Message on Courageous Hope in the Philippines & A Word on Future Plans

Happy April, everyone! It’s the hottest in the Philippines that it’s been since I arrived, since summer here is April to June. Maybe the heat is spreading, since I heard loved ones in the U.S. are finally getting a dose of spring weather! I hope all reading this are well.

I thought I would share a message on hope that I was invited to deliver at my host family’s church in Dumaguete, called Chapel of the Evangel, earlier this month. As I will mention my plans for next year at the end of the message, I included an addition for my blog readers to explain a bit more about what I’ll be doing and my hopes for this next chapter. Thank you always for joining and supporting me on the journey.

Chapel of the Evangel Message, Sunday, April 8, 2018

“I’m Emma, and I’m honored to be asked to share today. It’s been a true privilege to worship at CEF over the past six months, starting in October when I moved into the home of Mom Dizza Del Castillo, Papa Rubie, and Bur. It makes me feel at home in the Philippines to not only participate in the livelihood of a Filipino family, but to be able to join in a worshipping community here at CEF with so many familiar faces, particularly on holidays like Christmas and Easter. When Ma’am Ruth approached me about sharing, my response was “ang gamay Bisaya sa ako kabalo.” “Estorya nako: Wala ang qualifications ko, ma’am!”

What I mean to say, is by no means am I qualified to share a sermon or any kind of impressive knowledge with you today, but at least I hope to share a bit about my experience in the Philippines, both to express my gratitude for this community, and to talk on the theme of hope, in connection to the celebration of Easter last Sunday. I hope that “mu enjoy kamo akong estorya,” though sadly I will stick to English for its majority.

My story in the Philippines began really when I was just a child growing up in my home church in Maryland, the U.S. I  heard stories of church workers doing God’s work not only in our community and country, but around the world. I knew from a young age that, if given the opportunity, I would love nothing more than to learn about Jesus Christ by working alongside brothers and sisters in a different country or culture.

When I came to the end of my college, I eagerly applied to be a volunteer through a program offered by my church  that sends young people to volunteer in national or international placements for 11 months of service. I completed applications for three different countries, and when I received the news that I was placed in the Philippines, I was excited, though I had many questions. What did God want from me in this place? Where would I stay? What would the people be like? And, most importantly, what would they eat in this place? (At this time, I had never heard of lechon, the national dish of the Philippines.)

So therefore, the months before my departure, all I could do was HOPE. Coming out of a tense time in my country with a presidential administration that fuels hate and rage, all I could do was hope that my experience in the Philippines could teach me to follow God even in the darkest of times. Little did I know that my time here would give me more hope for the world than I could have ever imagined.

When I first arrived to Sibulan Airport with fellow U.S. volunteer Lauren Robinson, I was struck by the natural beauty of the Philippines as our plane flew over misty green mountains and sparkling coral reefs. Our site coordinators Dessa Quasada-Palm and Cobbie Palm had planned our first four weeks in country to be filled with learnings of the Bisaya language and Filipino history and culture. They toured us around the city of Dumaguete and arranged our immersions with UCCP church workers in rural Bohol and urban Cebu. Each day, as we learned about the colonisation of the Philippines, the inclination of the country to experience natural disasters time and time again, and its rocky political struggle since gaining independence, I felt my heart break open more and more for the Filipino people. Yet at the same time, I felt more and more confused as to why every Filipino we met was so joyful. It didn’t make any sense! To this day, I find it remarkable to see every Filipino I meet filled with a sense of determination to embetter their community, their country, and the world.

God continued to show me this theme of courageous hope when I moved in to the home of Reverend Dizza in early October. Living in Divinity Village, I met neighbors like Pastor Leah, Kuya June, Kuya Jeri and Ate Bhing Bhing as I was invited to accompany their Master of Theology class trip to Casororo Falls. In a debrief conversation following the visit, Mom Dizza was actually brought to tears as she described how God’s creation is like a mighty waterfall that keeps on giving and giving, even as we humans continue to take advantage of its resources without realizing the impact of our actions, or even without stopping to saying thank you to God. I was so moved by this sense of immense gratitude expressed by Mom Dizz. On this day, I realized that recognizing the love of God that surrounds us is an action that opens a door for us to have hope for the future.

