Sunday, 24 June 2012

Saying goodbye

With this blog now counting over 35000 words, any one still reading deserves my heartfelt congratulations! Thank you for being, in some way, a part of this adventure: I hope you have enjoyed it. Just in case you missed anything, here are the edited highlights courtesy of Wordle:

Tomorrow, almost nine months after arriving in Cebu, we leave the Philippines. It has been quite an experience, and today is a day of very mixed feelings. The next week or so could well prove to be a roller-coaster of emotional highs and lows.

The sadness of leaving, especially knowing the chances are we will never see the people with whom we have shared the last nine months again will be coupled with the sense of satisfaction at having successful completed the main task we were given on coming here and knowing that this is the right time to move on.

The excitement of going home and seeing many family and many friends again will be coupled with the apprehension of going back into a world which is so familiar but as a person changed by having lived a very different experience.

The enjoyment of reminiscing, reflecting and flicking through photos will gradually give way to the excitement tinged with nerves of moving on to new adventures.

So that’s it. The Philippine adventure is over, but plenty more adventures lie ahead. There will be a break from updates for at least a month while we are in Taize, but I guess I’ll probably find plenty more to keep writing about after that.

I leave with lots of wonderful memories and a very large photo collection, and take with me no regrets. It has been a very good year. Salamat Cebu!

So long, and thanks for all the fish!

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Charity and Justice - part 2

Charity is something I struggle with. I acknowledge its necessity in a world where injustice and poverty persist and I recognise the positive benefits it can bring to individuals and communities. On the other hand, I am uncomfortable with the presentation of charitable giving as a universal good because while I celebrate its potential benefits, I also fear its dangers. The risks for those receiving charity are well documented, with organisations anxious to show they are providing appropriate and directed assistance and that they are not creating a culture of dependence but rather helping recipients to help themselves; but I fear more for the dangers for those of us on the giving end.

Charity is a necessary evil in a world in which injustice persists. A world which is richer than it has ever been, and yet where children still die of hunger and of treatable diseases. While charity does indeed help some of the victims of injustice, it is not going to bring an end to the persistent injustice which allows the rich to get richer at the expense of the poor sinking deeper into poverty.

If we feel our charitable giving absolves us of our greater responsibilities, as actors in a global system which maintains the oppression of the poor, then it is doing more harm than good. A lot of charity undoubtedly does much good. Meanwhile the effects of the global debt system and the crippling effects of unjust trade continue to do many billions more pounds worth of unspeakable damage.

Charity is never an excuse to allow exploitation to continue. Giving to charity should not be a salve to our consciences to allow life to go on just as it did before. It should not allow us to say, I can continue to live as I do because I have put my pound in the charity box. Rather, it should serve as a reminder that poverty and injustice persist, and as a challenge to fight for justice, equality and change. Giving to charity should not be something we do to make ourselves feel better about the suffering we see as inevitable, but be part of our belief that another world is possible.

Our charitable giving this year has been nine months of our time, and yes, I feel that we have made a difference here. On Tuesday when we handed over the programmes of study and planning that we have spent the year developing to the directors of the eight training centres in the Philippines South province; the reception suggested that our efforts have been worthwhile and are appreciated and valued by those for whom it is intended.

I feel we have made a difference here, but I will not go home thinking I have done my part and done enough. I will go home refreshed and renewed to campaign for justice. I will go home reminded that while the Philippines is not entirely innocent of its own failings; above all else our students have been failed by a global trading and financial system that has kept their country locked in poverty. I will go home knowing that my government can do more to solve the problems in the Philippines than theirs can. I will go home knowing that while giving my time and my money will help these students, the greatest gift I can give them is not my pound in a charity box, nor even my English lessons, but believing in and campaigning for radical change on a global scale.

Friday, 22 June 2012

charity and justice - part 1

At DBTC the badminton court is currently out of action: this is partly because termites are steadily munching their way through the floor boards but primarily because the room is piled high with boxes of books which were sent as charitable donations from the US.

On first appearances, this is a very generous gesture. Most of the books are educational textbooks, sent, undoubtedly, with the very best of intentions to support the education of students in a poorer part of the world. So far, so good. The problem is that, while some of them may be useful, a majority of the books are completely irrelevant and inappropriate, including textbooks for American citizenship courses detailing the minutiae of the American political system, and manuals for outdated computer programmes which are no longer used, not even here. What is more, because the collection is so indiscriminate and disorganized, even those resources which could potentially be useful, take time and energy to find, time and energy which may be better used elsewhere.

