Thursday, September 4, 2008

An overdo update letter

Dear family and friends,
Greetings from the Philippines! Please accept my apologies for not updating you all on my internship here until now. As you know, I am participating in Wheaton College's Human Needs and Global Resources (HNGR) program for 6 months as a student of culture and the church in the Northern Philippines. HNGR emphasizes relationship-based learning from our brothers and sisters in the developing world. I am delighting in the friends and teachers I have found among the Ikalahan people in Imugan, where I am assigned. After an initial three month period of cultural adjustment and learning the local dialect, my "real" work has just recently begun in Northern Luzon! (Since Kalahan is a minority dialect, continuing to learn the language will be integral to my stay and relationships for my entire time here.)
If we had time, I'd like to share a story and a cup of tea with you. How I wish I could convey in one short letter the vast range of sights, experiences, and lessons I've had in just under 3 months! The memorable things are of course the simplest and the most human: how my neighbor, Aunti Esther, always comfortably rests her hand at my elbow as we walk to Bible Study, moon guiding our path; Pastor Rice wiping his glasses again and leaning back before starting, "Did I ever tell you…"; soft dirt rising up between my toes as I help my host mom harvest ginger; the swell of children's laughter as they bathe in a clear mountain waterfall… But I will instead give you necessary details, and we can save that cup of tea for when I return if you're willing!
In addition to teaching four classes of conversational English at the local high school each Monday morning, I am helping Pastor Rice, a retired missionary and anthropologist, with some cultural research projects that he supervises for the Kalahan Educational Foundation (KEF). The KEF is an indigenous people's organization that founded the local high school where I teach, about 30 years ago. The Academy provides culturally appropriate Christian education for indigenous students from all over the Philippines. During the 1970s, the KEF was able to fight off some land-grabbing cronies of Dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who wanted to convert the Ikalahan Peoples' ancestral forest homelands into huge dams. Since this court case, the Ikalahan have been able to secure land tenure for approximately 123,000 acres of ancestral lands. Now that the Ikalahan know that their land cannot be taken from them, they have a reason to protect and develop the tropical forests that are home to many endangered species of flora and fauna. The forests even provide livelihood to the people through a wild fruit processing plant, which turns out some delicious guava jam for sale in the big cities of the Philippines.
In addition to ecological preservation, a secondary function of the KEF is to strengthen and preserve the indigenous culture. The KEF's cultural preservation projects (with which I am involved) center around the indigenous justice system and indigenous rituals documentation. I'm loving travels to surrounding areas with Pastor Rice's research partner and tribal elder, Sario. We tape-record and document cases that go through the tribal justice system as well as traditional rituals performed for occasions such as sickness or blessing a home. Many of the old ways are in danger of being lost when the old people pass on, so it is important to record these practices for the later generations. I'm particularly interested in the ways that some of these old rituals, hailing from an animistic past, are currently undergoing a locally-led Christian conversion process. Instead of addressing the spirits that often cause the illness, the ritual's prayers are now being directed to God. I'm staying with a lovely Ikalahan host family. Aside from being rural farmers, my host father is an evangelical pastor and my host mother works as a teacher at Kalahan Academy where I teach. She is also a liason for KEF, organizing ecology seminars at other schools in the area. They have three children. I feel especially grateful for the ways that they draw me into the pulse of community life through the local church. The one church in the area meets not just in a building on Sundays, but in the homes of local people during a moving Bible-study group during the week. I've been learning of the power of prayer through being a part of a community rooted in Christ and confident in a God that hears, sees, and knows their troubles and joys. The community draws together for all occasions in prayer and song, whether it be for someone who is sick or for a family reunited after a parent's adultery.
My glowing report must now be dimmed a bit -– I'd like to share some of the challenges I've faced and some prayer requests. The first concerns some petty theft issues. The young boy who boards with his mother next door to my house has broken into my room and taken a few small things of mine. We've confronted both him and his mother about the issue, and have prayed about it. Yet he has repeated his theft multiple times, and so my host mother and I recently decided to talk with the community elders about the problem. Please pray that they will have wisdom in disciplining the boy so that he will be led toward change. Also, pray for my relationship with the boy's family, that love and forgiveness rather than shameand resentment will be the defining values.
Related to this request, please pray that the friendships I develop here would somehow breach the gaps that my relative wealth and status as an American automatically create. Most residents in this small mountain town are farmers and earn well below the poverty threshold of $1 per day. As I study the Bible with these rural poor, from their perspective, certain sections are dear to them that I previously did not pay much attention to. So many Old Testament passages show how God's favor is shown to His people on the basis of their relationship with the poor. Yet I find that my material "blessings" often block my own relationships with the poorest. This leads me to wonder if we as affluent westerners can honestly call those resources a "blessing".... when a blessing is defined as something that brings life and signifies God's favor. These same "blessings" often frustratingly stand in the way of the deeper friendships that I desire to develop here.
If I may be so bold as to suggest this, join my prayer that we as American Christians may also confess that we are unjustly rich in comparison with the majority of the world. Pray that I too would fearfully and carefully eye the needle that Jesus refers to in Mark 10. In this place, my skin color, round-trip plane ticket, and educational status all testify that I am exceedingly wealthy and this only seems to distance me from my neighbors. May the Lord give us eyes to truly see this obstacle of affluence. May we all have ears to hear Jesus' words "... How hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." According to Christ's own words, we as wealthy ones are clearly disadvantaged in the economy of God's Kingdom! What do I do with this verse and many others in which God clearly favors the poor? How can the rich enter the kingdom of heaven? Lately, I've decided to ask these questions of the people around me here, since they are the poor that Jesus called the "blessed ones" in Matthew 5. Peoples' responses to my questions here are often surprising. I feel that God is calling me to live with these tensions and questions right now, to learn from the poor and release my claim to know the answers.
Many of you are my role models and teachers back home. Please feel free to send me your thoughts on this subject since many of you have no doubt wrestled with these things before. Thank you for truly "bearing with me" in the hard spots and encouraging me as God patiently teaches me to think by a different logic here, hopefully a Kingdom logic! I am also grateful for those of you who support me both financially and through prayer. I am confident that He is answering your prayers, for I constantly sense God's active sustenance of my life in this community of believers.
Joy and peace,

No comments: