Our team of five headed to our site last week (Manila Underground’s (MUG) ministry in the Teresa, Rizal province). The team felt the realness of the need to be adaptable as we moved from the city to the rural mountains of our three-hour journey. When we arrived at our host site, Tatay Ed (father) and Nanay Fe (mother) greeted us and introduced us to their three kids: Ella, Irene, and Efram. We didn’t know then that this family would care for us as their own and that we would grow to love them in the short days we have been there already.
The Urban Poor and the Rural Poor
This concept was hard for me to grasp as the MUG staff explained it to us because I’ve never seen or experienced it. The slums are defined as informal settlements where people are displaced and end up living in houses on lands that they do not own. They told us that we would be living among the rural poor. The urban poor are those who have the resources and access to jobs, or food, water electricity. The rural poor are those who don’t have those basic resources. We saw this when visiting a local province as we drove down the dirt and muddy road to a town 20 minutes from where we were staying. Tatay told us how there was no water or electricity in that area. It hit me at my core. These are things I take for granted. How will I engage with the poverty I see this summer knowing of the wealth I have? How will I see the poor through God’s eyes?
We piled seven people into one trike as we headed to see Tatay’s friends in the province. Tatay shared that the area we were entering and no water or electricity, we were in a rural poor town. Ate J (Ate means older sister, in Tagalog) had her back to us, bent over cleaning fish as we ducked underneath the clotheslines and wooden plank to enter her house. She smiled and laughed as Tatay and Nanay began to talk to her. Every now and then Tatay would translate to us. They chatted about her kids, husband, and God. At the end, Tatay asked if we could pray for her. Ate J began to cry. In a low whisper Tatay explained she was getting emotional because someone cared enough to come visit her. She felt seen by this simple visit. My heart broke as this woman cried in front of us. This is church. In America we define church as the place you go on Sunday to worship God. But here, to Tatay, church was every day and anytime he was in community. In Luke 10 Jesus asks who is my neighbor or “kapwa”? Tatay represented kapwa to Ate J by visiting her, knowing her story, and living life with her. My image of “church” is being reconstructed from more than a structure to the everyday action of being kapwa to people.
We sleep on the bed while they sleep on the floor. We watch as they make us breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We observe as Nanay washes the laundry. We try to offer our help, but are told a stern “No, I do.” Our team is wrestling with the amount of hospitality we are receiving. As we sit in the heat itching our mosquito bites, (Tatay says “mosquitos don’t like Filipinos.” that’s why we get bit) and sweating in every part of our bodies, we watch Nanay doing the laundry. Mama Cindy, a missionary in the area, comes in and begins to help alongside. As they chit chat in Tagalog, she tells us she does her laundry by hand every other day for six hours. We do the dance of asking if we may help; they say no, we linger, I say again “May I learn?” Mama Cindy looks at Nanay and she motions for us to come. I bend over the bucket filled with water and try to learn as Mama Cindy moves swiftly as it was second nature to her. We fumble as we turn the clothes inside out and ring them out. I could tell we are more in the way than helping. I think to myself as I watched our tiny Nanay in this mundane task: How is God seeing these Filipino women? What are we learning, what is God trying to teach us through the hospitality of having our clothes washed over the casual chit chat as they bend over the buckets? This is community; doing everyday life with each other.
I felt the sun burning on my pale skin as I bounced up and down on the back of Tatay’s trike. My legs were dangling and I was watching the houses and scenery change. People sat outside their houses we would catch their eye as we zoomed by. I made elongated eye contact with a man as looked me in the eye and said “American.” Everywhere we go, people stare because they know we are different. I’ve never experienced anything like it before. I am becoming very aware of my size as my long legs have to squeeze into the trikes or I have to duck when entering stores, aware of my skin color as people comment on the whiteness of my skin, or the color of my eyes and hair. Tatay says that compared to my team of mixed ethnic backgrounds (Korean, Chinese and Mexican), it is easier for them to blend in because of their skin color. Bianka has been mistaken for a Filipino twice now. Ate L, another MUG missionary said to me “You’re Italian and Irish, congrats!” as she commented on my features. I didn’t know how to feel. This summer our team is invited to engage with our own ethnic identities and how God sees our cultural identity.
As we traveled for team time in the cramped, hot jeepney, our team began to miss our tatay. With Tatay and Nanay it feels like home. Looking at our tiny Nanay squeezed in between the people of the packed jeepney I ask myself again, if the people we will come to love this summer are poor because of a system we benefit from as “Global North Christians”, what is Jesus inviting us into?