Someone has spent a lot of money sending a lot of books which might end up on a bonfire. It is a lesson in the importance of a process of reflection about charitable giving: ensuring donations are directed, appropriate and useful to the recipients. But there are other lessons to be learnt in the badminton court too.

Reflecting a little further, while the shipment of books initially seems very generous, many of the books are clearly out-dated. These are not resources schools in the US are currently using and wish to share with those in the under-funded Philippine Education system: they are books that are no longer wanted and are cluttering up space. They are a gift from our surplus, from what we no longer want or need. They are a gift of that which is no longer good enough for us, but it will do for you. They are a gift which can be given freely because it won’t actually have any impact on our life.

We allow those things that are really worth something to us to touch and shape and change us. If something is really valuable, we give to it not from our surplus but from the depth of our being. Be it time, money, or emotion, what we give to our family and friends comes from deep within our realities, not from what we have left over. If we really care about those receiving our charity, should not the same be true?

When something or someone is really valuable to us, we are prepared to give all that we have; knowing that what we receive in return will more than repay the outlay. Perhaps if we dare to take the risk; giving not of our surplus but from somewhere deep inside ourselves, the return will be beyond what we had imagined; maybe this is what is asked of us when we read “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap” (Luke 6: 38)

More to follow ...

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Holding on to what we've got

Whilst there are undoubtedly things poverty covets from our wealth, there are also many things our wealth could also learn from poverty: not least the valuing of what we have got.

Around the streets of Cebu, all different sorts of repair shops, such as this street-side shoe repair stand, are a familiar sight. Meanwhile, in the UK, where cobblers, tailors and the like were also once common, they have all but disappeared from our high streets. Once, shoes were re-heeled and torn clothes mended. Many items which have become disposable with our increasing wealth were once considered too valuable to just throw away. Here, they still are.

Last summer the zip on our tent broke. Determined not to throw away what was, otherwise, a perfectly good tent, we sought to have it repaired, but in the West Midlands, the second biggest conurbation in the country, we could not find a single repair shop that could do the job. For me it came to symbolise our throw-away culture: these places don’t exist, because there is no market for them. If something is broken, even slightly, the common immediate reaction is to throw it away and buy a new one.

And it goes further still, because not only do we throw away and replace that which is broken rather than seeking to repair it, but we don’t even have to think before discarding something which is no longer flavour of the month even if it is in perfect condition. While on one level I appreciate the existence of charity shops full of quality clothes in near-perfect condition, allowing me to clothe myself very cheaply; on another level, this symbol of extravagance distresses me: we live in a culture where good-as-new is already good-to-go.

Here where incomes are lower and budgets tighter, people have to think twice before throwing things away, because “just buying a new one” might not be an option. There is still a sense that “stuff” is worth something and possessions and materials are valued more highly.

As is common in many schools, here the summer holidays were a time of refurbishment and repairs, among which the wooden floor in the gym was replaced. When the floor boards were taken up, they were not thrown away: the ever resourceful TVED department used them to build beds for the incoming boarders. The alternative wasn’t to “just buy a new one”, it was sleeping on the floor.

 In local shops it is common to buy soft drinks in glass bottles; with the expectation that you will drink them immediately, on site, and return the bottle for cleaning and reuse (like milk bottles in the UK) While clean and sterile, it is not unusual for the outside of the bottles to be scuffed and scratched, something which the western market would perhaps find hard to accept, in a culture where even fruit and vegetables are expected to be a uniform shape and colour. Seeking perfection in what things look like has replaced a real sense of valuing what things are worth.

A sign of extreme wealth; our profligate throw-away culture shows not only a disregard for the planet, but maybe tells us that we have got too much.

Maybe we should throw away a bit less, and share a bit more. 

Monday, 18 June 2012

Cebu, Cebu!

For nearly nine months, Cebu has been home. Now, as we think about heading back to the UK, it is time to remind ourselves how many of the things which have become so familiar are actually so foreign and different; how the street scenes which have accompanied our daily life for the past months are ones of which we may not see the like again, certainly not in the near future, and which are completely alien to many of our friends and family.

Cebu is a city of confusion and contrast.
Overloaded tricycles of questionable road-worthiness jostle for space with sparkling chauffeur-driven four-by-fours. Gated estates of sizeable concrete houses overlook the unstable-looking shacks from where large families spill outside on to the streets. A short walk takes you from air-conditioned shopping malls, a haven from the sun and heat, to outdoor market stalls where waving a plastic bag on a stick keeps the flies away.

