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
- 11 Myths about Going to Seminary (I highly recommend this one!)
- Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS)
- Master of Divinity Program at PTS
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