Thursday, November 6, 2014

Reactions Against the Empire, Part 3: 'MURICA!!!

Before I get into the last installment of this series of posts, I want to give you a little personal life update. As of this week, I now have wifi access in both my home and school. I take this a sign from God that I should use this opportunity to continue in my seminary applications. My goal is to finish the applications by Thursday, November 27, Thanksgiving Day, and the beginning of our next YAV retreat. I am applying to Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Columbia Theological Seminary, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, McCormick Theological Seminary, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Princeton Theological Seminary, San Francisco Theological Seminary, and Union Presbyterian Seminary. Yes, those are 8 of the 10 Presbyterian seminaries. I am excited to announce that I officially became an Inquirer Monday 7 pm EST/Tuesday 8 am UTC! The process of becoming an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church begins with the Inquirer phase.

Now for my thoughts on 'MURICA, as they have developed so far in the Philippines.

"The America way of life" is simply not sustainable. Because it does not recognize there is a world beyond America. But fortunately, power has a shelf life. When the time comes, maybe this mighty empire will, like others before it, overreach itself and implode from within...Another world is not only possible, she's on her way. Maybe many of us won't be here to greet her, but on a quiet day, if I listen carefully, I can hear her breathing." -Arundhati Roy

I do not like to refer to my country of origin as "America." Like the bananas, this sentiment began in Nicaragua. It was my first time traveling around Central America. Our tour guides explained to us how exclusive it was that we, people from the United States of America, would call ourselves "American."

Hello!!! There are two whole continents and a region in the middle that we don't really know what to do with that have "America" in the name!! So many people in the US and around the world only refer to the US or its people when they say "America" or "Americans." When we say this, does it mean that someone from PerĂº, Nicaragua, Honduras, Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, or any other number of countries is any less "American"? We specify North America, Central America, and South America when we refer to specific regions. Logically, when someone says America, wouldn't they be referring to someone from any of these regions because America is a more broad term? We all know that is not the case.

Let's get real. We tend to have a superiority complex about our country and our culture. The American Dream does not exist. I do not think that the US is the best country ever. Equal opportunity only exists for certain people. However, so much of our national identity depends on being the best, having the most, and showing it all off. I have been to countless parties and events focused on this idea of "America" where people, including myself, have worn the symbols of the great US of A on every article of clothing or accessory possible. It gets pretty ridiculous. There is a difference between national pride and throwing the stars and stripes in everyone's face. Other countries have red, white, and blue as their national colors, too, you know.

It is this dangerous mix of ignorance and arrogance that can get us in trouble. Throw in a bit of fear-mongering, and you've got a nice molotov cocktail set to explode into division and discrimination against anyone or anything that represents the "other." It is so outrageous that the US State Department's advisory for Worldwide Caution only addresses areas where extremist Muslims, the modern big bad wolf, are out to get people from the US. This is the fuel that leads to Islamophobia, prejudice, and discrimination against innocent Muslims and Arabs around the world. According to this report, the biggest threat around the world is terrorist attacks. Guess who is completely excluded in this report. North, Central, and South America. Yes, we know threats exist in those areas on some level, but it is not enough to warrant inclusion in the Worldwide report. This "worldwide" report excludes a huge chunk of the globe! If this is not an example of systemic discrimination, then I don't know what is! Not that I want South, Central, and North America to be regions where we should be afraid, but isn't that kind of messed up?

I am so angry. I am angry about the culture and attitudes in the US. I am angry about privilege and power in our country. I am angry that appearance dictates so much about power and privilege in our country. I am angry that equality does not exist in our country. I am angry about the way that our country is portrayed to and understood by other countries in the world. I am angry that US citizens are welcomed with open arms, homes, kitchens, hearts, and minds in the Philippines, yet we would never give them the same hospitable treatment in our country. I am angry that the US colonized this country and that it has not fully relinquished that power. I am angry that the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) is still in effect.

The Visiting Forces Agreement is what allows US military to maintain a presence in the Philippines with essentially no strings attached. It is this culture of superiority and power that contributed to the situation with a US marine who is accused of murdering a transgender Filipina woman on October 11, 2014. The VFA states that any military personnel accused of a crime on Philippine soil will be tried in the Philippine courts, but they can remain in US custody. We can discuss the systems involved in this case for days. Gender relations, LGBTQ, race relations, cultural differences, mental health issues, military issues, and power dynamics are only some of the systems at play. Many Filipin@s are calling for the end of the VFA, but President Aquino has clearly stated that the VFA will stand. The US still controls so much of this country's economy, culture, and politics. Even when the US colonial era ended in the Philippines, we still operated as a neocolonial power. The US government encouraged the oligarchical government to adopt neoliberal policies that disproportionately benefit those in power within and outside of the country and disproportionately harm the vast majority of Filipin@s.

The US has so much power, yet so many of its people still cower in fear. Fear from the systems of injustice that remain despite our years of "progress." Fear developed by the media and political campaigns in order to garner more power and support. Fear of the future. Fear of violence. Fear of job loss. Fear of no more food. Fear of no more money. Fear of illness. Fear of the unknown. Fear of death.

This fear and our culture of individualism and bigger, better everything is the fuel that powers the machine that is the US sense of competition. Do we think about how our bigger, better aspirations affect our neighbors, our brothers and sisters all over the world? Eh, maybe sometimes, we may consider it for a little bit.

"Here, I find it easy to live a life that constantly exploits people we have never met before, and I wanted to live with a sense of the rest of the world." -Ellie Roscher

This should not be news to anyone, but apparently some people still need convincing.

Climate change exists.

I always knew that, but I didn't really understand it until I came to the Philippines. It hit me in the face and still does every week. The Philippines is the country most vulnerable to climate change. Emily, a fellow YAV serving in Tacloban, Leyte, is working in environmental education. I have had the distinct privilege of listening to her presentation twice, and I am still learning much about climate change and environmental justice.

Saturday, November 8, 2014, is the one year anniversary of Supertyphoon Yolanda/Haiyan. One year ago, my community, Kananga, Leyte, along with communities all over the Visayas region, was absolutely devastated. Houses were destroyed. ~12,000 lives were lost. Crops were ruined. Fruit trees were toppled. Metal roofs were removed. Steel beams were twisted by the 170 mph winds. Freight boats crashed into the coast, and still rest where they landed. One year later, and we still have such a long way to go to recover.

One of the eight freight ships that were grounded inland during Supertyphoon Yolanda, destroying homes along the coast.

My only reference for comparison is Hurricane Katrina and D'Iberville, MS. August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in D'Iberville. June 2008, we were able to come together to celebrate the end of recovery and rehabilitation. Members of my family went on five total mission trips to D'Iberville to do what we could to help them recover between 2005 and 2007. D'Iberville is a small town that was fortunate enough to have an awesome team of leaders and organizers who worked with relief and rehabilitation organizations. They created an efficient system and used volunteer groups to work with families to rebuild. It still took them almost three years.

One year later, relief is becoming rehabilitation in the Philippines. We know that Yolanda was not the last supertyphoon to come through. Unfortunately, most areas don't have the resources to effectively organize and work to rebuild together. Families are working to rebuild by giving smaller amounts of money to rebuild certain parts of homes or lots. Some people left because they did not have the resources to rebuild. D'Iberville's timely recovery was due to strong leadership and a smaller concentration area for rebuilding. This simply is not happening in the Philippines.

I did not realize the extent of the damage until we traveled south to Maasin last week. I saw covered courts and stages that looked structurally sound and secure. I saw forests full of healthy, fruit-bearing trees. Those do not exist in northern Leyte. What I had assumed was just a part of the life in Leyte have only been a part of life for one year.

Supertyphoon Yolanda ravaged this Samar beach, destroying tall trees that could serve as a barrier from strong storms.