It is a city of noise and colour.
Struggling motorcycle engines and a cacophony of horns fill the streets and there is invariably karaoke blaring out from somewhere. Vendors of cigarettes, individual sweets and of course, tropical fruit, brighten the sides of the streets. And then there is the jeepney: noise and colour all rolled into one: with their loud engines and drivers shouting for business and their bright coats of paint with religious images and cartoon characters vying for space.

It is a city of the past and the future.
Cebuanos are proud  of their city's history: the place where the Spaniards first came ashore, planting the first seeds of the Catholicism and bringing the beloved Santo Nino. And the place where the Spaniards were first defeated too, independence dreams before colonialism had a hold. But not far from the 500 year old Magellan's Cross you also see Cebu struggling to find its place in the future: young professionals working late into the night to staff call centres serving the other side of the world; and everybody's fingers permanently glued to a mobile phone.

It is a city of pace and patience.
Always busy, with traffic, with people, Cebu is not a place for staying still, it is a place of movement; but with gridlocked streets and engines too small for the vehicles they propel, it is a place where no-one is going anywhere quickly. It is a place which at first glance might seem in a hurry, but really is taking its time: time to say hello, time to stop and smile.

Cebu is even a city which has its own theme tune (in both English and Cebuano versions). With the Filipinos inveterate love of Karaoke, it is not hard to see where a song like "Cebu, Cebu" came from, and it is a song I have more than once had stuck in my head. I am not sure I complete agree with Dandin Ranillo's assessment that Cebu is "the paradise of the orient" but I salute anyone who thinks that "you can go shopping at Gaisano" (a local shopping mall) and "there's barbecue and puso" (hanging rice) are great lyrics for a song! Maybe, like me, it is trying to sum up something of what this place is like. Maybe it can't. I know I can't.

It is a city of which, even now, I am sure I have barely scratched the surface. It is a city to which, in spite of its poverty and its pollution, its traffic and its turmoil, its frustrations and its failings, I will be sad to say goodbye.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Out of Eden - Part 4 - Come, go and live!

As you are probably aware, I have been reflecting on the story of the garden of Eden for some time, and have written quite a lot on the subject. Here, to round of the series, is a poem and accompanying picture which tries to draw together some of the themes and ideas from my theological ramblings through Eden, Gethsemane and the resurrection garden.

Leave this fruit
It is not yours
Leave this knowledge
It means nothing to you
Leave this truth
It is time
To discover your own

Go instead
Go, plant and tend
Go, grow and eat
Go, learn from your own realities
And live

Leave your swords
Put down your violence
Leave your fears
Dare to stretch out empty hands
Leave the way free
It is time
All are welcome here

Come instead
Come, approach and see
Come, draw near and taste
Come, eat the fruit of fulfilment 
And live

Leave this garden
It cannot hold who you are called to become
Leave your hiding place
Face the challenges of uncertainty
Leave the centre
It is time
To live on the edge

Go instead,
Go, step out and look around
Go, take risks and be free
Go to your Galilee
And live

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

It's a year of Jubilee!

Being on the other side of the world, I have, thankfully, been spared much of the hype surrounding the queen’s jubilee celebrations, but now that the bunting has been packed away and the BBC have once again realised there is real news going on in the world, I too have been reflecting on celebrating the jubilee.

The word jubilee has biblical origins. While there is some debate as to the exact etymology of the English word: whether it comes from the Hebrew word “yobel”, a ram’s horn, blown to signal the beginning of the jubilee celebration, or from the Latin “iubilo” meaning shout, the connection with the Leviticus texts seems undisputed.

The Jubilee year, the end of a forty-nine year cycle, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, was indeed intended as a time for celebration: marking the jubilee year by holding street parties in which whole communities come together is probably not too far removed from the original sentiment.  On the other hand, celebrating a system of birth into privilege and the upholding of the inequality of inherited wealth could hardly be more distant from the original idea of the jubilee celebrations.

Written into God’s code for life are policies which combat the cycle of environmental destruction, and break the downward spiral of debt and poverty. The jubilee year is the year when “you will proclaim the liberation of all the country’s inhabitants” (Leviticus 25:10) It is the year in which debts are forgiven, slaves are freed and land which has been bought and sold is redistributed in the name of equality.

While, in Britain, the queen celebrates sixty years of living a privileged life at the expense of others, two statistics have come to my attention this week:

1) The government of the Philippines spends 27.1%, more than a quarter, of its total revenue servicing foreign debt, owed to both foreign governments and multinational private corporations, whose lending and vast interest bills often take advantage of countries' poverty. As a slightly-better-off-than-the-very-poorest country, the Philippines has not qualified for any debt relief. As a percentage of government expenditure, its repayments of overseas debts are now second highest in the world.

