Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Long Retreat

TERTIANSHIP CLASS 2007-2008 (front row) Chris Soh (Singapore) Carlo Manunza (Italy) Kifle Wansamo (Ethiopia), Julian Das (India), Lee Sang-Won (Korea), Ray Guiao (USA) (back row) Bill McGarry (assistant tertian instructor, USA), Emanuel Lim (Singapore), Benny de Guzman (Philippines), Rene Oliveros (Philippines), Kolbe Sang-Hwan (Korea), Roger Champoux (tertian instructor, French Canada)

Dear Readers,

Beginning tomorrow, October 28th, my fellow tertians and I will be entering into what is known as the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola. It takes the form of a 30-day individually directed retreat, commonly known as the Long Retreat. It is considered the "centerpiece" of all Jesuit tertianship programs.

Jesuits undergo the Long Retreat twice in their Jesuit lives. The first time is as a novice, or "beginner Jesuit." I made my first Long Retreat when I was twenty-two years old, only four months after entering the Jesuit novitiate. The second time a Jesuit experiences the Long Retreat is many years later, when he makes his tertianship. Needless to say, the Jesuit tertian is far better prepared, ready, and even eager to enter into as significant an experience as the Long Retreat than he was a a Jesuit novice. That's exactly how I feel. While the prospect of keeping silent and out of touch with the outside world may seem daunting to some, such time-out-of- time affords those who experience the Long Retreat the rare privilege of entering into a period of intensely personal prayer with God, unhindered by the many obligations, occupations, and distractions of life in the real world. We Jesuits are hardly monks -- anyone who knows me can tell you that! But, twice in our Jesuit lives, we members of the Society of Jesus take 30 days to listen intently to the movements of God in our hearts and minds.

Needless to say, I will not be updating this blog for the next 30 days of retreat. We will be finishing retreat at the end of November, at which time you can expect my next blog entry. Until then, I ask for your prayerful support for me and my fellow tertians (pictured above), that we may all persevere, focus, and savor our time-out-of-time with God in these weeks of retreat. Be assured of my own prayers for you and your many intentions. Ad majorem Dei gloriam!

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Ingenieros -- My Second Host Family in Navotas

After four days with our first host families, it was arranged that each of us tertians would move on to be hosted by another family. My second host family was the Ingenieros. Mariquit, the wife and mother, is a woman of gentle and natural beauty. Her slim and fit figure belies the fact that she has born no fewer than nine children. She and her eldest daughter, Ana, were there to walk me through the busy and noisy streets to another barangay (“neighborhood”) in Navotas where their family lives.

The Ingeniero family live in a much simpler home than my first family’s home. The lower half of the house is hollow brick, while the upper half is a patchwork of wood and metal scraps. A battered wooden window cover swings limp from a wire hinge. The front door, which never seemed to be closed throughout my 5-day stay with them, shows signs of termite infestation. The front room (about 9’ X 6”) is crowded by a small kitchen table and two chairs, a baby play pen, a weathered plastic patio loveseat, and an old chest of drawers with overstuffed drawers that serves as a common storage for all of the children’s clothing. This cramped front room serves as dining room, family room, and play area for the children – not much space for much else! Scattered on the walls and on various shelves were framed but faded photos of past Jesuit tertian guests, posing with Mariquit and some of the children, that the Ingeniero family has hosted. “We have had many Jesuit visitors, Father. We are glad to have Jesuit guests,” Lydio proudly professed to me on my arrival. Off the front room is a small kitchen, fitted with a propane stove and sink – no refrigerator, no oven. A single cabinet served as a pantry, filled mostly with assorted canned goods. Pots and pans and cooking utensils lie scattered on the shelf below the stove. Off the kitchen is the water closet – literally a closet with no light or adequate ventilation. Old scraps of linoleum and flattened cardboard cartons served as the floor. Only a toilet and water barrel for bathing. Because I was unable to see for lack of light, I chose take my daily baths just outside the front door where another water barrel stands. The children laughed at me when I first washed up just outside the entryway of the house, and for the life of me, I can’t figure out how they manage to bathe themselves in the dark, stuffy water closet off the kitchen!

Mariquit and her husband Lydio married in their late teens and promptly started having children: Ana (22), Andrea (20), Margiely (19), Johnmar (17), Joemar (15), Joseph (12), Angela (7), Hannalee (5), and Micaela (8 months). When I expressed how impressed I was at the size of their family, Lydio smiled broadly as Mariquit announced to me, “Father, I want three more – for an even dozen!” How they would manage three more mouths to feed, I haven’t a clue, but from Mariquit’s confident tone, that is the plan!

Mariquit and Lydio, along with most of the children, sleep on the floor of a tiny bedroom, no more than 7’ x 7’, just off the front room. The three boys sleep on the floor of the front room whose floor, like the water closet, is covered with a patchwork of old linoleum scraps. Mariquit and Lydio insisted that I sleep on the only bed, which is situated against the far wall, under a mosquito net. Though the bed lacked a mattress and was tilted, making getting to sleep a real effort, I was grateful and humbled by their hospitality. “We hope it’s all right for you, Father,” Mariquit and Lydio kept saying. “It is the best we have, and we want you to have it while you are here with us.”
While a single fan struggled against the closeness of the crowded bedroom through the hot, humid nights, I was humbled by their graciousness.

The days of the Ingeniero family are filled with many comings and goings. Lydio leaves for the factory at the crack of dawn. While the two older boys have dropped out of school, they leave early, too, to do odd jobs around Navotas, like driving tricycles (pedaled taxis for 1-2 passengers) to help support the family. Most of the children attend the afternoon session of their grade school, which begins at 1pm and finishes at 7:30pm. (Morning sessions at most Filipino schools begin around 5am and finish at noon. Multiple shifts at grade schools and some high schools are common, due to the high volume of students attending.) Mariquit and the older daughters tend to the care of the younger children, washing clothes (by hand, of course), ironing the children’s school uniforms, cooking and feeding the young ones, and marketing, and upkeep of the household. I marveled at the care they showed to one another in their day-to-day lives. As with any family, small skirmishes would erupt from time to time, but nothing long-lasting. Too much to be done to carry on conflicts for too long.

The days were unusually hot, and electricity went off in the Ingeniero household beginning around 9am and wouldn’t be restored until around 7pm. I found out later that the electricity current flowing to the Ingeniero household was “pirated,” like that flowing to many other Navotas households. Thus, the daily “brownouts.” On one particular morning, as I was eating breakfast, the electricity went out, knocking out the only fan in the house. When Mariquit saw the sweat beading on my forehead through sips of coffee, she said something whispered something to Angela, her third youngest daughter, who ran to fetch an old woven hand fan and promptly began to pump it in my direction. When I protested that it wasn’t necessary for Angela to fan me, Mariquit replied, “But, Father, look! She likes fanning you.” And there was Angela, a toothless grin covering her face, giggling as she double-fisted her fanning. On still another hot afternoon, Mariquit gathered her third oldest daughter, Margiely, and her youngest daughter, Micaela. “Come,” she said. Expecting to follow them to the market, we all jumped into a jeepney when Mariquit announced, “Father, we’re taking you to the mall, where you can get cool.” The mall was about 15 minutes away from Navotas, and was meager by American retail standards. But there we were, in the coolness of air conditioning, looking into the shop windows and getting reprieve from the unforgiving heat and humidity of the tropics. After I bought them ice cream cones, we found a penny arcade that featured karaoke stalls. Filipinos, rich and poor, LOVE karaoke! Margieley chose to sing a lovesong from a Disney movie, while I took the mic and blasted away with Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” Great fun! I won’t soon forget that afternoon, an afternoon that cooled my body temp but warmed my heart.

I often wonder if indeed Mariquit and Lydio will indeed bring three more Ingenieros into the world. Perhaps when they host yet another Jesuit tertian in future years, there might just be another baby in the playpen. But I’ve no doubt that the next Jesuit tertian will come to see that however short the Ingenieros might be on creature comforts, there home holds an abundance of love. And I’m honored to be the richer for it!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Mendiolas: My First Host Family in Navotas

Our immersion experience in Navotas was intended to be as much about poverty as it was to be about life in a simple Filipino family. I myself was raised, as many of you know, in a Filipino household, albeit in the United States. But the values, culture, and faith in which I was raised from childhood were those of my Filipino parents who emigrated to the U.S.A. in 1962. To this extent, I did not anticipate experiencing anything particularly new or different in living with Filipino host families. Despite the abject poverty in which my two host families lived, I found myself experiencing much the same care, warmth, and affection with which I was raised – hallmarks, I daresay, of Filipino family life, whether in the slums of Navotas or in the privileged suburbs of Cleveland.

My first host family was the Mendiola family. France, the wife and mother, received me at the PPF welcome session for us Jesuit tertians. She led me through the streets of Navotas, wading sometimes through knee-high water (thanks to three days of typhoon rains) to her family’s humble home in a barangay (subdivision) of Navotas called Bagong Silang. France, a stocky woman with a big voice and a hearty laugh, explained to me that their neighborhood used to be much worse, infested with crime, drugs, prostitution, and disease. In 1988, the Pag-Aalay ng Puso Foundation made inroads into improving the quality of life in this subdivision, including the first toilets to be installed in private homes in all of Navotas. Over the past 15 years, life did improve significantly for the residents of Bagong Silang, true to its name, which translates literally as “new birth.” Having said that, the dwellings in Bagong Silang are tightly packed together, the alleyways only 3-4 feet across. Most of the houses are concrete hollow block construction, finished with scrap pieces of metal and wood. Hanging laundry everywhere obscures the view. Food vendors squawk out prices. Foot traffic outside the Mendiola house seemed constant, with neighbors frequently peeking their heads into the window or door to chat with France or her husband, Joel (~45 years old, shipyard worker), or one of the four children: JoFrance (~20 years old, engineering student), Karen (~20 years old, nursing student), Giselle (~18 years old, nursing stuent), and Kristan (14 years old, high school student). France and her family welcomed me into their low-ceilinged three-story house, the first floor of which measures about 18’ X 18’ and serves as kitchen, dining room (table sits 3 at max, with a picture of the Last Supper hanging just above), and sitting room,, appointed with old plastic patio chairs. Two sewing machines against the walls betray France’s livelihood as a seamstress. Off the kitchen iss a closet, no more than 7’ X 7’ with only a 5’ head clearance, nicely tiled and fitted with seat-less toilet and a large plastic water barrel. This is the only bathroom in the household, and serves the Mendiolas not only for the family's bathing and toileting, but also for doing the family laundry. The second floor, accessed by a narrow and rather steep ladder/staircase is the bedroom space for the four children. The two boys (JoFrance and Kristan) sleep on a thin mattress on one side of the room, while the two girls (Karen and Giselle) sleep on a separate thin mattress on the other side. My guest cot (i.e., another thin mattress) was located under the staircase going up to the third floor, which was where the parents (France and Joel) slept. Their full size mattress takes up most of the floor space on the third level, save for the airy “balcony” that looked out onto a profusion of neighboring rooftops (see top photo in the previous blog installment).

While France is given to loud outbursts of laughter and spirited conversation, Joel is a gentle soul with a ready smile and a quiet demeanor. Joel used to work in construction, but after a bad accident at one site, he shifted his work to the shipyards on Manila Bay, not far from Navotas. There, he works from 7am to 5pm, mainly repairing tankers and other vessels docked at the busy port. His skill at construction shows in the simple but careful ways he has finished the family’s house interior. France, as mentioned earlier, works as a seamstress from 8am to noon each day, and ironically enough, her salary equals that of her husband’s whose workday is more than twice as long as hers! France creates and repairs uniforms for a school in England through a Protestant foundation that has had a presence in Navotas for some ten years. While France works for this foundation, she felt it important to assure me that she will ever be a life-long Catholic!

Both she and Joel, married for over 20 years, strongly feel that the only thing they can give their children is the means to good education. “We have nothing else, Father,” France explained to me one night in broken English. “Nothing else. Everything we earn goes to our children for their educations. We are very proud of them.” Indeed, they work very hard to support their children, and in turn, their children work very hard at their schooling. The oldest, JoFrance, is an engineering student at University of the East, and is away from the house from 7am until 8pm. His younger sisters leave the house around 10am for their classes in nursing school outside Navotas, returning between 8pm and 10pm, depending on their floor rotation schedules. France and Joel have taught their children to be self-sufficient, laundering and pressing their own uniforms, cooking their own meals (which are taken at irregular times due to their irregular schedules), and cleaning up after themselves in the kitchen. As they would come and go each day, I got a chance to chat with each of these young people. Jo-France wanted to know what it was like being from “the city of LeBron James.” Karen and Giselle giggled a lot when I asked them about boyfriends and crushes. But of all the kids, I got to know the youngest, Kristan, the best. Slightly gawky and tall for his age, Kristan has his mother’s smile and his father’s soft-spoken nature. We had several lengthy one-on-one conversations about his interests in history (he knows a lot about the Ottoman Empire), literature (he has read a lot of American transcendentalist lit), religion (he knows a lot about scripture and the lives of the saints). Kristan has dreams of being an architect, and somehow I don’t doubt that he’ll realize that dream. When I asked him if he planned on ever leaving Navotas, he looked off into the distance, across the rooftops from the third floor balcony where we chatted. “Yes, maybe. I don’t know,” he answered.

France was always apologizing for her family’s busy-ness during my four-day stay with them: “We hope you understand, Father. We cannot entertain you all the time. We are busy with work and school. We hope you understand.” And with each plea for my understanding, I reassured her of my admiration for a family whose busy lives held out hope for bright futures. “We are one of the lucky families, Father,” France would sigh. And to prove it, France once took me to the nearby barangay where hundreds of people lived on the polluted shores of Manila Bay. Here, in what once was not long ago a dump site for Navotas and what still serves as a graveyard for the dead, dozens of families live in lean-to’s and in flimsy shacks, many of them perched some 20 feet above the bay on bamboo stilts to avoid flooding at high tide. The poorest of the poor of Navotas live here, amidst garbage and sewage heaved upon the bay shore. It is here, on the dirty sand littered with abandoned fishing nets and a constant haze of flies that Navotas fisherman launch and land their boats Standing on the putrid seashore, looking out at all this, France says again, “See, Father? We’re one of the lucky families.” Sa awa ng Dyos, as the Filipino would say, or commonly translated into English, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

My last five days in Navotas was with the Ingeniero family. More about them in my next installment. Thanks for reading!

Friday, October 12, 2007

Immersion into Poverty

Part of this Jesuit tertianship program is to enter into the world of the poor -- to get to know the poor by living among the poor. Christ himself did as much in his short time on earth. His chosen friends and apostles came from among the poor of his time and his community, and it was these that in his Beatitudes he called "blessed."

Our purpose in visiting the Navotas community was to give us an immersion experience into the life of simple Filipino families and to expose us to the economically impoverished situations in which they live. To read about the poor is one thing, but to actually live with the poor and to spend a significant amount of time with the poor -- to be immersed in their world – is to come to know the poor better than any reading about the poor could ever offer. No doubt, I faced many challenges in this experience, discomforts and privations not least among them. But, I found that living with the poor is to strip life down to its barest essentials and to see what really matters in life. No, the poor of Navotas are not saints, but they did show me in more ways than I can count, what matter most in life.


