snapshots of the first three weeks

If you are reading this, Happy Friday! This week marked tulo semanas, or three weeks, that my partner volunteer Lauren and I have spent in the Philippines. Our first week in Dumaguete, the city where we will be serving for the year, was filled with morning studies of Filipino history led by our site coordinators, and afternoons with a tutor learning the local language, Bisaya. We then visited a local island called Apo to learn about coral reef rehabilitation, an island called Bohol, where we spent five days living with a host family and learning about agricultural living, and the island of Cebu for a two-day urban poor training. Last weekend we rested in Dumaguete before leaving for a five day stay in a fishing village called Escalante. Our last piece of in-country orientation will be a retreat next week before our volunteer placements begin and we move in with host families on October 1.

From our itinerary so far, I’d like to pull out just a few pieces of my experience to share. First, I want to explain that this experience, from my own perspective, has been at times uncomfortable. Discomfort is something I am learning to embrace in order for deeper learning and growth to occur,so I want to invite you to struggle alongside me as you read through these stories. If you find they stir up any particular emotions or questions you may have, please feel free to comment on this post or message me directly on my “Let’s Chat” page. Thank you for showing your support for me and the communities I will discuss below by visiting my page!

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The smell of instant coffee and lecheflan, a Filipino dessert similar to egg custard, wafts through a divinity school classroom with chairs arranged in a circle to accommodate professors and guests. It is mid-morning on the Silliman University campus in the heart of Dumaguete City, and the way cars are beeping outside, it’s hard to imagine we are  sitting less than a kilometer from the ocean. Presbyterian Church (USA) mission co-workers Hunter Farrell, Ruth Farrell, Scott Hagley, and Catherine Chang are visiting the Silliman divinity school for a church workers’ conference that Lauren and I have been invited to observe. To our less-than-surprise, a conversation that begins as an introduction to the courses offered in the Silliman divinity program turns into a heated debate about the irony of the way American mission work is conducted. One of the directors of the divinity school repeats several times how impossible he finds the notion of Americans forming relationships with communities abroad based on only brief, two-week trips. Often on these trips, band-aid solutions are affixed impermanently to greater systemic problems; I find the Filipino director to be justified in his confusion, and his point brings me to a critical viewpoint of what I am sent here to do as a volunteer from the American Protestant church.

According to PC(USA) mission co-worker Hunter Farrell, “Hundreds of American Christians per year spend billions to travel to communities around world adversely affected by poverty; they have powerful social, political and economic capital and the potential to make a measurable impact in addressing these issues.” Alas, Hunter points out that the tragic flaw in the system is that upon return to the U.S., volunteers  return back to their normal participation in global problems that have the potential to worsen the conditions in visited communities. The Filipino director said he approved of the length of time Lauren and I will serve in the Philippines, as ten months will hopefully be enough to form substantial and genuine relationships with our respective communities. However, there is no questioning whether I am a modern-day player in the Protestant mission movement that began as a direct offspring of colonialism. It was the roots of my ability to come here that led U.S. President McKinley to buy the Philippines from Spain for a $20M contract in the year 1900 on the bloody wings of Manifest Destiny. This decision, along with other international powers that seized the Philippines at different points throughout history, led to the massive infrastructural, political and social problems that exist in the Philippines today. Like Farell points out, as I am here, I must “look for ways in which the Spirit is already moving,” to learn from these communities and the ways they are healing the country from our tainted history.

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The curtain opens and young actors dash in, some wearing colored t-shirts, others sneakers, and a few with backward hats atop their heads. On their faces are expressions of joy as they laugh, sing, and begin to play a Filipino children’s game where hands are stacked higher and higher atop each other as people are challenge to jump over the growing wall. As they play, a conglomerate of strange figures enter the scene from stage left, foreigners to the joyful island scene. Their clothing indicates their Spanish, Chinese and American descent. They begin to tentatively play with the Filipino children but suddenly seize and drag them offstage amidst a brutal fight. The lights fade and the first scene ends.

This is a show by the Dumaguete NGO Youth Advocates Through Theater Arts, or YATTA. Their piece demonstrates the mosaic of culture in the Philippines with their 26 or 62 ethnic groups that lived in harmony before the arrival of the Chinese in 1368, Spanish in 1521, and the selling of the Philippines to the U.S. in the 1900 Paris Treaty. YATTA’s show goes on to illustrate the problems of trafficking, war, and other forms of exploitation that have endured in the country since conquest by foreign powers. Not only is this group of teens and young adults telling the story of oppression and empire in their country, but they meet monthly to discuss important topics such as the spread of HIV and AIDS and the war quietly raging in Mindanao in the Southern Philippines as I type this post. Reported drug users in the Philippines today are imprisoned and killed daily in the war against drugs, and its scarce to meet someone whose family or communities are unaffected by the current political landscape. This community called YATTA is a form of resistance to the turmoil endured by Filipinos from past to present, and a testament to the willpower of these people to remain unified and resilient.

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On an island northeast of Dumaguete, a group of young people ages 13-20 flock to an activity center in urban, industrialized Cebu City. Their energy is explosive as they greet another with chatter, laughs and shoves. As we are visitors to the Fellowship for Organizing Endeavors, Inc (FORGE) center, the group is instructed to introduce themselves to us so they invite us into a tight circle around the tiny room. Each young person states their first name and age, then spins around with flair to share their celebrity alter-ego with the room which is greeted by screams of laughter and joyful claps from the others. Celebrities are named from Selena Gomez to local Filipino actors (mine is Emma Watson, of course), and the group seems delighted to have us present in their special space. It isn’t until after a guided activity involving dividing into teams and managing to blow a ping pong ball across cups of water that the young adults begin to talk about the importance of resilience in this activity and their lives. These young people are victims of sexual exploitation who have been personally sought out by FORGE to be welcomed into this space.

FORGE is a Filipino founded and run NGO that operates on a principle of relationship-building with these young people and various stakeholders in the communities where they are exploited. The level of trust between the clients and staff is tangibly high, as different young people pull aside staff members throughout the afternoon o speak to them individually about things going on in their personal lives. FORGE works with the local transportation sector as well the families of these young people to prevent future exploitation, and in the morning when we visited a community where many of the group members are from, family members ran out of their homes to greet the FORGE staff. Many children are exploited through what is called “pesonet,” a free Internet service available in many neighborhoods where five minutes of online use can be purchased with just one peso, or five U.S. cents. Cyber pornography has become the norm in the past ten years and can even occur unknowingly in family homes with access to technology, and in part of the city we visited, adult photographers invite young women and men to photo shoots under the expectation that the clients will then engage in intercourse with them to receive their photos from the shoot. FORGE seeks to break the normality of these cycles through intervention at various levels, and one of the most incredible sights I have witnessed in my life was the way these young people were listened to at the FORGE center. Many come from homes with separated parents or physical, emotional or sexual abuse, and this space was clearly their own to feel validated, uplifted and loved.

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Bullets explode into the air by the town center as a group of Filipino agricultural workers, arms linked in peaceful unity a second earlier, drop screaming to the ground. Their signs and flags in place of firearms fall beside them, yet the military’s machine guns and hand grenades continue to batter the crowd for several painful moments. This is an historical reenactment of the massacre of 21 farmers and fisher folk during a nonviolent assembly in the town of Escalante on Negros island in 1975. When sugar prices plummeted in the early 70s, farmers and fisherpeople came together to seek solutions for the poverty that was rapidly becoming their reality. Over 120 innocent people died from injuries from the massacre in hospitals and their homes afterward.

Today, after the passing of 32 years, sugar cane farmers from this “sugar bowl” region import sugar at prices infinitely higher than they exported. Wealth is in the hands of a few select landlords who dictate a modern slavery based on fear, as they are usually of third or fourth-generation Spanish heritage, and racial inferiority is still heavily engrained into the culture. Workers earn the equivalent of a cup of Starbucks coffee per person per day. In order to keep their jobs, workers are expected to arrive at 6AM and labor in hot fields with little shade until sunset. There is little harvest, and therefore little money, in the “Haciento Muerto” rainy season, so workers are being forced to leave their communities for house help and other jobs in the Philippines and abroad.

