Monday, December 28, 2015

Christmas joy!

December marked my first Advent and Christmas in the Philippines! Our biggest project this month by far was our Christmas campaign.

Thanks to our generous benefactors, we were able to raise money to provide 30 families with complete care packages of toiletries, food items, etc. We also sponsored 100 smaller care packages that our priest Father Joe distributed to homes throughout Sagay. It sounds simple, but for the recipients it was a tremendous and unexpected blessing.

Buying everything from spaghetti sauce to shampoo -- in bulk!
When we visited families' homes on December 23 and 24, several were already preparing what would be their Christmas meal, which consisted solely of kamotes - a starchy, native potato. Kamotes grow plentifully in the mountains, and are the most common food option when a family is too poor to afford vegetables, fish, or even rice. One man explained that he eats just kamotes for every meal, aside from an occasional banana. Sometimes he and his children eat nothing at all.

One mother shouted joyfully when she saw we had brought her a bag of rice. Imagine her surprise when we revealed the additional spaghetti, canned meats, and packs of soup!

A few of our sponsored college students holding boxes of groceries.
The most amazing part of the Christmas project was getting to bring Christ into the homes we visited. We asked the families to join us in a brief Bible study, and they were very glad to do so. We read the prophet Isaiah's foretelling of the coming Messiah, the Prince of Peace, and Zechariah's prophecy of the light that would soon illumine our world's darkness with the birth of Christ.

Jerome and Lilay, our good friends who assisted us in the home visits.
What good news of great joy for us to announce to these families! Poverty, broken relationships, unforgiveness among friends and neighbors -- all of these Jesus came to restore, heal, and save. And we can be the principal witnesses of this salvation!

Thank you to all those who gave so generously to our Christmas campaign! Stay tuned...I'll be posting stories of individual families we visited to show you the joy that they received this Christmas.
"For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and his name will be called 'Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.'" - Isaiah 9:6

Friday, December 4, 2015

Happy (belated) Thanksgiving!

This November marked my first Thanksgiving in the Philippines! Last year at this time I was 30,000 feet in the air, on my way home for Christmas, so my "turkey dinner" was a little more like mystery meat on a plastic tray. But this year we celebrated in true American style!

My teammate Genevieve and I island-hopped to visit our missionary community in Malaybalay. Sammy and Lindsey Romero are fantastic missionaries and good friends, and we had a blast preparing the Thanksgiving meal together with their three adorable children.

The kids and I had fun making handprint turkeys. What are you thankful for?
Ovens are not readily available in the Philippines -- at least, not among the poor -- but the Romeros were recently blessed with a crockpot and a toaster oven, which made it possible for us to cook many of our favorite holiday dishes. Lindsey baked delicious pies, substituting kalabasa (native squash) for pumpkin, and the turkey that Sammy slaughtered in the backyard graced the center of our Thanksgiving spread.

Typical Thanksgiving pose, peeling potatoes with a dishtowel over my shoulder.
Of course, we had plenty of leftovers and were more than happy to share our Thanksgiving treats with Filipino friends, for whom "American-style" food is quite a novelty.

I pray you had a blessed Thanksgiving with your loved ones. May we carry the spirit of thankfulness into our day-to-day lives, always remembering the goodness of God and what He has done for us!

Monday, November 30, 2015

Jesus in the dentist's chair

As I type this, I am aware of that odd sensation of cement smoothed over the top of two of my molars, and my mind begins to recount the events of the day. After my morning prayer and a rushed breakfast of fresh bread, I made my way to the hospital for my first “real” dental appointment since becoming a foreign missionary. Last week my teammate and I happily discovered the office of Dr. Monsanto, whose brother is Msgr. Monsanto assigned here in the diocese of CDO, and assured her of our quick return.

Our Lady, Mary Mediatrix of All Grace, similar to the image adorning the door of the dentist office.
I wasn’t too worried about the appointment because I could clearly see God’s hand at work, helping us to find this dentist whose office is tastefully decorated with pictures and  statues of Our Lady and the Infant Jesus, not to mention a small plate of scapulars conveniently placed on the front desk, should any of her clients lack that blessed object which is so commonly worn here in the Philippines.

Still, my general demeanor must have betrayed any lingering sense of foreboding, as Dr. Monsanto felt it necessary to reassure me that I had nothing to fear. She planned to fill two purportedly “big” cavities and to conquer the other lesser one at a later date.

I was surprised how quickly she began drilling the first tooth, with no preemptive novocaine shot, but overhearing her conversation with her assistant, I presumed, through my limited knowledge of Visayan dental vocabulary, that she intended to drill a little on the surface of each tooth before going deeper and requiring anesthetic. After a while the drilling sensation began to morph into a slight pain, and then a much sharper one as she neared the nerve.

It must be getting close now, I considered, as I prepared myself for the pinch of the injection and the ensuing numbness that would soon overtake one side of my mouth. But, unperturbed, she continued drilling.

“Gami lang, ha?” she politely noted, as if asking my permission to proceed for just a little while longer. I gave an affirmative response, or as much as I could muster with all manner of dental hardware bracing my jaws apart.

As I closed my eyes and began to contemplate the loving face of Christ, I felt a calmness settle over me. My attempted mental rosary had come to naught, as the increasing pain made it difficult to focus on the words of the prayers, but the face of my dear Jesus was somewhat easier to hold within my concentration. I thought, too, of a few beloved friends here on Camiguin who are in great need of conversion, and I begged the Lord to let me offer up this small sacrifice for them, that their souls might receive more of His grace for repentance.

Eventually the dentist finished drilling; the anticipated anesthetic never came. When she proclaimed her work completed, I conveyed my honest surprise.

“Oh, I’ve heard you use novocaine in the U.S. when filling cavities. We don’t do that here in the Philippines,” she explained rather nonchalantly, with only a hint of hesitation in her voice as she observed my reaction.

I didn’t know what to think, except that, 1) I was and still am astonished at the surprisingly bearable degree of pain brought about by the drilling of two apparently large cavities, and 2) I was grateful for this small but truly meaningful sacrifice that I could offer up for the conversion of sinners.

I recall once reading that now-Saint Padre Pio would not accept any anesthetic, even during more serious and extremely painful dental procedures, due to his concern that onlookers might irreverently inspect his stigmata, the wounds of Christ that he bore on his own hands and feet. For some reason, that anecdote has always impressed me because of his decision to willingly undergo suffering out of love for Our Lord. I cannot boast to possess the same fortitude as that great saint, such as would inspire me for pious reasons to submit myself to greater pain than must necessarily be borne, but I am humbled that Jesus would allow me to have this experience, to unite my suffering with His in a more intimate manner than before.

Every Friday, as I meditate on the Stations of the Cross, I read the words of St. Josemaria Escriva: 

“Love sacrifice; it is a fountain of interior life. Love the cross, which is an altar of sacrifice. Love pain, until you drink, as Christ did, the very dregs of the chalice.”

My Jesus, may I desire more and more to offer up my small pains for the glory of Your kingdom!

Friday, November 13, 2015

Jesus on night adventures

It's already dark out, but we promised to bring medicine to our student Recardo who is awaiting the results of his MRI, so we call our new friend, a motorcycle driver, to ask for a ride to Recardo's mountain home. It's very muddy from a week's worth of typhoon-like rain, and we're praising God as the bike slips and slides along the unpaved road - thank You, Jesus, for a skilled driver!

Rodito driving his parents and little sister.
We deliver the medicine and check in on the family. It's still difficult and very painful for Recardo to walk. I ask his sister Gelaiza why she has been absent all week from school -- I've missed her in my English class. A toothache, she explains, and my flashlight cuts through the darkness of the night as I inspect the offending tooth. We'll check at the health center to see when the dentist will next be visiting our town, we assure her.

We play with the littlest ones who are scampering around outside the house; last week we were able to bring backpacks and notebooks for the children -- much-coveted school supplies and unaffordable for families like this one. Their need is so great. I take a turn holding Andi, Recardo's baby niece, and reflect that just a few months ago I met her for the first time in the hospital when she was admitted for pneumonia. How good is the Lord! I marvel at the way He has drawn us into this family's life.

Recardo outside his home.
Before leaving, we pray for healing for both Recardo and Gelaiza and then hop back on the motorcycle. What a blessing that our driver Rodito has now accompanied us on several such home visits and witnessed our mission in action! On the ride home I'm feeling a little bold, so I ask him, "Can you read?"

"Conti," he responds. Only somewhat.

"Do you know how to pray the Rosary? Would you like one?" I press on. His affirmative response is all I need, and when we arrive back at the house we invite him inside for his first catechesis. A few minutes later he walks out with a glow-in-the-dark Rosary to grace his motorcycle on night rides, as well as a Rosary guide to assist him in praying. There's something stirring within his heart, it seems, and we resolve to continue looking for opportunities to invite him into a deeper relationship with Jesus.

What a blessed evening! Just another night here on mission in Camiguin.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Looking back and looking forward

My Jesus,
When I first committed to love You and serve You with my life those 5+ years ago, little did I imagine it would lead me to this, and in such a short time! Parish ministry, I thought. Evangelization work in my hometown. Perhaps Christian counseling. But never in my wildest dreams, a foreign missionary abandoning everything to You and Your providence.

Funny that it was never really about giving up clothes or selling old belongings. It was about surrendering control - my desires, my dreams, my plans - to You. And that has been a continual struggle, a gradual release of the tight grip I had on my life, learning to trust in You and in Your goodness and love.

I love You, my Jesus! Here's to the next 5, no, 55+ years of service in Your kingdom!

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Jesus in the home

Last week we visited our friend Alex and his family in the mountain. We met Alex this year when he began working at one of the stores in town where we shop. He is a single dad and lives with his 7-month-old baby boy in his parent's house, along with a few of his siblings, nieces, and nephews.

When we gathered the family together to pray, Alex eagerly agreed to read aloud from the Bible. With so many little kids running around, it seemed only appropriate to read Matthew 19:14.

