Thursday, December 31, 2015

First Day

It was ten minutes into my first day of work in the Radcliffe Room, the homeless ministry of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, when it happened.

A fight erupted right in front of me. I had been placed on the stage where we keep the women's clothing. No men allowed, but I did not know that at the time. He was looking for a sister or girlfriend or mother or friend or does it even matter? I had just met Cheryl*, a guest who wanted to volunteer to help organize the clothing closet during the week. On our way to find someone who knew more about this than I did, she stopped to look at a shirt that he was holding.

That's when it started.

"Bitch, you're too fat to wear this."

"This is way too small for you."

"You better lose some weight, fat ass, before you can have this shirt."

On and on and on and on.

Fat shaming and general degradation of a woman who was simply asking to look at the garment. I was in shock. He continued to agitate her, and she defended herself, as is a necessity when you are experiencing homelessness. She was not going to tolerate his insults that escalated into threats of physical violence, and rightfully so. When she raised her phone to take his picture so she could show his face to the police, he lunged at her, throwing the phone out of her hand to the ground two feet away from me. They rushed to be the first to reach the phone and squeezed their bodies into the narrow space between the pew on the stage and the railing guarding the edge of the stage. I felt trapped. The scuffle continued with the man spitting attacks and Cheryl screaming that he had her phone. 

I stood petrified. I was definitely not the calm, de-escalating presence I always thought I would be in tense conflicts. The only thought running through my head was what my supervisor, Alice, had told me a few days prior, "Whatever happens, do not physically put yourself in the middle of a fight. Do not put yourself in danger." I did not even know the names of any other volunteers I could call to help with the situation. Eventually the noise drew the attention of more experienced leaders in the Radcliffe Room. Other guests noticed the incident and pulled the two apart. Cheryl got her phone back, and other women came forward with claims that he has done this before. He has antagonized women in their space and caused trouble. Eventually others diffused the tension, and the two left the building.

I was left shaking with my eyes filling just to the brim with tears. This is not what I do. I keep calm in stressful situations. I am a strong leader. I have broken up fights before. But being a counselor to middle school campers is very different from being a first-time volunteer working with adults experiencing homelessness.

"Have you ever worked in this environment before?" asked my angel of the day, Sandra.

Of course I have. I have been doing community service for much of my life. I have served meals, done street outreach, cleaned houses after natural disasters, and built relationships with plenty of people all over the world. I got this.

Nope. Not even close. No. I have not worked with people experiencing homelessness over an extended period of time until this year.

As long-time volunteer, Sandra, showed me the ropes, I tried to process the violence I had just witnessed and learned more about the authority I have as a volunteer. Soon, Cheryl returned to the Radcliffe Room with a police officer in tow. On my first morning of work, I watched a fight break out in front of me and then became a witness in a police report. Not how I imagined the day playing out when I woke up that September morning.

A dynamic I have neglected to mention so far is that Cheryl is a white woman, and her aggressor is a black man. A black police officer was asking me detailed questions about the incident, including the specific shade of the skin of a man I had seen for maybe five minutes. Even though I knew that he had done something wrong, I felt so uncomfortable contributing to putting yet another black man into the prison industrial complex.

Radcliffe Room on a pretty full day
Photo by: James Wall
As it turns out, I have not seen the man since that first day. I honestly would not be able to recognize him if he were to return. However, Cheryl and I have developed a relationship that started when I was able to validate her story to keep her safe. I sat next to Cheryl as she gave a beautiful eulogy at the memorial service for a long-time volunteer. We have discovered that Cheryl is from Kentucky near where I volunteered for two summers. Cheryl has introduced me to her friends, and they are always a welcome light to my early Sunday mornings. 

Even when we feel helpless and incompetent, God is making all things new in this world. Even in the face of sexism and violence, God is with us. Even on our worst days, God sets the stage for redemption and resurrection. Together, as co-creators, we work to bring heaven to earth, to make this world as it should be. The work is difficult. The struggle is long. But together, we shall overcome.

*Name has been changed

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Yesterday, I Made an Assumption

Yesterday, I made an assumption.

I was riding high on my white savior complex
Proud of all the work I had done
All the talking
All the listening
All the organizing
All the helping
I had done it.

I was building relationships with guests,
But we had parted ways.

Yesterday, I made an assumption.

