Sunday, 25 December 2011

Why should we celebrate Christmas? (part 2)

A bit different to any of my other paintings, this is an attempt to capture yesterday's poem in illustrated, if rather abstract, form.

I realise I have now posted three blog entries in as many days which is probably a bit excessive ... but we are going away for a few days from tomorrow so it'll probably be a while before I post again.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Why should we celebrate Christmas?

Usually even if I was inspired to write another Christmas poem on Christmas eve it would be a little late for the Christmas cards. This year, not reliant on post and surrounded by inspiration I offer you this second Christmas poem.

Today, on day 9 of the Christmas novena, particularly in the light of the destruction of typhoon Sendong, the homily asked: why should we continue to celebrate Christmas? Why all this joy in the midst of all this suffering?

The reflections in it were the initial inspiration for this poem. Later in the morning, thanks to a friend who teaches in a school on an Indian reservation in the US I was reading some truly horrifying statistics, which, coupled with the experience of inequality here, and  the thoughts already floating round in my head inspired verse 2. (

In the midst of very visible poverty here, verse three speaks of a very different kind of pain, which is no less real, and of which my own experience has been no less real either. Some of those who find themselves struggling with difficult situations and finding it hard to see the light of the end of the tunnel are also very much in my mind right now.

Yes, we should still celebrate Christmas: not by getting into debt, not by pushing and shoving in a supermarket queue, not by competing with the neighbours for the best display of decorations, not by wasting half the food we have stocked up as if for a siege; but by choosing to stand alongside those who need to see that flickering starlight.

I hope the glimmer of hope that shines in the last verse is shining for all of those who are remembered in the preceding verses. I wish them all a very Merry Christmas.

As the flood waters rise higher
Washing lives and hopes away
Alone surrounded only by ghosts
No chance to go, no reason to stay
When all you had is gone
What is the point of this Christmas day?

With no education, no healthcare, no job
When you dream of what could have been
In the midst of a land of riches
Where poverty and despair go unseen
As one of the have-nots in a land of haves
What can this Christmas celebration mean?

For those trapped in a situation
From which there seems no way out
When you see more cruelty than kindness
Even your own worth you start to doubt
If life is a place of anxiety and pain
What is this Christmas feast all about?

Let us still celebrate this Christmas time
To promise a glimmer of hope is in sight
Because this is why the Christ child came
Saying I want to be with you in your night
He came to the destitute, the deserted, the distraught
So let this Christmas shine as a fragile ray of light

Friday, 23 December 2011

Christmas in our hearts

Last Sunday we were invited to join Fr Mac at the Christmas party he organises for the children from his feeding programme in the city streets. After the Misa de Gallo at 4.30am we headed straight down to Lourdes parish to meet the volunteers and scholars from the parish, load up the truck and head off to set up the gym where the party was held.

With songs, games, food, Christmas presents from Santa and distribution of  "bundles of joy" sacks of rice and other food stuffs we got home at 2pm, by which point we had been out for 10 hours and were very hot and tired!

It was loud and mildly chaotic (all be it in a highly organised way) but a really joyful celebration of Christmas. For the rest, I think the photos probably speak for themselves ...

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The gift of Christmas

We haven't sent any Christmas cards this year ... so please don't take it personally that you haven't received one! Instead, this blog post brings you all my best wishes for a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

After adventures on Eurostar struggling through snow to get back to the UK for the last couple of Christmasses, it has been very strange this year to be preparing for Christmas in tropical heat. In spite of all the Christmas decorations, carols and parties, it somehow hasn't quite felt like it can possibly be nearly Christmas when it is this hot! It is this strangeness which was the initial inspiration for this year's Christmas poem and the accompanying picture.

The gift of Christmas

As Christmas time approaches
And the cold, dark nights draw in
Curled up beside the flickering firelight
Watching snowflakes begin to fall

In a swirling of frosty blue
And dazzling white
Comes the warm golden glow
Of the gift of Christmas

The warmth of a fire of burning love
Of a comforting spirit of hope
Wonder and joyfulness
Warming hearts and souls

Cradled in a manger in a stable
Cradled in a heart full of love
Is the bright warm flame
Of the gift of Christmas

As Christmas time approaches
And the sun still beats down hard
Stretched out beneath the canopy of shadows
Watching palm trees rustle and wave

In a haze of dreamy yellow
And fiery red
Comes the cool silver light
Of the gift of Christmas

The freshness of a breath of inspiring change
Of an unsettling spirit of challenge
Newness and vitality
Refreshing hearts and souls

Cradled in a manger in a stable
Cradled in a heart full of energy
Is the cool refreshing breeze
Of the gift of Christmas

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Preparing for Christmas

When we arrived at DBTC back at the beginning of October, the Christmas tree was already up in the community room, so I guess you could say they have been preparing for Christmas ever since; but over the last week or so getting ready for Christmas has begun in real earnest.