"Jesus said, 'Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.'"

Alex's mother is a holy woman! She explained to us that she cares for the needs of all her own children and now her grandchildren as well. Pointing at a picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, she noted that, just like the Blessed Mother who is always depicted holding Our Lord, she too is always carrying children.

A beautiful visit to a beautiful family! Recognize the guy in the jersey? My brother Paul, who visited us last year on Camiguin, has happily returned. It's such a blessing to have him here!

Saturday, October 10, 2015

His Rose

Riding the ferry at 5:00 this morning, I awake from a short nap and look around at the other passengers. Far in the front of the boat, I spot a young woman carrying four bags who is alone and appears rather sad. She has the same hair and profile of my 9th grade student, Rose. The same black and white jacket. The same headband...but it couldn't possibly be her, or could it? Just then she lifts her hand to cover her face, and her long, slender brown fingers are unmistakable. How many times have I seen that same gesture repeated in my class? 

I approach Rose and call her name. She looks up, and it is exactly like a scene from a movie, when a child is caught running away from home by just the person she never expected to see. She sits there, speechless, and her face is a mixture of consternation and surprise. A few moments pass in silence - each of us shocked that the other is here on this very boat - until I take courage and ask, "Where are you going?" It seems she has been crying, and she is still a little slow to respond, so I move her bags and sit down on the bench beside her. Finally she explains: she is going home to her grandmother and her baby, the two-year-old child she has not seen since she left them on the mainland and moved to Camiguin.

It has not been an easy life for Rose as a working student, living with her employers, with no free time even to complete the homework that I assign every day in class. And now, five months to the day, she is returning to the life she knew before, which is by no means an easier one. Living in her Lola's home together with the father of her child, who is deaf to her pleadings - no one would argue that this is love, when a man's affection is forced upon a woman who desires to escape it.

The rain blows hard against the tarpaulin, and Rose shivers. "Come, all your bags are getting wet," I insist. So we change seats and I gently ask, "You will not be coming back to Camiguin?"

"Oh, ma'am! My show and tell...," she exclaims, dismayed at the thought of disappointing both me and her classmates. Her presentation was scheduled for next Tuesday. "I don't care about your show and tell!" I respond a little too quickly. "I am just sad because, if God had not put us on this ferry together, I might never have seen you again." Such is the case for almost everyone she is leaving behind, I realize, as she explains that only her class advisor, her employers, and now I know of her decision to move home.

We ride the rest of the way to the port and then make our way to the bus terminal. Both of us are west-bound, so there is still some time before we must part ways. I ask the Holy Spirit for inspiration, for an encouraging word to leave with her if, indeed, this is the last time we will meet. In between bus stops - first to load additional passengers, later to pick up a few barrels of fresh squid - I lead us in a prayer.

As we pray, I consider what I know of Rose's story. Pregnant at 15, unwanted by her parents, she tried her utmost to care for her child. But living every day in dread of the young man she once loved - who later refused to move out of the house and leave her and the baby in peace - sounds rather like a complicated form of slavery to me. Having to choose between her freedom and her child, Rose did what she thought best and left the baby with her grandmother, as she set out to complete her high school education, hoping to someday be able to provide for her daughter. How unbearable is the heartbreak of a mother forced to give up her child! And remarkably, she grasps the tragic irony of it all, that she who was abandoned at a tender age by her mother has now repeated history by leaving behind her own small daughter.

What a relief it is to pray with her, because it is only the Savior of the world Who can save Rose from the circumstances that she is facing. The words of the prophet Isaiah come to mind, and I turn to my Bible to share with her the passage that has so often comforted my own sorrowful heart. For her, however, the words are not merely metaphorical, because she has lived them. Indeed, they seem to come to life on the page as I read them aloud:

"But Zion said, 'The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.' 'Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have graven you on the palms of my hands.'" -Isaiah 49:14-16

I close the book and turn to see her weeping. Hers is a face of strength. You may perhaps condemn her for leaving her child, or even for giving up on her education, but there is no condemnation in the words of Our Lord. There is only love, deep love, and His promise of unending fidelity to His precious Rose.

A few minutes later and we have arrived at the crossing - this is her stop. They have no Bible at home because her Lola cannot read or write, so I've hurriedly copied the verses and scribbled a note assuring her of my continued prayers. I hug her goodbye, and she flashes that same brave smile I have come to expect every afternoon at 2:30pm when I enter her classroom. But this is the last time I will see it, and I hold the image in my memory a little longer so I will not forget her.  And you, my child, must never forget how dearly you are loved.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Preaching the name of Jesus

It's late Sunday morning, and I'm making my way across the cathedral parking lot, past all the tents of religious goods, past all the "regulars" - the community of beggars who daily stand outside the church selling little candles for visitors to purchase. Suddenly I'm stopped by a striking young woman carrying a baby on her hip in a large piece of cloth slung over her shoulder.

Daisy and Norma, two of our cathedral friends.
"Gutom" - we are hungry - she says, motioning to her mouth with what must be the universal sign for food. As she guides me down the alleyway of the market to a small food stand, I realize that it is no longer just one woman but two...three...four women with two small children and two infants.