Two young, black men. 
Taut bodies with long dreads cascading,
Sweatpants and t-shirts, with gym bags on their backs
Riding bicycles
Perhaps they were going to the gym to strengthen their muscles.
Maybe they were athletes in high school?

They aren’t like me.
They would think it weird that I talk
to people
On the street,
On the sidewalk,
On the bench,
In the park.

I help people.
I do service.
I am a volunteer.
I work with the church.
I make friends.
I am different.
I am good.

The young men stop.
Open the packs.
I see pieces of plastic loops.
Plastic bags of food.

They give the packages
to people
On the street,
On the sidewalk,
On the bench,
In the park.

My interest piqued:
"Are y’all with an organization?"
One responds,
"It's just God's work.
He started, and I joined him.
Have a blessed day."

Yesterday, I made an assumption.

New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, where I meet guests and friends

Monday, November 2, 2015

Separate But (Definitely Not) Equal

Joining the YAV program was the beginning of my waking up process. I found a home in service and mission in solidarity and alongside communities who are already doing God's work. I was able to freely express myself, my theologies, and ask really difficult questions. I already knew I was going to the Philippines for a year when Ferguson happened and I felt thrust back to the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s. At Dis-Orientation last year, we discussed militarization of the police, white privilege, and delved into the nuances of the racial reality in the United States.

Then I lived in the Philippines for a year.

I was finally out of the environments that had formed the previous twenty-two years of my life. My theology grew and changed. I was in a place where I could ask questions and discover theologies that were not simply reactions to the more conservative bubbles I had called home in South Carolina and Washington and Lee. Not only was my progressive, open theology still narrow, but I discovered different flavors of liberal theology and ways of reading sacred texts: feminist theology, queer theology, womanist theology, liberation theology, empire critical theology, and the list continues. No matter how much knowledge I thought I had accrued over my years of dedicated study and thought, I was still a spiritual infant. God was still working.

In that ethos, I found my worldview recalibrating. I questioned what I had learned in history classes taught by white, conservative teachers in the South Carolina public school system. Over time, I found that my news sources came from voices of people of color. Facebook learned which of my friends' shared articles would attract my click of interest. I was waking up.

I stayed woke as I watched tragedies, disappointment, and unrest grow in Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, Baltimore, McKinney, and Charleston, among other places. I wrestled with my privilege, implicit biases, and ways I had previously lived my life in Rock Hill and Lexington. God used my time away to melt me, mold me, fill me, and then it was time to use me.

Upon my return, I was shocked by what I found in my hometown and places so near and dear to my heart. I heard ignorant white high school boys make anti-gay and racist comments about young black girls with no reprimands from adults around, including myself. As I made trips to my favorite places, I noticed a distinct lack of color in the spaces that I call home. I frequented "nice" spaces in towns across South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, and because I woke up, I was taking notice of how white my world is.

Then, I moved to Washington, DC. Again, I am a privileged minority in my community, but it comes with less reverence from the majority. I feel out of my place in my majority black and Latin@ neighborhood and grapple with how my presence interacts with the gentrification occurring just a few blocks away from me that will creep north soon.

In our first week in the city, we went to a poetry night at Busboys and Poets, a restaurant named for Langston Hughes. We listened as people of color took the stage and voiced their anger, passion, frustration, desire, and art. It was beautiful. I took pictures and videos of particularly moving performances and posted them on Snapchat, where one was featured on the Washington, DC local Snapchat story. Over 60,000 people viewed the video of Kenny Sway making music. Then I posted to my personal social media accounts that I had made it to the local Snapchat story (a feat that surprised me, especially in my first full day living in a city that has multiple geotags and a local story). I had consumed amazing art from a young black man and given him a larger platform for people to see his work, but I had to take credit for it. I socially profited from his work. Even though I cited Kenny Sway as the artist, it shocked me how slimy I felt.

I am still struggling with the best ways to interact with the vibrant culture I find all over the city. My favorite coffee shop in our neighborhood is a black-owned business and features local black artists' work on the walls and musicians almost every night of the week. I love the community I have found at Culture Coffee, but I question what my presence and the presence of my predominantly white friends in a strongly black space does to the atmosphere. How can I best learn more about and appreciate black or Latin@ culture without contaminating or appropriating the experience? How do we appreciate the value inherent in each culture without diluting the experience? Does that simply lead to segregation?

