Lessons learned in the Philippines

Excerpts from a sermon preached by Margaret Clinch at Christ Church, Dayton, about what she learned during the year she served in the Young Adult Service Corps in Baguio, Philippines.

Magandang umaga po!  That means good morning in Filipino.  Now, I’ll be honest, I never actually managed to pronounce that greeting correctly.  Even at the end, if I actually tried to greet someone in Filipino, it tended to end with them commenting on my cute American accent.  So perhaps I should instead greet you the way my fellow teachers and I always greeted one another at school.  Good morning sirs/ma’ams!

Margaret Clinch, left, and school chaplain Padie Alyse Sibaen, overlooking the famous hanging coffins in Sagada, Philippines.

Margaret Clinch, left, and school chaplain Padie Alyse Sibaen, overlooking the famous hanging coffins in Sagada, Philippines.

The topic for this sermon is lessons learned in the Philippines. Let me begin with the concept of being a stranger.  In my day-to-day life in the US, as a young white healthy woman, I’m not exactly a stranger or an oddity to anyone around me.  I get a few extra comments on my hair, but in general I can walk down a street and not be considered unusual.  That changed in the Philippines.  I was living in Baguio, and often I was the only white person people would see in a week or a month.  Most of my students and fellow teachers had never really talked with an American before, and there was apparently a lot of nervousness about my coming.  All the fears and nerves I had about going into a strange new environment were echoed in the people who were hosting me, who were afraid that we wouldn’t be able to talk clearly to one another or that I would be judging them.

I learned that there was a strong element of grace involved with making the transition from stranger to guest. My hosts had to risk my rejection and judgment of their world and their lives, and I had to risk my comfort zone – to put myself out for their own chance of rejection.  That level of hospitality towards a stranger is a terrifying challenge. But one of the benefits the Philippine church has found from YASC was rediscovering and strengthening their own cultural focus on hospitality towards the stranger.  That code of hospitality is embedded into the Philippine culture, and it is what gave them the grace to risk my judgment to still offer me a new home.

That initial hospitality led me into being able to open myself up in what has become my father’s favorite new story to tell about me. My mother runs a day care in our home, and I have often helped her with the children.  Because of that, I fast learned that the easiest way to distract a small child from a meltdown was to always keep some level of toy in my bag.  Bubble solution was my favorite, because it worked for almost every age range.  I hadn’t meant to bring it along to the Philippines, but I did have bubble solution in my purse and it made it through the airport security.  During one of the first invitations I received I was introduced to a five-year-old girl.  This girl had never met an American before, and she was rather nervous around me.  During lunch I pulled out the bubble solution and blew a few bubbles to distract her when she got restless.  It seemed like that was all it took, the willingness to play with her, before she relaxed and began to enjoy my presence.

I found that bubbles worked with the young children I encountered everywhere in the Philippines.  No matter where I went, they were initially very nervous around someone who looked so very strange in comparison to them, but they relaxed when I brought out the bubbles and began to play.

It was a similar thing that led my seventh-grade class in particular to be comfortable with me.  I was helping teach Christian Ed to the 8th grade and above in the high school, but for the seventh graders I instead was helping with Practical Spoken English.  At the beginning, I was simply going over pronunciation so that they had a real live native English speaker there to help. I brought in recordings of American speeches to let them hear how it was spoken and written by native speakers.  One of the speeches I brought in referenced the chicken dance, and I commented briefly that all the kids in my generation had learned to dance that one in grade school.  My students were far more interested in the concept of me dancing the chicken dance than in the content of the speech, and I promised that if they participated through the whole class in our discussion about the speech, I’d bring in the music and dance the chicken dance for them the next class period.  Guess who ended up teaching a little over a hundred 7th graders how to dance the chicken dance? From that point onwards, any time there was a whole-school activity the 7th grade girls were the first to claim me as their extra teacher.  Playfulness and the willingness to look stupid and risk someone else’s judgment go far in bridging barriers.

Children in Vacation Bible School in Baguio

Children in Vacation Bible School in Baguio

And make no mistake; bridging barriers was my real task in the Philippines.  Everything I was teaching to my younger students was something a priest or teacher trained in basic theology could have covered. But what I was really there for was to keep the connections going between the Philippine Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Church in the US.  Hang on a moment, I’m going to get theological.  The two great theological heresies of the American churches, in general, are the concept that we can do it alone, and the concept that we need to rescue the world.  Both of these heresies come out of the feeling that America is special and different – that what we as Americans have is unlike any other country in the world, and that we either need to save it for ourselves or export it to everywhere else, because nothing else is quite as good.  It is, explicitly, what most of our mission work from the 19th century onwards had at its core.  We can’t just bring Christianity out into the world, we have to bring American Christianity, with all of its cultural assumptions.

…Yeah.  That definitely has its issues.  So unsurprisingly, when we finally dropped that bit of cultural imperialism from our mission and outreach, we mostly also dropped doing mission work.  We no longer wanted to do it wrong, so instead we stopped doing it much at all.  We pulled in as a church and turned our focus to squarely within our own borders – from one extreme to another.

When Young Adult Service Corps was first established in the 2000s, it was conceived as a way to build partnerships, to stay in communication with other Episcopal and Anglican churches around the world.  We are sent out, not to create another top-down structure with ourselves at the top, but instead to join with the local church and work with them on what their priorities and goals are.

And in the end, the work was secondary.  It was about the friendships made, about making different parts of the church and the world real to one another.  It was about playing the same kind of games with little girls and boys in vacation bible school in the Philippines that I would play here in the US, about having wine and conversation with a co-teacher as he vented about the work involved with running the school newspaper.  It was about explaining to a group of seventh grade boys what snow actually feels like, and braiding hair with my seventh grade girls. It was about all the quiet moments in which we knew each other and were known.  It was about overriding all those moments when I would feel isolated and weird for the moments when connection existed, and friendships began.

That’s what I learned in the Philippines.  Well, that and that killi-killi is the Filipino word for armpit.  I taught preteen boys, after all.

Margaret Clinch is a member of Christ Church, Dayton.