Waiting for the six cups of rice and six small fish to be placed in plastic bags, I remind them to thank the Lord for the food that He is providing. I tell them that I am a Catholic missionary and proudly recite the Visayan phrase I've been practicing: "Si Jesukristo nahigugma kaninyo - Jesus loves you!"

St. Augustine Cathedral in the early morning.
In response, I am met not with smiles but with slight confusion and disinterest. How do they not understand this simple phrase? I wonder, especially here in the market surrounded by thousands of rosaries, religious artworks, and statues of Jesus and His Blessed Mother. So I try again. "Nag simba mo? Are you going to attend Mass today?" More confused looks. Finally I bite the bullet and ask a question that we so rarely ask here: "What religion are you?"

"Islam," one of the women responds. Ah, now I understand.

"Catholic missionary ko. Ang akong Dios si Jesukristo - My God is Jesus Christ. And the rice is from Jesus."

There is power in the name of Jesus. Here in the Philippines, it's not often I have the chance to minister to someone who has not from her earliest childhood heard and been taught to reverence the name of Jesus. And so I forget what a privilege it is to know Him and to speak His name.
My God is not a far-off deity, but a loving Father and Friend Who provides even a breakfast of rice and fish to His hungry children today, just as He did 2,000 years ago.

"They saw a charcoal fire there, with fish lying on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, 'Come and have breakfast.' Now none of the disciples dared ask Him, 'Who are you?' They knew it was the Lord." - John 21:9,12

I pray that these women and children would also know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it is the Lord.

"Let the children come to Me" -- a beautiful stained glass in the cathedral.
"Therefore, God has greatly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." - Philippians 2:9-11

Friday, August 28, 2015

Called to serve the Lord

I am very proud to introduce the two young men we are sponsoring at the Priests of the Sacred Heart of Jesus seminary in Cagayan de Oro. Both are recent high school graduates who felt the Lord inviting them to discern a call to the priesthood.

Visiting Edgar, Marnilou, and Fr. Archie, the priest in charge of their formation.
Edgar was one of my favorite students at Holy Rosary High School. He is a bright and respectful young man. Last fall, when we casually questioned him and his classmates about their life goals, Edgar admitted that he wanted to be a priest! We were happily surprised and encouraged him, giving him a Bible and a book on St. John Bosco to learn more about the priesthood. Fatherless, and with his mother abroad for the past eight years, Edgar was raised by his grandmother. He wrote this letter to express his thanks to all of our benefactors:

Edgar and his Lola invited us to join them for a meal after their town's fiesta Mass.
"Good day!! I am Edgar Magpatoc Abid. I am 18 years old. I live in Manuyog, Sagay, Camiguin Province. I graduated from Holy Rosary High School 2014-2015 last March. I am the son of Ednalin M. Abid and the grandson of Angelita M. Abid. I have no father. I am an illegitimate child. We are two siblings, and I am the oldest. My grandmother is a servant of God; she is a lay minister. My mother works abroad. I am Edgar M. Abid, who has a dream to become a priest someday. I want to become a priest because I want to know God, to serve God, to love God, and to be happy with Him in heaven. I want to help those people who do not truly believe in God and also spread the words of God. I am so very thankful for the support. I hope that you will continue supporting my vocation and I pray that our Beloved God will bless you and guide you. Also, pray for me in my chosen vocation. Once again thank you!"
Our other seminarian is Marnilou, who graduated this spring from Sagay National High School. He comes from a strong Catholic family, with one brother already ordained a priest and another brother currently studying in the same seminary. We first met him through Edgar -- their families are next-door neighbors -- and we are so honored to be sponsoring him in seminary. This is his letter to all of our benefactors:

Happy fiesta! Visiting with Marnilou, his brother Marnito (also in seminary), and their parents.
"First of all good day!! I am Marnilou Namata Piloton, 18 years old. I live in Manuyog, Sagay, Camiguin Province of the Philippines. I am the 4th to the youngest in our family. Let me introduce my parents. My father is Marnito Nituda Piloton Sr. and he is the president of our [village] chapel. My mother is Melchorita Namata Piloton and she is a member of the Divine Mercy [devotional group].
We are all twelve siblings, 3 girls and 9 boys. The oldest, Rev. Fr. Marlo Namata Piloton, is a priest of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The next are Jameson, Marinel Pangasian, Manelyn, Malbert, Mariel, Marjory, Marnito Jr. (who is a seminarian in his 3rd year now), me, Mardel, Mark, and the youngest is Marl James.
I want to become a priest someday to follow Jesus Christ and serve the people, especially the poor. Like my brother, I want to serve the Lord and to become His soldier, and this is my way to serve Him.
Please pray for me to the Lord our God Jesus Christ, especially for my vocation life in the seminary. Thank you, and God bless us!"
I am inspired by these two young men who are responding to the call God has placed on their hearts to serve His Church! Let us pray for Edgar, Marnilou, and all young people who are discerning the priesthood or religious life.

Monday, August 17, 2015

When there is no justice...