When I began to attend fellowship dinners and celebrations in the Village, meeting neighbors like Pastor Ronald, Ate Yasmine, Ma’am Jean, Ma’am Magnolia, Ma’am Er, and of course Jobelle, Barth, Jade, Sophia, RJ, Little Jade, Jeus and SJ, I realized that hope lives in community. In the Village, community members share sorrows by giving massage and checking in on neighbors when they are sick. They share joys by celebrating each members’ birthday like its the most important day of the year, with fellowship, songs, and more food than I could have ever imagined, ranging from suso (local snails) to red rice to delicious grilled isda (fish). Community in the Philippines is where hope is fostered and cultivated, growing into a sensation that you cannot avoid every time you enter the Village to be greeted by children laughing and playing.

In my work placement here in Dumaguete, at the Little Children of the Philippines or LCP, I learned also that hope does not mean that you do not suffer. Monday through Saturday of each week, I work with children ranging from age six to twenty plus, in two separate ministries. The first is a leadership development program for high school and college students from some of Dumaguete’s poorest communities. The second is a program for children out of school who live in temporary housing along the Banica River near Hypermart. I will share a story today from this group of children, as I feel it epitomises the determination at the heart of the Filipino. Most of these children’s parents are out of work, and many are involved in drug use. Some parents have even been killed due to drug or gang violence in the community. Mental health affects families strongly and can be crippling when it comes to the care and development of their children.

One child who I work with closely in the program, I’ll call him Thomas, is 13 years old. He is sent by his parents to beg at Hypermart or 7/11 each night to provide income for the family. Thomas is beaten if he doesn’t bring back money by morning, and because of malnutrition and lack of sleep, he normally lacks focus and concentration when he comes to the program at LCP in the afternoons. One day, I learned that Thomas had been approached by a young woman in his community who asked him to help her with her night job of coordinating trafficking on the boulevard in Dumaguete. She had offered him food and money as a form of payment, and he began to engage in this work and stopped coming to LCP. I had worked with this child all year and had so much faith in him, but in that moment, there was nothing I could do about the situation he had found myself in. I found myself truly doubting the presence of God. Had God abandoned this program and these children? What would happen to Thomas if he continued this dangerous work? What if he was sent to jail and had to wait for a trial until the age of 18, or even worse, what if he was swept into trafficking himself? It seemed there was no hope in Thomas’s situation, until the LCP staff stepped in.

A social worker on the LCP staff began searching for Thomas along the boulevard at night, and talked to him seriously about what would happen if he was caught. An LCP preschool teacher who knew him well urged him to say no to the woman who had enlisted his help. Finally, Thomas found the strength to say no to the young woman when she came by his home, and shortly after, he miraculously returned to the program. Though his situation at home may always be unstable, it seems that he recognises that he is safe and loved at LCP, and he now continues to return there. When I see him laughing and playing today, I have this sense of hope that seems somehow deeper and more enriched than before. Through the trials of this child’s story, I have seen God’s love persist. This is a prevailing lesson I am learning here in the Philippines; that it is through suffering that hope for God’s salvation can become even stronger.

I am blessed to say that next year I will be pursuing a Master of Divinity degree at Princeton Theological Seminary to further my knowledge of God, her Spirit, and her living image in Jesus Christ. Like my experience with the child Thomas from LCP, my decision to pursue a Master of Divinity was, and still is, marked with both hope and doubt. I approached Mom Dizza daily during the application process with questions about listening to my call, discerning what role I am meant to play, and questioning what this decision might mean for my future. I hope that this opportunity can give me a framework of understanding along with the hope I have learned about here in the Philippines. I hope that it can allow me to pursue some kind of work in advocacy or social justice. But in the end, wherever or whatever this work may be is up to God to decide.

I will always remember Jesus’s words in John 20:20-24 as a representation of the advice that my host mother Mom Dizza gave me throughout my discernment process, when Jesus addresses the doubting Thomas by saying to the disciples, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed.” Even in times when we do not know what the future brings, hope might be all we can hold onto, so we hold on tightly, and we hold on together. Thank you for receiving my message today, and may God bless you kanunay. Salamat kaayo tanan.”


Additional Note on Future Plans

I hope you enjoyed the above stories. As stated, I am humbled, nervous and excited to be beginning the three-year Master of Divinity program at Princeton Theological Seminary this coming September. My eleven months of service in the Philippines will finish in late July, and I will spend the month of August with my family in the U.S. to prepare for this next chapter. Some amazing people who supported me in the discernment process included my host mother, my (U.S.) parents, my home pastor, my site coordinators here in the Philippines, Elon faculty, my sister, close friends, and several mentors in seminary as well as a mentor from camp. You know who you are- THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart!