2) Last Monday marked the beginning of the new school year in the Philippines. Of the students who began their high school career in Filipino public schools last Monday, statistics suggest 65% will not complete the four years of high school. I know from experience that even many of those who make it to the end, will have been badly let down by a substandard system.

I know that poverty in the Philippines is the result of a complex web of realities of which the repayment of foreign debts is only one strand among many; and that the government spending on repaying its overseas debts, and their interest, is not the only factor which has resulted in the Philippines having a sadly inadequate education system, and many young people being forced by circumstances to drop out before completing school.

Nor do I exonerate the Filipino government, past and present, from its share of the blame in the debt problem: irresponsible governments have borrowed thoughtlessly, and in a country where corruption is rife at every level, I suspect much of that borrowed money, some of which may perhaps have been lent with good intentions, will have been misappropriated. Some of it was probably spent on shoes.

But this post isn’t about levelling blame, because I don’t think that is what the jubilee is about either. The jubilee year is about a fresh start. It is about beginning again, not with the same old divisions and inequalities, but with financial disparities rebalanced and the chance to genuinely start anew. A chance which countries trapped in a web of debt and poverty are never offered.

We live in a world fuelled by unsustainable debt and credit. We live in a world where poverty persists. We live in a world that desperately needs us to be celebrating a real jubilee.

Let’s do it!

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Out of Eden - Part 3 - Leaving the Garden

This is the third part of my reflections on the Garden of Eden story, which I once again invite you to reflect on, or ignore, as you prefer. 

A significant part of the Garden of Eden story is not just the time Adam and Eve spend in the garden, but their departure from it. In the New Testament garden stories of Gethsemane and the resurrection garden, leaving also features prominently.

The story of Adam and Eve eating the fruit and subsequently leaving the garden is commonly talked about as “the fall.” These words do not appear in the biblical text, although many bibles use them as a sub-heading and this terminology has come to dominate our interpretation of the event, to an extent that this interpretation is rarely even questioned, and this understanding is assumed to be widely accepted.

But perhaps this is no fall from grace, no divine punishment. Perhaps another understanding is possible. Perhaps we do not need to be tied by this traditional understanding. Perhaps the text can be read in another way.

Maybe Adam and Eve did not fall from grace. Maybe they just grew up. Maybe the awakening of knowledge inevitably sends us out from the safety of the garden to the wider world.

It is true that some of the language of the discourse around the departure from the garden sounds at first reading like a punishment, but a closer look made me think maybe it is less clear cut. God speaks of being “accursed”: harsh words indeed ... but at no point does God say humanity is accursed. The snake, yes, the tempter: the temptation to opt for the easy life, the temptation to seek to possess and usurp positions of power, accursed indeed. The soil too (hmm, haven’t quite worked out what that might be about) but humanity is not accursed.

Not accursed, perhaps, but still warned of pain to come. The pain they will face outside the garden could be read as a punishment, yes, but maybe it is just the reality of adulthood. Maybe the experience of pain is something we all learn as we grow from babyhood to adulthood and leave the safety of the garden which can not contain all we are destined to become.

Our biblical faith is a faith that calls us to face up to such realities of life, including its myriad challenges and difficulties: God does not send us out of the Garden as a punishment, he sends us out of the garden and accompanies us out into the big wide world because that is where we are meant to be: living in the real world, getting our hands dirty, earning our food by the sweat of our brow; even if sometimes it hurts. Our faith does not call us to shelter in the security of a garden, or a church social club, it calls us out to live life on the edge.

Jesus too, pulled no punches: he too called people out of the gardens of their security, out of their comfortable lives. He too promised pain: but this is not a threat or punishment, taking up one’s cross is simply a recognition of the reality of what following Jesus, living in a way that is radically different to societal norms and challenging oppressive authority through love and non-violence, brings about.

After the cross, early on the first day of the week, the gospel narrative takes us back into a garden, location of the tomb and setting for, depending which gospel story you are reading, either the first resurrection appearance, or the message of resurrection appearances to come.

As with the garden at Gethsemane, I wonder whether there is an inevitable connection between this garden and the original biblical garden, Eden. In our minds, and more so in the minds of the first audiences of the gospels, when a biblical garden narrative occurs, the Eden story looms large. The sending out is a significant part of that first garden story, and in the resurrection garden too, the message is very clear: this is not where you are called to stay. Once again God, Jesus, sends out those who are in the garden, to go back to their Galilee. Perhaps the clarity of this message, seen not as a punishment but as a commission, can be our reassurance that the first sending out of humanity form Eden was also a part of our faith journey.