Our host mother “Nai” who opened her home to us during our stay in Escalante was a survivor who lost her husband and nephew to the massacre. Members of her fishing community told us stories of the seas 20 years ago, when one catch would bring in 15-20 kilos each time. Today, fisher folk are lucky to find a catch that is 5 kilos, due to laws that ensure more land to both marine sanctuaries and large corporations.

A striking sign of hope we witnessed in Escalante, however, was artists using theater and painting to advocate for and design solutions to farming and fisher folk working under oppressive conditions. The workers’ theater group Theatro Hobrero was started with the goal of relaying messages to audiences in a more enticing format than political speeches or rallies. Young sugar cane workers of this group performed a play raising awareness of child labor on our first night in Escalante and were key actors in the reenactment two days later. Before we had even arrived, seven murals by unpaid Filipino artists had been completed in the city square across from the location where the massacre occurred. I was honored to be invited to assist master artist Egai Fernandez with a collaborative mural which he worked on over two days, which you can watch in the video below. Egai says that art is a way to show people how to think differently about how to solve key issues in society, and thanks to the organizing of Egai, Theatro Hebrero and other barangay communities in Escalante, today, over 2,000 people are involved in the annual reenactment activities.

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When we ask our host mother Nai how long she plans to stay involved in the annual reenactment, she responded that she will not stop until farmers and fisher folk gain fair treatment and opportunity. There is much work to be done, but in art and in community, the resilient spirit of  Filipinos prevail. Thank you for joining me today- sending love to each of you! I leave you with this video of artist Egai Fernandez’s mural to Remember Escalante, which I was invited to assist with as a visitor to the week’s activities. Enjoy!


orientation & safe arrival in the philippines!!

Magandang tanghali po, or good afternoon, from Manila! My partner YAV, Lauren, and I left orientation at Stony Point Center in New York on Monday evening to begin our trek to the Philippines. After a twenty hour flight, plus a few hours including transportation to the airport, a stop in Vancouver, and security & customs, we have arrived in country! It is midday here and 12 hours ahead of EST. I am eating some delicious dumplings and waiting to board our final flight to Dumaguete City! There, we will finally meet our site coordinators Dessa and Cobbie to begin orientation to the Philippines. Over the past week, each day has brought me more and more excitement for this year, and especially after orientation I feel as if I’m going in to this year with an army of love and support behind me. I couldn’t be more grateful for every person following my blog and checking up on me in various ways! Here’s a sum up of my  past week of orientation. Sending everyone reading this so much love!!

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Flashback to ten days ago, my lovely sister Claire was helping me fill my solitary backpack to the brim with a year’s worth of clothes and supplies. A core tenet of the YAV program is living simply, which I tried very hard to live into by packing lightly- a feat that would not definitely not have been possible without Claire’s help! On August 27, the day of the eclipse, my family took me to Baltimore to catch a train to Newark, NJ. Upon arrival in Newark, I promptly realized that an email with instructions on how to get to Stony Point must have gotten mysteriously lost somewhere in my spam folder, so I quite literally walked up to young adults in the train station who sported some stereotypical Presbyterian trends. Lo and behold, the first Chaco sandal-wearing, Nalgene water bottle-drinking 20-some year old I approached was indeed another YAV! We gathered a group to swap eclipse glasses and navigate the train system to Stony Point together, arriving just in time for dinner.

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For anyone who has not had the opportunity to visit Stony Point Center, I HIGHLY encourage looking into it, as my week stay left me feeling incredibly restored, grounded, and moved to go out in the world and serve. Not only is this space one of the most racially and ethnically diverse ministries of the Presbyterian Church (USA), but it sustains a Community of Living Traditions made up of roughly 20 Christians, Jews and Muslims who both volunteer and reside at the center. Over the past century, the site has been home to political refugees seeking asylum, international mission workers from over seven protestant dominations, and dialogue around the reformation of missionary work in the PC(USA) church. Co-directors Rick and Kitty Ufford-Chase have worked tirelessly to create the intentional community at Stony Point since they arrived August 2008, and its grounds host an acre of farmland that produce over 2,000 pounds of vegetables per year! This makes for some DELICIOUS and fresh meals!