A bit about my discernment process

Until around this January, I pictured myself doing another year of service in the U.S. or applying for a non-profit or camp position after this year. I started looking at YAV sites in the U.S. and began a small job search, but nothing really clicked until I randomly went to a few seminary websites and began reading about their programs. As someone active in the church from a young age, seminary had always been in the back of my mind, but I was never certain about applying and definitely didn’t expect to apply so soon after finishing undergrad. However, I felt a thirst to want to learn more about the systems of oppression woven into the backdrop of Christian faith that I’ve encountered here in the Philippines, and the more I read about seminary programs, the more I became interested. I applied for three seminaries, then, still unsure if seminary was for me, at the last minute decided to apply for only one, which was Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS), to see what would happen. When I was accepted and offered a scholarship, I was thrilled, and after talking with friends and mentors I decided to accept.

A bit about Princeton Theological Seminary

PTS was the first ever Seminary of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. and today educates students from over 52 ecumenical backgrounds. Its student body is large and diverse in tradition and thought. Its staff are stellar and the school values hands-on learning in the community and abroad, including in a nearby farm owned by the seminary. Important to me is that not only do I have family in the area, but it’s only a two-hour train ride from my home, and it offered me a pretty amazing financial aid package. There’s a good chance I won’t have to pay anything for my education, including books, housing and food.

A bit about the Master of Divinity Program/What I hope to do with it

 

The Master of Divinity program aims to prepare students for ministry and promises to be adaptable depending on student’s personal goals. I’m not sure if I will become ordained in the church or even work in or for the church, but I am looking forward  to studying history, theology and ethics to learn more about the context of my faith background as well as what God wants me to do with my faith in the world. I’m excited to see where this opportunity will lead.

Other helpful links and information

Thank you for reading, and please don’t hesitate to reach out by clicking on my “Let’s Chat” button (above on top right) with any questions you have. Sending peace to your week, Emma

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Coffins and Cordilleras

Hey all, can you believe it’s almost April already? Since my last post, I’ve mistaken the month to still be January at least a few times. I’ve also had the opportunity to wrap up the fundraiser at my work placement and to move houses. This is because my beloved host family will soon be returning to their home near a southern city called Davao for summer in the Philippines. My hopes for my remaining four months in country are that I may pour into communities here to the fullest extent possible, and continue to learn from these relationships and this special place.

As part of the YAV program, we recently visited a northern island in the Philippines called Luzon for our third quarterly retreat. Myself along with fellow volunteer Lauren and site coordinators Dessa and Cobbie were able to participate in reflection activities about our volunteer experience to this point, while simultaneously learning about the people of the Cordillera mountain range, named by the Spanish to mean a long winding rope. I have to give that one to the Spanish because truly, I’ve never experienced such winding and jerky roads as our overnight bus ride from Manila- and what’s more, we couldn’t believe the speed at which our driver was taking those mountain roads. At one point in the middle of the night, Lauren exclaimed loudly from the back, “What is this bus driver doing?! He’s going to get us KILLED!” A mortified Cobbie quickly shushed her as to not call too much attention to the foreigners in the back (us).

After a safe (phew!) arrival in Sagada, a remote town famous for its symbols and preservation of indigenous culture, we stayed with an old friend of our site coordinator Dessa. Mary is an expressive and passionate woman who was eager to tell us legends of the mountain people, as she has roots back to the Igorot people on her mother’s side. Her house was a cabin made of and surrounded by pine trees that covered the mountains at the high elevation; listening to Mary’s stories and eating lemon pie next to a warm fireplace made us feel like we were in a different country!

Mary shared with us that Igorot is a term widely used to describe the Cordillera mountain peoples. Today it consists of roughly seven major ethno-linguistic groups who resisted Spanish colonialism. Traditionally these groups traded salt, jewelry and clothing with lowlanders, occasionally engaging in “headhunts” or territorial disputes with nearby Cordillera groups. They lived in thatched huts with wood turned a smoky black color from fires to keep the interior warm.