I don't teach for the sake of the lessons. I teach for the students.

That might sound obvious, but what I mean is this: being a teacher at Holy Rosary High School is just my "in," a foot in the door to these kids' lives. Inside the classroom, it's nouns, verbs, and English vocabulary, but that's all superficial. It's outside the classroom that counts.

Today during our lunch break, three of my students arrived on our doorstep, telling me they were "problematic." As it turned out, their problem was a common one - no money to pay for tuition this month. But why? I wanted to know the back story, to get more information on their families and home lives.

Mae began, explaining to me that her mother moved to another island three years ago for work and now has a "new family" there; she hasn't visited for the past two years. Mae's father moved to the mainland this past December and sends money back to her, but only on occasion. With both of her parents gone and her grandmother having passed away this spring, Mae is officially the woman of the house.

Their home in the mountain.
Mae is 14 years old and in charge of her 13-year-old brother Rey and their little brother, who is in first grade. She and her siblings live alone up in the mountain. Every morning she wakes at 4am to cook for her "little family." She walks a far distance down the mountain each day to fetch water for their house. During the week she goes to school, and every Saturday she is busy hand-washing all their clothes. Her brother Rey should be in 7th grade, but he dropped out after one month because, as Mae explains, "no budget."

Walking down the mountain from their house.
"Who takes care of you?" I asked. "Who looks out for Mae?"

"No one," came the heart-wrenching reply, as she buried her head in my shoulder and wept.

Injustice. The word boils up inside of me and spills over just like the coffee pot when I leave it too long over the fire. Injustice, that a 14-year-old child should be the sole guardian and caregiver for her two younger siblings. Injustice, that she should have to concern herself with the survival needs of her family while the other teachers and I still unwittingly expect her to attend class each day and complete her assignments.

And most of all, my own injustice, that I've been trying to "prudently" distribute and budget my alms, when, as a matter of justice, every penny I own belongs to Mae and to those like her.

The only available water source for Mae's village is near the bottom of the mountain.
I wish I had a neat and tidy ending to this story, but there is none. For now, I could leave Mae only with the promise that Papa Jesus Himself is taking care of her, and with our own small commitment to sponsor her monthly tuition fees.

Mae is a brave young woman and I am proud to call her my student. I am begging the Lord to have mercy on her and to show me a greater way to love His children, who deserve so much more than we can ever offer them.

"You are not making a gift of your possessions to the poor person. You are handing over to him what is his. The world is given to all and not only to the rich." ~ St. Ambrose

We are sponsoring Mae and 20 other needy children like her. Please consider becoming a part of this work by donating to our mission!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Humbled by the holy ones

One summer morning, I read in Luke 14:11, “Every one who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” I knew Jesus was speaking those words to me. That afternoon, I stopped by the home of my student Kevin (read an older story about him here). Kevin, his cousin Edgar, and their neighbor Marnilou all graduated from high school this spring and are entering seminary this year to join a religious congregation of missionary priests. 

I wanted to visit with each boy’s family to discuss financial sponsorship for seminary. Unfortunately, I had forgotten that it was Kevin’s birthday, and his mother had prepared a feast at which we missionaries were to be the guests of honor. Talk about being humbled! My heart dropped to the floor as I realized this family had probably made many sacrifices to afford this special meal, and I did not even bring a small gift to celebrate his birthday. 

Thanking Kevin's mom for the delicious food!
But I couldn’t stay downcast for too long, as they began joyfully serving us heaping spoonfuls of all manner of food prepared with such care by Kevin’s mother. She led the blessing, thanking God for Kevin’s life, and all at once I was flooded with such a great love for their family and for these young men who aspire to become priests. All three boys admitted to us that they first felt called to the priesthood at a young age, about 9 or 10, through the witness of their own parish priests and through experiencing the presence of God at Mass. Now, still so young, they are ready to answer God’s call. It will take years of formation on another island, away from their own family and friends. It will cost much more than they can afford, and so they must depend on the generosity of sponsors to support their studies. But, as Edgar explained, their hope in becoming missionary priests is to bring Jesus to distant mountain areas, to bring the Eucharist to people who have never before heard the name of Jesus.

I am so honored to have a hand in helping these young men pursue their religious vocations. The Lord used the Scripture verse on humility to prepare me for my encounter that day, and to remind me once again that it is often His poorest, littlest children who have the greatest desire to offer their lives as a sacrifice back to Him, to thank Him for all that He has done.

“He called to Him those whom He desired; and they came to Him.” - Mark 3:13

Since writing this, both Edgar and Marnilou have joyfully entered seminary. Kevin has decided to spend this year working and taking college courses while he continues to discern where God is calling him. More updates coming soon on our newest seminarians!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

"I was sick and you visited Me"

This has been a summer overridden with medical ministry! Checkups, hospitalizations, surgeries, name it and we've done it.

When reviewing just the facts and figures - the endless pharmacy bills and hospital fees - I am tempted to grumble. Why me, Lord? Why are you bringing so many sick people to our door? It seems that we are the only option, the last hope for so many poor and defenseless persons here in Sagay.

