Sunday, April 13, 2014

JCPC Friendship

I’ll admit, I had very little information and even less of an idea what was going to go on when Attorney Floyd called me up a month ago and told me I was going to go to the JCPC conference in Manila. I wasn’t even sure what JCPC was.  That didn’t stop me from saying yes to going, of course.  If I had to know what I was getting into before I did it, I never would have joined YASC or come to the Philippines.  Looking back, even if Attorney Floyd had explained what JCPC was, I wouldn’t have expected this conference. 

JCPC, for those not intimately aware of the relationship between the Episcopal Churches in the Philippines and the US, means Joint Committee on Provincial Companionship.  It is a group with a nearly 30 year long history, beginning when the Episcopal Church in the Philippines first decided to become an autonomous church within the Anglican Communion, as opposed to a mission church under the jurisdiction of the Episcopal Church in the US.  The JCPC was put together to plan and monitor the transitional period, and as a method of maintaining the ties of friendship between the two churches in the process and beyond.  These JCPC conferences occur every 18 months or so, hosted alternately by the delegates in America and the Philippines.  This year it was the Philippine Church’s turn, and we in YASC were invited specifically to help boost the American numbers if it came to a fist fight.  Well, also because we serve as living examples of the partnership between both churches, but the fist fight idea was more fun. 

Aside from my fellow YASC members and I, there were a few other people who were newish to the JCPC, including, I think I heard correctly, both American bishops present.  (Bishop Bob Fitzpatrick of Hawaii and Bishop Dave Bailey of Navajoland, both absolutely fantastic human beings.)  Therefore, one of the first things that happened during the conference was Attorney Floyd telling the story of how the ECP became financially independent from the ECUSA.  I can’t do it justice in this blog post, but the essence is that at a certain point in the proceedings, the ECP took a giant leap of faith, cut the umbilical cord, and started focusing on what they could do for themselves rather than on what they needed to get.  Everyone involved thought it was going to be a disaster to cut the funding early, but as they put it at the time, “If we are to die, better to die early and resurrect early as well.”  It succeeded beyond their wildest imaginings: the first year they were entirely financially independent they went from a 6.3 million peso shortfall, even with the financial support from the ECUSA, to a 3 million peso surplus. 

What American community developers are starting to call ABCD, Asset-Based Community Development, is something the Philippine Episcopal Church developed the hard way, by putting it into practice and developing the theory later.  This principle still governs how the Philippine church plans new churches and communities, as well as how it does aid work. 

With the reality of the financial autonomy of the ECP as well as the legal/jurisdictional autonomy, the JCPC has found its focus shifting.  The common metaphor within the conference was that now instead of being a parent-child relationship, with the ECUSA as a mother providing extra resources and guidance, it is now becoming a relationship of true equals.  Part of that relationship is deciding how the two churches are to interact, and whether we should remain so tightly bonded.  The fact that we are keeping the JCPC going is now a choice to remain closely aligned friends, a choice that recognizes that the ECUSA will have as much to gain and learn from the ECP as the ECP does from the ECUSA. 

And that truly was the main theme of the conference.  We were there to tell each church stories of what is going on, to build more bridges and learn from one another.  It was just as common for one of the American bishops to start frantically jotting down notes as an ECP member told their story about solving difficulties as it was for an ECP delegate to do the same, especially as the conference transitioned into the storytelling.  Both American bishops are from dioceses that are primarily indigenous groups, and the ECP is primarily an indigenous church as well, given where in the Philippines it has its strongest roots, and there was a good deal of discussion of what it means to be a member of a church that has strong missionary roots but still respect the native culture. 

There was also the point where all the delegates put us YASC members on the spot.  We had very little warning when the bishop from Northern Luzon turned and said that as they were discussing the partnerships between the churches and the focus of YASC, that they’d like to hear a bit from each of us about what our YASC year was about.  I have no idea how Andrew and Ashley managed to speak as eloquently as they did, I was trying not to trip over my own tongue as I described the year I’ve had and tried to boil down something so marvelously complex into a few minutes’ worth speech. 

