Two Extraordinary Weeks in May
By Matthew Waldrip
In early May of 2013, I departed on flight NH949. Destination? Manila, Philippines. Many months prior, a group of students from St. Thomas More began the planning for a two week mission experience in this foreign country.
Since then, each of us had been preparing in our own way – reviewing planned activities, researching the climate, or even trying to learn Tagalog. We might have liked to think that we began to understand what to expect. I think I speak for the entire group when I say that the experience shattered our expectations in the best possible way. I may not have had a clue what I was in for, but when I stepped off the plane at Manila Ninoy Aquino International Airport, I took the first step on a journey of a lifetime.
For those of you who don’t know, the city of Manila is situated on the main island of Luzon, overlooking Manila Bay of the South China Sea. It is the bustling capital city of the Philippines, home to more than 19 million people. There is but one word to describe it: crazy. As my brother put it, “[There are] traffic jams that make New York look like a Sunday drive.” Diesel cars, vans, and semis share the road with motorcycles, pedestrians, and more motorcycles. A peculiar vehicle named “The King of the Road” is the Jeepney, a WWII army jeep converted into a type of mini-bus. The evening we landed, we piled into a truck-like van and made our way from the skyscrapers of Makati to the district of Tondo. It was in this underprivileged neighborhood that we would spend the majority of our week in Manila.
Throughout our week in Manila, our group worked very closely with Immaculate Conception Parish, at the center of the Tondo community. An activity that we all recall with great fondness was the opportunity to help out in the Flores de Mayo program. Flores de Mayo can be thought of as a kind of Vacation Bible School –in this case, a dynamic all-day program lasting several weeks in the month of May. When we were introduced to the nearly six hundred participants, our group was nearly overwhelmed with cheers, waves, and smiles. The kids, all ranging from six to twelve years old, were overjoyed to see us. I think they just about died of delight when they figured out that we would be helping them out individually. I got paired with a group of six-year-olds, and as soon as I had sat down, they piled on, wanting high-fives and hugs. The memory never fails to make me smile.
Perhaps some of the deepest memories of Manila come from the days spent with the Missionaries of Charity. The Sisters who follow in St. Teresa’s footsteps run two shelters for thecommunity’s poorest of the poor: one by Matthew Waldrip 5 for abandoned elderly, and the other for abandoned children. On one occasion, we visited with the abandoned elderly. As they all came from impoverished origins, very few could speak English, but words were not needed to read the delight in their eyes. Many held our hands to their foreheads in the traditional way of receiving a blessing. I don’t think we’ll ever truly understand the impact of our visit, but I do know that I could feel hope building in their hearts. On our second visit, we spend time with the abandoned children. Many had physical deformities simply not seen in the U.S., hence their abandonment. Despite this, they were still children. They wanted to laugh and shout and play –and play we did! I lost track of time while rough-housing with the kids. Other members from our group assisted in feeding and even went on a medicine run. As I looked upon the rejects of society so filled with life, I could not help but to repeat to myself the verse, “Precious in His eyes.” I learned that day how true that verse is, and how true it must be for our eyes as well.
The Philippines is a country that loves to celebrate, and we happened to be there in May, the month of fiestas. Each parish has a nine day preparation leading up to the feast day of its patron saint. On the evening before the ninth day comes the Santa Cruzan procession. It is a parade that winds through the streets celebrating the finding of the True Cross of Jerusalem. Traffic is stopped and entire neighborhoods pack the alleyways to watch. Our group had the great fortune of participating in the parade. Karina and Julissa served as queens, while Ethan, Mike, Nick, Jonathon, and I acted as escorts. It was astounding to experience the zeal that the community expresses for celebrations of their faith. After the two-hour procession, participants and distinguished members of the parish packed the parish school’s gymnasium for a grand kick-off to the fiesta, enjoying wonderful Filipino food, dance presentations by the youth group, and much karaoke. I think Americans could learn a thing or two about how to properly throw a party.
A few days later, our group had the opportunity to undertake an eyeopening experience. Under the organization of Immaculate Conception’s social director, we had the chance to visit with families of the poorest parts of the Tondo district. We were welcomed into their homes, most with five-foot-tall ceilings, and some no larger than eight feet across. Walls and rooms were haphazard structures of scrap steel, cardboard, and general junk. Each family welcomed us in and shared their experiences, some living on only a few dollars a month. Yet, perhaps the most surprising of all were their attitudes. All were glad that we could stop by and talk, and all were happy. They had their faith and their families, and that was enough for them. If I learned one thing about Filipino culture that day, it was that they know what’s important in life.
Almost too soon, we left the adventure of Manila for the adventure in Sorsogon. The province of Sorsogon, located on the southern tip of the island of Luzon, bore a stark contrast to the craziness of Manila. When the plane landed, we were greeted by vistas of rice fields and coconut plantations, complete with a perfectly shaped active volcano in the background. Our time in Sorsogon was spent with two priests who happened to be old friends and former students of Fr. Kevin. Both Fr. Rowan and Fr. Edmon were young and fun loving, and as one group member put it, “really showed us how to live God’s word in an active and exciting lifestyle.” We definitely learned that living a life of faith can be anything but boring.
One of our trips took us to Bulan, Fr. Rowan’s hometown. Fr. Rowan was establishing a school, so we happily helped out by painting enough tables and chairs to fill the classrooms. Later, we left Bulan to give a priest a ride – by boat! After dropping him off on a neighboring island, we left to experience Sunday afternoon on a white sand beach. Throughout the rest of the week, we each began to grow in appreciation for the Filipino way of life. Walking and Jeepney-riding through Sorsogon again taught us that the people here live simply but happily. Every priest that we talked to was filled with passion and hope, and every youth group that we met was filled with life. It was obvious that faith is the center of their lives.
When the incredible two weeks were over, it didn’t feel like we were going home. Rather, it felt like we were leaving home. At every stop we made, we were received with food and a warm welcome -an expression of the rich Catholic culture and zeal for life that the Filipino hold so dearly. They welcomed us in as strangers, but let us leave only as family. Their kindness and hospitality have created a new home for me, and along with it, an inspiring example of how to live life.