We have welcomed three sets of visiting carol singers from different Salesian communities: the Seminarians from Lawaan, Pasil youth centre and Boys Home, Liloan. 

I'm not sure exactly what we were expecting: half a dozen children with a CD singing Away in a Manger fairly tunelessly perhaps ... but what we got was a carefully choreographed spectacle of singing, playing instruments and dancing.

Pasil could probably claim to have the best singers, but Boys Home may have won on showmanship (and the fact that in spite of my cringing when the recorder group initially appeared, they turned out to be really quite tuneful.)

Above all, in the case of all those we have seen, they sang, danced and played with a real sense of fun, laughter and joy.

Then, this weekend, the parties have begun, starting on Friday afternoon with the TVED Christmas party, and, as we have come to expect: TVED certainly knows how to throw a party! Food, a Christmas hat competition and lots of games filled the afternoon.

Attendance of the party was not optional, nor was active participation: but then again: why wouldn't you want to join in when life is this much fun! What makes everything at TVED so special: parties included, is the sense of community and the way everyone is included - and not just included, but obviously really wanting to be there and be part of it. The other two parties this weekend, the staff party this afternoon and Fr Mac's party for the street children from the feeding programme tomorrow have a lot to live up to: but will probably have a joy all of their own.

It hasn't all just been partying though: we have also been preparing for Christmas by taking part in the Misa de Gallo Novena, a Philippine tradition to attend dawn mass for each of the last nine days before Christmas. So we have been crawling out of bed in time to be in the chapel for 4.30am: only to find yesterday that by the time we arrived it was standing room only and as well as the crowds inside the church, there were people listening by loudspeaker outside too.

An advent sacrifice, certainly, a form of fasting different from anything I have experienced before, but, despite the early hour and tiredness, these masses are proving to be a real source and celebration of joy: a genuine preparation for the celebration of Christmas. Giving something up, yes, but not in order to be miserable or to suffer, rather in order to share a greater joy.

Monday, 12 December 2011

What we believe

I apologise now that this post is longer than many I have written. I won't be offended if you don't read to the end (apart from anything else, I won't know!)

I have often been struck, when reciting the creed that it jumps directly from Jesus' birth, to his death and resurrection. If this is the key statement of Christian belief, I wonder why it misses out the whole life of the person of Christ: Christian, after all means follower of Christ - and presumably that doesn't just mean to follow him in birth and death, but in the way his life was lived. 

Could it be that in writing the creed, the life of Jesus was just a bit too challenging for everyone to agree on? And ever since we have maintained our statement of beliefs as something which emphasises the divine person of Jesus, and limits his humanity, because to state our belief in what he said and did as a human, as one like us, means living life as something radically different to the dominant powers of the empire, an empire which it is all to easy to want to be a part of, an empire of domination, of exclusion and of wealth.

Since being here we have prayed the creed every evening, which has led me to reflect on what is my creed. I know it took years of church councils to agree on the text we have, and I am not setting myself up as an alternative authority, but here are some of the fruits of my thoughts, which I hope might generate some thoughts from others too.

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
I believe in God who is and only can be Love, and whose power is found in his willingness to be weak

Creator of heaven and earth,
Who as creator, rested on the seventh day to allow us to be co-creators with him. Our creator who created humanity as in his infinite Love he desired to exist in relationship with us

and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
And in Jesus Christ, his son, our brother, making us sons too; our Lord who washing his disciples feet identified himself not with the Lords but with the servants

who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit of a God who wished to join us in our humanity

born of the Virgin Mary,
Born of an unwed teenage mother, the lowest of the low in society, born into an occupied territory under a violent regime

Who chose as his friends an unlikely mismatched group of individuals from whom he built a community, a group of people with problems and faults and failings but who, inspired by love, were capable of living and sharing God’s gift of love with others;
Who lived alongside  society’s outcasts, creating a new vision in which those who were excluded were drawn in and human constructed barriers between people were broken down by his very humanity;
Who offered an alternative way to build community and rediscover identity, by celebrating the vitality of diversity rather than uniting against difference;
Who spent time with the unloved, and the unlovely and the seemingly unlovable, showing through his own life and actions that God’s universal love includes them too;
Who offered freedom to those who were trapped: trapped by pain, or illness, or hunger; trapped by a litany of religious rules they could never live up to; trapped by the oppression of an occupying force, by the struggle of knowing how to respond and by the cycle of violence from which there can seem to be no way out; trapped by their own haunting past or fears of their future; and who, in his offer of freedom, brought comfort and a new hope; but also a new challenge to those who chose to follow his way.
Who followed a path of non-violent resistance to challenge the injustice and exclusion in society and in doing so was willing to be vulnerable and to live his life of love to the very end
Who called and challenged those who believed in him and followed him, to live as he lived, a call and challenge which continues to resound through the centuries to his followers of all times and places.

suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Suffered at the hands of an occupying force, and of religious leaders whose obsession with the rules of religion allowed them to forget the key principle of compassion, and of a crowd who were unable or unwilling to stand up against society’s prevailing view

was crucified, died and was buried;
Was crucified, the painful and humiliating death of those who challenged the reigning order, as he did, albeit non-violently,
died in isolation and abandonment and was buried

he descended into hell;
He descended into hell, thereby destroying the only remaining place where God had been absent and making his Love truly and eternally universal

on the third day he rose again from the dead;
On the third day he rose again from the dead, meeting his disciples, and us, in our daily realities and real lives

he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty;
He ascended into heaven, And, the slaughtered lamb, is seated at the centre of the throne of God the Father all loving, fully revealing the true nature of God: revealed not in strength but in weakness, not in kingship but in suffering with the lowest in society.

from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead, not by human standards, but, in keeping with the true nature of a God who can only love, a judgement that says there is nothing you can do to make me love you more, and nothing you can do to make me love you less.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
I believe in the Holy Spirit, which burns as a fire or as an ember in every human being; a spirit of consolation but also an unsettling Spirit of challenge, calling each one to action in a life guided by love; a Spirit who pours out eternal love, in turn inspiring us to love one another

the holy catholic Church,
The holy catholic, universal Church, flawed and divided, which has often lost its way and yet has passed down God’s gospel of love through the generations, and is the community in which we are called to live out our lives of love together; to live out our faith which only makes sense in relationship with others

the communion of saints,
The communion of saints, all those, known and unknown, named and unnamed, who have tried to put into practice, however imperfectly, the little they have understood of the Gospel

the forgiveness of sins,
The unconditional forgiveness of all our sins by an eternally loving God, and the unsettling call to forgive others, even those who have caused our deepest, seemingly unhealable wounds,

the resurrection of the body,
The resurrection of the body, as a daily reality of transfiguration as we journey with a loving God who restores us at each fall

and life everlasting.
And eternal life, not as something to be looked forward to, but as something to be lived, here and now in the present moment, the only moment which truly counts, and one which should be lived to the full.


Thursday, 8 December 2011

More insights into TVED

So far, I have been very impressed by what I have experienced at TVED. Admittedly there are minor  frustrations: like the time keeping being somewhat flexible on occasion, but the whole set up and way things are run seems much healthier than the results-pressured, targets-driven, nothing-counts-but-academic-lessons, look-out-for-yourself-because-its-all-about-the-individual, environment that a lot of young people in the UK are forced to grow up in. Here, the ethos that education is about the whole person, and that the students need an environment where they can develop socially and spiritually, is not just lip-service, it is really lived. 

This poem tries to capture something of TVED's environment and ethos, as I have experienced it so far.

Teaching and learning, a space to grow
Values offered and shared
Education that encompasses the whole
Dare to expect each other to give their all

Time given, not counted
Voices found, and raised in song
Engage and enjoy
Dreaming and living the dream

Together, united in love and God
Vocation is more than a practical skill
Each other as part of one community
Doing the ordinary, extraordinarily well

Training for life
Vitality of being fully alive  
Energy of new opportunities
Doing, living, being

Sunday, 4 December 2011

A day in the life

While we are here we are working at TVED (or the Technical Vocational Education Department), designing and teaching the English and Maths courses which form part of the programmes for the students here. TVED counts about 220 students, following courses in Wood and Furniture Technology Industrial Electricity, Mechanical Technology, and Handyman Skills, all of whom we teach. The Handyman skills course is a three month programme, the other courses last three semesters (of about five months each), two at TVED and a third of On the Job training (OJT).

For the students at TVED, this is no soft option: their time here is an all-encompassing programme, which keeps them on site for 11 hours a day, six days a week. Learning vocational skills is of course an important part of the programme, but it is by no means all they do: and there is no sense that the other parts of the programme: maths, and English, theology and ethics, hobbies, PE, chores, prayers and mass, are any less important. This is not just a place to learn a trade; it is place to learn how to live.

Hopefully this video gives some idea of life as a student at TVED.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

The Power of the Word

Teaching English, I am spending a lot of time thinking about words at the moment. This, however, has very little to do with that, but it seemed like an appropriate introduction! Rather, as our thoughts turn towards preparations for Christmas, it is a reflection on the prologue to John's Gospel.

The Power of the Word

In the beginning was the Word
The word that is, the word that does
The word of creative power

The power to create us instead of me
Drawing in those who were out

And spirit

Building relationships
Enabling dialogue
Bringing together

And the Word was God

The Word was the real light
The word that speaks, the word that is silent
The word of wisdom and truth

The wisdom that breaks the boundaries
Understanding through the eyes of the heart

And Spirit

Guiding thought
Challenging assumption
Inspiring change

And the Word was God

The Word became flesh
The word that lives, the word that breathes
Meaning becoming being

The Word that chooses weakness with us
Dwelling together, co-creators of a new unity

And Spirit

Uniting peoples
Liberating truth
Becoming humanity

And the Word was God.

(John 1: 1-14)

Sunday, 27 November 2011

What we take for granted

We have reached the end of our second week of teaching at TVED, and between teaching, planning and marking there has been less time for blog post writing ... but there has still been a huge amount to reflect on.

I am not going to start listing all the differences between this teaching job and others I've had, but I have certainly been struck by just how many things I, as a teacher, have always taken for granted. And I'm not just talking about things like interactive whiteboards and computer suites. I'm talking about things as simple as paper.

When it comes to teaching, paper is fairly fundamental; and although comments about how many rainforests have passed through the photocopier that morning are probably familiar in a lot of staffrooms, paper is not exactly rationed.

In the UK, I would not have thought twice about printing off a homework sheet for every child, and probably a few spares. Here, we print one copy per class, and the students have to organise themselves to make sure they copy down the questions.

I have often had students who have reached the end of a school year with a half empty exercise book, but come September are given a new one, leaving the empty pages of the last one unfilled. In my first lessons here I was surprised by the students asking "do we need a whole page, or a half" and it took a while to realise that this was because they didn't want to hand in a whole A4 sheet if they could fit their answers on a half.

Last year when my students handed in homework I expected it to be on a piece of A4 file paper, and if they gave me part of a ripped off sheet, or their homework on the back of a page that had clearly already been used for something else, I would have been thoroughly unimpressed; now I'm having to learn to accept that a torn, pre-used piece of paper is being handed in, because paper is precious.

It has added to the learning curve of teaching in a very different situation and I am having to adapt to using resources in a very different way. For example, there are no reading books for the students here (another thing I have always taken for granted), but my thoughts of printing off sheets of text for them to practice reading have had to go out of the window.

We don't have much involvement with the main fee-paying school here, but even there it seems clear that the resources aren't as good as those we take for granted in UK state schools. In TVED it is an even more stark reality.

It has made me very aware how much we take for granted, and that we have a lot more to be thankful for than we remember to appreciate. In some ways, it is good that we are able to take so many things for granted; but I guess it has also brought home how dangerous a road we travel if we start to allow  those things to be eroded away; if we cut budgets because the value of something can't be counted in economic productivity: the last thing I would want for UK schools (environmental issues aside for a moment) is for them not to be able to take for granted photocopying an interesting resource for thirty children.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Reflecting on violence

A week ago, for the first time in my life, I sat through a boxing match from start to finish. As a general rule, watching people beating each other up isn't one of my top past times, so last week's fight has given me a fair amount of food for thought, leading me to reflect on the nature of violence and aggression.

I have not become a boxing fan, nor am I likely to become an advocate of a sport where the winner is he who hits the other hardest and most frequently. But I can't help thinking that there are far worse forms of violence than the one that had millions of Filipinos glued to their TV screens last weekend. 

When Marquez and Pacquiao stepped into the ring last Sunday, they did so because they had chosen to be boxers. I can’t help thinking that the reality of this choice makes a huge difference to the danger of this violence. There are no innocent bystanders caught in the cross-fire; nobody caught in a spiralling web of violence from which it is hard to see a way out.

There is also something to be said for the equality of a boxing ring; unlike on the battlefield, strict rules mean heavy-weights are not pitched against feather-weights. Outside the ring, it strikes me that violence rarely follows this rule, just as in the school playground the big kids are likely to single out the weak-looking ones; on the world stage too; the rich and powerful choose their victims carefully: and not on the basis that they’re evenly matched and would be up for a “fair fight.”