Unless the world takes serious actions to mitigate climate change, it is going to be much worse. The Philippines' contributions to carbon emissions are minimal compared to many other countries. This country is on the receiving end of distributive injustices. Countries like the US, China, India, and Russia contribute more to carbon emissions, but countries like the Philippines experience the devastating impacts of climate change. Yes, Hurricane Katrina was a destructive natural disaster, but the US has more resources to rebuild faster and stronger than the Philippines can right now. The US also had more necessary plans and infrastructure already in place. So many people died in Supertyphoon Yolanda because they didn't understand what "storm surge" meant, which ravaged places like Tacloban. The people have learned through their pain and loss.

The fear here is that another Yolanda will come. The fear is that families will be forced to swim again, holding their children above the water while trying to keep themselves a float. The fear is that they will lose their boat, the only source of livelihood, again. The fear is that families will cower under a dining room table, praying that another section of the roof does not collapse on them again. The fear is that they will have to wade through waist-high mud to get to a food truck that got stuck on the way to the village again. The fear is that they will be trapped in a small concrete comfort room (bathroom) for 12 hours again. The fear is that they will walk through the streets and see the bodies of community members again.

Another YAV, Abby Evans, posted this video in one of her recent blogs. It is a beautiful, poignant description of distributive injustice. (One of the students dressed in the traditional dress of Marshall Islands for the recent United Nations Day celebration, which is one of the only reasons I knew that this country existed at all.)

Yeah, Angela, but what can I do about it while I'm just looking at my computer screen? Well, I'm a bit late because election day was Tuesday. Unfortunately, with the results of this midterm election, I do not think we will make much progress toward mitigating climate change in the next two years. Thank you, polarization and politics! (Another just peachy part of US culture.) Still, many organizations are working for climate justice. While you're looking at your computer screen, just Google it. Write letters to your representatives to let them know that this matters to you. Work for change. Let the government know you will not tolerate inaction anymore. Change your individual behaviors. Recycle! It's so easy, and we even have the infrastructure available to handle it! Be aware of your energy consumption. Do you drive your car when you could just as easily walk somewhere? Do you run the water longer than you need?

A few weeks ago, National Heroes Institute (NHI), my school, lead the mid-week prayer meeting at our church. My dear companion, Simon, an intern from United Evangelical Mission (UEM) in Germany, gave the message. At the heart of the message was the theme of Protestant Church Day in Germany in 2013, taken from Exodus 16:18: As much as you need. Only use as much as you need. God instructed the Israelites to take only as much as they needed for the day's food. God would provide food the next day. I urge you to think critically in considering what you truly "need." My understanding of that has definitely changed in the past two months, and I hope that these words encourage you to re-evaluate your own consumption of the resources of this beautiful earth.

At the end of the day, as much as it drives me crazy to be from the US, it is my home. We are not always proud of our homes; nonetheless, we are products of our homes. I am who I am today because of my experiences. I fully recognize my privilege as a citizen of the United States. I do not like the fact that my appearance and passport make life easier for me in so many parts of the world. I am thankful for the opportunities I have had to explore this world and learn in and outside of so many classrooms. I am thankful for the privilege that allows me to take this year to serve as a YAV in the Philippines. I am thankful for the opportunity to use this experience and my story to amplify the voices of this nation. I am thankful that my life has been forever changed by the past two months. And I am not sorry.

I know this has been a long post, but I want to leave with you with a few words that have helped to form these views over the past two months.

This is a selection from the UCCP hymnal, Hymnal of a Faith Journey, that we read during the NHI-lead mid-week prayer service that spoke to me and filled me, which helped to bring me out of a low point in this journey.

"Reverse Creation"

In the end, humanity destroyed the heaven that was called earth. The earth had been beautiful until the spirit of humanity moved over it and destroyed all things.

And the people said...
Let there be darkness...and there was darkness.
And the people liked the darkness; so they called the darkness "security."
And they divided themselves into race and religions and classes (and sexes) of society.
And there was no evening and no morning on the seventh day before the end.

And the people said...
Let there be a strong government to control us in our darkness.
Let there be armies to control our bodies, so that we may learn to kill one another neatly and efficiently in our darkness.
And there was no evening and no morning on the sixth day before the end.

And the people said...
Let there be rockets and bombs to kill faster and easier;
Let there be gas chambers and furnaces to be more thorough.
And there was no evening and no morning on the fifth day before the end.

And the people said...
Let there be drugs and other forms of escape for there is this constant annoyance...
which is disturbing our comfort.
And there was no evening and no morning on the fourth day before the end.

And the people said...
Let us create God in our image.
Let some other god compete with us.
Let us say that God thinks—as we think;
hates—as we hate;
and kills—as we kill.
And there was no evening and no morning on the second day before the end.

On the LAST day there was great noise on the face of the earth. Fire consumed the beautiful globe, and there was—SILENCE. The blackened earth now rested, to worship the one true God;

And God saw all that the people had done-and in the silence over the smoldering ruins—GOD WEPT.

Bernard Backman

Job 31:13-15

“If I have rejected the cause of my male or female slaves,
    when they brought a complaint against me;
what then shall I do when God rises up?
    When he makes inquiry, what shall I answer him?
Did not he who made me in the womb make them?
    And did not one fashion us in the womb?

Psalm 9:20

Put them in fear, O Lord;
    let the nations know that they are only human.

Psalm 10

Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?
    Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor—
    let them be caught in the schemes they have devised.
For the wicked boast of the desires of their heart,
    those greedy for gain curse and renounce the Lord.
In the pride of their countenance the wicked say, “God will not seek it out”;
    all their thoughts are, “There is no God.”
Their ways prosper at all times;
    your judgments are on high, out of their sight;
    as for their foes, they scoff at them.
They think in their heart, “We shall not be moved;
    throughout all generations we shall not meet adversity.”
Their mouths are filled with cursing and deceit and oppression;
    under their tongues are mischief and iniquity.
They sit in ambush in the villages;
    in hiding places they murder the innocent.
Their eyes stealthily watch for the helpless;
    they lurk in secret like a lion in its covert;
they lurk that they may seize the poor;
    they seize the poor and drag them off in their net.
They stoop, they crouch,
    and the helpless fall by their might.
They think in their heart, “God has forgotten,
    he has hidden his face, he will never see it.”
Rise up, O Lord; O God, lift up your hand;
    do not forget the oppressed.
Why do the wicked renounce God,
    and say in their hearts, “You will not call us to account”?
But you do see! Indeed you note trouble and grief,
    that you may take it into your hands;
the helpless commit themselves to you;
    you have been the helper of the orphan.
Break the arm of the wicked and evildoers;
    seek out their wickedness until you find none.
The Lord is king forever and ever;
    the nations shall perish from his land.
O Lord, you will hear the desire of the meek;
    you will strengthen their heart, you will incline your ear
to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed,
    so that those from earth may strike terror no more.

"Now that I have returned to a country where my race, class, and language give me the advantage, I still cannot fathom what it is like to struggle daily on the outside of privilege for a lifetime." -Ellie Roscher

"While living for a few months in one of the 'young towns' surrounding Lima, PerĂº, I first heard the term 'reverse mission.' I had come from the North to the South to help the poor; but the longer I was among the poor the more I became aware that there was another mission, the mission from the South to the North. When I returned to the North, I was deeply convinced that my main task would be to help the poor of Latin America convert their wealthy brothers and sisters in the United States and Canada...This 'reversal' is the sign of God's Spirit. The poor have a mission to the rich, the blacks have a mission to the whites, the handicapped have a mission to the 'normal,' the gay people have a mission to the straight, the dying have a mission to the living. Those whom the world has made into victims God has chosen to be bearers of good news." -Henri Nouwen

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