And nothing I’ve written so far has, I think, gotten across how fun this conference was.  Possibly because there was no need to talk about a budget or finances, or to justify money matters, everyone was rather relaxed throughout, and we spent a good deal of time laughing and enjoying ourselves throughout.  And being fed, because this is the Philippines and food is important for fellowship, so every few hours we stopped and ate, having some more relaxed/unstructured time for conversation.  Relaxed bishops/upper muckity mucks of two different churches means that there are people with a lot of absolutely hilarious stories, and the long-running friendships in many cases meant that they all had a lot of fun telling them, and coming up with “can you top this” style stories.  Bruce Woodcock, in particular, who came as a representative from the Church Pension Group and also because he’s been visiting the Philippines for the past 30 years, had some of the best, mostly focusing on things which happened as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Found in Translation

This Sunday, Eliza sat next to me in church.  She normally attends Cathedral of the Resurrection, it didn’t come up during our conversation why she chose to come to Holy Innocents today.  Her little sister attends Easter, I’ve actually been teaching her this year.  The majority of the sermon was in Illocano, a dialect neither of us speaks well.  As I said to her, I can understand about one word in twenty, and most of that is words like and, but, just like: words that give important linkages in a sentence, but which convey very little meaning.  Between her understanding of Tagalog and the loaner English words peppering the sermon, we were able to get at the gist of the sermon.

This happens fairly often in the churches I attend in the Philippines.  When a people are nominally tri-lingual, grew up speaking their native dialect and learning both Filipino and English at school, what evolves isn’t always one straight language.  They code-switch, bouncing between languages depending on which language has the word that best conveys the meaning.  If, like me, you are slow at learning languages without formal instruction, it can sometimes be frustrating to no longer be able to catch all the meaning present.  It also gives me greater understanding of the fact that there are very often no good single translations of words, that one language can have a word where there is no concept of it in another language, and that these are the points where translation becomes a fine art, not a science. 

But having been here, it makes me understand a bit more of the Bible and the New Testament.  The languages of the disciples and Jesus would have been closer to the concepts of Filipino languages: Jesus and his disciples spoke a dialect off of Hebrew, and many of them could read written Hebrew.  The surrounding cultures spoke Greek and Latin, and at least some of the disciples, and the apostle Paul, learned Greek to communicate with that wider world. 

We do not ever have an exact Bible.  We have a multiplicity of translations, and even the earliest versions are translations: the writers of the Gospels and the letters taking a Hebrew and Aramaic speaking Jesus and theology and putting them into a form a Greek-speaker will understand.  There are words with subtleties of meaning in Greek or Hebrew that did not translate fully, there are still words we don’t understand perfectly because what they referred to is no longer a part of our world. 

But as we keep translating, we re-discover meanings.  Each time we have to play with the text to more closely get at a concept in a new language, we go deeper into the richness of the words we were given at the beginning of our faith.  We can rejoice that the form of poetry the Psalms were written into can translate across all languages, based more in parallelism than specifics of rhyme, rhythm and meter.  We can question again words, looking for translations that get across the poetry or the literal meaning or the sense, and recognize that you will not always get all three in one word or phrase. 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Three Stories of Sara

I've already discussed a few times before that one of the central themes of this year for me has been telling our stories, and how changing the story changes the way you look at the world.

A few weeks ago, my eighth grade students were on the Gospels of the New Testament.  To explain why we had four gospels that all told different stories of Jesus, I started the class by having them each write a description of me in list format, and then we put up two student's versions of me up with a list of words my friends have used to describe me.  In all three classes, the lists ended up being very different from one another, to the point where an outsider coming in wouldn't assume they were talking about the same person.  

Outside of the class experience, I had another version happen to me, when I read a fellow church member back home's perspective of my sister Sara.  My first response was that while it was a truthful account of Sara, it did not reflect my version of her.  Both my father and I shortly thereafter wrote our own stories of Sara.  I got my father's permission to post his story up here on my blog along with my own.  

My story:

Sara is small, with fine-boned wrists and a slender frame. She would have been a petite woman even without her disability retarding her growth, but as it is I dwarf her, although I myself am not what one would call tall. She is fair, with pale skin, dirty-blond hair kept short, and china blue eyes. She is visibly disabled, sitting in her purple stroller; her limbs don't always go in the direction she plans and parts of her face and head are slightly disproportionate. She drools often, and chews on anything she can get into her mouth. The fronts of all her shirts and dresses are permanently stained from this, no matter how often we wash her clothes or how many detergents we try.

Her entire life is marked and shaped by her disability. When the family is asked to explain exactly what is wrong with her, we respond that she has microcephalus, that parts of her brain did not develop and as a result she has profound mental retardation, cerebal palsy, and seizure disorder. If we are asked to explain the limits of her disabilities, it is often easier for us to explain what she can do than what she is unable to do. The former is a lot shorter of a list than the latter.

Sara is unaware of this, just as she is so unaware of her disability that it ceases to have any meaning to her. Sara doesn't know what she cannot do, or how strangers might see her. Sara only knows what she can do. She knows that she can play with all sorts of toys, though her favorites are her music box and her beads. She knows that she can recruit people passing by into playing with her if she drops her beads in front of them. Since she mostly deploys this tactic at church, inside the family we often say that she's taking Jesus's instruction to be fishers of men rather seriously. Sara knows what she likes and doesn't hesitate to make her opinions known. We know that her favorite color is purple, because she always picks it if she's given a chance. We know her favorite foods in a similar way, she will always make her way straight to them if given half a chance. No chocolate cake is safe if it is within arm's length, and she's always willing to redefine arm's length if the end result is chocolate.

We know as well what Sara loves. She loves her family, and will sometimes stop us as we walk past and pull us down into a hug that only ends when she's done with it. She loves music of all kinds, and will laugh with joy when she sees it played live. She lights up and bounces when she goes to places she likes or when she recognizes people she enjoys, and she's better at remembering people's faces than the rest of the family combined.

We know her personality. We know that she is extroverted, because she's happiest when there are people around her to interact with. We know she is stubborn, and will not cooperate if it's not what she wants to do. She knows her routines, and gets indignant when people change them on her without her permission. She is creative and determined, and has frequently ended up in places we didn't think she could reach, or grabbed things we didn't think she could get at. She loves playing with textures, and sometimes that means she has messed up my father's cross-stitch or torn important documents because the feel of ripping paper or tangled threads was interesting to her.

No one in the family is unaware of the difficulties that life with Sara can present, and has presented in the past. There are things we have not done, places we have not gone, because Sara would not make it there. There are rough days, days when it takes extra effort to take care of her, days when her stubbornness is more of a challenge than not. But at the same time, none of us can imagine a life without her, or understand when people ask us if we ever are bitter or resent her. She is loved because she exists, in the same way we love the rest of our family members. If anything, because we never have fights with her and all of her issues are purely physical, we kids sometimes found it easier to love her than we did our other siblings when we were young and fighting with one another.

Dad's Story: 

A member of our parish described our daughter Sara as she sees her, Sunday mornings in church, and used her as a lesson in how we as Christians are supposed to take care of “the least of these”.  My daughter responded on her blog that this was a story that contained the truth about Sara, but that it wasn’t her truth.  She provided an alternate version, which was true for her as a sister to Sara, and suggested that my narrative and my wife’s might be different.  Here’s my story.

First, the facts.  Sara is thirty years old chronologically, and between one and two years old developmentally.  Even that isn’t completely accurate, in that Sara is younger than that in some ways, and older than that in others.  She is microcephalic, meaning that her brain is too small and incompletely developed, so that her head appears to be too small for her small body frame.  The poorly-developed brain means that some of the brain cell connections are miswired, so she goes through epileptic seizures if they are not controlled by medication.  The poorly-developed portions of her brain also mean that she won’t develop or learn with time.

Her disability is really spotty.  She can’t take care of herself, but can remember that after meals, we wash her hands first and then her face, and remembers (every time) to try to hide her face from the washcloth.  She can’t talk, but she can vocalize enough to communicate emotions and feelings.  She has an incredible memory for faces.  The first time we showed up at the church we are at now, she enthusiastically greeted a woman we thought was a total stranger.  It turned out, the woman worked as a sign language interpreter at a summer camp Sara attended a year and a half earlier.  No, she doesn’t understand sign at all.  She’s also the best judge of character we’ve ever seen.  A couple interviewed my wife about taking care of their adopted daughter.  All we knew about him was he was a used car salesman.  Not ten minutes into the interview, Sara crawled up into his lap.  He and his wife are two of the best parents we’ve met in day care, but Sara knew it first. Margaret mentioned her love of music in any form.

None of this was apparent when she was born, and she didn’t show any signs of disability until her brain growth virtually stopped after six months.  Over the next few months, she just didn’t develop much further, and by the time she was a year old, we knew she would be profoundly affected.  Of course, with the slow onset of the disability, we had a chance to adjust to that disability very slowly as well.  We had no conscious period of adjustment to her condition, and neither did her siblings, both older and younger.  I believe that my wife and I really haven’t been changed that much by being her parents, but my kids have grown up being much more caring and accepting by growing up with her.

We did have to deal with a few religious prejudices over time.  There were those who suggested that Sara was disabled because of something we did, some type of profound sin that either Jane, or I, or both of us had committed, so that we were being punished for that sin.  Closely related to that was the belief that if we only had enough faith, we could pray and Sara would be healed.  Her continued disability was due to our lack of faith.  I reject any notion that Sara is either a punishment or a test of faith for us, and I’ll avoid any faith tradition that suggests that either is true out of hand.

The opposite tack was taken by other well-meaning friends, who have suggested that God gave us Sara because we are somehow more blessed, more patient, more caring or more loving than other parents, and therefore, we are “blessed” to have her in our life.  First, I don’t feel that blessed or that special.  In addition, there’s a lot of other kids who are equally disadvantaged, that might, or might not have the same opportunities that Sara has had to be loved.  There are at least three other sets of parents in our church that have been foster parents to difficult-to-place children, and even adopted the hardest cases when the foster children cannot be placed back with their parents, and there’s a couple that had to fight their daughter to get custody of their grandchildren.  Sadly, they just succeeded when their daughter died, probably due to a fatal drug interaction.  Our priest and his wife is one of the three foster parent couples, and is probably losing one of their adopted daughters, born deaf, losing her sight, and now hospitalized by some form of autoimmune disease.  Comparing ourselves to them, we’ve taken care of our own daughter, who is a delightful, loving child, in spite of her disabilities.  These other couples have voluntarily taken on difficult or hopeless cases.  They deserve the praise more than us.

At the same time, how many normal children have poor parents that don’t provide adequate role models.  How many disabled children don’t have great parents, but don’t make it into the foster care program.  How many disabled or at-risk kids are trapped with no foster parents or adoptive parents in their future?  To claim that God intended Sara to be born into a loving, caring home is God’s will when so many other children don’t have those same advantages mocks God’s benevolence.

No, as best as we can tell, Sara was the random victim of a stray cosmic ray, or of a flu virus in utero, leading to a random birth defect that led to her unique array of disabilities.  She had the good luck to be born into a loving family, with two parents who have stayed together, and has had siblings who have been raised to be good and caring people.  It’s just as likely that she would have been born to parents who might have given up on her, or to a single mother incapable of caring for her.  By these random chances, Sara has had a good life, but it is just as likely, or even more likely that other children in her situation haven’t been as fortunate.  I mourn for them.

These are the family stories.  Carole's version can be found linked here:

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Guest Speaker and a Whirlwind Tour

Back in November, Ma’am Kana and I were working on lesson plans for the students in the various grade levels of CE that we share.  At the end of the Fourth-year outline, there was mention of the Church’s role in society.  Immediately, I knew who I wanted to call in to speak about that.  Besides, it would give her an excuse to visit when Baguio wasn’t pouring down rain and fog. 

Fast-forward several months and the time came.  I invited Ashley Cameron to come up and visit, to talk about her work with the diocese of Santiago.  Before her visit, I threatened my fourth-year students with death/severe maiming if they weren’t good for Ashley, because I knew she was taking a lot of time out of her schedule for this visit right at her busy season. 

Ashley was a brilliant speaker, and I think the students got a lot out of it.  We can talk all we want about what Christian values are, but it takes seeing how they are applied on the ground to really understand what the Church should be about.  Ashley’s work in Santiago is about applying the baptismal creed to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to respect the dignity of every human being: her work in micro-finance gives her clients a sense of self-respect and dignity that is often under-represented in traditional charity.  Moreover, I think the students could see the love Ashley has for her work, how much she cares about and respects some of her clients as they work to improve their lives and their communities.  Students can always tell when you are being sincere, and even more than my threats, I think that’s what kept them listening and engaged for the most part. 

After our classes were over, it was time to explore more of the Baguio/La Trinidad area.  We specifically went to events and places to tour that would have been miserable last time in the rain: the Bell Church, Miner’s View, Tam-Awan Village.  And luckily, she was just in time to come and see one of the highlights of the year in Baguio: the Panabenga Flower Festival.  We watched the street dance parade on Saturday and each pretty much wiped out our cameras on photos of the dancers.  She couldn’t stay till Sunday to see the float parade, unfortunately.  As it was, we filled our Saturday to the point where we needed to race back to Easter College after dinner to get her bags before she caught a taxi out to the bus station.  


This is the main building of the Bell Church.  The second you walk onto the grounds, you no longer feel like you are in the Philippines.  Everything around you looks straight out of China. 

There were dragons everywhere.  The fantasy geek in me who thinks that there is never such thing as too many dragons was thrilled.
It was only as we climbed up to a higher level of the church that we could start to see the surrounding city again.
The next morning was the street-dancing parade.  Ashley actually has video of some of the dancers.  We stood up on one of the walking overpasses to watch, and probably got a better view than if we'd been at street level. 

We left at the end of the parade and then headed out to Miner's View, a lookout point from the edge of Baguio into the surrounding mountains.

Forgive the squinting, I was staring up into light.

After lunch at Miner's View, we caught another cab out to Tam-Awan Village.  Tam-Awan is an artist's enclave started by BenCab, a famous Baguio-based artist.  I don't have many pictures from there, as we weren't allowed to take photos of the artist's work.  Tam-Awan is built going up the side of one of the surrounding mountains, and there's a hiking trail you can take up to see various views.  It was wonderful, and I'm going to visit again sometime when I'm wearing better shoes, as my sandals were not the best choice for going up and down very narrow and steep paths.

Both Ashley and I had our portraits sketched by artists working there.  This is how mine turned out:
Amazing for ten minutes work, right? 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Another Anniversary

One year ago, I was at a weekend discernment and wrote this in my private journal:

But this weekend I've also been spending doing a discernment weekend for Young Adult Service Corps. And I'm so glad I've been here, because it has been the most sane-making and rewarding thing that I have done for months.

One of the other members of my small group called it finding our tribe, and there's definitely an aspect of that present here. These are very much my people: the young adults, mostly well-versed in religion (there's one exception and she is awesome and I want to live in her brain because it is a thing of beauty), all really eager to serve and help others, and discussing things we never get to talk about in our daily lives.

And I've gotten to spend time doing things like walking along a lake or lying in a field starwatching and talking about everything under the sun with the girl whose brain is fantastic. Or getting told by someone that I looked like I was part of a painting when I had been walking alone, with the last vestiges of the sunset on the water, and the trees full of Spanish moss, and my hair and skirt billowing in the breeze. Or starwatching again with the girl from before and a guy from our group, and not even needing to talk because everything we felt was understood.

I want to move forward with this mission, this work. But even if I don't get to continue, it was worth it just for this experience, these people.

The next day, on further reflection, I added this:

This weekend was absolutely incredible. You know how you get those perfect moments, the perfect conversations and silences together? The ones that come once in a blue moon if you're lucky, but can change you forever? In some ways it felt like this weekend was almost entirely comprised of those moments.

So thank you to H, for our conversations at the lake, cooing over lizards together, and starwatching. Thank you to P, for your beautiful lecto divino, chanting, and your wisdom and humor. You struck me as having that combination of thoughtfulness, insight, and gentle humor that I associate with the truly holy. Thank you M for your willingness to join in with humor, to break into song and dance, and for the way that you encouraged and supported everyone else when they would have been too scared to speak up on their own. Thank you to C, for airport conversations and joy. Thank you to Am, As, S, and R for making small group so safe, so fun, and so supportive. Thank you to J for your incredibly infectious giggles, and MD for playfulness. Thank you to Z for making me feel beautiful out of nowhere, and for stopping to notice the sky with me. Thank you Je for sharing cat stories our first night. Thank you to Ra for making me giving backrubs to everyone fun and accepted.