Visiting Jocelyn at home after her discharge. Prayer is the most effective medication!
But when I lift my gaze from the finances and look into the faces of the sick and suffering, when they become real people with powerful stories of hardship, trials, and unwavering faith in the midst of it all, I stop worrying about the contents of my bank account. These, after all, are my friends.

This morning I arrived at the hospital at 6:00am for a blood test and two ultrasounds. Lola Mimi has chronic kidney disease, and the pain makes it difficult for her to walk. Auntie Bebe's severe stomach pain turns out to be a large, possibly malignant ovarian cyst.

Lola Mimi having her blood taken. 
In between tests, we pay off our most recent bill for Ramil, our good friend who volunteers as the chapel leader of his community. Last week he was in a motorcycle accident and fractured his humerus - it's a miracle he is alive! Still, his recovery may be lengthy and his family has no other source of income. "Malooy kami kanila" - a Visayan phrase meaning we feel pity for them, or more literally we have mercy on them.

Inside the hospital, we sit and wait. We speak with doctors from time to time, converse with other patients, and pray a Rosary together, but mainly we just wait. And in the waiting there is a fraternity, a mutual understanding that, as a missionary, it is my joy and privilege to enter into the daily lives of the people I serve, to be one with them, even in the simple action of sharing a bench outside the emergency room.

Reading the Bible together with Ramil and his cousin Eva.
It is now 4:30pm, and I am still waiting here in the hospital. It's beginning to feel a little like home, as with each visit I become better acquainted with the various specialists, nurses, med techs, and social welfare workers.  For a moment I am struck by the irrational fear that I could spend the rest of my days here within the walls of this institution, sponsoring and advocating for patients who cannot do so for themselves. But I know that, at the end of it all, at least I will have done what Our Lord has commanded me - to visit the sick, to give to the poor, to provide for the widows and the orphans. And in that I find peace.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

And we're back!

After an unexpectedly long blogging hiatus, I've finally returned! It's been a whirlwind of a summer, and while I managed to record a few stories to share with you, they never actually made it onto my blog. Well, it's time to get your reading glasses ready because they'll be coming soon!

And while you wait, a few pictures to get you started:

Singing with Cielon, one of my best students (now a graduate!) who accompanied Fr. Joe and the entire parish staff to serenade me on my birthday morning. 

Speaking with the women of Bagdal, a mountain village that has no available water except what flows from this one small hose. They must walk from their homes to this spot to wash clothes and to fetch water for cooking and cleaning.

Hamming it up with my missionary sisters, Joanne and Genevieve. What started out as a day of prayer on the beach quickly turned into team shenanigans.

"All who trust in You will be glad and forever shout for joy" (Psalm 5:12). I pray that you're being filled with the joy of the Lord as well!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

College dreams

Getting a college education here in the Philippines is a luxury that many young people cannot afford. After graduating from high school, they may take up jobs such as farming, fishing, or working for a small business. Because impoverished families earn barely enough money to buy food and immediate necessities, they have no savings available to spend on college tuition.
Mark Jeperson and his family celebrating after his graduation ceremony.
Teaching at Holy Rosary High School last year, I fell in love with many of our students, but in particular with the senior class. As their English and religion teacher, I learned so much about them, their families, and their daily struggles. These are young men and women who deserve the chance to make a better life for themselves. They hope to complete their education so they can secure good jobs and provide for their families.

I want to make their dreams possible! I believe in these students. I am so proud of their hard work and even more so of their strong faith in Jesus, which has sustained them through the many obstacles they have faced.
Will you consider sponsoring one of my students to attend college? One semester of college costs approximately $350. Please follow this link to read more about our campaign and how you can donate!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

A God of miracles

I remember, pre-missions, I used to pray for the sick, for ailing relatives or elderly neighbors. I would say a quick Our Father and then pat myself on the back, having done my duty as a believing Christian.

But what exactly DID I believe? Did I believe in signs and wonders? Did I believe that my God is a loving Father Who can and does answer my prayers?

Patients in the outdoor pending ward in Northern Mindanao hospital.
Some may wait for days before being admitted to a room.
No. I believed that somehow, in His mysterious way, God would hear me, and the sick person might or might not subsequently recover. But if that person had, before my eyes been healed of his or her illness, I would have been stunned. Miracles like that don't happen anymore, and even if they did, I'm certainly not holy enough to ask for or expect them.

This week, Richelo (read his story here) had to be re-admitted to the hospital. He contracted a staph infection from an open wound and was diagnosed with sepsis, a serious blood infection that can be fatal if left untreated.

During the worst of it, Richelo was convulsing with fever and could not look at us or speak. We stayed at his bedside with his family praying and reading Scripture. 

No passage was more fitting than that of the death of Lazarus. Just as Jesus delayed two days before going to see him, so we had also for two days delayed our trip to the island of Mindanao to visit Richelo. Just as Jesus wept, so we now wept at the bedside of this feverish man whose mental capacities, the doctor explained, were deteriorating before our eyes.