These are the questions that I ask myself on a daily basis. For the first time in my life, I am living in an urban city and face issues of gentrification, poverty, homelessness, privilege, sexism, and God's face in the city every single day, and I love it. In this environment, I can finally receive an education on the diversity of history, culture, and stories of multitudes of black people that has simply not been an integral part of my life story until I woke up. Though I will never be black or know what it is to live in a black body in this world, I can get a glimpse of the experience of growing up in inner-city Baltimore in the 1980s through the eyes of Ta-Nehisi Coates. Through his words in Between the World and Me, I can start to understand the nuances and diversity of black experiences that can be found at Howard University, what Coates calls Mecca, where I frequently get lost while riding my bike. Learning more about the stories of black men wrongfully condemned to death row from Bryan Stevenson's book Just Mercy forces me to realize that systemic racism is not something that died with Jim Crow. It happened when my parents were my age and clearly continues to this day through the industrial prison complex.

Where is God working in all of these spaces and where is our place in it? Where is the dominant culture overpowering the conversation and how can we use our places of power to ensure a place for more unheard voices at the table? What are the stories we must unlearn and relearn in order to have a more realistic picture of our history? Who is in your spaces and would others who may not look like you feel comfortable in that space with you? How are we perpetuating the standard of separate but (definitely not) equal spaces in our lives? Is it time to wake up?

Tuesday, September 22, 2015


Wow. It's been quite some time since I updated this blog. My, oh my, so much has happened since that day.

I have said see you later to my friends and family in the Philippines.

Tindoy family and friends before I left for the airport
Photo Credit: Simon Grobe

I traveled to Northern Luzon and actually felt cold from the mid-60s mountain rain.

Rice and vegetable terraces, as seen from the National Highway between Sagada and Manila

I went caving, fell off a rope, and bruised a finger.

Feeling energized in Sumaguing Cave, Sagada
Photo Credit: My Amazing Guide, Kit

Don't worry. Everything is fine. I've gotten pretty good at falling without getting too seriously injured. ;)

Just a bit bruised and swollen. It's fine. Promise.

I traveled 9,000 miles back to my home of Rock Hill, SC.

The sunset greeted me when I landed in Charlotte after the longest day of my life

I caught up on some much missed family bonding time.

...which included realizing this little goober brother will have his own cap and gown way too soon!

I went straight back to work lifeguarding at my beloved Bethelwoods Camp and Conference Center. I witnessed two dear friends join their lives together in marriage and had a blast seeing old classmates.

Mr. and Mrs. Anton and Schereéya Reed

I visited and reconnected with friends in Harrisonburg, Charlottesville, and Lexington, VA. I got a sneak peek at being caregiver for my parents after my mom had rotator cuff surgery. I gave presentations at two different churches on my year in the Philippines. I went to the beach and had a wonderful time with some of the women in my family.

The first non-Philippine beach I've seen in a while

I got to reconnect with a fellow YAV, beloved former pastor, and one of my many homes, Montreat!

These gates always let me know I'm home!

I managed to unpack, organize, regift to a good home, and repack my belongings. I was able to go to Lexington (again!) and meet a younger, other half.

Being awesome runs in the Bombshell family. PPL

I have shared food, drink, stories, and memories with some pretty remarkable people, and I am so thankful.

Now, I am officially three weeks into this second year serving as a Young Adult Volunteer in Washington, DC. I have moved in with four wonderful housemates. I have wandered the National Mall and toured the monuments on bike.

I see this on a regular basis. I don't hate it.

I have gotten seriously lost multiple times, in multiple ways. I have walked the wrong way three different times at the same intersection. I have attended multiple open mic nights and even participated when one became karaoke!

Ron Ron, the amazing accompanist one-man band at our favorite Culture Coffee

I have found coconut, pineapple, and mango at the grocery store!

This is totally local, right??

I have had an exhausting hour and a half bus commute. I have felt completely overwhelmed. I have felt my heart break, as I hear stories of misfortune and injustice. I have helplessly watched as a fight broke out right in front of me. I have felt energized by the spirit and people of this wonderful city.

A wonderful twist on an old proverb on the wall of the National Coalition for the Homeless office

I have seen blocks where "The Wire" was filmed that have now been redeveloped. I have watched the sun rise between buildings downtown.

When you get to work at 7:30 on Sunday mornings, may as well enjoy the view.

I have heard some marvelous stories. I have made unexpected connections. I have reconnected with friends from college, YAV, and home.

