I recently spent ten days in Gapan, Philippines with a team of 10 people from Life Church in El Paso, TX. We partnered with the local church Harvesters Christian Fellowship in Nueva Ecija, Gapan in the construction of their church. It was a beautiful cultural experience rich with genuine hospitality, delicious food, breathtaking scenery, and life changing stories.
On our last day in Neuva Ecija, Gapan we joined the Harvesters community for Sunday Worship. We gathered together on the front porch of the house neighboring the under construction church building. We sat in plastic chairs on dirt flooring with a tattered tarp overhead. There was nothing extravagant about the aesthetics. The congregants were mostly women and children because the men were out harvesting the fields. Although most of the service was in Tagalog, a language I don’t speak, I was moved to tears by observing the worshipers around me. I was moved by the presence of God at work in the body of believers at Harvesters. At one point during worship, tears rolled down the pastor’s face as he spoke for about 5 minutes. Later, I was told he shared about the long arduous journey that led to the construction of the church. He went on to express that witnessing the construction revealed God’s faithfulness and provision. It was this experience that moved him to tears.
The love the people at Harvesters Christian Fellowship share for one another is evident in the way they treat each other like family. We too were treated like family!
Edna Dulay, a pastor at Harvesters, in Tondo, a district in Manila, was our gracious host throughout our stay. And, oh boy, did she spoil us with her big heart to serve! Thank you, Edna for taking care of us!
We had the opportunity to visit the community she pastors in Tondo, which is a densely populated district with extreme poverty & violence. As we drove towards Harvesters, we wove through the sea of bodies that filled the street. We parked in front of the neighborhood basketball court located in the middle of a busy street and were met with the smiles, laughter, and chatter of so many children excited to see foreigners. But not even their excitement could mask the deep soul piercing sadness in their eyes.
Throughout my time, I heard many stories that explained the sadness in those little faces. I heard a story about a murdered body left on the door step of the church to greet Sunday morning congregants. I heard stories of people so entrapped by poverty they are forced to make their homes in cemeteries. I heard stories of street vendors recycling food from the garbage and selling it to locals in Tondo.
As I listened and observed, I thought to myself, “where is the justice?” I thought, “God where are you? Do you not see? Do you not hear?”
I thought to myself these stories are not rare nor exclusive to Manila: injustice is present in every nation, state, province, city, village, and neighborhood across the globe. I don’t say this to disparage the suffering experienced by so many in Manila, but rather to protect myself from believing the lie that injustice is everywhere else but where I live. In the States, just like in a Manila, wealthy communities neighbor poor communities. We are reminded of the injustice through mass incarceration, Dakota Pipeline, systemic racism, rape culture, human trafficking, and the list goes on. Extreme economic disparities are a global disease of injustice.
As I listened and observed, I held new and remembered stories and foreign and domestic stories near to me, and I lamented the injustices. In my lament, I saw beauty in the faces of children eager to help in the construction of the church. I saw beauty in how the women delighted in feeding us delicious food. I saw beauty when the least of them worked tirelessly to improve their community. I saw beauty watching the older generation discipline rambunctious kids in love. I saw beauty in the Sunday worshipers and pastor’s reflections. I saw beauty when our gracious drivers & construction team schooled us Americans on Filipino ingenuity. I saw beauty when the kids raced after the jeepney as we departed after a long day’s work. I saw beauty in the creativity of artwork made from recycled coffee packets.
I saw beauty in the midst of the pain all around me. It was in both the beauty & the pain that I saw God’s face. It was in both the beauty & the pain that I heard God’s voice. It was in the lament where I saw the light of beauty breaking through the darkness! As Edna told me, “we [the people living in Tondo] are a blessed people regardless of our circumstance.” She is certainly correct!
As I listened and observed, I found myself pondering ideas of how I could solve global injustice. While my intentions were well meaning, I was entertaining dangerous ideology. It is also dangerous to be indifferent, blind or paralyzed to injustice. Both of these lines of thought are equally as damaging as believing the lie that injustice is everywhere else than where I live.
I don’t want to be overzealous, indifferent, blind, or paralyzed; I want to be aware, sorrowful, emotionally engaged, & proactive while walking with those on the margins of society.
I am so grateful for the love, care and hospitality that I received from Harvesters Christian Fellowship. I am grateful for the opportunity to be a part of the construction of their place of worship. I am grateful for the transforming life experiences that I will forever cherish.
Here are few more pictures from my time in Manila.