The end of June 2000 marks one year that I have been here in the mission of Columbio, on the island of Mindanao, Philippines. It’s hard to believe how quickly the time has passed. Here’s a list of some things I’ve learned in my first year in the mission. Each one will require a little explanation, which will follow.
1. Mission life is everything I had hoped it would be…and more.
2. If a Filipino tells you how far away a destination is, in time or distance, automatically add 50%.
3. If you invite the people to participate, they will respond…on both sides of the Pacific.
4. If my entire house were made of Tupperware, the ants would still find a way to get into my cornflakes (besides, it would be very hard to “burp” the lid).
5. Teenagers are the same all over the world.
6. Funerals are tough.
7. If you can’t see the bottom, don’t drive across the river.
8. Patience, patience, patience.
9. I’m really not THAT fond of rice and fish.
10. Love is not a feeling, it’s a commitment.
1. Just before leaving for the Phillipines, I was talking to a friend of mine about how lucky I considered myself. At an age when many of my contemporaries were beginning to question their career choice, I was just starting to do what I’d dreamed about all my life. “You’re right,” he said, “You are lucky. But what if you finally get there and then find out that this isn’t it for you?” That was a scary thought, but only for a moment, since I was fully caught up in the enthusiasm of finally going to the missions. Now, the answer to the question is clear: this IS it for me. I thank God every day that he has called to this place and to this service.
2. I’ve found that there is really no sense of time or distance here; or to put it better, I should say that the sense of time and distance is much different from what I’m used to. There’s an expression, “doon lang” (literally, “just over there”), which could mean anything from “within shouting distance” to “you’d better pack a lunch.” I’ve also found that there are no two clocks in the Philippines that have the same time. Mindanao runs about 10 minutes ahead of Luzon, for example. So, the 50% rule works pretty well for me. If a parish team member tells me that it is about a one hour walk to a village, I figure on at least an hour and a half.
3. It never ceases to amaze and edify me to see the goodness and enthusiasm of people. God is truly at work, all over the world. Here in Columbio, I think of the response of the people to daily Mass and to the invitation to join the choir; I think of the dedication and hard work of my parish team members, of the high school kids who are training to teach catechism to their peers, of the volunteers on the new church planning committee, of the women who come every Saturday afternoon to clean the church and grounds, of the volunteer catechists in the different barrios, and so many others. Then on the other side of the ocean: I was floored by the response of my home parishioners in regard to the new church construction we are planning in Columbio, and even more so by the desire of so many (not only at my home parish) to be involved, connected with the mission. I really feel the results of the many prayers said on my behalf.
4. Just joking. Actually, tupperware does a pretty good job of keeping the ants out of the food. But other than that, they’re certainly ubiquitous. It’s too bad that there is no commercial use for ants. The Philippine national debt could be paid off tomorrow. Or, more likely, some multi-national company would have come in long ago and taken them all out of the country. I can never remember the Tagalog word for “ant” so I just call them my “kaaway” (enemies).
5. I spent a good portion of my priesthood in the States working with high school and college-age students. Now, with the choir, the kids who come to daily Mass and the English class that I offer in the evening, I have the chance to spend a lot of time with teenagers here. Sometimes it amazes me as I listen to their banter, watch their expressions and see their interactions with one another. Here we are in the middle of the boondocks, and if you gave them longer noses you’d think you were in the U.S. suburbs! They have the same self-consciousness and desire to “fit in” with the group, the same bubbly excitement one minute and feigned boredom the next, the same generous spirits, the same kinds of put-downs and pranks to make sure that they themselves are not the target of laughter, the same open and optimistic natures, the same devastating end-of-the-world despair when they think they have been slighted by one of their friends, the same attempts to show how mature and grown-up they are, and the same episodes of childish irresponsibility when you’d like to wring their necks. God, I love ’em!
6. Funerals are tough. That’s something that’s the same all over the world too, I suppose, but here I’ve seen that emotions are not held in check the way they are in the States. People hold up pretty well during the funeral Mass itself, but at the end, when the family gathers around the casket for a final farewell, the tears begin…and the shouting…and the jumping…and the wailing…and the being held back by relatives and friends. It’s even more severe at the cemetery or family plot, just before the casket is lowered into grave. I remember my first experience of this, shortly after I arrived. The adult daughter of the deceased was inconsolable. When the time came to bury the body, she became hysterical, trying to reach the pallbearers. I couldn’t understand her words, because she was speaking Ilonggo, but from the expression on her face, her message was clear: “Don’t you even think about putting my mother into the ground!” As a priest, it’s not something that I can just shrug off as a cultural oddity. These are my people, and they are hurting in a deep way, and there’s not a whole lot I can do or say to relieve their burden. Yeah, funerals are tough.