I have started working with NEXT Church and The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. With NEXT Church, I will be helping our executive director, strategy team, and various support teams plan the 2016 National Gathering in Atlanta February 22-24. I am overjoyed at the opportunity I have to learn more about the work of the larger church, as we seek to be the church in right relationship with each other and God, especially as we ask the difficult questions facing individual members, congregations, agencies, and the denomination as a whole. I'm learning a lot about conference calls and understanding what becoming the Church means.

With the historic New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, I am working with Community Club and Radcliffe Room. Both are long-standing community ministries that have decades of work that I am joining. Community Club is an after-school tutoring program for DC public school students. Mostly, I will be doing the administrative behind-the-scenes work for the program to ensure that everyone is supported and everything can run relatively smoothly. In the Radcliffe Room, I am joining a hard-working, committed team of people working to welcome our neighbors living without homes for breakfast and fellowship on Sunday mornings. I am quickly learning the difference between being an active member of a church and working on the staff side of a church. I am so grateful for these direct service opportunities so that I can continue to stay grounded by seeing the faces of the city on a regular basis.

The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church

Most of this post has been very self-centered. I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the omnipresent God who allows these relationships to flourish and guides my path to these amazing vocations. Even when I am overwhelmed by the pace of the city and the massive influx of work emails that comes with starting two new jobs, I remember to stop and breathe. I am not alone. The Spirit is alive and well in the people I meet on the street, in the coffee shop, in meetings, at church, at work, and in my house. Community is hard. But I remind myself that it is so, so worth it. When I feel the draining effects of reverse culture shock and long for the simplicity of life in Kananga, I take a moment to remember the times and people God has lovingly placed into all pieces of my life. Eventually, I start to smile again because I remember I am loved, and that God is good. All the time.

Friday, July 24, 2015

אשת חיל Eshet Chayil

Today is my last day of work at National Heroes Institute. I leave Kananga in less than forty-eight hours. This is real. I would be remiss to leave without writing this post that has been brewing since the first week I arrived in the Philippines.

Everywhere I have visited in this country, I have felt the trademark "Filipin@ hospitality." I have been welcomed with open minds and felt the love of people after mere minutes together. Most times I am welcomed by the arms of women, אשת חיל, eshet chayil. The patriarchy is alive and well, make no mistake, but the majority of my relationships that have blossomed are with the women who make society run. These women are leaders and role models, no matter whether they are ten, twenty-five, thirty-three, forty-six, fifty-two, or over sixty years old. I am in awe of the way they carry themselves and manage to care for anyone and everyone who surrounds them.

This year has awakened my soul to an array of realities and convictions, one of which has been a renewed dedication to feminism. Fueling this revival have been the writings of some powerhouses of the faith, Barbara Brown Taylor, Sarah Bessey, and Rachel Held Evans. I can thank the one and only Emily VandeWalle, an אשת חיל, eshet chayil, in her own right, for introducing me to their work. As I was reading Sarah Bessey's Jesus Feminist, I first learned of the reclaiming of the Proverbs 31 woman, who has long been championed as the model for Christian womanhood as the superior housewife, child-bearer, and one who willingly submits to her husband at all times. The original Hebrew in Proverbs 31:10 is אשת חיל, eshet chayil, is normally translated as a virtuous, worthy, good, or competent woman. However, as Rachel Held Evans also points out in A Year of Biblical Womanhood, a better translation of the Hebrew is a "woman of valor." The epitome of womanhood is not in keeping the house or raising the children, but in becoming a woman of valor, wherever that may take you.

To the women who volunteer to teach Indigenous People in the mountains of Compostela Valley despite increasing militarization, אשת חיל, eshet chayil.

To the women who kept a fire going to provide food through a typhoon and slept outside to make sure others stay safe, אשת חיל, eshet chayil.

To the women who collect shells to make necklaces for mere pesos, אשת חיל, eshet chayil.

To the women who weave bobo traps for fishing, אשת חיל, eshet chayil.

To the women who use theater to advocate for social change, אשת חיל, eshet chayil.

To the women who continue struggling after sexual violence and abuse, אשת חיל, eshet chayil.

To the women who face the demons in their mind every single day, אשת חיל, eshet chayil.

To the women who have given birth to no children, yet mother anyone they meet, אשת חיל, eshet chayil.

To the women who never marry but dedicate their lives to making the world a better place, אשת חיל, eshet chayil.

