A new interesting Report of Christian

Christian Herring

Christian a volunteer of DVI in the Philippines sends us a new interesting Report.

Eight months have passed since I began my mission in the Philippines—two-thirds of my entire mission period. Now is a good time to reflect on what I have learned in the course of those eight months. I can identify several ways in which my experiences abroad have left me a little wiser.

            First of all, I have come to know myself a bit better. I have discovered more about my gifts, strengths, and possibilities, my weaknesses and limitations. Before coming to the Philippines, to take one example, I was uneasy with the prospect of being asked to teach. This was not because I doubted my ability to explain ideas clearly—I had studied philosophy, after all—but because I thought myself unable to connect with children. Now, after about three months of classroom teaching and a lot of tutoring, it appears that the truth is the opposite of what I thought. Connecting with the children is not so difficult. My students like me, and they have testified—behind my back!—that they look forward to my class sessions. Presenting ideas clearly and simply has proven to be a much more challenging task.

            Second, I have learned quite a bit about living in community, especially in the context of religious life. I have had drilled into me the importance of proactive attentiveness to the needs of the community and its members, even in little things—refilling the water dispenser, keeping doors closed, turning lights on and off, putting things back where one has found them. For an introvert whose thoughts are typically anywhere but on his surroundings, this training has been difficult but very beneficial.

            The priests of my community have also given me a new perspective on community social events. In my past experiences with religious communities, I had sometimes opted out of communal "fun activities" because I thought them dull and a waste of time. Over the course of the last few months, the priests have helped me see that I ought to attend such events, not for my own pleasure, but for the sake of the community—because my participation helps me forge bonds with the other members.

            Last but not least, I have experienced firsthand the difficulties of living in community. One difficult but absolutely crucial aspect of religious community life is obedience to superiors. Obedience looks easy from the outside, but it is surprisingly hard not to grumble, at least inwardly, when one is subjected to apparently unreasonable and needlessly restrictive rules. Another source of difficulties is the fact that members of a religious community may have radically different personalities and—even more significant in a group dedicated to the communal pursuit of God—differing conceptions of what holiness is, of what pleases God. One priest may be strict, emphasizing attention to little faults, while another may be easygoing and indulgent with himself and others. One may be deadly serious about the rule, another may follow it only in a minimalist fashion. One may stress the importance of a simple and frugal lifestyle, while another may see no opposition between the religious vow of poverty and the enjoyment of middle-class luxuries. These contrasting approaches to religious life can create tensions and even serious conflicts within a community. (Here I must note that the contrasts I have described are not intended to correspond to pairs of individuals within my community.)

            I have learned about patience. I say, not that I have learned patience—unfortunately, I am not quite there yet—but that I have learned about the need for patience, for respect for God's time and other people's rhythms. One of the main goals I had in mind when I came to the Philippines was to grow personally through service to others in a foreign country, so as to become a more attractive candidate for religious communities. It has been sobering to see how slowly the desired change has been coming. The Lord is able to change and sanctify a person in an instant, as he did to certain saints, but it seems that is not his ordinary modus operandi. No, he gives growth slowly, organically, over many years. Apparently I am no exception to this rule. I must come to grips with the possibility that I still will not be prepared to enter religious life even after this year is over. This will take patience—patience with myself, and patience with God's plan for my life.

            I have had chances to practice, not only patience with God and myself, but patience with others as well. Here, as in other developing countries, people often come to scheduled events as much as half an hour late. One nuptial Mass that I attended began fifty minutes late because the bride took so long to show up. Another time, I was called away from my work to witness a house blessing, only to loiter and banter outside the house for over an hour before the ceremony finally got underway. I do not say that I practiced patience well on all these occasions, but at least I had the opportunity.

            Another lesson that my experiences have repeatedly underscored is the need to temper compassion for the poor with prudence and adherence to rules. Even before I came to the Philippines, I knew that any emotion—compassion included—could lead to undesirable, unfair, and immoral results when yielded to blindly. Now that I find myself among people who labor to earn one or two dollars a day for their family, and hungry children who ask me for food because their parents have none at home, I sometimes forget this principle. Feelings of compassion—or guilt feelings, at any rate—move me to help out here and there by giving money. And sometimes my efforts have done little good or even harm, precisely because I did not think carefully about how best to help.

