Maayong Pasko tanan— Happy Hannukah and Merry Christmas! I wish for peace for each of you and your loved ones this season. I was so happy to hear that my last post in video form was enjoyed- it’s a blessing to be able share my experience in a way that people resonate with, so I hope to create a another video at some point! Here are a few pictures from our second YAV retreat to the island Siquijor in late November, which I hope will be almost as satisfying. We celebrated Thanksgiving with a LOT of fresh seafood, as well as some pretty amazing sunsets, like the one in the photo featured above.
Just before our retreat, I was lucky enough to have a friend from college visit Dumaguete City where I’m serving this year. He had just finished a semester abroad in Singapore and was hoping to catch a glimpse of the lush Filipino mountains and world-famous coral reefs. During our time together, he asked a bit about the church I attend in the Philippines. I am accustomed to describing my PC(USA) partner church, United Church of Christ in the Philippines, as a progressive and even radical presence in Dumaguete City. In citing stories from my first three months here, I tell of young female pastors lifting up historical injustices committed against indigenous peoples behind the pulpit. I tell of my host mother, a divinity student of the church, weeping on a nature excursion for the human need for reconciliation with our giving earth, which we have stripped of resources and dignity. I tell of a vigil I attended where local church members prayed for the leadership of the church, acknowledging that churches have played a part in capitalism, as flawed, human institutions. The response of my friend to this explanation was, “Wow.” Then he asked, “Is that even considered a church?”
In truth, when the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) broke away from its missionary roots in the 70s and turned its eyes to initiatives in rehabilitation, peace, justice & human rights, its transformation was- and is- viewed by many as a shift toward communism. My response to my friend’s question was something along the lines of, “well, I guess so, since they believe in Jesus.” Emphasis on the word “they.” My work placement, a declared non-denominational Christian NGO, often feels so far from this values system that it could very well be based in another religion. So what do I believe? This year is an excuse to declare myself a constant learner, or, a student of planet earth, a phrase coined by an artist I met here. But in all honesty, I really don’t know what I believe. As distant as I sometimes want to feel from the values of my work placement (although it is eerily familiar to faith traditions from earlier in my life), I still find myself reluctant to identify with a specific church or even faith practice. What keeps bringing me back to UCCP, besides my host family and site coordinator’s involvement, is the church’s clear desire to resist the systems I wrote about in previous blog posts. In a sermon titled “What Peace?,” a local pastor denounced thousands of extra-judicial killings of the current administration of the Philippines as a “violence to memory of Jesus himself”. He said that “peace cannot be delivered…to a passive people,” and he encouraged listeners to act together to create change.
As spiritually nourished as I feel in the Philippines, this year brings frequent investigatings of not only personal faith and my position as a volunteer in an NGO founded by missionaries (did I mention that four out of the other five female volunteers at my placement are also white and blonde? What kind of stereotypes are at play here), but also regarding whether the work I am doing is enough or even relevant in light of the issues the world faces today. In these moments, I try to remind myself that big questions take time, and I center myself by focusing foremost on learning, loving, and creating relationships within my community. This is why on Sunday, you’ll find me sitting with my host family on a pew in the UCCP church, just listening. And enjoying some tasty snacks provided by church members after the service!