Thank you to Jason and Glenda for making the interview session non-scary. Thank you Chris, Elizabeth, and Robin for telling your stories. Thank you Camp Weed for incredible food and your beautiful chapel.

That weekend was the start of everything I am doing now.  Thank you again, for an incredible new year of my life.  

Happy Foundation Day/Charter Day (Week really)

I'm a bit behind in posting, but that's mostly because this week was a busy one.  Easter College was celebrating its 108th year as a school this week, and we've been having a lot of activities to keep us busy. 

Monday was a half-day for the students, as they were dismissed at lunch to go and watch the Chinese New Year celebrations.  We teachers stayed and had a vespers service to begin the week-long Anniversary Events.

(Okay, so there was a Fun Run on Sunday which officially began the proceedings.  But I consider Fun Run to be an oxymoron, and used my discretion about attending the non-mandatory event.  Sleep and church outranked running around parts of Baguio City.)

On Tuesday we had an academic bowl with some other schools in the city.  I didn't get to watch any of it, I was teaching in the morning and helping demonstrate a waltz step for the third and fourth years in the afternoon.  Junior/Senior Prom is this coming week, Feb 14th, you see, and apparently there are several formal dances they do during the prom.  Very different from my own senior prom, where I came mostly to say I had, and then spent a good chunk of it sitting with my best friend writing fanfic in a corner. 

Wednesday was the talent show, and I wish with everything I had that I had video of one of my fellow teachers during it.  I have no idea why he isn't already a Youtube sensation.  The man has such confidence that even when each of the dance moves is absurd you can't help but be drawn into it.  I mean, you laugh your head off afterwards, but he does a fantastic job of taking you along for the ride while he's in it. 

Friday was our ending celebration, starting with a gigantic school-wide mass, followed by an awarding ceremony for teachers and staff for years of service and then for teacher of the year.  And in the afternoon the college departments each took a lower year section of the school and had afternoon activities.

Saturday was the employee fun day, which meant we did exercise in the morning, played parlor games, danced, had a huge lunch, and then had a seminar on empowerment in the afternoon.  Saturday also had an alumni concert in the evening which sounded great, even from my room.  Although as I had to wake up at an absurdly early hour Sunday morning, I could have done with having it end sometime before midnight, or at least to have not switched into straight rock for the last few hours. 

Saturday, January 25, 2014


 A major theme that keeps coming up in my Lay Institute class is the concept of how our narrative shapes how we see the world.  We understand everything within the context of the stories we tell ourselves about how the world works, how we ought to be. 

For the past several weeks within that class, I’ve been telling the narrative of science.  The history behind many scientific discoveries, how science and scientists think of themselves and their goals, how science works.  Last Monday I had my father skype in for an interview, and he spent part of it telling the stories of geology, but mostly telling his own story.  Telling his experiences within geology and within the church, and how those stories shaped him into who he was.  With my permission, he also told the class stories about me, so they could see where I came from and what shaped me into the person sitting in that class, teaching in the way I do. 

One of the great things about teaching here in the Philippines is that I don’t have to explain why stories are important, why what we tell ourselves about the world matters in how we see things.  Everyone in my Lay Institute class gets that, gets the importance of story in telling truths.  They’re just as likely to say that the only way to tell real truths is to tell the story behind it, and I can’t disagree there. 

Our Lay Institute classes tend to run long, and to wander into discussions far afield of the original topics as we pursue those stories.  Often it brings us to surprising commonalities, moments of shared traditions between two cultures.  A discussion of Darwinian concepts of evolution turned into thoughts on immigration in the US, and into a history of the Irish immigration in particular, and from there into the similarities in how the Irish were viewed at that time and how Filipinos are viewed today, the parallels and repetitions only strengthening the truths we found. 

Over the course of this next week I’ll have to write a mid-term test to track what we have taught.  But how do I turn the brilliant, dynamic discussions we’ve held into something semi-objective?  No attempt I can come up with will truly track what has been learned here.  I don’t even know for certain everything that I’ve learned in the course of teaching.  But that in itself is its own gift: this class experience will never be summed up in a test and an outline of our course objectives.  It has already succeeded in its true goal of making us all think differently.  And the only way to describe that change?  Is in the stories we will tell from this point onwards.