Reflecting further I recalled the TV cameras zooming in on the boxers’ faces each time they returned to their corner. Apparently close-ups of bleeding eye-lids make particularly good television. I disagree, but it did make clear the human face of the pain you are inflicting, and even without the zoom lens of a TV camera, it is clear that in a boxing ring, the fight is up close and personal. You look into the eyes of the person you are hitting. How different from the aggression of a violent world. Modern warfare and technology has meant bombs can be dropped and scattered from thousands of miles away from those who they’ll touch. A series of sub-contractors can allow arms manufacturers to wash their hands and deny all knowledge of atrocities committed where their weapons end up; a fog of numbers and jargon blinds our eyes to who and what is being hurt by our global financial transactions. The unseen victim is much easier to hurt than the one who looks you in the eye and reveals their pain.

I suppose the sum of my reflection comes down to this. Boxing is violent, yes, but it seems to me it is not really oppressive: and the worse forms of violence, the ones which, sadly, govern a lot of the way our world works, are those forms of violence which are used to oppress. The violence of the rich and powerful ensuring it stays that way; the violence of the few to control the many. It’s the violence of guns and bombs and arms dealers; but it is much more than that too. It is the violence of dictatorship and the silencing of the majority’s voice. It is the violence of financial corruption and unfair trade. It is the violence of countless faceless victims. It is the violence and oppression so endemic in the way our world works that we don’t even recognise it anymore. It is the violence that seems to hurt less than a punch in the face but actually does far more damage.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Marked with the sign of the cross

The sign of the cross is a simple prayer. Here it is very visible: all prayers invariably begin and end with it; and it is not uncommon to see people sign themselves with the cross as they get in a jeepney (which is perhaps slightly unnerving) before they take a penalty kick, as they get up to perform karaoke...

As something so familiar, so simple so automatic; it seemed to me it is also worthy of a little more reflection. I have tried to capture some of my thoughts in this poem, although I’m not sure how successfully I have done so.

Marked with the Sign of the Cross

What is this sign?
This symbol of the cross
Instrument of torture and suffering
Weapon of oppression and occupation

Becoming new

A sign of resistance, of the new order
A sign of hope and a sign of love
A sign of God

You are marked with the sign of the cross

What is this sign?
A sign which reaches to the heavens
And touches the earth
A sign which stretches wide
Encompassing all of humanity

A sign of a relationship
God with humanity
On a relationship of humanity
With Humanity

You are marked with the sign of the cross

What is this sign?

A sign that touches the head
Engaging intellect
Encouraging learning
Demanding growth

A sign that touches the heart
Offering love
Inviting a response
From the depths of the soul

A sign that touches the arms
Touched by the cross
To reach out and touch others
To live out the message of the cross

You are marked with the sign of the cross
That you might live the sign of the cross

Monday, 14 November 2011

A weekend in community

One of our reasons for applying to the Salesians, and one of our hopes in coming here, was to have the opportunity to experience life in community. The day to day life of community is of course about doing all the little things, but it is also the more significant communal experiences that contribute to building that community. This past weekend has been a good one for community building.

The first event was on Friday, the 40th birthday of one of the brothers in the community. By dinner time, the dining room was transformed with balloons, banners and table cloths on the tables. There are usually a few people at dinner each evening, but it was clear an effort had been made and virtually everyone was present and sat down together, along with a couple of Salesians from other communities who showed up for the party. A special meal complete with very ugly fish, delicious chocolate ice-cream and birthday cake: special because of the food, but also because of the commitment to sit down together, to take a bit longer over the meal, to talk and to laugh.

On Sunday the community were virtually all present once again, this time to watch the boxing. If I am honest, it is probably not something I would generally associate with religious community life, but after the build up all week it was clear this was going to be quite an occasion. Boxing isn't something I would usually choose to watch, but although at no point in the contest did I have any idea who was winning, and in spite of my mild aversion in principle to the idea of people hitting each other in the head and calling it sport, I was very glad to be present in the community room and part of something that was not only a community experience, but a national one.

International sports stars aren't exactly two-a-penny in the Philippines, so boxer Manny Pacquiao is something of a national hero. Few Filipinos can afford to the pay-per-view coverage in their homes, but that doesn't mean any of them are going to miss seeing their hero perform: the fight was being shown in cinemas and on big screens put up for the occasion  by local areas clubbing together. Ours was probably not the only school canteen showing the coverage. And, as Pacquiao won, albeit not as convincing as they'd have liked, I am probably not the only person round here who has had an uplifting community experience this weekend.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Let's eat!