To the women who lead as heads of organizations or by example in their daily lives, אשת חיל, eshet chayil.

To the women who protected their families as Typhoon Yolanda ravaged the land, אשת חיל, eshet chayil.

To the women who open their arms, hearts, wallets, and homes to anyone in need, אשת חיל, eshet chayil.

To the girls who will grow up to great role models and leaders in whatever they do, אשת חיל, eshet chayil.

To the women who work with partners to keep the family running, אשת חיל, eshet chayil.

To the women who use their voice unapologetically to speak the truth and spread the Word, אשת חיל, eshet chayil.

To the girls who play dead in order to save their lives, אשת חיל, eshet chayil.

To the women who raise families on their own for whatever reason, אשת חיל, eshet chayil.

To the women who slave away hours before and event and stay after to clean up all the messes, אשת חיל, eshet chayil.

I have been so fortunate to be surrounded by so many amazing women who are all אשת חיל, eshet chayil, no matter their marital or parental status. These relationships with women from all generations will continue to provide inspiration and examples to emulate when this year is but a memory. Amongst all of these, my relationship with my supervisor and one of my many host moms stands out.

Mrs. Dobert Mahika Tindoy Moriles

Twinning in our stylish uniforms. Are we school administrators or flight attendants??

When I was feeling lonely and friendless, it was only because I had not allowed myself to fully recognize the kindred spirit I had found in Ate Dobert. She is truly one of my best friends accompanying me on this journey. We can share our struggles and burdens, and most of the time we agree with each other. We can laugh together over plenty of shenanigans we've gotten into. We can talk for hours, each of us taking turns talking and listening. We are both proud card-carrying members of the strong independent woman sisterhood. We can scare and frustrate each other, but we will always come back to love, overwhelming, unconditional, and unending love.

Recently, I was reminded of my favorite piece I performed with the Washington and Lee University (Chamber) Singers: Dan Forrest's Entreat Me Not to Leave You. The significance of this piece changed from October to December to May as we performed it in my senior year. As I listened to it, the lyrics spoke again a different message to me relevant to where I am in the journey.

The lyrics are from the story of Ruth. Naomi's family goes to Moab, and her two sons marry women from the area. Naomi's husband and sons die, leaving Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah alone. Naomi returns to her family's home and encourages her daughters-in-law to return to their families in Moab since widowed women without children have little to no power in the ancient Near East. Orpah returns, but Ruth refuses, insisting, "Entreat me not to leave you, Or to turn back from following after you; For where you go, I will go; And where you stay, I will stay; Your people shall be my people, And your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, And there will I be buried. The Lord do so to me, and more also, If ought but death parts you and me" (Ruth 1:16-17).

This year I have been Ruth in a land I do not know far away from my family. Thankfully, I have found not one but many Naomi characters who have taken me in, cared for me, and tried, unsuccessfully, to set me up only a few times. I have been surrounded by many women of valor, אשת חיל, eshet chayil, in my community, and I am so thankful.

When I was first placed at NHI last June, Dessa, my site coordinator, told me I was the answer to their prayers. As I leave, I can say that this site with these people have been the answer to mine.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Communication is Key

“Find a partner!” he called.

“Choose Person A and Person B!” he continued.

“Person A, come see me.”

I wandered over to our facilitator to learn what our task would be. He handed each of us a piece of paper that had a design of a staircase, a heart tilted sideways, an arrow, a spiral, and a lightning bolt. Our job was to give instructions to our partner so they could replicate the drawing without seeing the design.

Perfect. I can totally do this. I’ve led activities and given specific instructions to people of all ages for years now.

I sat down across from my partner who was also training to become a facilitator for workshops and trainings. We started swimmingly.

“Draw a horizontal line, going across the page, yeah, there. Now draw a line going down, like a staircase. Draw a heart tilted under the staircase. Great! Ok, now start there, draw a line straight across the page. Ok, stop! Now make that line an arrow.”

We were going pretty well despite the fact that I was speaking in English, a language that was probably my partner’s second, or even third, language.

When we got to the lightning bolt, we hit a speed bump. I tried with all of my might to describe how to outline a lightning bolt, like the Gatorade logo (that didn’t mean anything to her).

A rough rendition of the drawing I was describing to my partner


I tried every other way I could imagine to describe how to draw the horizontal and diagonal lines, but we struggled with the time pressure just to put the pen in the right starting place.

