Sunday, October 19, 2014

What is a life worth?

Today marks day three of me being sick in bed with the flu. Although my fever is gone, I am too tired and weak to sit up or stand for more than a few minutes at a time. With so many hours spent lying in bed, I've had ample time to think, which is somewhat of a luxury considering my typical habit of running from one activity to the next with few moments for resting in between.

I've been thinking about a woman I met and financially supported here in the Philippines. Her name was Christine and she had a chronic health condition that required her to receive dialysis treatments twice a week. She had already been sick for a long time when I met her, and her condition frequently vacillated from better to worse because she could not afford to maintain a regular schedule of dialysis.

I was told that the full treatment necessary for Christine to maintain her maximum level of health would cost many hundreds of dollars per month. At first, I remember balking at the figure; would it really make sense to donate all that money just to keep one woman alive, when the same money could instead be used to provide for dozens of others in need? I knew theoretically, according to my Catholic Faith and pro-life upbringing, that this very sick woman's life was just as precious to God as the life of anyone else, but it was hard for me to accept that fact when faced with this very real situation. God is so merciful - Jesus softened my heart and also provided more than enough funding from my benefactors to make Christine's monthly treatments possible.

Christine passed away this month. Our missionary community mourned her passing, as many other missionaries had also gotten to know her and given her medical support over the years. She was a holy woman who knew well how to suffer for the glory of God.

As I lie here in bed, I have to ask myself, what is one person's life worth? What am I worth as a missionary if I cannot even get up to answer the door when a neighbor comes asking for help?

I have no theologically lofty answer to this question, except that answer which I have repeated innumerable times to my high school students. We are, each of us, made in the image and likeness of God. All of our worth is found in our identity as sons and daughters of God -- there is NOTHING we must do or accomplish in order to earn it.

Yes, in a business venture, supporting one person rather than one dozen might be considered illogical. But Christ Jesus is not a businessman. He is a passionate Lover Whose heart bleeds for His people. And that is why He asked me to support Christine, so that I might learn from her what each of us is worth in the eyes of our Maker.

"A woman came with an alabaster jar of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the jar and poured it over His head. But there were some who said to themselves indignantly, 'Why was the ointment thus wasted? For this ointment might have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and given to the poor.' And they reproached her. But Jesus said, 'Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you will, you can do good to them; but you will not always have me.'" ~Mark 14:3-7

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Saying thank you

This Sunday I visited the house of John Michael, one of my former students. He is now attending a public high school, but his family cannot afford his transportation and other fees, so my team is sponsoring his education expenses. Every other week we visit his home in the mountain to give him his two weeks’ allowance of 100 pesos (about $2.50). In addition to delivering his allowance, we also like to bless the family with an array of small gifts, such as rice and beans, tuna or canned beef loaf, wooden crosses for everyone, or perhaps a coloring book and crayons for the children to share.

I always look forward to visiting John Michael’s family! We drive a motorcycle up the mountain until the road gets too rocky, and then we walk a short distance to his house, where we are greeted by one or two or three little boys running around in their yard. They live in a small house raised a few feet off the ground, with bamboo slats for floors and walls. There are seven children in all, and John Michael at 15 is the oldest.

As soon as we reach the door, John Michael’s parents appear and welcome us in. They are still happily married (a blessing in this culture of broken families) and participate in the Catholic apostolate “Couples for Christ.” Each time we arrive with the agreed-upon allowance along with the unexpected treats, John Michael’s father gets choked up and looks as though he is about to cry. “Ma’am, thank you, ma’am.” He gathers the little ones and whichever neighbor children happen to be present, enjoining them to sit quietly at our feet on the floor of the little room. He then surprises us with gifts in return - bananas or lanzones or rambutan from their fruit trees. How generous are the hearts of those truly in need! Charity doesn’t always feel good, but in this case we are blessed with the opportunity to provide for a family, to see the wide eyes of the children, to see the deep gratitude on the faces and in the voices of their parents.

It is just getting dark when it’s time for us to leave. John Michael is headed to the evening Mass, so we offer him a ride on the back of the motorcycle -- otherwise he would be walking nearly two miles to get to the church. When we drop him off at the church doors, he stands beside the motorcycle for a few moments, unsure of what to say. 

“Thank you.” 

“You’re very welcome,” we reply easily. “See you soon!” 

John Michael turns toward the church, and we are just about to drive off when he pauses, gazing back at us as though something were still left unsaid. I dismount from the motorcycle and walk a few paces to where he is waiting quietly. 

“Yes, John Michael? What is it?”

“Ma’am? Thank you. Always.”

My heart softens as I see the maturity in this young man and an understanding beyond his years. “Well, salamat sa Diyos, thanks be to God. Ang Diyos gihatag kanamo daghan, daghan mga regalo. God has given us many, many gifts. We are so happy we can share them with you.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he acknowledges as a smile breaks across his face. I give him a reassuring pat on the shoulder and we part ways.

Every other Sunday I get to bring hope to this family. In return, I receive such great rewards that I do not even deserve, for I am only the hands and feet that deliver the love of Christ. Thank you for your part in this mission. Thank you for providing what is necessary so families like this one can have food to eat, clothes to wear, and the chance for a proper education.

Now I understand John Michael’s hesitancy to use words far too inadequate to express his gratitude. So I will say simply, humbly as he did, “Thank you. Always.”

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Street games

These photos were too precious not to post! One sunny morning I met these girls playing beside our house. Most children here don't own real toys, and I figured this little company of friends would appreciate the simplicity of a pink jumprope to share. What I didn't know was that they were already jumping masters!

And what girl doesn't like to color? I brought a Bible book and some crayons out to the pavement, and we enjoyed coloring pictures together and reading the story of Jonah and the whale.

It was just a simple thing -- one hour of my day spent playing with elementary school children -- but their joy and eagerness brightened my spirits and taught me once again to look beyond myself to see Christ in the faces of those around me.

Below is one of my favorite prayers, written by John Henry Cardinal Newman and frequently prayed by Mother Teresa. It reminds me to invite Christ into every part of my day and to be His witness in every situation, even if that just means sharing smiles with the little girls in my neighborhood.

Dear Jesus, help me to spread Your fragrance everywhere I go.
Flood my soul with Your spirit and life. 
Penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly
That my life may only be a radiance of Yours.

Shine through me, and be so in me 
That every soul I come in contact with
May feel Your presence in my soul. 
Let them look up and see no longer me, but only Jesus!

Stay with me, and then I shall begin to shine as You shine,
So to shine as to be a light to others;
The light, O Jesus, will be all from You; none of it will be mine; 
It will be you, shining on others through me.

Let me thus praise You the way You love best, by shining on those around me. 
Let me preach You without preaching, not by words but by my example, 
By the catching force of the sympathetic influence of what I do,
The evident fullness of the love my heart bears to You. Amen.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Loving the poor

When all of your clothing fits in a drawer and a half, it can be tempting to think that you’ve done enough to be in solidarity with the poor. But then a woman selling candles for 2 pesos outside the cathedral asks for your skirt - she has only one and must wear it every week to Mass - and you realize that you are still among the wealthy.

The home of Lolo and Lola, parishioners at Holy Rosary Church. They live up the mountain just a few blocks from my house.
Waking up after a night of typhoon-like rain, you find soaked floors and a leaking roof in nearly every room of your house and consider how long you will have to wait until the roof can be replaced. Later that morning you visit the home of your good friends and discover that the storm flooded their house, washing their dogs and much of their clothing away down the river. The children’s underwear and school uniforms - which they cannot afford to replace - are all gone. They have had no breakfast because there is no money in the house, so you buy them rice and fish for lunch - only to discover that they have no way of cooking it because their firewood is soaked from the rain. How long has it been since the children have eaten a complete meal? Since the baby has had enough milk? And then you feel wretched and painfully rich because not a day passes that your needs, indeed even many of your unnecessary desires, are not satisfied.

Their house is composed of one room, half for cooking and the other half for living, eating, and sleeping.

Poverty is an uncomfortable topic. We don’t want to face the hard truth -- that our Christian brothers and sisters are living under conditions that we would never allow our own blood relatives to suffer. We want to believe it’s acceptable for us to live in whatever manner we choose, as long as we’re also in some way providing for the needs of others.  Even as a missionary committed to pursuing Gospel poverty, I still face this internal battle; I continually find myself trying to justify the average American lifestyle.

I’m sometimes told that this notion of Gospel poverty -- striving to live in rough equality with the poor -- is too radical.  Certainly Jesus isn’t asking all of us to embrace such an extreme call.......or is He?

Jesus tells the rich young man, “If you would be perfect, go, sell all you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come follow me.” And John the Baptist says, "He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none."

The parish maintenance team is building them a new, more livable house on a nearby plot of land. These men work hard for very little pay, but always with smiles on their faces because they labor for the kingdom of God.
If foreign missions has taught me anything, it’s that there will always be someone in greater need than me. Perhaps it is true that I only own two pairs of shorts, but there is still someone - and in many cases someone passing through my very neighborhood - who has none. My roof may be leaking, but how can I repair it in good conscience and yet do nothing to help the family with a flooded house? How can I claim to be loving my brother if I see his needs but do so little to help him?

With your help, we were able to donate $700 to the building of their new home. Thank you for your generous support!
Two years ago I read a book entitled Happy Are You Poor, which challenged me to reexamine my understanding of Christian charity. The author, Fr. Thomas Dubay, outlines concretely and reasonably the motives and means for living out Gospel poverty, whether your vocation is to the priesthood, marriage, or religious life. God used this book in my life as a motivator ultimately inspiring me to become a missionary to serve the poor and to live among them, as they are truly my brothers and sisters in Christ.