            On one occasion, for example, I gave food to a small group of street children. Immediately a child from outside the group tried to snatch some of it away, while the original group of children clung stubbornly even to the portion of the food they didn't want. Lesson learned: don't give to one child while other children are looking on. Another time, after a mentally ill but apparently pious young man succeeded in getting some money off me, I was told that that man had been seen doing drugs. Not long after these incidents, a priest friend told me that a member of his community had almost fallen victim to a knife attack in the act of distributing things to the poor. Perhaps the attack was an attempted robbery, or perhaps it resulted from the attacker's sense of entitlement to receive as much as everybody else.

            I have learned quite a bit about how to live with less. I have had to go without, or with only limited access to, a number of useful things that spoiled rich folks can come to see as necessities. Examples include shaving cream, air conditioning, dental floss, classroom projectors, toilet seats, showerheads, washrags, internet, paper, printers, scanners, and weather-appropriate clothing. Sometimes it is possible to substitute other goods for the ones mentioned—for example, to use soap instead of shaving cream, electric fans instead of air conditioning. At other times, one simply has to do without. It can be rather freeing to see just how little one really needs to get by. Who knew it would be so easy to live in a tropical country without air conditioning?

            In the last few weeks of my mission, I have learned an important lesson about productivity and effectiveness in work. For much of my mission period, I lacked important, challenging, and clearly defined tasks, and generally had only a vague idea exactly what my role as a Dominican volunteer ought to be, and which tasks I should prioritize. Under these conditions, I was often simply astonished at my capacity to waste time and be unproductive. I spent entire days composing emails, tinkering with DVI report drafts, reading the news, fine-tuning my lesson plans, and chatting with parishioners. I felt very frustrated at this state of affairs, and even went through the occasional “missionary identity crisis.” Lesson learned: if you want to be a productive and effective missionary, teacher, administrator, pastor, or just about anything else, you must first discern, with the greatest possible clarity, which activities ought to be your priorities; then, you must focus on these activities, doing them as well as possible, and if necessary letting everything else slide. It's not difficult to spend a whole day answering emails, if you have no sense of priorities.1 Perhaps this will not be news to my readers. But for me, it was a real discovery.

            I have learned something about the importance of a cheerful demeanor. At some points in my mission, I was concerned that my presence in social gatherings was making others uncomfortable. After all, I didn't know the Filipino language well, and often I couldn't do much more than sit there looking clueless and bored. More recently, however, it struck me that there is something I can do even in that type of situation to put others at ease: simply smile, and appear to be enjoying myself.

            I have learned a little about how the poorest of the poor survive from day to day. In the daily struggles of the poor, social connections are of great importance. Don't have money, food, or child care? Your neighbors and relatives can help you out. Medical emergency and no money? Ask the "Social Services and Development" lady at your local parish, and she will supply the money or refer you to somebody else. Sacks of rice, education funds, livelihood training—all are available to those who have connections. Material needs aside, social connections—especially relationships with one's immediate family—keep one cheerful and motivate one to keep going. Marriage and family are deeply valued in the Philippines, and many of the poor are kept afloat and moved to pursue betterment by their dream of a better life for their families. Faith in God is also a strong support for the poor. They pray regularly for food and other needed items and rely on him to provide. Some have told me stories about how the Lord answers their prayers.

            Finally, and not least, my mission experience has taught me that God is to be found in the desert, in the dry and difficult places. There is nothing that spurs growth in meekness and humility like the effort to accept correction and achieve reconciliation in the context of difficult relationships within one's community. Nothing teaches spiritual childhood and confidence in God like the sense of powerlessness and incompetence that comes from experiencing one's own shortcomings as an obstacle to missionary work. Nothing teaches detachment from created things like going to live in a foreign country with strange food, unfamiliar people, hot weather, crowded living conditions, and a lot of pollution.

            From the start of my mission until now, I have often felt a longing for the things I left behind in America: pizza and burgers and other all-American cuisine, movies and other entertainments, my nerdy tech-savvy bookworm friends. Yet I know that, if I had never left these things behind, what little love for God I had could have been choked by the allure of worldly pleasures. As it is, I have the opportunity to work purely for love of God and set aside other hopes, desires, and expectations.

            If we only knew the spiritual benefits that come from being "in the desert," we'd want to be there, and stay there.

1 I am indebted to author and blogger Dan Burke for helping me gain this insight and, to some extent, for the way I have expressed it.


(25 August 2014)