“3…2…1…pens up!”

We had failed. I had failed. I was not able to communicate to my partner how to draw the lightning bolt that we needed to successfully replicate the image.

Yes, this is a pretty drastic description of “failure” when it’s a simple silly exercise in a workshop. However, this instance was a microcosm of my most significant struggle in this YAV year. These five minutes in April perfectly illustrated my frustration of communication across a language barrier.

This year has been my first opportunity to really do life in community with people who are not native English speakers. Yes, I spent 5 months in Israel, but I was mostly interacting with other native English speakers in my program. Navigating the language barrier without a translator intimidated me, and it was easier to work through the incredibly complex religious, political, and historical issues with native English speakers, whether they were from the US, Canada, England, or Australia.

You see, communication is such an important component of my relationships and wellbeing. I am an extroverted, over-communicating external processor whose love language is words of affirmation. Communication is just a part of who I am and what I need.

Living in the Philippines means that English is fairly common, thanks to the period of US colonialism that some may argue has never truly ended. College courses are taught in English, and I have seen far too many signs on campuses commanding, “SPEAK ENGLISH.” In cities like Cebu, Manila, and Dumaguete, English is fairly common, and Filipin@s feel comfortable speaking, even if it is with a native English speaker. I have also found that ideas regarding translation or someone serving as a translator are not the same as what I would expect. Except for a few occasions, translations are loose and involve extra input from the translator, rather than simply giving the words spoken by either party.

A sign demanding students speak English at a private school in Leyte

In rural Kananga, Leyte, we have a lot of different dynamics at play, which have contributed to feelings of isolation and loneliness. I am one of perhaps 4 other white people in Kananga (One is Simon, the German volunteer placed at NHI with me, and the other two are older European gentlemen who either have or are pursuing a Filipina wife.), which means the community is not too accustomed to living with internationals. Most of my students do not have genuine relationships with people from other countries who have been to Kananga. We have a plethora of power, privilege, and social hierarchy issues also feeding into these barriers that require so much intentional work to dissemble, but I will not dwell on those here. Many in my community are intimidated by the thought of speaking with me, for fear of having a nosebleed (a phrase used to describe when the English is past their comprehension level). Thankfully, we have both worked hard over the past eleven months to speak slowly and use common vocabulary. Many times, my community can understand what I am saying, but they do not have the English words to respond to me.

I have picked up a bit of the Bisaya language, which is spoken in the central region, the Visayas, and the southern region, Mindanao. However, the national language is Filipino, or Tagalog, even though it is primarily in the northern region, Luzon. Students are learning Filipino and English as subjects in school but not their own dialect of Bisaya, much less the more specific regional dialects like Waray Waray. This lack of formal instruction in Bisaya also makes it difficult to find Bisaya teachers, especially in a rural community. In addition to learning enough Bisaya words to make people think I am fluent (very, very far from the truth), I have had to learn the Philippine English dialect. Just as English in the UK is different from English in the US is different from English in Australia; English in the Philippines is a bit different. If I want to be able accurately communicate my thoughts, ideas, and needs, I have to use the words that my community knows. For example, when I would say, “Get in line,” my students need to hear me say “Fall in line” in order for them to do what I ask. After swimming with children on several occasions, I am still trying to figure out what “higher,” “lower,” “go in,” and “go out” mean to them so that we all stay safe and comfortable when “deeper” and “shallow” are not a part of their vocabularies. For some reason I still do not understand, asking for scissors requires saying the word repeatedly, and only the scissor motion clearly communicates my request. However, as someone with a greater grasp of the English language, it is up to me to negotiate my vocabulary in order to effectively communicate with my community. I have also noticed how my accent changes to try to imitate the Philippine English pronunciation. As I listened to my sermon from last week, I didn’t understand my own accent because my Bisaya was terrible, and the sounds of English words were flowing out of my mouth about as comfortably as putting on an ill-fitting dress.

As I reflect on this year, I know that the language barrier has been the most difficult component of this experience, hands down. It is far too easy for me to take for granted the fact that I am an educated native English speaker with an advanced understanding of all aspects of the language. When I land in Chicago on August 1, I know it will be a shock to hear English all around, to understand conversations happening around me without having to strain to pay attention or pick up on key words. However, if I return to Rock Hill and let my memories of struggling with the language barrier lay tucked away nice and neat in the recesses of my mind, I will simply continue living into my privilege. The wonderful “melting pot” of the US of A is home to millions of first-generation immigrants from all over the world. Some have knowledge of the English language; others arrive knowing nothing. Having lived this experience, I would be terrified to arrive in the US not knowing English. It is not a forgiving place when it comes to navigating transportation on arrival or simply needing extra time to process the words speeding into the ears and brain. I am guilty of speaking incredibly fast, a characteristic that people called me out on almost constantly in my first months. I have definitely tried to slow down my speech and emphasize my enunciation, but I will likely return to the language of my home. After this year, though, I will be more intentional with my speech, giving extra time for words to be absorbed, no matter the audience, but especially in the company of non-native English speakers. I have now been on the other side, and I know how much it means to speak slowly and clearly in order to communicate clearly. It is simply another way to love our neighbor by showing consideration.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Who Is My Neighbor?

Because my time in Kananga is coming to a close, the pastor at UCCP-Kananga asked me to preach before I left. Yesterday was my opportunity to be in the pulpit. If you would like to listen to the sermon, please take a listen here. If you are accessing this on a phone or tablet, you may have to take some extra steps to get to the file. Please let me know if you are having any issues.

Thank you, Mana Sally, for providing all of the pictures from yesterday's service

As I touched on in the sermon, this was a challenging task. I have preached and led services for years, but this was something different. I am very comfortable speaking in front of large groups of people, whether it is planned or spontaneous. I have prepared sermons plenty of times before. This was scary, though. I was nervous. You see, most of my preaching has been to people who look like me, who come from relatively similar circumstances as me, who speak the same native language as me. When planning a sermon, I have found that the message I preach to others is probably the same message I have needed to hear myself. How can I talk about living simply more when I am preaching to a congregation of some families that still have not repaired their homes from Typhoon Yolanda? How can I say we should be more generous when some of these families are struggling to put food on the table, clothes on their bodies, and sending their children to school?

At YAV Orientation, we discussed crossing borders as a part of our ministries at our sites. For me, this sermon was one of the clearest indicators of that border-crossing ministry. I was at a loss for words. Who was I to come from my place of immense privilege to tell this community how they should live? How could I speak the Word of God without invoking the white savior industrial complex? How could I avoid being preachy like I imagine the missionaries of old...and not so old? How could I speak the truth in love? Would they be able to understand my message since I could not preach in Bisaya? How could I teach something to people who have been the true teachers this year? What did I have to bring, and what was my place to bring it?

If I was such a mess trying to plan this one sermon, what made me think I should go to seminary and possibly do this for years? Maybe that is exactly why I need to go to seminary, so I can learn how best to organize my thoughts and communicate them to others.

These questions haunted my sermon planning, especially as I was putting the final touches on Saturday night. I cannot honestly take much credit in what came out of my mouth yesterday morning. I will give most credit to that inconvenient, uncomfortable, and nagging Wild Goose of the Holy Spirit. Even though I am leaving this country in 19 days, clearly the journey is far from over. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

I Still Know Nothing

24 days left in this beautiful country. I have learned so much in the past 317 days. This year has stretched me beyond what I thought was an already expansive comfort zone. However, I still know nothing.

That is a big statement for me to make. I'm a knower. I like to know things. I pride myself on knowing a lot about a lot of things. I ask questions. I read articles like nobody's business. It still does not mean I know much.

Last week was our last YAV retreat. We took some time to visit Tondo in Manila, which is one of the poorest places I have ever seen in my life. We visited a community of people who used to live and work on Smokey Mountain, a huge landfill in Manila, surviving off of everyone else's trash. Once international pressure reached a boiling point, the Philippine government finally relocated the community off the landfill to a different part of town nearby. As typically happens in these situations, "temporary" housing becomes permanent as resources to actually house thousands of people disappear quickly. The homes and people we visited have moved from the secondary location to a third location. This visit broke my heart. I was moved to tears as we walked through the narrow, dirty, wet, and dark passageways under stories of dwellings built out of scrap metal and wood pieces. People have expanded wherever they could find space, including directly over the river under the highway bridge.

Clothes dry outside of the homes built under the bridge and over the Pasig River. At high tide, the water splashes over the levees and floods the walkways and homes of the community. If a storm raises the water levels, then the structures under the bridge wash away.

A part of this whole process is expanding one's comfort zone and becoming comfortable in what was once startling and uncomfortable. I have become accustomed to seatless toilets almost everywhere, rice three times a day, trash on the streets, stray cats and dogs anywhere you look, and air-conditioning as a hot commodity. Nonetheless, I still maintain my privileged status as a white, able-bodied, cis-gendered, educated, native English-speaking woman with a US passport, a bank account, and an iPhone. Even in my work, I can buffer myself from the realities of my students' lives. I do not see where they lay their heads to sleep every night. I do not walk with them from the mountains to the highway to catch a tricycle to bring them to school, maybe on time, maybe not. I do not see some of the abuse that I know occurs in the homes of some of my students. I do not experience the financial or family problems that prevent recent graduates from continuing to college. I have never experienced not being able to afford the 10 peso (~$0.25) fare to come to school.

Reflecting on the reality of Tondo and of my students' lives this late in the game has me questioning what impact I actually had this year. If we are thinking large scale, the answer is not much, not much at all. On the smaller scale, it is still not a whole lot, but it is something. At least I have been able to develop a personal relationship with many of my students and community members. They now have some exposure to people from the US beyond what Hollywood and the media show. It is probable that I will not be around to see any positive impact I have had on this lovely place this year. That is ok.

However, I am still stuck with the questions of what to do to make this world a more equitable place. How can we truly show that black and brown lives matter all over the world? When black lives are taken left and right and black churches are torched, reminiscent of terror acts of the 1960s and 1990s, how can we keep a spirit of hope? When the murder of nine worshipers during a Bible study in Charleston makes global headlines for weeks, but an attack on UCCP-Pikit during the mid-week prayer service that killed two and injured three barely made a blip on the Philippine news and has barely been investigated, how can we persevere for justice? I do not mean to deflate the importance of any of these events, as they are all tragic.

I recently watched a Ted Talk that addresses and offers a solution for one of the biggest struggles I have witnessed this year. In a culture that is so non-confrontational, it is difficult to navigate enforcement of rules and policies, as well as holding people accountable for their decisions.

Violence does not start with someone walking into or driving by a church with the intent to kill. Violence starts when grade school boys touch the girls in their class inappropriately, which creates an association of fear with the classroom. Violence starts when offensive comments and microaggressions go unchecked. Violence is ignoring the sounds of abuse coming from the neighbors' home. Violence is fences armed with barbed wire, spikes, or broken bottles surrounding almost any lot in this country. Violence is why people are afraid to leave the house when they hear commotion on the street at night.

Last week, one of the teachers gave the message at the mid-week prayer service. She referenced the emergency number recognized worldwide but only used in the US and Canada: 911. As Gary Haugen points out, most of us in the US have the privilege of knowing that we can call 911 when we have an emergency. I acknowledge that some communities do not feel safe calling 911 to report a crime out of fear that they will be perceived as the perpetrator and not the caller. Not to diminish that fear and reality, I argue that at least we have someone to call. The expectation is that emergency services will respond to help if we call, even if that reality does not always come to fruition. That is a privilege we do not have here. If abuse occurs in Kananga, there are not resources to provide an escape whether it is spouse or child abuse. If a car accident happens, people simply get on the next transportation option to get to the hospital rather than wait for an ambulance or police officer to respond. The infrastructure simply does not exist. Where it does, politicians can easily buy their own protection, which has led to paramilitary groups wreaking havoc in the communities of Mindanao for decades. I see more private security guards at malls, businesses, and homes than I see police officers on the streets. We have a guard at school 24/7. My students and my community deserve to live under the protection of the law.

They also deserve to live where laws and policies are enforced for the common good. A tragedy hit our beloved region last week when an overloaded boat capsized 200 meters away from the port in Ormoc, the closest city to Kananga, killing at least 61 people with 145 survivors. The Kim Nirvana is the very boat I took with the family just over a month ago on our visit to Camotes Islands. This hits close to home.

As I am preparing to leave, I admit that I am still extremely ignorant of much of the Philippine situation. I do not have all the answers. I may not even have a few of the answers, but I will not stop fighting for justice. I will not stop asking questions in the hopes of learning more. As Vaclav Havel said, and David LaMotte often quotes, “Hope is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” I will continue to walk on this journey in solidarity with black and brown neighbors in the face of police brutality, white supremacy, corrupt governments, and dangerous lack of enforcement, whether I am in the Philippines, the US, or any other part of the world.