Dra. Evelyn Palma- Obligacion (Ate Ellen) is a dermatologist by profession. She is the wife of Dr. Glenn Obligacion, an ophthalmologist and pastor at Christ’s Commission Fellowship. They are parents to five adult children. In 2004, they lost practically all their possessions in their house due to a fire. Their family of seven escaped the flames with only the clothes they slept in the night before. Today, Ate Ellen recalls the story of her daughter coming out of the house with just one slipper like a joke from Steve Martin, no bitterness or misgiving about the mishap. (If you remember another comedian, the late Oscar Obligacion, he is Ate Ellen’s father-in-law).
Losing all of one’s possessions is a serious distressing trauma. How does one overcome such a trial? Butterflyinthespring wanted to know and had this chat with Ate Ellen:
BUTTERFLYINTHESPRING (BITS): What were your first thoughts when you realized there was a fire?
Dra. Ellen Obligacion (EPO): It was a shock for us, waking up at 1:30am, hearing the sounds of glass breaking, seeing an orange light and smoke from our lanai area.
BITS: What caused the fire?
EPO: It was a forty-one year old house and the firemen speculated that it was from an old electrical wiring.
BITS: At the time of the fire, all your children had a personal relationship with the Lord that influenced their perspective about the fire?
EPO: Yes, they all did. While we were waiting outside the house, we stayed inside one of our vans to keep away from the smoke. We were just talking with all of our children. There was no crying or fear. I think they saw us calm and not rattled about what was happening and it overflowed to them so they had the same demeanor.
My mother came to comfort us. She was the one who was crying in front of us. My brother was telling her, “Mother, why are you crying, can’t you see it’s Ate (older sister) who’s affected by this and she’s not even crying. We joked about that inside the van. At the back of my mind, I was thanking the Lord that our peace in Him was a good witness to my family.
BITS: How did you manage the extremely distressing situation?
EPO: I praise God during that moment, He gave us a clear mind. We did not panic. We were so focused on what we were supposed to do. There was fear, there was throbbing in my heart but the Lord held us. We prayed that the Lord take control. We rushed to see how the kids were doing. We rushed outside. We were unmindful of what we were wearing. We were all in our sleeping clothes. One daughter was only wearing one slipper. We were set for a Couple’s Retreat that very morning. We already had one luggage prepared. I could have easily dragged it outside but we were not focused on what we were leaving behind but that we would get out safely.
Speaking of God’s grace, there was peace when that happened. We were watching from outside when the firemen were doing their job. Of course, we were praying that the fire be controlled, that God would send rain to cut short the fire but the Lord did not allow that. It all went down to ruins. (Several days later when we checked what was left, we were able to retrieve only some scorched pictures, some clothes, and plates).
But at the time of the fire, the peace of the Lord enveloped us. Otherwise, we could have been grumbling or panicking and questioning God. Instead, the verse in Hebrews 13:5 came to me. He said, “Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you.” I dwelt on that part that Never will He forsake us. It may seem like He forsook us because we lost the house that could shelter our family of seven. I hung onto His promise that He will not forsake us so I said, “After this, Lord, I know that You will never leave us. It was so reassuring and comforting that around 5am we were still there looking at the ruins, waiting for everything to settle down, neighbors from all the way up to the other street came to bring us toiletries. Some came with bread and water. The basic necessities just came. We were so glad, it was so immediate. The provisions came slowly but surely. During the day, we had something to wear, a friend would provide. My brother-in-law housed us for almost three months. We saw how people would send clothes, food. There was no way for us to complain or think that the Lord forsook us; we saw God’s grace not just day by day but moment by moment.
God orchestrated everything. We saw that He could take away certain things but here was our family, complete. “We will start from here,” that’s how I perceived that. It was really grace upon grace. It’s been ten years. The faithfulness of the Lord saw us through. He never fails to be faithful and gracious.
BITS: You said you hung on to the promise of God that He would never leave you nor forsake you. You seemed to see very clearly that promise as so real that just thinking about those words had the power to comfort you at that moment of distress when so much was unknown. If I were to think about such a moment, what might go through my mind might be rapid fire, “What to do? Where to go? What now? Why did You allow this? Where are You, Lord?”
EPO: The verse spoke to me but it really took TRUST, faith in God. At that very moment, you have nothing to depend on. Who do you look up to? Even your husband is so helpless. The firemen couldn’t put out the fire in an instant. My husband was praying, “God, You are sovereign. You can send rain to put out the fire.” We were hoping and praying. But it didn’t happen. My husband was at peace all this time. The verse in Philippians 4:7 which states ” ….and the peace that surpasses all understanding shall guard your heart & your mind in Christ Jesus our Lord“, was made alive in him that morning.