7. Some lessons you learn the hard way.
8. I’m the kind of person who, when I get an idea or project in mind, I want it finished yesterday. Actually, I’m getting a little bit better: I’m satisfied if I can see some kind of progress being made. But now I have to resolve myself to the fact that things take time, a lot of time. The specific example I’m thinking of is the new church. Two weeks ago, I was excited with the prospect of at least getting the land ready. One of the first things needed is to clear a space of banana trees and an old outhouse. Some men came and cut down the banana trees to stumps, and the next day I went out myself and cleared away all the debris and demolished the outhouse, leaving just the concrete foundation. “Ok,” I thought, “now we just have to get a bulldozer in here to clear away the stumps and concrete and compact the ground, then this phase will be finished, and we can order the sand and gravel.” Then I met with the planning committee: “Well Father, the bulldozer of the municipality is under repair, and we don’t know when it will be fixed. And the municipal draftsman needs more time to draw up the new plans anyway. So, why don’t we think about trying to proceed at the end of next month?” So, we wait another month before even getting started with the ground preparation. In the meantime, the banana trees are starting to grow back, right out of the stumps!
Yet, I’m learning that even it is not at the pace I’d like, there really is movement and growth. An analogy could be drawn from the planting of grass in front of the church. When I first arrived, I wanted to spruce up that area, so I cleared away all the weeds and leveled the ground, and some of the people brought in grass to plant. Now, they don’t have rolls of sod like we would be used to, but rather little squares, which are laid out a few inches apart. For the longest time, it looked exactly the same: little squares of grass separated by dirt. But then I began to notice that the squares seemed to be closer together, and before I knew it, that whole area was filled in with very nice looking grass. And now, on its own, it is spreading to other barren patches.
It’s the same way, I think, with life in general here and faith-life in particular. It may seem like there’s no progress for quite some time, but without my even noticing it, something is going on, something is moving, something is growing. So, patience is not only a virtue to be sought for its own sake (and to keep from feeling frustrated all the time); it is also an stance of faith in the unseen action of God, as well as faith in the goodness and ability of the people. So I pray for the gift of patience, and of course… I want it NOW!
9. When I first arrived, everyone was concerned about what I would eat. “Don’t worry,” I told them. “I like rice, and I like fish. I’ll get along fine.” Now, a year later and quite a few pounds lighter, I can acknowledge the truth: I don’t really like rice and fish THAT much. I knew it was getting bad when I was leafing through an old magazine and I saw an advertisement which contained a gorgeous woman in a bikini, standing next to a barbeque grill, and I found myself thinking, “Wow, what a beautiful… steak!” [Actually, I stole that joke from comedian Paul Reiser who, as a new father, was lamenting the lack of sleep; the object of his “lust” was a bed.] Anyway, I’ve discovered some ways to supplement my diet. In Davao, I found canned “Chili Fixins”, and when I can find ground beef, I make a mean pot of chili, which I garnish with onions and mustard, and pour over hot dogs (also canned). Now, that’s living!
10. Not so often, but every once in a while, I get a little moody and irritated. I think about that song, “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling.” (I don’t know if that’s the actual name of the song, but it’s the chorus that’s repeated) One of the symptoms described in the lyrics is “You’re starting to criticize little things I do.” During those irritable moments, I recognize that that’s exactly my tendency: inwardly, I begin to criticize the little things the people do. “Why do they do it like that?” “Can’t they ever be on time?” “Do they HAVE to be so indirect?” “Why not just give me a straight answer?” And so, I begin to wonder if maybe I’m losing “that lovin’ feeling” toward the people. That’s when I remind myself that love isn’t a feeling, it’s a decision, a commitment. It’s not always easy or automatic. The test of the commitment is to keep on loving, even when I don’t “feel” like it. And of course the model for that kind of love is Jesus himself. His commitment took him to the cross, where he DECIDED to be faithful to his mission, faithful to his God, even though he FELT abandoned by God.
So, those are some of the things I’ve learned during this year in Columbio.
Naturally, I’ve got a lot more learning to do, as God continues to lead me in this mystifying, arduous, wonderful, life-giving journey called mission.