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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

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“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

“prepare for your heart to be broken open”

Dear blog followers, thank you so much for checking in on me. Your visits, comments and messages remind me every day that I am not alone!

Four weeks ago last weekend, I moved in with my host family, who are from a town in the southern Philippines and living in Dumaguete as my host mom Dizza finishes a masters degree in theology. She speaks English well and is passionate about all things feminist and environmental, and loves her sweet husband, a massage therapist by the name of Robie, and eight year old son, Burr, very much. Papa Robie cares for a tiny organic garden beside our home and cooks delicious vegetarian food for this happy home- the family has been an incredible fit for me!

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Also four weeks ago today, I began my volunteer placement at an NGO called Little Children of the Philippines, or LCP. I am also volunteering my time on the weekends with Casa Esparanza, a temporary shelter for abused women and girls. My time outside of volunteering has been spent in weekly Bisaya (the local language) lessons, attending birthday parties, neighborhood potluck dinners and events like a city-wide boat race with my host family, and meeting Filipino friends for adventures in and outside of the city.

I hope to share some of what I’ve been learning at LCP and Casa Esparanza with you as I again present some questions I am grappling with. Again, your support in this experience is so tangible, and I want to invite you to share these stories and questions with family and friends- let’s keep these conversations going! And if you have any sensitivity related to topics of gender-based violence, please know that they will be mentioned in some of the descriptions below.

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LCP is a short walk or bicycle ride from where I live. It is extremely well known throughout the city as a support for over 1200 families through its health, education, livelihood, and worship ministries, as it is American missionary founded. These programs include health clinics in 14 communities in and around Dumaguete, preschools in 7 communities, a daily on-site physical therapy program for children with disabilities, meat processing start-up programs for community mothers, and five long-term shelters for children and young people ages 7-21. Little Children of the World is LCP’s mother organization based in Barnesville, Georgia that manages funding, marketing and matching of American sponsors who fundraise money for each child to participate in LCP programs. My first month as a volunteer has been an immersion to learn more about its various programs and examine where my skillsets might best fit.

My tour of the LCP preschools was especially memorable as I realized, in the most fleeting snapshots, the varying challenges faced by each community LCP serves. One community, infringed upon by an enormous dumping ground, faces health problems that include illnesses of the throat and skin for children. A second, positioned beside the ocean and only minutes from downtown Dumaguete, hosts slum-like conditions as fisher folk struggle to earn their pay with the results of overfishing. A third has recently formed to house refugees of the devastation of Typhoon Yolanda in 2013.

I found a ministry of LCP called Schools on Wheels that provides schooling for street children in the afternoons to be difficult to leave after observing, and I have been spending time with its participants, fifteen bright, highly energetic 6-14 year old boys, two days a week with some plans to make recommendations for an activity manual to benefit the sustainability of the project.

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A majority of the rest of my time has been spent learning about an LCP program called YIELD. Young Inspired and Empowered Leaders for Development is made up of sponsored high school and college youth through LCP. YIELD encourages youth toward a Christian lifestyle equipped with moral values, creates an inclusive culture of unity and cameraderie among members, and develops and strengthens members’ self-confidence and leadership skills so that they may become peer educators in their respective communities. During the next nine months, I hope to assist in planning creative workshops to enable the youth to develop professional skills in marketing, generating awareness around and raising funds for YIELD. Below is a youth-made video showing the vibrancy and passion of these high school and college students who I have been honored to meet so far- the narration is mostly in Bisaya, but you’ll find bits and pieces of English as well! It tells the story of youth leaders inspiring their communities to rise above habits such as skipping school and using drugs. I look forward to updating you on all that I learn from them throughout the year.


At Casa Esparanza, the short-term shelter for women and girls where I spend time on Saturdays, clients are given a safe place to live until their court cases finish or arrangements are made for them in a secure location in their home communities. The current ages of 15 clients range from a baby in a sixteen-year old’s belly to a six-year old girl to a woman in her late twenties. I’ve been observing interactive workshops on self-autonomy and self-awareness, and in interacting with these young women through jokes, drawing and songs, I am inspired by their laughter just as I am struck by the vast issue of gender-based violence. Many clients are abused or abandoned from the time they can walk, others raped repeatedly by their fathers or other perpetrators within their homes and communities.

Yet it was a moment in conversation last weekend with a house mother who lives at Casa when I wanted to break down and cry- and I did, in fact, end up leaving an hour later in tears as this exchanged weighed on me as if it was a physical load. We were speaking about her experience working at the shelter, and she asked me in English if cases of abuse and rape also happen in the U.S. I didn’t know where to begin to answer. Was I to respond with the statistics of 1 out of every 3 women in American universities who are assaulted sexually? By saying that children and women all over the world are viewed as objects, abused, and taken advantage of? Or with the stories of female friends, family members and even my own of grief and of suffering? I think I managed a response as intuitive as “Yeah, yeah it does,” and am still left with bigger, sinking questions. The words from the YAV director Richard Williams, who formerly served as a YAV in the Philippines, simultaneously haunt me and give me solace in moments like this. “Prepare to have your heart break open,” he advised, “and to have God there to pick up the pieces.” My heart feels shattered in these moments. I don’t know how what has been taken from these women and girls can ever be given back. I don’t know how they can be best helped in their various and individual healing processes. Sometimes, when we reach a place where we just don’t have the answers, all we can do is wait helplessly for the next shining moment of hope.

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Every day of this immersion has been marked with ups and downs, as I attempt to absorb information at a rapid pace about these new settings, and adjust to schedule changes and decisions being made the moment before they are implemented. I am working hard to improve my Bisaya to understand even the tiniest bit of what is going on around me (Bisaya spoken far more commonly than English, although luckily in Dumaguete it is often scattered with English words throughout), and with this comes the necessity to be humble as I have become the punch line of most jokes that happen around me in the workplace. All in all, days can be exhausting, but I am so grateful for the constant foundation of my host family, my connection to other YAVs, and for the overall amazing ability of Filipinos to love and accept me into their spaces.

This week I head into another week at LCP, and this coming weekend I will lead a visual art activity as an informal form of art therapy for the girls at Casa Esparanza. As I pray for peace for each of these young women in their journeys of healing and awareness of self, I pray also for strength and hope to continue to abound in each young member of LCP and for wisdom and guidance for the loving LCP staff. I invite you to pray and to grapple with me as we look toward November together. Here are some lingering questions I have after my first month in placement- please ponder and share as you are able.

  • What is the definition of empowerment, and what does it look like at LCP and Casa Esparanza as separate institutions? Is it access to resources, health, or education? Is it the ability of communities to initiate change and serve themselves? This is something I will continue to pay attention to as I observe the sponsorship model from the U.S. and the projects contributed by a constant influx of short and long-term LCP volunteers from America, Australia, Germany and Denmark (including myself!).
  • Seeing as about 80% of LCP clients are strong Catholics relying on support from/required to attend services at a markedly evangelical NGO, how does the component of faith play a role in the work of LCP? Does it make its intentions any less valid, or its results any less tangible?
  • Lastly, how does the work of LCP and Casa contribute to systems of oppression that I’ve written about in previous posts? How does its work move to resist them? Please hold me accountable in continuing to examine these two questions in particular as the year continues. Peace and warmth be with you, readers. –Emma

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!

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.