A sign of the preservation of Igorot culture to Mary is that Tagalog, one of the National languages in the Philippines, is not spoken in this region. Not only has native culture been preserved, but it has been forced to adapt as human threats to natural resources have increased. In the 80s, when the Philippines was under martial law under dictator Ferdinand Marcos, warring tribes came together to create a peace pact to stop the administration from building a harmful dam that would cut off the water supply to these regions. Some parts of the Cordilleras are the top producers of oil and copper in world according to Mary, yet resistance to mining in these communities continues even today, with the Benguet region where Sagada is located having passed a law declaring corporate mining illegal. One famous story included a row of bare-chested female elders forming a human chain to stop a bulldozer from creating a mining site; the symbol a blatant way of reminding miners that they were destroying not only an environment, but a culture deeply attached to thar environment.

A form of resistance that Mary engages in to protect the rights of Igorot people is running a development radio, which started in different locations around the Philippines 70s thanks to a German grant and donated Swiss equipment. The radio costs about 60,000 pesos a month to run (a little over $1,000 USD) and informs rural women about their rights in accordance to laws on reproductive health and divorce. Mary brings in a local doctor for a health hour every week with a Q&A hour to follow; she also allows call-in greetings and country music sets on the daily show. Here’s a photo below of us getting to visit the studio.

Also in Sagada, to see a bit of Igorot legend we visited a series of hanging coffins nestled in limestone cliffs in the forest where Igorot elders are placed to rest. They rest inside the coffins in fetal position as that was the way in which they came into the world, and to qualify, elders must have grandchildren, and have passed from natural causes. The Episcopal Church came to Sagada in the early 1900s, bringing with it schools, a hospital, and a desire to “Americanize.” Though the church’s presence remains powerful in the town today, sacred ceremonies today include both an Episcopal priest and a village elder to lead parts of the ritual. According to our guide at the hanging coffins, this is seen at burial ceremonies still today.

Locally grown fruits, mountain rice and coffee fueled our days in Sagada before we took another windy bus ride to an enormous city in the mountains called Baguio. This bus ride featured the highest point on the Filipino highway. In Baguio we learned about the U.S. Missionary headquarters located there and the resulting “Little America” that was planted in this urban center in the middle of the mountains, complete with a Burnham Park with rowboats comparable to parks designed by the same architect in Chicago. We visited an art museum & enjoyed fresh strawberries and vegetarian meals thanks to the abundance of local veggies. Our last stop was a bus ride to Manila for the last two days to meet with PC(USA) Mission Coworker Cathy Chang, catch a showing of the movie Black Panther, and for me to meet up with a Filipino artist friend for another set of museum tours. Hope all is well with readers in the Philippines, States and abroad- shoutout to fellow YAVs, sending love to you & you’re not alone!

Peace always, Emma

Home folks, Dumaguete arts

This past week I was lucky enough to say that four members from my home church cared enough about my wellbeing and work to travel halfway across the world to see me. One of the members was my mom! 36 hours after leaving Washington D.C., the group landed in Dumaguete, tired but excited for a week of learning about my life in the Philippines. My site coordinators Dessa and Cobbie planned a stay and itinerary for them filled with informational sessions and tours of the outreach work of my church and volunteer placement- see photos below for a glimpse of some of their activities! The last event they attended was a community arts gallery that I collaborated with members of my work placement and local artists to plan.

 

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When I first arrived at the Little Children of the Philippines (LCP) and learned about their organization of high school and college youth that does trainings for youth in leadership and the arts, I asked about the biggest needs of the group. The response was funding for resources, as well as community involvement and connections. My site coordinator Dessa works with a local theater group that plans an city-wide Arts Month every February, and it was her suggestion to approach local visual artists and ask if they would be interested in holding a fundraising event. Meetings in early December led to an overwhelmingly positive response and initial planning with art professors and students. The youth of LCP thought of a name for the project, called Uswag Sining, which is Bisaya for development through visual arts. As the project progressed, the idea to display and sell works from local artists transformed into a gallery auction that would be open to anyone in Dumaguete who wanted to donate their works. Half of all proceeds would go to the artists, and the other half to the LCP youth organization.

 

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We picked a date for the event in late February so that artists could donate works they had prepared for other exhibits throughout Arts Month. Artists joined the cause all the way until the day before the event; actually, we received messages even afterward from artists who hoped to participate. 31 total artists ranged from LCP college youth members to arts students to bankers to freelance artists,  all from Dumaguete. Youth from LCP helped recruit artists, invite patrons, and set up for the event.

