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.