It mentions in the guide book that at all times and on every occasion, Filipinos need little excuse to utter the words "Let's eat!", and it is certainly proving true here. So as such an important part of life, I guess food is worthy of a blog post.

Food creates the rhythm of a day: breakfast, lunch and dinner are all cooked meals. In between the three cooked meals a day, which you might have thought would suffice;  it's also customary to have morning and afternoon snacks. It becomes a little dangerous to approach the community room at certain times, because you know if anyone else is there, they will soon utter the words "Come, take your snacks" - and with it being considered rude to say no, you find yourself once again at table. And when they say snack, they don't mean a biscuit and a cup of tea: it is often far more substantial.

The staple food is rice: staple in that it served at every meal, breakfast, lunch and dinner. When they serve pasta, or noodles, there is still always rice. Even McDonalds here serve rice with your burger and fries! We've had boiled rice, fried rice, every type of both sweet and savoury rice cake you can imagine (and every type you can't), and the local speciality, puso, or hanging ... you guessed it ... rice!

The dinner table has certainly been our main point of contact with the community here, and although life is too busy here for all the members of the community to be present at every meal, there are usual at least a few people at table together; and this does seem to be the place where the community members see each other and talk to each other. Likewise, when visitors arrive, it rarely takes long for somebody to say, "Let's take something." Often when one of the community has been away and returns or when someone visits they arrive with "pasalubong" - a gift shared on arrival, and we've yet to see a non-edible pasalubong.

It is, of course, hard to generalise beyond our experience here, but I get the impression that the importance of food here goes hand in hand with the importance of hospitality. Food is to be eaten, of course, but it is also to be shared and socialised over.

Friday, 4 November 2011

An artistic interlude

With the students all on holiday this week, it has left plenty of time for reflection: here are some of the results; in painting and poetry.

I Am

I am the Bread of Life
I am the food for the  hungry
Sustenance and strength
Holiness found in the every day

I am the Light of the World
I am the flame that flickers in the night
Inspiration and joy
Shining in the darkness

I am the Gate of the Sheep
I am the way in and the way out
Comfort and challenge
The gate
A place of new beginnings

I am the Good Shepherd
I am standing in the midst of my sheep
Guide and protector
And slaughtered lamb

I am the Resurrection and the Life
I am hope for the future
Forgiveness and rebirth
Resurrection and Life
An unending second chance

I am the Way, the Truth and the Life
I am opening a door for you
Faith and fullness
Way, Truth, Life
The promise of a Father’s love

I am the True Vine
I am intertwined with my branches
Support and source
Bearing much fruit

I am.

(John 6:35; 8:12; 10:7; 10:14; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1)

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

For all the saints, Philippines style!

In the UK, All Saints day, November 1st, will probably have passed many people by; in France, it is a bank holiday, an excuse for a day off, but from what I saw, little more than that: here, on the other hand, there is certainly no chance of it going unnoticed!

We knew, both from the guide books and from the community here, that All Saints is a major festival here, and yesterday we ventured out into the cemeteries to see for ourselves what this celebration of the dead looks like.

This is a time for family reunions: in the days before buses, boats and planes are full as people travel to gather with relatives in what might seem an unusual venue for a family get together and party: the cemetery. People spend the whole day, and often the night too, gathered together around the graves of their dead relations. But this is no sad and morose memorial, it is most definitely a celebration: there is talking and laughter, games and food. I can confirm this is the first time I have seen a dunkin' donuts take-away stand inside the grounds of a cemetery!

We visited two different cemeteries: a private one and a public one: even in death there is a clear disparity between the rich and poor here. In the rich cemetery families set up tents over their grassy plots whilst in the poor one, people jostled for space around graves stacked four or five high. Having said that, the atmosphere of celebration was much the same, and vendors still sold flowers, candles and food. In both, coming from my mindset of thinking of cemeteries of silent places of reflection and recollection, it was a very, very different experience; a very different idea of how you remember and honour the dead.

At first view, this party in the cemetery seems to have little to do with a religious feast day: so is this a cultural phenomenon, an excuse for a family reunion, or really a celebration of a Christian festival? The reality, I guess, is that it is different for each person, for each family, but, in differing measures, it is probably all three.

Yes, it is cultural, and I doubt it could be easily exported into a different culture. We are all subject to the influences of our cultural surroundings, often subconsciously, and many of the things that individuals do, they probably do because that is what is done.

Yes it is a chance to gather together with the family. Families are important here and, in a country which counts more than 7000 islands, it is an opportunity to be reunited, to share and celebrate together.

And yes, it is religious too: mass was being celebrated throughout the day in the cemeteries, in between the feasting we did also see people saying prayers; and it does fit within a wider culture of praying for the dead which is much more in evidence here than in the UK.

And as an outsider, of course, I can observe and am very glad I have had the opportunity to do so, but I'm probably not qualified to judge what is really going on.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Sports day, TVED style!

Last Thursday and Friday, at the end of three weeks induction for the applicants, and after two months of heats for the others, TVED celebrated its intra-murals, an inter-course sporting event, which, having see, I hesitate to translate as sports day, which somehow doesn't seem to do justice to the scale of the event.

Launched by an opening celebratory mass in the chapel followed by a procession to the gym complete with marching band, the opening ceremony lasted the whole of the first morning. Photos can't do justice to the olympic (or intramurals) torch lighting which absolutely blew me away! We had been invited to judge the team mascots and the mass dance competition, a job we had accepted without giving it much thought, but after the opening speech and oath of conduct I was rather feeling the pressure about how important this was turning out to be.

The rest of the two days was taken up with the semi finals and finals of a wide diversity of games and sports: those you might expect, like football and basketball, and those you might not, like scrabble and chess. Everybody was engaged in something: playing, watching, or singing karaoke in the classroom! Other than the diversity of activities included, I was perhaps most struck that all this happened with virtually no adult supervision: matches were organised, played, refereed, and scored by the students: and it all just happened.

The event closed with an all night party: shared meal, prize giving, karaoke, disco and games. And then when you'd think everyone was too tired to take much more, the applicants were congratulated on their acceptance on to the courses, and invited to commit to their membership of TVED, and in particular to affirm their support for each other: and after three weeks like this, why wouldn't they?

Saturday, 22 October 2011

The Laughter of Love

There have been a huge number of things that have struck me here, too many to count, and certainly too many to write about without boring people; but one of the things that has most struck me, and most persistently so, has been the real sense of joy. All of the Salesians we have met have seemed genuinely happy, and it is with a joy that generates an energy, and which is communicated to the students they work with through their approach and relationships.

This poem is inspired by that joy, as well as by this quote “For men are made for happiness and anyone who is completely happy has a right to say to himself, ‘I am doing God’s will on earth.’” From the Brothers Karamazov, by Dostoevsky, which I am currently reading and, incidentally, would highly recommend.

Though the world can seem a dark, dark place
Yet are we called for joy
To smile and keep on smiling
To laugh with the laughter of love

A smile that smiles through suffering,
Not in ignorance nor complacency
But as a bearer of true joy
A promise
Of better things to come

A joy found deep in silent places
Not emptiness but energy
A joy that is source and summit
Of life
In all its fullness

It is a smile that is more than lip service
A joy that can be read in the eyes
Shining with the twinkle of light
Welling up
Breaking out
This is the laughter of love

Thursday, 20 October 2011

How the other half live

Yesterday, invited by Father Mac, we took a break from curriculum planning, and went out into some of the very poorest parts of Cebu City to see his feeding programme. Departing from Lourdes parish, Fr Mac, along with six student volunteers, themselves Don Bosco "scholars" - students who couldn't afford to pursue their studies but who are supported to do so by the Salesians; takes food to children, mothers and others living in abject poverty around they city.

Three times a week they take cooked rice, lentil stew, some vegetables and a little meat. Some people arrive with containers to collect the food; plastic plates and spoons are provided for those who come empty handed. The main recipients are mothers who come to collect food and take it home for their children to eat after school; and children, called from in amongst the shacks to come and eat. Poorly clothed and barefoot, the children none the less mostly wore beaming smiles (and loved having their photos taken!)

We know that the TVED students, with whom we'll mostly be working, are poor: the training is designed to offer opportunities to out of school youth who couldn't otherwise study; but the poverty we saw at the feeding programme was another thing altogether. Not an easy thing to see, but a very important reality to be aware of.

This is a daily reality for many here in Cebu. But, equally, it should be added, it is also not the daily reality for many other Philippinos. It would be very easy to present only this reality, or at least to emphasise it. It is those things which shock us and which are outside our normal realities which most draw our attention and comment. And it is good that we are shocked by what we see, because this shouldn't be anyone's reality.

We are less conscious of photographing and writing about shopping malls that wouldn't look out of place in a Western European city, or laden meal tables, or fast food chains or the ubiquitous starbucks. But these things are also just as much a part of life here, and are the daily reality for many Philippinos, just as poverty is for many others ... and of course everything in between.

A land of contrast and diversity, Philippinos are rich, middle classed, poor, destitude, and everything in between; but right now the poverty of some very hungry children is fresh in my mind and is likely to remain imprinted on it for ever.

