During these dog days of summer, I am blessed with a bit of down-time when I can reflect on the year past and make some plans for the next year. Most recently I have been reflecting on 2019’s mission experience.
2019 rolled-in in its usual sneaky fashion: I hover above the Manila fireworks in a 787 jet. The last three Januarys I rang in the New Year enroute to a mission destination in Bacolod, Negros Occidental, The Philippines. I have been blessed with the role of leading the Diocese of Joliet’s University Mission to the Philippines for the second time. In all honesty, travel to the Philippines was not on my bucket list. We all know what happens when we tell God our plans! It was in His plan not only that I travel to the Philippines, but that I go three times (with plans to go as many more times as He wills)
There are many incredible, amazing, life-transforming things that have happened over the last years of this mission. As pastoral staff and leader, it is always especially captivating observing the university students as they walk out in faith and courage, traveling to a third world country prepared (or not so prepared) for the big work of building houses. It’s good, satisfying, and expected work.
When we are preparing as a mission team in the months leading up to the trip the pastoral staff and veteran missioners try to convey the unexpected work that will be done. Call this other work what you will: relationship building, solidarity, Kingdom building, loving. In reality, this is both the hardest and best work that we do. Our attempts to prepare the new missioners for this unexpected work of the mission are feeble at best. At some point halfway through our time on the ground there is a shift. We realize that our work building houses is secondary.
Building houses becomes secondary because – the villagers, the foremen, the women, the children, the families that will receive the new home – the people are no longer strangers. They are Marisa, Carlos, John Dave, Gina, Rosalie, Dadong, Analiza, Christian, Lahara, Prayla, James, Jinny Mae (just to name a few.) We begin to get to know those we work with. We hear their stories.
For the days that we work in the village, we provide $100 per day for the head Ninays (mothers) to make lunch. For this amount they are able to prepare a good meal of meat, fresh vegetables, soup, and rice for roughly 100 people and our workers. We are able to feed the families that are helping with the build, the children, the workers, and ourselves for what seems like a bargain. To put things in perspective, the average wage for one of our friends in Mangrove Village is $2 a day. A typical family prepares chicken (the most affordable meat) only once every 2-3 weeks. They purchase the chicken for their family dinner on credit. It takes 2-3 weeks to pay back the loan for dinner. Once, it’s paid back, the cycle starts again.
A sure-fire way to break the cycle of poverty is education. Many of the families that we met, children attend school sporadically only to drop out at fourth or fifth grade. Upon learning that there is public school, I questioned, “then what keeps children from going to school?” For most, schools are in walking distance. But in typhoon season, walking is not an option. It is also important to note: typhoon season, thanks to climate change, is not so much a season as all year long. Transportation to a school 2-3 miles away is $.28. For a family that takes a monthly loan to eat, transportation money is not a necessity but a luxury.
When back on the ground stateside I began to do some digging for world poverty statistics. According to Catholic Relief Services 40% of the world’s population live in poverty. Around 6000 children per day die from complications of malnourishment/starvation. With hunger statistics like this it seems silly to speak of education. If the brain is not nourished, school becomes quite a challenge.
Then I began to wonder, what about poverty in the USA? We in the United States enjoy peak privilege throughout the world, what do our poverty statistics look like? According to povertyusa.org (an initiative of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development) 12.7% of the USA lives at or below the poverty level (an annual income of $24000 for a family of 4.) 21.7% of the nation’s children live at or below the threshold of poverty; that is roughly 1 in 5 children. Each of these statistics does not count those on the edge of “poverty.” 20.2% of the nation’s households suffer from food insecurity.
As I reflect on my time in the Philippines mission field, I hold these Filipino friends close in prayer. I have begun taking up the practice of prayer accompanied by fasting.The practice of fasting has new meaning these days. The hunger pangs are manageable when I think of the friends I have abroad who struggle with real hunger. The hunger pangs are manageable when I think about the 1 in 5 children in my own country who struggle with real hunger.
We were touched by these new friends. They honored us by sharing their stories; for stories of poverty are not always easy to tell. They stretched us. They opened our hearts to the reality of the hardships life for many in our world. We honor our new friends by sharing their burdens and telling their stories. Our new friends challenged us to see poverty in a new way – a human way.
In a rush this year, I designed the 2019 mission t-shirt “Build a House, Build a Home.” Little did I know how deep this theme would run. We went there, clear to the other side of the world, with open hearts. College students had to raise a substantial amount of money for the trip and we all left our families during the Christmas Holidays to be strangers, to serve strangers in a foreign land. Yes, we built houses to better one small village in the Philippines, a country ravaged by poverty and stark inequality. The strangers that became our friends, they were also building. They built a place, warm and cozy, in each of our hearts. We built the house, they built a home. Look what we did together.
About the Author
Venus is the coordinator for our University Mission to the Philippines. She serves as faith formation director at St. Dennis in Lockport. Along with her husband, Justin, she is the co-founder and co-director of Nativity House – a home of hospitality for first time mothers.