The gallery opened last Friday in an event featuring a performance by the LCP youth and a welcome by the NGO director, Carmenia Benosa. We were also featured in a local newspaper. While the gallery is open to the Dumaguete public for two weeks, it is also open for patrons worldwide who wish to view or bid on works. A full listing of pieces is available on www.facebook.com/UswagSining2018, and if you hope to bid on a work, we are happy to arrange transportation of the work to wherever you are in the world. The auction will be open until next Friday, March 2 at 10PM EST (which is Saturday, March 3 at 11AM PHT), so feel free to share this post and spread the word in the coming week. Thank you to everyone keeping up with my work and experience in the Philippines; peace and creative vibes to you today!

 

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-Emma

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Bonus pic of my mom with my host family, because having two worlds collide was pretty awesome.

Lessons from being stranded

The opportunity to serve as a volunteer in the Philippines has provided a context for me to identify parts of my identity such as values, needs, and comfort levels. I have known for several years that one of my needs is structure in routine, probably in part because I grew up in a society with the resources I for granted, such as a reliable public school education, dependable public transit and constant access to health care. Here in the Philippines, though I enjoy countless privileges including having the resources to pay for travel,  doctors visits, and needed supplies, anything related to scheduling or dependability is up in the air. Thus, living in this culture requires a certain willingness to be flexible to adjust to surprises and last-minute changes. This is something that I struggle with but believe I am slowly, slowly gaining, especially from experiences such as traveling alone after Christmas.

My Filipina friend Vida, who I met in Dumaguete City where I live, was working on an island called Semirara, situated about 3/4 of the way from Dumaguete to Manila. For a point of reference, the Philippines is an archipelago of 7,107 islands, which altogether make up about the length and width of the state of California. I vowed to find a way to see her after Christmas, and though the distance to her would only take about an hour by flight, with my volunteer budget it would make more sense for me to travel by land an ocean. I was advised that about it would take two full days of travel to reach Semirara due to winding mountain roads, waiting time for buses and ferries, and rough seas during December, which falls during typhoon season. So I filled up my backpack with clothes and snacks, grabbed a few books and headed for the bus terminal Christmas day after spending Christmas Eve with my host family. Christmas morning was oddly sunny following the torrential downpours and winds we’d experienced for the previous three days- actually, Vida was doubtful as to whether I’d be able to reach Semirara at all due to countless delays and cancellations in travel during the prior week. However, I was determined to see her and experience more of the Philippines while I had the chance.

People-watching kept me occupied for the first hour of travel on Christmas morning, as the bus filled up with people visiting loved ones or commuting to their jobs. The family in the aisle across from me had two young girls under the age of 10, one of whom sported a t-shirt which stated in enormous letters, “SMOKE WEED.” I didn’t doubt for a second that neither of her parents spoke English or had any clue what the shirt meant. Ah, the Philippines. Seven bumpy hours later, we reached a port town called Bacolod on the northeast side of the island. I had asked the bus driver to drop me off at a convenient place to catch transit for the port, so the bus stopped at a gas station where a strange motorbike/tricycle/mini truck holding six or so people was waiting and I hopped on. When I asked the driver where he was from, he responded in not a single word that I understood. A sinking realization hit me: I was no longer in Bisaya-speaking territory. Bisaya, a derivative of the language Cebuano, is spoken almost exclusively in the central region of the Philippines called the Visayas, so if you’re an only-Bisaya speaking foreigner in the Philippines outside of this range, you are out of luck. I was just as clueless as any other foreigner now. Sigh. I grabbed the first boat to the island Ilo Ilo and waited thirty minutes to board.

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Upon my arrival there, I was greeted by a friend of my site coordinator Cobbie. The friend sent his son to bring me to their family home for an overnight stay. As I had been informed on the bus that morning, my digestive system was feeling a bit out of sync from an apparent Christmas day stomach bug. However, I didn’t have the heart to tell the kind Sir Nick and his wife Jurgenne about my issue. We sat down to a beautiful Christmas dinner and I barely took a bite. “Still full from all my snacking today!” I lied cheerfully, before dismissing myself to the restroom and an early night’s sleep. The sweet couple arranged for a taxi to pick me up at 5:00 the next morning, and I bid them goodbye with hands full of sweets and snacks they prepared for my day’s travel. I was taken to a bus station a few kilometers from their home where I boarded a seven hour ride to a port city at the top of the island.

On the bus, I met a Filipino family taking a post-Christmas vacation to an island called Boracay, famous for its white sand beaches. “Must be a nice spot for local Filipinos,” I thought to myself, before wishing them a happy trip and heading toward the ticket counter for my boat to the island on the way to Semirara. Lo and behold, a post sign read, NO BOAT UNTIL 3PM TODAY. Given as the only boat to Semirara would leave no later than 5PM, I had no way to get there in time. What made the timing even worse was that the only boat to Semirara departed every two days, so I was stranded for more than 48 hours with no way to reach Vida. I glanced at an enormous sign on the entrance to the port. “FERRY TO BORACAY: ONLY 25 PESOS.” Less than 50 US cents to the supposed most beautiful beach on the planet? Since I had over 48 hours to kill, I headed to the ticket counter and boarded the ferry shortly thereafter.

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As our ferry chugged away from the port, I noticed a strange phenomenon: foreigners of all colors and kinds pouring out of the very same port to board the very same ferries as me. Groups of Korean, French, Canadian and even Russian tourists clutched umbrellas and beach bags while sporting backpacking packs just like mine. Who were these people? How had they found this place? And, most importantly, how could the beautiful beach of Boracay possibly hold all of them? My last question was made clear the moment we arrived. A gleaming tourism office awaited us with lines of organized tricycles whisking people away to various groups of restaurants, hotels and resorts. My eyes widened as I felt my wallet deflate by the second. After asking around at a couple Sari-Sari stores (street convenience stores found in communities all over the Philippines) close by, I found out that with holiday crowds, my best chance at finding a place to crash for two nights would be heading to one of the four tourist/resort areas. I picked a station recommended by my Sari-Sari friends and boarded a tricycle. The hilly streets of Boracay, maybe once quaint and green, were congested with hoardes of high-rise buildings, motorbikes, tricycles, and groups of foreign travelers, some of whom rode rented road ATVs which drove so slowly that it was infuriating to be stuck behind them. It took over a two hours of walking through crowded sandy streets to find a hostel with an opening for one, and sellers of toys, foods, and tourist attractions waved flyers at me at every storefront. “Ma’am! We’ll go island hopping ma’am! Where you want to go?” “Like to windsurf ma’am? How about paddleboard?” “Fresh fruit shake ma’am! Mango, pineapple, whatever you like!” I was overwhelmed. In four months of the Philippines, I had never seen this many tourists or felt this much like a tourist. And I was alone, and way short on money.

I found a place to stay that was close-ish to my price range and hid there for the night and next morning. I found a quiet enough place to eat breakfast and a spot on the beach that wasn’t yet taken up by groups of selfie-stick holding tourists (this is way more common than I expected, particularly among the Korean and Chinese). In the afternoon I found a local driver to take me on a cheap tour around the island, and I spoke Bisaya even when only a few words were similar to Aklanan, the local language, to barter for a decent price. I found a beach that was a bit quieter to the one where I was staying and listened to a podcast.

Oh, and did I mention there was a typhoon coming? The above pictures are taken in one of the only moments of sunshine from the two days I spent in Boracay. For the most part, it poured rain and was super cloudy. I was glad to get a boat back to Ilo Ilo the next morning at 7, and, you can guess what the sign on the window when I arrived back at my friendly ticket office. Actually, I arrived at the office so early that I was able to watch a guy come up and post this sign on the window, as if in slow motion. AM BOAT CANCELLED. NEXT BOAT AT 4PM. I would never make it to Vida’s island in time. The next boat wasn’t for two more days, and I had nowhere to go until then.

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I begged the young guy who posted the sign to help me find another way to get to the island. He waved me toward another ticket office, directing me to take a different boat north, then take a van south, to get to where I needed to go. I did the math in my head, and if the boat and van left on time, I would arrive with about ninety minutes to spare in time for the 5PM boat to Vida’s island. This gave just enough room for Filipino time, normally about 30 minutes to an hour behind schedule. I crossed my fingers, waited 90 minutes in line for my option two boat, and boarded. It stormed and rained on the six-hour open air ferry (the ferry I was supposed to take would have been only around three), and the few Filipinos on the boat huddled together to stay warm and dry. I was adopted by a motorcycle group of husbands, wives and teenage kids from Manila. They spoke some English and shared cookies, hot noodles and instant coffee during the ride. When we arrived, I persuaded a janitor who persuaded the driver to let me off before the cars and trucks. I literally ran to the nearest form of transportation, which was a minivan with a sign taped to the front window- BULOLACAO. This was my last chance. I explained to the driver my situation; that I only had two hours to get to the boat, that it was my only way to get there, that I had been stranded for the past two days, etc. He was unimpressed, but he took my money, and we drove. On the tops of tall mountain roads I could glimpse Vida’s island on the horizon- I was so close! We also stopped every ten or so minutes to pick up more and more people on the side of the road. Strangers packed in the van like sardines, which was normal for the Philippines, but I was anxious to get to the port in time. The last passenger we picked up was a man with no arm holding a rooster. The driver instructed him to hop in the front seat beside me. So there I was, in the middle of a minivan front seat between an indifferent driver and an armless man and a chicken. At that moment, a panicked Vida called me to inform me that the boat for her island was leaving due to the coast guard response to the incoming storm. We were an hour away from the port. Stranded again.

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Some kind people in the van noticed my distress and assured me that there was one other way to get to Semirara, early the next morning. The weather would have to be good, and to get there would require two more hours travel south, then a four hour boat ride to the island (now tripling the amount of time the trip was supposed to take). Vida recommended a hotel I stay the night in, where I was given a room literally in the lobby, where people blasted music and laughed for most of the night. I left at the crack of dawn the next day and was about three hours early for the last option ferry. When we boarded and left the port an hour after scheduled departure, I thought it was too good to be true. I nearly fainted when Vida pulled up in a Jeep to the port at Semirara. She fed me, I slept the entire afternoon, and I attended a show put on by her work that evening. The next day, she informed me that we would have to leave the island ASAP due to another approaching storm. Stranded again…almost! We had time for an afternoon tour of Semirara, in which we were able to observe the ways in which a Filipino-Chinese mining company has changed the landscape and nature of the island in drastic ways. The coral, mangroves and sandy beaches of the island will be difficult to restore, and the water and air quality is visibly disturbed. However, I only had a glimpse of these unsettling changes, as the next day, Vida’s generous coworker, Denise, paid for our transit by land and ferry to Manila. We happily spent the New Year in Vida’s aunt’s home in a province outside the city, relaxing, laughing, and eating a whole lot.

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When it came time to go back to Dumaguete, I could barely stand the thought of four more days of waits and cancellations. I counted my Christmas money from extended family members and bought a flight back to Dumaguete with barely a second thought. Back in site now, and with a dent in my bank account larger than I’d like to admit, I can’t help but smile at the ten days of uncertainty I experienced on this journey. I was unsure of my next step or where I would stay that night in almost every day of the trip, yet surprisingly, overall, I found I was okay with that. Coming from a person who really likes to be in control, this was a big moment for me. I’m realizing that outside of our own thoughts and actions, there’s really not a whole lot we can control in our lives. I think God wants us to embrace a kind of uncertainty as we go about finding our places to find harmony and do justice in the world. I hope that this experience brought me a little bit closer to this place.

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Thank you always for reading, and sending love, Emma

Video 2: Pasko na naman

Here’s a short video about my Christmas in the Philippines. Whether you’re drenched in sweat from Filipino humidity or shivering through a Boston blizzard, sending island sun to you as you watch!

**NOTE, Please excuse my mispronunciation of Negros Oriental, the island where I am serving. My pronunciation should be nay-gros, not nee-gros, especially as my pronunciation in the video is synonomous with the word “Negro,” a derogatory and outdated term used to describe someone of African-American heritage. (In 2016, Obama signed a bill blocking the U.S. government from using this word to describe minorities. More info in article, What’s in a Name? Negro vs. African American vs. Black, from Ebony Magazine.) Thank you!

“What peace?”

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.

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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.

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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!

Video 1: Akong adlaw

For this post, I thought I’d share a short video to capture a typical day for me in the Philippines. I’ve been at my work placement for two months, so I’m really still learning about my surroundings and adjusting what my days look like, but I wanted to share some pieces of that adjustment period with you. Enjoy, and feel free to reach out with any questions you have or anything you’d like to see on the blog in the future.

Don’t forget to sign up for email updates for future posts! Lots of love this Thanksgiving,

Emma