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Two months in less than 2000 words, as I watch everything opening in front of me.

January 30, 2008

Originally I had wanted to post a blow-by-blow account for you of the past two months but really, the details that matter here (and anywhere) are rarely the who, what, where, and when, so let those be an afterthought and not the heart what I say and who I am. The past two months have been filled with puppies and parties and teach-ins and immersions. In my ever evolving environment, I keep reminding myself that I didn’t become a missionary to make cool new friends and have my own room and access to a shower. That’s hard isn’t it though? When what we’ve imagined comes face to face with our realities. Even worse I think is when the people we thought we were meet the people we’ve become. I like this woman I’ve become, the one who rides water buffalo and whom the villagers call Esai. I like when I hear visiya come out of her mouth and I like that she knows how to harvest kamotes and slaughter a chicken (it’s true!) The old me is shocked when I see her happily eating meat and doing laundry by hand.

I spent most of December on the east coast of Mindanao, near a tiny city named Mati, the better half of my three weeks living with a family in this little barangay called Sanghay. (There are pictures of my host family and the farm shack where they live at I rode a horse (falling on my rear when I tried to mount him), I rode a water buffalo (they don’t move until forced to, so are easier to board), and I climbed a mountain to a remote(r) community where a priest performed the first mass that the people had in a month. He baptized babies, though it was just really a formality. Due to the high rate of infant mortality in many countries, the Vatican has extended the right of baptism to the child’s mother, so children in remote provinces are blessed almost immediately after their appearance from the womb. The Vatican no longer states that unbaptized babies wait in purgatory, but the people are still afraid of this possibility.

I spent Christmas at the Benedictine convent near Sanghay. It was amazing and spiritual experience: vespers, prayers, lauds, and some of the best food I’ve eaten in a long time. The nuns grow their own food and tend to their own animals, along with being the medical, social, religious, and activist outreach to the communities around them. On Christmas Eve afternoon I took a nap at the convent and had a horrible nightmare that when I got home everyone else had just gone away. When I woke up I had to run into the chapel for lauds and during our prayers I began to weep openly. The Reverend Mother left prayers and brought me tissues. After I washed up and came out for Christmas dinner I began to weep again and Reverend Mother held me. I will never forget what she said. “Oh, Esai. Why are you crying? You are so beautiful and the sisters and I bought you all sorts of beautiful things for you, didn’t we?” (Affirmations from the nuns) “Oh you know those puppies we have that you’ve liked playing with? You can have one! Two if you want! I know how hard this is.”

All of the nuns there had been foreign missionaries for a time and they shared stories about their first Christmases away from home. The Reverend Mother had been a medical missionary in Ughanda and had spent her first Christmas in a bomb shelter cooking wild chickens for terrified women and singing them Christmas carols. Sister Stella contracted influenza as her first Christmas present away from home while working in an orphanage during an epidemic. I know it seems atrocious but these stories were told to make me laugh. And I did. I ate the fabulous dinner they’d grown and prepared and opened the beautiful presents they’d given me. I had to leave the puppy at the convent (there’s no way I could take him home) but Sister Stella (the dog lover there) said she’s taking extra good care of him and texts me updates as to how he’s doing. In case your wondering he’s grown to be 65 pounds and they’re trying to teach him only to eat the leftover chicken they put in his bowl and not the live ones that are running around the yard.

When I came home around New Year’s I was excited to start my “real work”. Fascinating that after four months I had learned nothing. But, third immersion is the charm. This time there were no kind nuns to care for me (though I will be visiting them again soon!). I was sent to an urban poor community in north Davao City. Only a half hour ride from where I “live” but most of the homes in this community were without electricity and all of them were without running water. Some of the houses didn’t have toilets. I stayed there for two weeks with two different families. I did “work”- I spoke to the people (in Visiya!!) about the Visiting Forces Agreement and Balikitan (the US military exercises here). They have sewing machines in the community that were donated as a microloan concept for the women to make dresses and bags to gain lucrative employment. The project has gone by the wayside, so as the activists got them to reorganize around the idea, I tinkered with the machines and put them in working order, along with talking to the women about idea possibilities for modern bags that would sell easily. I made some prototypes. I worked in the dress shop, in the town “hall”, on my host families farm. But I think the crucial moment for me was when I was sitting in my host-family’s “living room” after having walked a 3 km trip to the stream to bathe and do laundry. It had gotten dark and I was staring at a blank page in my journal. I wrote this:

Today was the perfect day to search for beauty. As will be tomorrow and every day I breathe. I see it everywhere in this one moment, in the mud on on my feet, the rice on the table, the rain coming down into the buckets outside. I understand this wholeness, these precious moments and this precious rain water, drop by drop caressing the earth, to be so much more than what I do or where I go. Being is not just solidarity and living is not just for social change. It’s beauty, it’s all just a search for the beauty in creation, and my desire for busyness and effectiveness can suffocate a more perfect world around me. Long blades of grass grow two feet high across the path in my atte’s garden. They’re reaching up and bending over and worshiping the sky and loving the rain. There’s no other place they’d rather live, no other planet where they’d rather be. I myself have also grown fond of this one.

I leave on February 1 for Cagayan de Oro where I and my coworkers will be helping at conferences and seminars about Balikitan and the US military presence in the Philippines. We’ll be there for three weeks and during that time I’ll be taking a short trip to Thailand to meet up with a fellow UM missionary. I wonder about the tea and the peanut sauce, the temples and the landscape. I wonder when this world opened up for me. I didn’t see it happening but I’m so glad it did. May the Lord punish me, be it ever so severely, if I fail to thank the earth properly.

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