In the days after a horrific storm hit Tacloban, Philippines, Gemmer Esperas walked the altered landscape and looked for the body of his only child.
Annammer Esperas, 6, was home with her mother, Analyn Esperas, when Typhoon Haiyan struck her city on Nov. 8, 2013.
As the water came, the mother and daughter were carried into a rice field. Analyn tried in vain to hold the little girl as the waves and the wind beat the earth. Hours later, she would lie on the top of a tin roof knowing her only child had been carried away by the storm surge.
Gemmer returned from work as a security guard to discover what Haiyan had claimed — his daughter, his home, his job.
First, he found and buried his daughter. Then he gathered abandoned sheets of corrugated metal and built a new home. But the gaps in the metal did not protect his wife from the wind or the rain. The couple could not sleep.
Everything changed when a counselor in the bishopric of their ward found the Esperases. “Go to the church for shelter,” he told them. That night in the Latter-day Saint meetinghouse they slept for the first time since their daughter’s death. On that night, recovery for the Esperases began.
A few months later, I stood in the Esperases’ new home — 12 feet by 12 feet — which Gemmer built through a Church construction program, designed to help members rebuild after the storm. He had received Latter-day Saint training and tools and was now employed as a contractor in his community.
The Esperases’ story epitomizes the power of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to transform and elevate individuals and families across the globe.
In the wake of the storm, a Church building had provided Gemmer and Analyn a place of refuge. They had received food and clean water and medical treatment. They were warm and dry. They mourned their daughter among a community that mourned with them.
Because of Church programs and with sacred resources, Gemmer received the opportunity to learn skills while building his own home. It is what tithes and offerings provide. It is the what the gospel in action does.
It happened because at one time, Gemmer and Analyn entered the waters of baptism and made covenants. After the storm, members of their ward — driven by their testimony of Jesus Christ and their desire to be like Him — looked for the Esperases and every other Latter-day Saint lost in the storm. They also reached out and lifted members of other faiths in the community.
I remember leaving the Esperases’ house and looking back. Gemmer and Analyn sat together in their doorway of the home Gemmer built. I snapped a photograph because I saw hope in their faces.
It has been the pattern since the earliest days. In June 1863 a group of some 800 British Latter-day Saints set sail from England to the United States on board the ship Amazon.
Charles Dickens mingled with the group as they were leaving the country and described them as “the pick and flower of England.”
It was a seemingly contradictory description of those early Saints — poor, but functional, members of England’s working class.
Yet, I suspect, in the short time they had been members of the Church, the gospel had defined them and elevated them. And that is what Dickens identified.
It was a spiritual heritage and refinement that would carry them to the Salt Lake Valley and bless the generations that followed. It was born of their sacrifice to embrace the gospel and travel to Zion. It is the spiritual heritage and refinement that blessed the Esperases and defines the Church today.
It elevates all of us and strengthens generations.
The Lord made this promise to us all through his prophet Malachi: “Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house and prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it” (Malachi 3:10).
The Lord doesn’t promise we won’t face challenges or that life will be easy. But he asks us to “prove me now herewith” — to give Him our tithes and offerings and expect that blessings will follow. That promise is one reason tithes and offerings are sacred, one reason the First Presidency manages them with the utmost care; one reason the Church builds consecrated reserves.
Four years after first visiting Tacloban, Philippines, I returned. I sat with Gemmer and Analyn in the home Gemmer built and reflected on the miracles in their lives. A small photograph of Annammer sat next to scriptures on a small bookshelf. Analyn held a tiny infant — baby Gemmer, born nine years after his sister.
In addition to enrolling in the construction program in the months after the storm, Gemmer also accepted a calling as Young Men president in his ward. The couple had found, even though they had little, they could offer tithes and offerings to the Lord and have extra to save to attend the temple.
When the youth traveled to the Cebu Philippines Temple for baptisms, Gemmer and Analyn made the trip too; they entered the temple for the first time, made covenants and had their daughter sealed to them.
It is hard now for Gemmer to connect to the grief and pain that consumed him as he wandered after the storm. Yet, he said, he won’t forget it either.
“As members of the Church we should be happy,” Analyn said, “because we know the gospel.”
It is a blessing, she added, that is priceless.