When we seek to learn from those we do not yet understand, something shifts, we move from “us vs. them” to one body.
We’ve been in Manila for a week. The emotions have spanned the gamut. It has been tempting to want to be the fixer, the foreign fixer, especially when we have seen the enormous discrepancies between those who have great wealth and power to those immersed in extreme poverty.
Initially we saw a gray film all over everything. We wondered why those in power didn’t seem to notice the film or maybe they did notice but were fine with it. Either way, we knew we had to push beyond the obvious observations, feelings of anger and frustration to find deeper understanding and purpose.
We began to seek the heart of the people, any who were willing to help us to see a bigger picture. We began asking “why” questions, and finding that there were many amongst all of the mess, who are faithfully living a life incarnate.
We met Rameil on top of Smokey Mountain, one of the poorest areas in Manila. The mountain is actually a trash dump and any vegetation there grows on contaminated soil. The main source of commerce on Smokey Mountain is recycling and the second, making charcoal for cooking. It’s all hands on deck, with children as young as 4 yrs old working and digging through the trash, make fires, etc…
Rameil, who was just diagnosed with stage four colon cancer, pastors the local parish and his job is 24/7. He grew up in the area and after an encounter with the living God, he has dedicated his life to not only being a spiritual mentor to this community but practically, he helps on a daily basis caring for the overwhelming physical needs of hunger and poor health.
In fact, while we were with Rameil, we met a woman with eight children, her youngest in need of immediate medical attention. And so, we all escorted her and the precious little boy, named Romeo, to the hospital. For us, it was an extremely emotional experience. For Rameil and this mother, I’m sure it was emotional too, but it is every day for them. The opportunity to come alongside these kinfolk was a privilege and an honor and they will forever be in our hearts and prayers.
We also met the Long family, through a mutual friend, Brian Hommel with UPI. He takes a crew from the US to serve alongside the Longs once a year and we tagged along this time around. We learned that the Longs moved to Manila, from the US, in 1991 with their five children. They started out as teachers in a local private school and in 2004, one of their children, Jannel, asked her dad why they couldn’t do more for the street children in their neighborhood. (We love “why” questions!) From that moment on, they began to dialog about what it would look like to do more. They went home to the states for a year furlow and returned with a vision to open a group home (orphanage) and that was the beginning of what is now the multi-dimensional, Kids International Ministries.
We stayed at their guest house and from our birds eye view we saw that they have had and continue to have an amazing impact in their local community, as well as, centers in Mindanao and Leyte, Visayas and have a new facility in the works that will be more agriculturally driven in Palawan. While with them, we were invited to plug into local endeavours in and around Manila including feedings, singing at the school, and spending time with the kids at the Children’s home. There is always more than enough to do and the work can sometimes seem overwhelming but the Longs take it all in stride, and like Rameil, trust God to bring them just what they need each day.
Near the end of the week, we visited with friends at Lilok Foundation, whose main objective is to train leaders of urban poor communities to become change makers in their respective communities. We heard about these kinfolk from our Cambodian connection, who we will visit with in a few weeks. Adam, their community coordinator, met us in the city and guided us by Jeepney (local transport) to their office in Quezon City.
We met Carol, the director, Kay and Conrad. They shared a local dish called Pato, took us to a local Philippino restaurant. They also taught us a traditional worship dance. They told us their personal stories and then told us about the imbalance of power and shared that those in poverty who have no means to be trained in the faith and their passion and vision was to provide an alternative training institution which would embrace those society deems unworthy. In 1993, through the guidance and help of some progressive academician friends from the University of the Philippines and two theological seminaries the Lilok Foundation’s vision became reality and they now provide education that builds up the Saints, all of the Saints. It was encouraging to hear their story of building a bridge between those who have and those who have not.
Finally, on our last day, actually while I was finishing this blog, we were invited to sit out on the veranda to hear about Children’s Garden from founder Sharon Gersava Wark. Manila has over 1.5 million homeless, with a solid percentage of those being street children, who live every day vulnerable to trafficking, gang induction and exploitation. Children’s Garden exists to give these children a home.
Sitting at the table with Sharon was Michael and his wife Ruth, both in their early twenties. Michael shared about his life on the streets starting at age five. He openly and honestly gave us insight into the mind of that little child he once was. He talked about the bitterness and anger that boiled in him at the age of four, after seeing his sister raped. He shared the feeling of betrayal he felt by relatives and by a wealthy American man who preyed on him at the age of 10. He shared about the fracturing in his own heart and at the age of 11, his part in an attempted murder. His story was raw but through it all, he referenced a knowing deep in the back of his conciseness, of the destruction in his own soul and that something wasn’t right.
He talked about the significance of drugs on the street and how they were used as numbing agents to soothe his rumbling belly. He ended up in a drug rehabilitation facility, that had its own set of injustices, but while there met a man who came to speak about another option, about a possibility of knowing God and in that knowing trusting that God had a plan for his life. However, this just pissed Michael off because he though, where was God during all of these hardships on his life!
After being released from the drug rehab, Michael had intentions of joining the military with hopes of avenging his sister. However, God had other plans and his path collided with Sharons at the Children’s Garden. It was over the next few years that Michael saw a consistent faith played out both by Sharon and her staff. During his time there he had a few hard conversations with God about his past and through it all, his heart was healed and his mind renewed. He shared about the trials that came even after his commitment to God but that his faith is only strengthened by those trials rather than squashed.
It was an honor to hear his story, to see this strong and courageous man, willing to humble himself before God and to become the man he was created to be. And to top it off, it was sheer joy to be able to see Sharon, his spiritual mother, delight in her child.
What did we see in the Philippines? Both foreigners and locals, committed to love the God of all gods, understanding that they are the hands and feet and taking that love further than themselves. They understand when Jesus said, “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was homeless and you gave me a room, I was shivering and you gave me clothes, I was sick and you stopped to visit, I was in prison and you came to me.” Knowing that whenever they do one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that it is to Jesus himself. Knowing that by these acts they are called faithful.
It is through their lens that we saw the gray film lift and hope arise. And, that is the most beautiful part of Manila. That is what we will take with us.