In the midst of the clear similarities between these two sending out narratives there are also differences. In the first story, as Adam and Eve leave the garden, the tree of life remains, static, at the centre of the garden: guarded by swords and by its position in a place that can no longer hold the adults we have become.

The resurrection garden tells a different story: Jesus, the tree of life, is not static, nor is he staying in the garden. He has “gone ahead of you to Galilee.” Perhaps in the shared faith journey of God and humanity, out of Eden, out of Egypt, out of Gethsemane, out of the resurrection garden, there is a growing realisation for all of us, including God, that the Tree of Life is not to be found “at the very centre”: that is not where it belongs. It is at the edges that the tree of life takes root and grows an abundance of delicious fruit which we are invited to taste and eat.

So perhaps we too need to go out from the centre: out from centres of power and centres of comfort; out from what we know and what we think we love: out into our Galilees, to the places at the edge; to the places where there is a danger of falling off, for it is only there that fullness of life can be found.

It is time to go to Galilee and live.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Our smiling students

Aware that I have written quite a few lengthy posts recently, I decided it was time to cut down on the words and put some pictures up instead.

This week, the new semester has begun at TVED. For the students it is a time of new beginnings: our senior students are heading out into the real world to begin their on the job training, our juniors are beginning their senior semester and a whole new lot of students, having been put through their paces with the orientation last month are preparing to begin their studies at TVED. While their eyes are focused on new beginnings though, for us it is a reminder our time here is nearing its end.

To the music of the school song, "Ardua non Timeo", or "Fear no Hardships", these are the smiles that have accompanied our last few months:

Saturday, 2 June 2012

A protestant church

A few weeks ago I published a blog post reflecting on catholicism, and its challenging call to a faith which pertains to everything; so in the name of balance and equality, I have also been reflecting on what it means to have a protestant faith.

Familiarity with terminology can breed, if not contempt, at least a certain lack of engagement with their true meaning, but the origin of the word protestant is in little doubt.

Just as I believe all churches are called to seek the inclusivity of being truly catholic, I think we are equally called to be protestant, for to be a Christian is to be a follower of Christ, non-violent protestant extraordinaire.

Jesus lived his whole life as a protest: against the oppressive occupation of the Roman regime which ruled by violence and in which economic inequality prevailed and against religious authorities who tried to limit God’s love to a selected few. Perhaps the moment in his life which we most easily associate with the Christ of protest is drives out the stall holders and over-turns the tables of the money changers in the temple. At other times in the gospel, Jesus shows little support for temple-based religion, yet he still chose to expel the traders form a temple he saw as superfluous to worship of God.

It is a story which appears in all four gospels, with Matthew, Mark and Luke placing it at the beginning of the week of Jesus’ passion, creating a clear link with his ending up on a cross; while John places it at the very beginning of Jesus ministry: it is, along with the miracle at Cana which precedes it, his mission statement and the foundation of all that follows.

The temple was a very public place in which to make a statement against economic injustice and the damaging effects of a trade system which took advantage of the poor to enrich the powerful. Jesus was not only protesting against the location of the market he was protesting against a system where two sets of weights and measures allowed traders to defraud with impunity, and where money changers lined their own pockets leaving the poor and vulnerable with no recourse to justice.

2000 years on, trade rules which favour the rich, allowing the rich to get richer, while others are plunged deeper into poverty still sound very familiar.

The temple was also a place to demonstrate the hypocrisy of a system which used religious texts to exclude, yet refused to live by the justice and jubilee principles of those same books. The traders selling animals for religious rites and sacrifices, and the money changers changed the local currency into the specific coins required to pay the temple tax, were part of a religious system which promoted exclusivity. Furthermore, the traders were almost certainly operating within the outer walls of the temple, in the area reserved for the prayers of those not permitted to enter further into the temple. Already kept out of the holiest places, this was a further barrier denying access to God to the gentiles and “unclean”. In clearing this place, Jesus is making a statement, breaking down barriers which exclude.

2000 years on, the reality for many of the experience of exclusion is also little changed.

Perhaps to be truly protestant, and true followers of Christ, our protest too must be against the systems which oppress and impoverish and against barriers which exclude.

Maybe then, in the world as it is, it is impossible to become more catholic without also choosing to be protestant, and to be protestant involves an aspiration towards catholicity ... which makes me wonder why church unity seems so difficult to achieve...