A Dominican Volunteer’s Mission in the Philippines

Picture: 
A Dominican Volunteer’s Mission in the Philippines
Body: 

My name is Christian T. Herring and I have now been on mission in the Philippines for well over one month, and the time has come to report on my activities here.

1. The Call
The reader may want to know about my motives for joining Dominican Volunteers International, about my “call.” There was nothing really dramatic about it. I graduated from Purdue University in the United States in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. I had been discerning a call to the priesthood or religious life for several years, and I intended to enter a religious order as soon as possible. The Order of Preachers was my community of choice. The preachers, however, did not think I was ready. They noticed, inter alia, a certain shyness, reserve, and lack of self-confidence. Fr. Croell, the vocation director for the Dominican Province of St. Joseph, urged me to spend time volunteering overseas, as he thought this would go a long way toward making me a good candidate for the Order. After spending a couple of months working temporary jobs and considering alternative plans of action, I decided to follow Fr. Croell’s advice. A few months of preparation ensued, and now here I am in the Philippines.

As should be evident, my “call” was not a matter of feeling or emotion. I did not feel a gut-level attraction to foreign mission work, nor was I very certain that this was the right choice. My decision to come here was based on my understanding of what was probably God’s will for me, rather than on a mysterious inner calling or a personal dream. I would argue that the latter need not be present in a genuine vocation. Perhaps my experience in mission will serve to support, or to undermine, this thesis.

2. The Mission Field
Kaunlaran Village, informally known as Dagat-Dagatan (“like the sea”), is an extremely poor, densely populated urban area by Manila Bay, and a part of Navotas City. The primary local industry is fishing. (Those who wish to know more about the history, demographics, and other features of the place, and how it got its name, are encouraged to read what a former volunteer, Luke Samy, wrote on this subject. His report, which is worth reading in its own right, can be downloaded here.)

What is distinctive about the poverty here, in contrast to that which I have witnessed in America, is the presence, in large numbers, of the unfortunate people known as “squatters.” Many of these migrated to Navotas seeking work in the fish port or in other local industries, only to find themselves unemployed and without a place to stay. Some found homes under bridges or in public buildings. Others used any available building materials to construct tumbledown houses wherever they could find space, even on platforms floating on the river.

Needless to say, the living conditions of the poor are less than ideal. There is a terrible problem with litter and poor hygiene. The river is heavily polluted and stinks. Many of the poor lack plumbing; they must buy their water from others who eke out a living selling it. People marry early, die early, and have many children though they are quite incapable of taking proper care of them. Many people are in irregular marital situations. Crime rates are high. Though most of the locals are Catholics, they are largely uninstructed in the Faith, and they are prime targets for evangelism by Mormons and members of other sects.

I am staying with a small community of four Dominican priests at San Lorenzo Ruiz and Companion Martyrs Parish in Dagat-Dagatan. Though the parish encompasses only one square kilometer, it has a population of about 100,000 people, which means the priests must celebrate at least nine Masses per weekend. The parish is also fairly poor; only recently, I gather, have funds been scraped together to raise the parish above the level of occasional floods. The priests’ house is a small, decaying structure soon to be demolished and replaced. The priests themselves live well enough by the local standards. The food is of good quality, and my room contains all the amenities I could reasonably ask for.

3. My Activities So Far
My first couple of weeks at San Lorenzo Ruiz (December 8-22) were spent touring the parish, getting to know priests, parishioners, and staff, attending Christmas parties, and otherwise “settling in.” Filipinos love Christmas parties, and they have a fairly rigid conception of what a Christmas party should be like; one follows a predetermined schedule of activities that includes eating, long speeches in Tagalog, the distribution of vast numbers of gifts (with the recipients often designated through raffles or party games), and dancing or karaoke. I was introduced to many interesting new foods, including fresh mangoes, tiny dried fish with the heads on, many varieties of rice cake, and even chicken feet.

In late December, I finally began my first two real missionary tasks, in which I am still engaged now. These are to help a Korean religious sister and her co-worker improve their English, and to act as “facilitator” in a home-study program for the poor. The latter task involves meeting weekly with youth who were unable to finish high school due to poverty or other causes, in order to review their home study materials with them. Both tasks have been difficult at times, especially the home study program, since the students can barely speak English and I can barely speak Tagalog.

More recently, I have begun to serve as substitute religion teacher to the 6th grade at San Lorenzo Ruiz Parochial School. This has been a struggle. Lesson planning consumes much of my free time; it is extremely hard to make the students grasp and retain what they learn; I can only speak in very simple English if the kids are to understand me; it is hard to craft a grading rubric that will yield fair results given the ever new varieties of error that appear in my students’ work; and I have not yet found the golden mean between entertaining the kids and making them study.

Teaching in the school is, however, not without its joys. The schoolteachers, a friendly and funny lot, have accepted me as a member of their little community. My students do not fit my preconceived idea of the typical 6th-grader—sullen, uncommunicative, and totally beholden to peer pressure. They are shy about speaking in class, it is true, but they are friendly, easy to please, and patient with the foibles of a first-time teacher. Once they even bought me ice cream. And the students from the younger grades—many of whom are terribly cute—often run after me, congregate around me, and ask me a limited range of questions which they presumably learned in their English classes; questions like “What is your name?,” “What is your favorite color?,” and “What is your favorite sport?” This friendliness on the students’ part has made it fairly easy to connect with and befriend them, which I had thought would be the most difficult part of teaching.

I have thought about trying to escape the role of catechist, pleading incompetence. I am not sure, however, that the regular catechists are significantly more effective than I am. Moreover, there is a real catechetical crisis here in Navotas. The place is overflowing with children, many of whom—one feels certain—will never receive religious instruction from their families, and some of whom do not attend school either. The parish and local volunteers are striving to meet the catechetical needs of these children, but the conviction remains that many of these nominally Catholic children will reach adulthood before learning the basics of Christianity. In order for me to do my part in remedying this situation, I must learn to teach catechism; and teaching at San Lorenzo Ruiz is a good way to learn.

4. Reflections
My experience here so far has been beneficial to me in several respects. For example, my situation as a missionary in a foreign country has spurred me on to a deeper and more intense spiritual life. As a missionary, I am expected to serve others and to spread the Word of God however I can, and the awareness of this expectation spurs me on to a more careful practice of my faith. The parish provides me with many opportunities for spiritual exercises such as Mass, the Divine Office, and Eucharistic adoration. I find that the absence of many pleasant and useful things (movies, consistent internet access, a printer, American food and scenery and holidays), and the presence of many unpleasant things (heat, mosquitoes, language barriers, unhygienic conditions), tends to wean one away from worldly attachments and enable one to practice one’s faith more single-heartedly. And a constant awareness of danger—from high crime rates, typhoons, diseases, floods, and chaotic traffic—motivates one to be ready to be called home at any time. (Not that it is extremely dangerous here, but it is certainly more dangerous than my hometown in the U.S.A.)

Even though I am still new to the mission, it is possible to point to a few things I have learned from my experience. I do not mean that I did not know these things before now, but I have never before had such concrete experience of them, and consequently I did not appreciate their truth.

First. I have gained a more realistic outlook on ministry and service to others. Up to now, I have always imagined that one could, in theory, go through life without ever being terrible at anything, simply by declining to assume new tasks without first receiving a comprehensive orientation and training.

It turns out that this way of thinking is harmful to the Christian apostolate, because it gives one an excuse never to try anything new. It is better that unskillful people attempt to meet a need than that no one ever try to meet it. God can give extraordinary fruitfulness to the efforts of the least talented, as he multiplied a few loaves and fishes to feed five thousand. In fact, he even prefers to use the weak, those who do not rely on their talents and preparation, in the work of ministry, because this way it is clear to all that it is God’s work, not man’s. As St. Paul put it: “He sent me to preach the gospel; not with an orator’s cleverness, for so the cross of Christ might be robbed of its force” (1 Cor. 1:17, Knox Bible).

Moreover, this attitude prevents one from living life well. One can expect, very often, to find oneself thrown into a role with barely any training at all, and many of life’s most important tasks can only be learned by doing. One of the priests from my community, Fr. Patrick, has testified that this is especially true for priests, who are often tasked with the management of a parish though they lack knowledge of finance and other apparently essential subjects.

These are not easy truths for me to accept; I would prefer that all of life be similar to my experience at college, where I never had to approach a test or presentation without extensive and careful preparation.

Second. Another of the priests from my community, Fr. Larry, gave me some excellent advice when I had been expressing anxiety about the possibility of failure. He reminded me that it is Christ, not I, who is the savior of the poor. He does not need my services, but he wants me to share his joy by participating in his saving work. My responsibility is not to succeed, but to be faithful. Moreover, I should expect to fail sometimes. Even Christ himself failed, because he refused to interfere with the freedom of those to whom he addressed himself.

Third. I had been studying Tagalog for about a month prior to my arrival in the Philippines. I had been informed by the parish staff at San Lorenzo, as well as by others, that most Filipinos know at least some English and that consequently it was not important to study Tagalog. It is true that knowledge of English is fairly widespread. Nevertheless, I have found—and I am not the only volunteer who has found this—that knowledge of Tagalog is very important, and I would strongly encourage future volunteers to invest some serious time in studying the language prior to the start of the mission. Many Filipinos show a lively appreciation for foreigners who take the time to learn their national language; more importantly, the smaller children and the very poor usually know only or mostly Tagalog, and these are the very demographics to whom missionaries primarily direct their efforts.

This concludes my first report. I expect that my future reports will be shorter.

(18 February 2014)