Our YAV orientation, grounded in the respect and love of Stony Point Center, united 70+ YAVs about to embark on a year of service at dozens of national and international sites. The organization CrossRoads led an intensive 24-hour antiracism training, which equipped us with a basic understanding of how we are implicated in unjust social arrangements, which will be necessary to consider before fully loving our neighbors as ourselves. Not only did I feel sent from this training with the goal to engage in dialogue and continued learning to further the process of reconciliation, but I am now motivated to go into my year serving behind, instead of beside, mission partners in the Philippines. As a YAV, I seek to ask critical questions regarding underlying sources of oppression rather than focusing on band-aid issues to the many problems that simmer from the cracks of broken and intertwined systems. I am encouraged to turn my frustration and grief with my own identity into communal hope and action this year and beyond, and I feel that this story shared by Valerie Kaur is an idyllic example of turning pain into beauty.

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Daily bible studies led by Stony Point Center Co-Director Rick also exemplified how I hope to put these principles into action. Rick studies scripture based on the understanding that the only way to read it is to come prepared to be challenged, and leave ready to act on it meaningfully. We dissected gospel passages pointing to the social and political constructs that Jesus challenges boldly throughout the gospel. In Matthew 25, Jesus makes a prophecy of a globalized world in which people of higher class loan out money to those of less privilege, setting the lower classes up for failure no matter how hard they work. In Luke 6, Jesus questions systems by making a politically astute, nonviolent and confrontative statement by challenging the Pharisees to go against the law and work for the spirit on the Sabbath. I have never before read scripture in a way so applicable to the systems of oppression in our nation today, and this was one of the most pivotal points of my orientation experience.

Group worship and small group time every day helped us process all we learned, reflect on highs and lows, and build a strong and uplifting community around these heavy topics. On the last day of orientation, the volunteers were split into groups to be commissioned by local churches, and I found just as much support and inspiration from orientation as I did at First Presbyterian Church of Yorktown, New York, who graciously welcomed me and my close friend Elizabeth into their congregation and service. I am continuously in awe of the support of this church community and my greater support network from home, school and camp! Cannot wait to take you all along on this journey to be stretched and challenged together.


gratitude post!

I’ve got a lot to be grateful for on this humid July night, so I thought I’d fill you in on why.

First, last week I received word from my pastor at home that I have reached my total fundraising amount for my year in the Philippines. I can’t even fathom the amount of love that poured from family, friends and church members over the past four months that allowed me to reach a final figure of $5,807 (the amount needed was $5,000!). Friends who supported me in words of encouragement, advice and listening ears have meant just as much since the application process in January. Words cannot cover grateful I am, but I hope that my blog updates, pictures, and the happiness I share with friends in the Philippines will circle back to touch all of you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Secondly, I have received my service placement, and could not be more excited to work with the organization Little Children of the Philippines, located outside Dumaguete City. I have found kids to be my most favorite way to connect with new places and communities, particularly in places with a new language, and I anticipate the children I work with to be a key piece to help me transition to life in the Philippines. I can’t wait to get to know their faces and learn their names. I know they are going to teach me so much.

Third, I have a mere four weeks until I leave for a week of orientation with the 2017-2018 YAV class in Stony Point, New York! I am both nervous and thrilled at how quickly the next month will undeniably fly by. I leave for Stony Point on August 21 and then for the Philippines on August 27, and have much packing, preparing and reading up to do in the meantime. I promise to check in with the blog as I check in to New York in just four short weeks!

If I could list a fourth (not final, but concluding today’s blog list!) reason to be grateful tonight, it’s the rumble of thunder in the distance as I sit on a bench outside the gaga pit (gaga. look it up- important summer camp terminology) at Camp Hanover, Virginia, my summer home throughout my years in college. I am here this summer working as a Unit Director, and feel so absolutely inspired by the humans I get to work alongside. Just wait for my soon-to-come shoutout post, Laura, Chloe and Colleen- it’s going to be wild.

These are all my updates for tonight, but I promise I’m only an email away with answers to any questions you may have! A link to shoot me an email is at the top of this page. Visit the toolbar on the right to receive updates via email for future posts.

Goodnight all, and thank you, thank you, thank you 🙂