 

Over the years, Yohannan said that the boat has helped tens of thousands of people on 60 different islands. Since the cyclone, the boat has provided aid to hundreds of families on 80 islands.

“On one week, they helped 600 families that lost everything,” he said. “They were able to help people who lost their hut and have nowhere to stay. Basically, the people are left and everything else is gone.”

Yohannan said that while he has not personally been on the boat during the Amphan relief efforts, he regularly speaks with workers on the phone about the situation. 

“They are broken-hearted even talking about the suffering of these people,” he said. “They are hearing about some people committing suicide because they have nothing else to live for: their husband is gone, their wife is gone, their children are gone, everything is gone.”

As Christians in India are often falsely accused by Hindu radicals of committing forced conversions in their efforts to proselytize and aid certain communities, Gospel for Asia was accused by a Hindu advocacy group of predatory proselytization after a 2004 tsunami. 

Yohannan told CP that neither GFA nor Believers Eastern Church have ever required aid recipients to convert to Christianity to receive aid. However, he did stress that witnessing to those in need is a component of the ministry. 

“I don’t even think that is a godly thing to do, to go to any people and say, 'I will give you money or food or clothes if you believe in my faith or force or any kind of brainwashing,” Yohannan said.

“Because God loves all people. He provided His only son to die on the cross to relieve mankind. It is an offer He makes. When we tell people, that is all we are supposed to do. We cannot say, ‘Now, I am going to force you to do this and this.’ But enemies of the Gospel accused us of giving money and material things and converting people.”

“On one side, the people are accused of all these things. But on the other side, the government has recognized that we do this because of the love of Christ,” he continued. “We want people to know that the Lord Jesus loves them and cares for them and that is why we are doing what we do.”

In 2019, GFA reached a $37 million settlement over allegations that the nonprofit mishandled millions in donations. However, the organization has maintained that it did not act fraudulently. 

Yohannan and others, such as popular preacher Francis Chan, have defended the integrity of the organization. Yohannan touches on the lawsuit in his book released in April, Never Give Up

“It talks about the last few years with the fire, pain, and crisis we went through with people accusing us and saying all kinds of things and we don’t know why they did it,” Yohannan said. 

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

or Facebook: SamuelSmithCP

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