The homestays in Navotas were coordinated by members of the Pag-aalay ng Puso (“Gift of the Heart”) Foundation, an NGO begun in 1988 whose mission it is to help build humane conditions in poorest sectors of Navotas. The Pag-aalay ng Puso Foundation (PPF) has long coordinated immersion homestays in Navotas for the Jesuit Tertianship Program, as well as for Jesuit scholastics and lay visitors from Korea and Japan. In addition to immersion programs, PPF offers programs in the areas of values education, tuition assistance, health promotion & education, economic sustenance, and a tribal outreach program to members of tribes in the Sierra Madres and in the Visayas.

Navotas is one of the most socio-economically depressed areas in metropolitan Manila. Over 250,000 people live in this region, situated in the northwest quadrant of Manila, right on Manila Bay. Back in the 1970s, hundreds of families from Samar and Leyte and the Bicols fled the wars of insurgency. They found an abandoned garbage site lying between Manila Bay and a cemetery, and here they settled as squatters. As you might imagine, crime, drunkenness, and drug addiction ran rampant, while hygiene and treatment for malnutrition was non-existent. With the help of PPF, things in Navotas are beginning to improve, but very, very slowly.

Most streets are paved, yet gaping holes, rotting garbage, and almost constant human traffic make getting around very difficult in this crowded town. The stench of open sewers, plus the exhaust from motorcycles, jeepneys, and cars make the air heavy and unpleasant to breathe. Typhoon rains that fell for three days prior to our arrival flooded the streets of Navotas, such that we had to wade through 2.5 feet of water to get to our first host families. It takes days for such flood waters to recede. Hundreds of street vendors sell everything from live chickens and fresh-caught fish to cooked meats, rice, and noodles. The volume of noise from these vendors, the constant flow of traffic, plus the shouting and laughter of hundreds of children playing in the streets and the constant chatter of passers-by add up to an urban din not unlike the noise of major metropolitan cities back in the U.S.

Peoples’ homes vary widely in construction and style – some are cinderblock constructions, while most are combinations of cement block and steel, patched together with scraps of rusted steel and discarded pieces of plastic and cardboard. For those who live literally on Manila Bay, houses are constructed on long bamboo stilts, and a system of rickety bamboo bridges and walkways guide residents to their houses, which are perched some 20-30 feet above the water. These are the poorest of the poor of Navotas, who live no better than their counterparts who have found sanctuary in abandoned niches in the Navotas cemetery. Elsewhere in Navotas, dwellings are packed tightly together, with alleyways between houses no more than 4 feet wide. Large families (5-10 children) are very common in Navotas, with all family members sleeping on the floor of a space no larger than 10’ X 10’. Needless to say, personal privacy is never an option in Navotas!
Running water is rare in the town, so water is collected in large plastic drums outside the homes, to be used for the families’ washing, cooking, and laundering. Filtered water for drinking is purchased daily from water vendors. Roaches, mice, and rats are commons sights in the daily home lives of Navotans.

As poor as the people of Navotas may be, I was struck by the genuine care that each has for the other in this community. While ragged children and elderly people can often be seen pawing at car windows in stopped traffic throughout metro Manila, beggars and street children are conspicuously absent in Navotas. Navotans literally feed each other, sharing what little food they can afford to buy and prepare. Whether it’s their own children or a perfect stranger, all are fed. No one begs.

I was also struck by the simple faith of Navotans. Once, while celebrating mass with our host families, the simple requests of the Lord’s Prayer rang true to me in light of their uncomplicated lives: “Holy God, make your Kingdom come, let your will be done. Feed us, forgive us, protect us. Amen.” I was also struck by the lack of complaining I heard among Navotans. Plenty of gossip (as any community is wont to have!), but no grumbling, no longing to get up and out of Navotas. It’s as if Navotans are resigned to their circumstances, seeing their poverty not as their “plight,” but more as their “situation.”

As a result, I witnessed Navotans living in the present, uninhibited by worries about the future, but living in the day, for the day. Believe me, I am not trying to romanticize poverty. In truth, I find myself more than a bit conflicted, even frustrated, by some of the very things that moved me in my time in Navotas. More on this in my next installment!