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.