Monday, 17 October 2011

A baptism of mud!

We have been lucky enough to arrive when the 3 week induction programme for the applicants to the vocational training centre is in full swing...and what an induction! Rather than a baptism of fire, these students definitely get a baptism of mud!

These students are only at DBTC for one year, but the induction is considered important enough to dedicate time to. And this is no optional extra: all the students are on site for 11 hours a day, and they all do everything. It is, along with daily mass and morning and afternoon assemblies, the beginning of the “values formation” which is an integral part of the education here.

It is often all too easy for the pressure of academic results or getting through everything on the course to be would be such that the imparting of values gets squeezed out altogether, or paid lip service to, as something it would be nice to do properly but we don’t really have time for ... no such attitude here. Imparting a set of values, human values, Christian values, is seen as just as important as the academic or vocational skills. In schools and boys homes where the young people stay for much longer, these values can be imparted over time, but at TVED, it all has to be condensed into one year, and if you’ve only got one year, rather than water down what you want to get across, you have to make the experience more intense ... and intense it has been!

In a microcosm of a few days, we have already seen the Salesian window in action... and from where I am standing, it looks very good!

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Introducing DBTC

It is nearing the end of our second full day at Don Bosco Technology Center (or DBTC) and so far it has been excellent. We have been made to feel incredibly welcome and included by the community here, which, with 11 members, is the largest in the Southern Philippines province.

On the site here is an elementary school (age 6-12), a high school (age 12-16) a college (16plus) and a vocational training centre, which is where we will mostly be working. The training centre offers one year courses in Industrial Electricity, Mechanical Technology, and Carpentry, and a three month handyman skills course, all of which offer opportunities to out of school youth who could not afford to study in other settings. Alongside their practical training, they learn basic English and maths, and follow a values formation course.

The community are hoping we will create and implement an English and Maths skills programme for the trainees here, which will also be used in the other vocational training centres in the province. With 8 sections having two hours a week of each subject, and everything to be created more or less from scratch, that should keep us fairly occupied!  With the students on site from 6.30 for mass, until closing prayers at 5.30, there should be plenty of scope to get involved with some of their other activities too.

Some 65 of the 1500 elementary and high school students are boarders during the week as they come from too far away to travel daily, so we are also expecting to have some involvement with the them, which so far has meant joining them each evening after dinner for their evening prayers.

So there you have it, a brief introduction to our host community here, and if things continue as they have begun, we should have an amazing experience!

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Silent Witnesses

Over the dinner table at Provincial House, we shared many conversations, some serious, some less so. One of the priests, talking about the work of the Salesians here, spoke at one point of “Silent Witnesses” and the gestures they offer. This poem is inspired by that conversation:

Silent Witnesses

These are the silent witnesses

Who stretch out a hand in love,
Who feed the hungry so that they can live
Who teach the young so that they can grow
Who create a space so that you can be you
And I can be me

These are the silent witnesses

Whose message is one of love
That tells the forgotten ones they are not forgotten
And the unlovely they can still be loved
Whose message is shared in a smile
A spark of the joy of life

These are the silent witnesses

Who say there is more to life
Turning away from economic profitability
Trusting rather in human value
Who say
You cannot put a price on love

These are the silent witnesses

Who say
Though I cannot do it all
Yet will I do what I can
Who know they offer only a gesture
But know that gesture is already enough
The gesture that says I care
The gesture that we call love

These are the silent witnesses

This is the silent witness
Arms stretched wide on a wooden cross
With a sigh of lonely abandonment
And a waiting in silent love

We are the silent witnesses
To the mystery of our faith.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Telling Multiple Stories

Watching this video, in which Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about the dangers of telling the "single story when any individual, community or country is invariably made up of multiple stories certainly gave me plenty of food for thought, and I am aware it is something to keep in mind as I write this blog.

We have not been here very long, and both from my own observations and from the conversations we have already had, some of the complexities of history, of culture, of economics, of environment, of daily life ... are already becoming visible. It is already pretty obvious that there are not just two sides to every coin, but that each situation, each reality is multi-faceted: made up both of obvious contrasts and innumerable more subtle differences.

And if I fail, as I undoubtedly will, to express the complexity of the Philippines, of Cebu, of the Salesians, of the people I work with, of my experience, please bear in mind that I am trying to tell this complex story as honestly as I can, but as an outsider, who knows only a very little bit, of only a very few of the stories there are to tell, and remember that whatever I have been able to express, the reality is undoubtedly far more complicated and there are far more stories left untold.