It was important that we accept the sovereign will of God. We trusted that His will is good for us. We focused on His character. That very morning after the fire, there was a little rain just enough to wet the area and take out the smoke. We asked for guidance and directions, for Him to lead us. In our finite minds, we could get stuck in complaining, questioning. Knowing His character from His word prevented us from doing that; we have to rely on what He has for us. The following morning, the Lord led me to Psalm 9:1-2:
When I read that, my tears flowed. I said, “Okay, Lord, this is what You’re telling me to do. After all that happened, thank You if this is Your will.” The fire happened on a Friday. By that Sunday, we were already testifying to the goodness of the Lord.
BITS: In church?
BITS: What did you say?
EPO: We saw the goodness of the Lord despite what happened.
BITS: How remarkable that God would give you that personal Word with the word “sing”, since your family is a family of singers! It’s so personalized, really for you. [Laughter]
EPO: One day after, we were just staying all in one room with all the kids. I was reading the Bible trying to gain more strength. Physically, I was so exhausted but then spiritually, I wanted to be intimate with the Lord to sing of His goodness. This was the time when I read Psalm 9:1-2. So I was thinking, “What is good?” I was just looking around and I saw my kids. I thought, Okay, we are in a small room but we are all complete. I can see the goodness of the Lord in that. We were in an airconditioned room with food on the table. That is already a provision of the Lord. He used my brother-in-law. My brother-in-law was so generous. He really fed us so well.
BITS: Between the fire and today, was there a time when you didn’t have your needs met?
EPO: Not ever. Our five kids were able to graduate from college. Nothing stopped.
BITS: Which period since the fire was the hardest?
EPO: Maybe the first month. The adjustment was just needed because in November, school was ongoing. It happened on November 19, 2004. But we did the usual. Nothing changed. it’s just that the house environment changed.
BITS: How would you encourage anyone who has lost their possessions or who think they lost everything?
EPO: I myself can not encourage them, human as I am. But I think the best way that worked for me was to hang on to who God is, knowing His character. [Her face beaming] He’s a God of Peace, a God of Comfort, a Sovereign God, a God who will never leave me nor forsake me, a God who is faithful, full of grace, full of compassion and mercy. The list never ends. This is the same God that I would like to share with this person. He is available to anyone who would call on Him. He is available to you.
BITS: Has God restored you fully in terms of shelter?
EPO: In terms of the value of the house, I would say yes. The house was supposed to be an inheritance for my husband. It was totally ruined. The Lord seemed to just want to make a facelift of what we have. He allowed us to replace it although it took many years.
We eventually transitioned to a condo lifestyle with no helpers and drivers. It’s all a part of our training where the Lord wants us to learn. Having five kids, having helpers was important for me but we saw it as a learning process. Now, I see it as a blessing not to have any. The discipline and contentment, in submission, it’s more evident now because of our training.
God enabled us to value the smallest things. Now I would categorize ourselves as having much, much more than before in terms of our perspective.
BITS: Now your eyes are open to what you have… so would you say you are richer?
EPO: [With a most enthusiastic conviction]: I am richer in the Lord! In Matthew 6:33, it says “Seek first His kingdom and all these things shall be added unto you.” Because of God-dwelling in my heart and seeking after His will, I saw God’s provision when our family most needed them and sometimes even our wants too. Initially, I would be surprised on how He would provide for our family. Then I realized, why should I be surprised when I know that God promised that He will provide for His children. God wants to bless His children in so many ways that’s why I learned to welcome everything —- big or small —- with thanksgiving.
Though the Obligacion Family practically lost all their things in the fire, those all things was not everything. They have each other, countless blessings, and most specially, they have God. During the time when in front of them all they could see were the flames engulfing their home —–which was like the visual representation of security, the physical fruit of what they built up through the years with their time and effort going up in smoke—– it was a time to apply what they knew of God based on what was unseen. His promise to be there in the midst of the fire was so real that their hearts were sheltered from getting devastated together with their possessions. God’s Word and character held them steadfast, enabling them to fix their eyes on the yet unseen fulfilment of His promises.
Not only did God restore them in terms of shelter and material things, He strengthened them in the knowledge that even when the physical basis of security is destroyed, they are secure in God Himself who remains. And He remains through the rest of their journeys.
Some time after the fire, the Obligacion Family stayed in Marikina when Typhoon Ondoy flooded their place chest deep. But after their experience of God’s faithfulness to them during the fire, they surrendered the flood to the Lord as well, trusting that God would take care of them as He did in the past. And yes, He has been faithful again.
Ate Ellen’s joy in the Lord is evident. As a family, their gladness and songs of praise indeed testify to the goodness of the Lord.
Her five children are involved in CCF’s Music Ministry. Camille, Michelle, and Gabriel song-lead at the CCF Main Hall. Her son, Glenn Michael, also song-leads in the Elevate (Youth) Ministry. Nicole (whose blog is www.encouragingtreats.com) used to song-lead in CCF Makati on Friday nights for Singles before her work schedule got so busy. Pastor Glenn was also a Worship Leader for CCF and now heads the Exalt (Music) Ministry. Even though I haven’t heard Ate Ellen sing a song, I can see her songs of praise to the Lord. Ate Ellen, next time can you let us hear you sing?
Post Script: Today’s YouVersion Verse of the Day: