Sunday, July 13, 2014

Bubbles for World Peace, and other Lessons from the Philippines

This is a sermon I delivered this morning at my church as something of a wrap-up and discussion of my year in the Philippines.  I simplified and focused on a few key lessons, because explaining an entire year in a twelve minute sermon time is impossible.  For those who couldn't attend, and for those friends of mine in the Philippines who read this, this is what I learned from my year in Baguio:

Magandang umaga po!  That means good morning in Filipino.  Now, I’ll be honest, I never actually managed to pronounce that greeting correctly.  Even at the end, if I actually tried to greet someone in Filipino, it tended to end with them commenting on my cute American accent.  So perhaps I should instead greet you the way my fellow teachers and I always greeted one another at school.  Good morning sirs/ma’ams!

The topic for this sermon is lessons learned in the Philippines.  I really feel as if I’m cheating all of you a bit with that.  Because, you see, I will still be figuring out exactly what I learned in the Philippines for another few years.  I’m not great at noticing what I’ve learned in all its details until a few years later, when I realize how I’m applying it from here on forward.  But everyone thought it would be a bit too much to leave all of you wondering about my time there for the next five years, until I got my thoughts together.  This is instead a patchwork of concepts, a scaffold I will be building and thinking on for years to come.  

With that in mind, let me begin with the concept of being a stranger.  In my day to day life in the US, as a young white healthy woman, I’m not exactly a stranger or an oddity to anyone around me.  I get a few extra comments on my hair, but in general I can walk down a street and not be considered unusual.  That changed in the Philippines.  I was living in Baguio, which, as an American-planned city and a major tourist hub, did have a decent population of American visitors, but still, off of the major tourist destinations within Baguio, I was the only white person people would see in a week or a month.  Most of my students and fellow teachers had never really talked with an American before, and there was apparently a lot of nervousness about my coming.  All the fears and nerves I had about going into a strange new environment were echoed in the people who were hosting me, who were afraid that we wouldn’t be able to talk clearly to one another, or that I would be judging them.  

I learned that there was a strong element of grace involved with making the transition from stranger to guest, both on my host’s part and my own.  They had to risk my rejection and judgment of their world, their lives, and I had to risk my comfort zone, to put myself out for their own chance of rejection.  That level of hospitality towards a stranger is a terrifying challenge.  I was lucky, in many ways.  As Attorney Floyd, one of my major contacts within the national church, put it much later, one of the benefits the Philippine church found from YASC was rediscovering and strengthening their own cultural focus on hospitality towards the stranger.  That code of hospitality is embedded into the Philippine culture, especially among the mountain tribes, and it is what gave them the grace to risk my judgment to still offer me a new home.  

That initial hospitality led me into being able to open myself up in what has become my father’s favorite new story to tell about me.  As many of you know, my mother runs a day care in our home, and I have helped her with the children any time I was living at home.  Because of that, I fast learned that the easiest way to distract a small child from a meltdown if we had to run errands was to always keep some level of toy in my bag.  Bubble solution was my favorite, because it worked for almost every age range.  I hadn’t meant to bring it along to the Philippines, but I did have bubble solution in my purse and it made it through the airport security.  During one of the first invitations I received from the college president, Ma’am Bridget, I was introduced to her five-year-old granddaughter.  This girl had never met an American before, and she was rather nervous around me.  During lunch I ended up pulling out the bubble solution and blowing a few bubbles to distract her when she got restless at the pace the adults were eating at.  It seemed like that was all it took, the willingness to play with her, before she relaxed and began to enjoy my presence.  

I found that bubbles worked with the young children I encountered everywhere in the Philippines.  No matter where I went, they were initially very nervous around someone who looked so very strange in comparison to them, but they relaxed when I brought out the bubbles and began to play.  

It was perhaps a similar thing to the bubbles that led my seventh-grade class in particular to be comfortable with me.  I was helping teach Christian Ed to the 8th grade and above in the high school, but for the seventh graders I instead was helping with Practical Spoken English.  At the beginning, I was simply going over pronunciation so that they had a real live native English speaker there to help.  As the year went on, my fellow teacher also had me bring in some other American speeches to let them hear how it was spoken and written by native speakers.  One of the speeches I brought in referenced the chicken dance, and I commented briefly that all the kids in my generation had learned to dance that one in grade school.  My students were far more interested in the concept of me dancing the chicken dance than in the content of the speech, and I promised that if they participated through the whole class in our discussion about the speech, I’d bring in the music and dance the chicken dance for them the next class period we shared.  Guess who ended up teaching a little over a hundred 7th graders how to dance the chicken dance the next week?  That lesson in abject humiliation of their teacher probably did more to make them comfortable with me than anything else.  From that point onwards any time there was a whole-school activity the 7th grade girls were the first to claim me as their extra teacher.  Playfulness and the willingness to look stupid and risk someone else’s judgment of you go far in bridging barriers.

And make no mistake; bridging barriers was my real task in the Philippines.  Everything I was teaching to my younger students was something a priest or teacher trained in basic theology could have covered.  Even when I was asked to teach a course in the newly established Lay Institute, discussing the roles and relationship of science and religion, that could have been done with a tag team of a college science teacher and a priest.  What I was really there for was to keep the connections going between the Philippine Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Church in the US.  Hang on a moment, I’m going to get theological.  The two great theological heresies of the American churches, in general, are the concept that we can do it alone, and the concept that we need to rescue the world.  Both of these heresies come out of the feeling that America is special and different, that what we as Americans have is unlike any other country in the world, and that we either need to save it for ourselves or export it to everywhere else, because nothing else is quite as good.  It is, explicitly, what most of our mission work from the 19th century  onwards had at its core.  We can’t just bring Christianity out into the world, we have to bring American Christianity, with all of its cultural assumptions, to the world.  

…Yeah.  That definitely has its issues.  Unsurprisingly, when we finally dropped that bit of cultural imperialism from our mission and outreach, we mostly also dropped doing mission work.  We no longer wanted to do it wrong, so instead we stopped doing it much at all.  We pulled in as a church and turned our focus to squarely within our own borders.  From one extreme to another.  

When Young Adult Service Corps was first established in the 2000s, David Copley, our founder, wanted to work to directly combat both the isolation tendencies of the previous decades, and the imperialistic tendencies of the century and a half before that.  YASC was conceived as a way to build partnerships, to stay in communication with other Episcopal and Anglican churches around the world.  We are sent out, but not to create another top-down structure with ourselves at the top.  We instead join with the local church and work with them on what their priorities and goals are.  

And in the end, the work was secondary.  It was about the friendships made, about making different parts of the world, different parts of the church, real to one another.  It was about playing the same kind of games with little girls and boys in vacation bible school in the Philippines that I would play here in the US, about having wine and conversation with a co-teacher as he vented about the work involved with running the school newspaper.  It was about explaining to a group of seventh grade boys what snow actually feels like, and braiding hair with my seventh grade girls as we watched the volleyball tournament and remembered to cheer when something exciting happened.  It was about all the quiet moments in which we knew each other and were known.  It was about overriding all those moments when I would feel isolated and weird for the moments when connection existed, and friendships began.  

That’s what I learned in the Philippines.  Well, that and that killi-killi is the Filipino word for armpit.  I taught preteen boys, after all. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Educational Tour

From May 2nd through May 4th, I went on an "educational tour" around parts of Northern Luzon I hadn't gotten much of a chance to visit yet.  In other words, Padie Alyse and Ma'am Bridget took me on vacation to go see Sagada and Banaue and a few other spots along the way.  This is going to be mostly pictures, because the photos are better than any amount of verbal description:

The route: Dad put this together to help me explain it after I told him all about the trip:

 The trip up started with us stopping to take pictures at a few Episcopal Churches along the way:

 And at a few other sites:

We reached Bontoc in time for lunch, and afterward met with the Bishop there.  No pictures of that, sorry.  We headed over to Sagada and stopped for an afternoon tea with some Easter College graduates while it was pouring down buckets of rain.  It was worth the rain, though, for this rainbow:
It's faint in the picture, but in person you could really see the twin rainbows. 

And then there was another church before evening, the one in Busao, where Ma'am Bridget is from:

We stopped at the church right before sunset, then headed over to Ma'am Bridget's aunt's house, which was free for the night.  Her aunt and uncle are currently living in the US, so any time family shows up back in Busao, they stay over at that house or with others at the family compound. 

The next day was exploring Sagada.  First up, caves!  Now,  I didn't get any pictures of within the cave I went climbing in, because I knew better than to take my camera in and expect anything to come out.  So instead, here's a picture of me with my guide after we came out, both soaking wet from the water running through the cave system:
We also went to look at a separate cave with hanging coffins.  It's a traditional burial practice, and the last person to be buried like this in the region was buried about 3 years ago, though in a further off section than we made it to:

In the last picture you can see some of the coffins wedged against a sheer cliff face. 

They stopped and bought me some spare clothing so I wouldn't be walking the rest of the day in soaking wet jeans, and then we went to the church in Sagada, which has an amazing altar:
 That's native rock below, and a hand-carved crucifix. 
The pants are a bit brighter than I'd normally wear, but Sara will love them. 

We also went to the museum in Sagada, which was full of artifacts of the Cordillera region and the Igorot lifestyle, but we weren't allowed to take pictures inside.  Suffice it to say, it was an anthropologist's dream, all collected by one woman over the course of 30 years, and the museum was only started after she fought off cancer. 

The next day was Sunday, and we took the long way back to Baguio to stop at Banaue Rice Terraces, something which used to be the 7th wonder of the world:

 Our drive out from Sagada early in the morning.  We were above the clouds at dawn. 

It's before the rice planting season, so the terraces weren't at their best.  Still, think about what it takes to build all of that from mud, and then repair it every year to keep growing rice. 

We stopped in a few gifts shops, and had the day of the hats:


And also a picture of a wooden scooter carved to look like a dragon, because why wouldn't you take a picture of that?

We also stopped at the Kiangan Shrine, where the last Japanese in the Philippines surrendered after WW2:

 Taken at the top of the shrine.
Padie Alyse, Me and Ma'am Bridget, from left to right.

By mid-afternoon, we were driving through some of the lowlands as we circled back to Baguio, and ran into this resort:
We got ice cream, but didn't stop to go swimming. 

We also visited our driver's family farm, and got bananas for an afternoon snack:

Water Buffalo!

We were almost back to Baguio when we made our last stop, at the hydro-electric dam that powers half of Northern Luzon:

We took the pictures right before the evening rain and sunset hit. 

After that, it was driving through the dark back up to Baguio, and getting all of us out and back to our homes.   I think all of us slept for a good chunk of the following Monday. 

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Graduations and Transitions

I’ve been stalling on this entry for over a month and a half, at this point.  Easter College’s high school graduation happened back in mid-April, and at that point my work as a volunteer began to change over.  I’m not working as much with the school, though I still have four papers from my students in the Lay Institute that I need to finish grading before I will officially be done as a teacher in the Philippines. 

For the past month and a half, I’ve been working more with the diocese, and with the national church, visiting and attending conferences, working with a vacation Bible school, getting to be present at church events.  It’s been a bit of a transitional period for me, especially as it leads into the knowledge that I’m leaving soon. 

I’ve talked about the JCPC conference in Manila, and otherwise, the thing I’ve enjoyed most about working with the diocese has been the VBS work I did with the Cathedral.  I spent my time working with Sister Remy with the 7-10 year old group.  Which really meant that I did a lot of playing games with small children, then reading Bible stories and explaining the value for that day.  Again, bubble solution breaks down most barriers, and was also quite helpful at distracting random crying fits from a few of the younger students. 

I’ll close with pictures of both the high school and VBS graduation ceremonies:  
 Sir Jordan, still teaching till the end, even if it's only how to tie a tie. 

 The entire graduating class, wearing traditional tapis/traditional cloth for the ties as opposed to graduation robes.  That really was the main difference between this graduation and all the other high school graduations I've been to. 
 The VBS students singing in church before their graduation ceremony.
 Putting on a dance for the parents.
 More dancing!  The girl in the pink dress latched on to me and was dragging me around by my arm up until the ceremony began. 
 This little boy was the absolute cutest trying to dance along.

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.