And yet, we had hope! As Jesus says of Lazarus, "This illness is not unto death; it is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it." Reading those words, our faith grew stronger, and we knew that the Lord had heard us.

In the middle of the night, Richelo's condition worsened and the doctor prescribed yet another expensive medication. But at 3am, the hour of mercy, Richelo miraculously opened his eyes! When I returned to the hospital the following morning, he was talking and looking at us. He required neither the extra medicine nor the recommended blood transfusion. Praise JESUS!! We all prayed in thanksgiving for this remarkable improvement.

Jesus told the disciples that the reason He allowed Lazarus to die and then raised him back to life was "so that you may believe." Perhaps it is the same with us. Not so much for Richelo, but for our sake, that we might believe.

Please pray for Richelo's continued healing from this infection and for a miraculous healing of his kidneys.

Richelo, holding the crucifix we gave him.
"I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die." - John 11

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Jesus on the ferry

By its very nature, Camiguin Island is quite remote and separated from the mainland. Our primary means of transportation to and from the island is by ferry boat. There is a gang of boys ranging from ages 6 to 14 whose livelihood consists of jumping off the tops of ferries and diving for coins that passengers toss into the water.

I spy two little ferry boys...
The smallest of the boys, Jun Jun, prefers to do this completely naked, and from time to time will even clamber onto the main deck of the ferry to cajole passengers into giving him a peso or two. On my last ferry trip, he came and sat on the row of chairs in front of me, evidently feeling rather friendly and wanting to chat.

“Hey Jun Jun, you know what? Si Hesus nahigugma kanimo.” [Jesus loves you.]

He nodded knowingly. “Oo, taas sa langit.” [Yes, up in heaven.]

“Ug salud sa imong kasing-kasing,” I had to add. [And inside your heart.]

Raising his eyebrows in agreement, Jun Jun proclaimed emphatically, “Nabanhaw Siya!” [He is risen!]

Earlier that morning, while meditating on the birth of Jesus, I found myself bewildered that the shepherds, knowing little of the Scriptures but having heard what prophets foretold of the coming Messiah, were the first to bear witness to His coming. Why did the heavenly host of angels not appear first to the learned scribes and Pharisees, to the priests of the house of Levi?

Because it is the simple, pure-hearted, trusting souls that Our Lord desires. Because it is the poor that He loves.

And so today. It is the uneducated, poorest ones who hold the strongest faith in His Resurrection. Theirs is a living faith that depends upon Him, from waking til sleeping, for their every need.

The engines are thrumming as the ferry begins to pull away from the dock. I give the few cookies I have to the boys, who in turn share them with each other. I wave goodbye to them as those still atop the ferry dive into the water and swim over to the next boat that has just arrived at the port. 

Johnver, the oldest of the group, calls out, “Rebecca, God bless you!”

And God bless you, all of you, heirs to His kingdom, children of the Most High God. May you seek Him and find Him, and may He abide forever in your hearts!

Friday, April 17, 2015

Jesus in the ward

My friends Richelo and Luz were admitted to the city hospital last week for seven days straight. Richelo is only 31 years old but is suffering from kidney failure and will now need weekly dialysis treatments for the rest of his life.

Waiting for the doctor to arrive.
This changes everything for their family. Can he ever farm again? Will they have to move to another island where dialysis is available? What about their three little kids?

I arrived at the hospital Monday morning to give the downpayment so Richelo could be cleared for surgery to insert a permanent access port in his forearm. From 10am until 7pm I stayed with them, first in the ward, then waiting outside the operating room, and finally back to the ward post-op. Nothing extraordinary, but something beautiful.

During Richelo's operation, I sat with Luz and her sister-in-law Kimberly outside the operating room. Clearly she was worried for her husband and her family. What could I say?

"Nag simba ka gahapon?" I asked. Did you go to church yesterday?

No, was her answer. "Wala ko nag simba." She had wanted to attend Mass but could not because she was taking care of Richelo.

I pulled my missal out of my bag. I always carry my Bible with me, but this time I had forgotten it at home and was pretty upset about it. It's a rookie missionary mistake to leave your Bible behind when doing ministry, especially if you expect to be in a hospital all day long. But God had a plan.

Kimberly came along to support Luz and Richelo during their hospital stay.
I found in my missal this Sunday's Mass readings and showed them to Luz. Together we read the first and second readings and the Gospel. Her concerned face lit up as she pointed to the last lines of the Gospel passage: "These are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in His name."

Luz's quiet, worried voice grew strong and sure as she spoke the name of Jesus. In the midst of it all, the uncertainty and pain, she was brought to tears by the reminder that Jesus is still Lord! Indeed,we have a Savior Who can do all things if we believe in Him.

After spending two days - a total of 20 hours - at the hospital with their family, I was overjoyed to pay the final bill and secure the discharge papers. I waved them happily at Richelo: "Ulit na ta! We're going home!" 

Finally discharged -- freedom!
God is truly good, and, although the road ahead for Richelo and Luz is full of unanswered questions, their faith has not wavered. Blessed indeed are those who believe, for they will have life in His name!

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Watch and pray: A Holy Thursday reflection

"Gethsemane" by Carl Bloch
The vigil after the Mass of the Lord's Supper is a solemn one. Most people in the church have dispersed, gone home for the night, and only two dozen or so of the "holy ones" remain in the darkened church, kneeling in front of the alternate tabernacle where the Blessed Sacrament has been reposed.

Two little boys, aged about seven and nine, file into the first row. They sit on the pew with a little space between them, gazing straight ahead at the tabernacle surrounded by white cloths, flowers, and flickering candles. The scene is not exactly picturesque; the boys chatter quietly with each other from time to time, and one of them is munching on some chips that he has brought with him, but it inspires me nonetheless. As I have often witnessed on mission in the Philippines, young children here display a devotion to Our Lord that I have never seen before, unparalleled by most children in faithful Catholic American homes.

I hear the boys mentioning the name of Jesus -- "Wala si Jesus....Jesus is gone" -- perhaps recalling a Gospel story or else repeating words spoken to them to explain this night when we commemorate the arrest of Jesus and subsequent abandonment by His apostles. Again my faith is strengthened by the simple yet profound faith of these boys who have come to spend a few minutes with their Lord, that He may not be left alone.

"My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me." Matthew 26:38

Let us listen to the pleadings of Our Lord Jesus, Who bears the weight of our sins as He prays in the garden of Gethsemane. Can you not watch and pray one hour with Him today?

Monday, March 30, 2015

Jesus at the blackboard

With the arrival of final exams and graduation ceremonies last week, I’m reflecting on the past school year, the hard times and the happy times, and especially on the lives on particular students with whom I’ve had the privilege of journeying as they complete their high school career.

I’d like to introduce you to two of my 4th year students (now graduates!) who hold a special place in my heart. Elza is a beautiful young woman, affectionate, and extraordinarily intelligent. Last year she shared with me that she desires to be a nun, although she is torn because she also feels a sense of loyalty and responsibility to financially provide for her family.

Elza, class salutatorian, and her proud parents at graduation.
I love Elza because she is unashamedly in love with Jesus and willing to talk about her faith in front of her classmates.

In the final writing assignment I gave to my English class, each student could select his or her own topic. Elza’s essay touched my heart:

“A perfect day with my best friend”
The place I want to go always is the church, you know why? Because the church is God’s people, people He’s called and gathered. The church can bring a lot of good things into our life - friendship, fun, and comfort, for example - but in the end, there’s a bottom line, and this is what it is: the Church exists to continue Jesus’ ministry on earth. The church is my perfect place to talk to my best friend. Every time I feel bad, anxious, or discomforted, I pray to God sincerely and tell Him all my doubts and hesitancies in life. Every time I pray to God it makes my day perfect, wonderful, and full of hope. Does God already know how I feel? Sure. And God is everywhere, all the time. I want to express my deep and true love to God. God is my best friend. I love God and I’m dependent on Him, and I can’t really stop thinking about Him or talking to Him. That’s what my love is. It may not seem like it, but God always answers my prayer. The problem I sometimes, okay, usually have is that I can’t see the big picture. God’s answers may not fit into my plan. They may seem to go against what I think is best. The problem is like little kids begging from their parents; I don’t always know what is best. It’s hard, and there is no easy answer, but in the mystery, there’s trust. I know that Jesus Himself felt abandoned by God on the cross, but that God Himself told Jacob that everything works together for the good in His plan.
If I really believe that God created me an that God’s love for me is beyond reason, then I have to trust that God isn’t going to abandon me. God is my best friend of course; I should trust prayers that have helped others draw closer to God. I talk to my best friend sincerely and from my heart.

I am in awe of Elza’s growing relationship with Jesus! And I was surprised to find that she was not the only student in the class to focus her essay on her Catholic faith. The following essay was written by Melchoir. He is a 21-year-old student and a little behind in his studies, but he is very motivated and has worked hard to improve his grades in my English class.

“If I could live anywhere”
Everybody wants to travel to other places. We have different ideas in choosing what is the best place to live. If God gave me a chance to live anywhere, I would prefer to live in Heaven.
My one and only wish is to live in Heaven, for I would absolutely live with Jesus. I know that in Heaven there I could find the everlasting happiness, the everlasting joy.
I know it would be so great if I could live in Heaven, but before anything else there are so many sacrifices and trials on earth in order for me to go to Heaven. For now it is only in my imagination, but one thing I can say is that I will do my best to enter the gates of Heaven.

Melchoir (left) and his friends hamming it up at graduation.
I’m very proud of Melchoir’s academic improvement (completing a high school education is no small accomplishment!), but beyond that I am inspired by his great desire to be united with God in heaven. Even as a young man, he recognizes that the most important element of this temporal life on earth is preparing for his eternal life with Jesus.

I love being a missionary teacher because every day I have the opportunity to bring my Catholic Faith into the classroom. What an unexpected but welcome blessing it is to hear my students professing their love for the Lord!

Congratulations to Holy Rosary High School, Batch 2015! God bless you and guide you always!