The Giant in Cebu City: Mission Lessons Learned from Brother Paul, SVD

paul bongcaras

This is Brad Paul.

Brad Paul is in his early seventies, and is perhaps five feet, if that.  He has many, many nicknames and titles, maybe even one for each year of his life.  He is lovingly referred to as upaw, or bald.  Brad, in fact, is another.  This is not his first name, but rather means “brother” in Cebuano, the language spoken in Cebu City where Brad Paul lives and ministers.  Brad Paul is father to many, as well.  Although he is not a priest, this title sticks to his tiny frame like sweat, and plenty of people refer to him exclusively with this respectful title.  For others, he is simply picking garbage“SVD,” in reference to the missionary order he belongs to, the Society of the Divine Word.  For some, he is “the crazy one” who hangs out with pimps, prostitutes, and drug addicts—though let it be known and clarified, not for their services.  For yet others he is the social justice icon, a marvel, a legend, a living saint.

Regardless of what you call him, and despite his size, Brad Paul is a giant among…well, among mostly regular-sized people.  He has been serving as a missionary in different areas of Cebu City in the Philippines for more than forty years.  In his decades of work and service he has become not just a hero to those he’s worked with, but a true representative of God’s love here in this busted, broken, beautiful world.

Recently I time visiting him and the Divine Word missionary community in Cebu.  I had heard so much about this icon of social justice, especially about his work in the garbage dumps in the city, and was thrilled when the chance finally came up to take time off work in Manila and get to hang out in the slums and know a bit more about this part of the Philippines!

Let me tell you.  This was one of the fullest, most eye-opening, and trailblazing weeks I have experienced, ever.  Hands down.

Just to give you a brief run-down of our schedule, Brad Paul’s daily itinerary includes not one, not two, but three different ministry sites, each day.  Every day.  Now.  In case you didn’t catch that or register it, let me repeat: three sites.  That’s 21 sites around Cebu per week.

All right, he does allow himself a break and visits two places on Saturday, so an even twenty locations.

These visits include garbage sites and squatters’ villages by morning; a Chinese cemetery where nearly three hundred families live and move and have their being; bars and the red-light district by night; and youth correction facilities, the Cebu City Jail and the Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center.  Brother Paul also works extensively with those involved in sex trafficking and prostitution, and has established two rehabilitation and help centers for women, and those with HIV (this is one of the more prevalent problems in Cebu, as this is one of the hubs for sex trafficking in Southeast Asia).  Over the most recent years, a large chunk of his mission has been helping children of these adults get through school, as well as other street children who have been abandoned or have no parents.

Even with such a short time visiting Brother Paul, I learned enough for at least a dozen posts—look for more coming soon.

What follows are the most salient reflections and lessons from my time with Brother Paul, the ones that bear sharing immediately.  These aren’t just for missionaries serving the lost, the abandoned and orphaned, the smelly and the forgotten in Cebu City.  They’re for anyone who has a heart, for anywhere there’s a need.  That need is there, too, let me tell you—and there, and there, too.  Wherever you’re reading this.  As Jesus said, the poor you will always have with you!

Mission is all about connection

This is Brad Paul’s catch phrase; his life motto, if you will.  Wherever he goes, Brad Paul is constantly seeking to connect: connecting people to God, to their own dignity, to a rehabilitation center.  Mission, ultimately, is connecting them to Christ, [re]connecting them to hope.  It is connecting people to the renewed possibility that this brighter future can be theirs if they really believe in and work for it.

Yet how is all this done?  Brad Paul laughs at this, his forehead wrinkling and all the skin on his bald head following suit as his smile lights up all his features.  “The means, also, is connection.  The way?  Connection.  The end?  Connection.  It’s all about connection.”  Whether it’s connecting with the owner of the Casino Español of Cebu to host a fundraising concert for the women’s shelter, or connecting with beneficiaries to help provide medication and condoms for prostitutes, or connecting with other missionaries, cardinals, bishops, and clergy to raise awareness and increase openness about issues such as condom use and prostitution—it’s all about connection.

The takeaway?  Hope is impossible without connection to others.

It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission.

This quote has been attributed to a dozen different people, at least that I’m aware of, and so I’m not sure at all who’s the original behind this.  Yet it stands as another strong and firm catch phrase in Brother Paul’s life.  So many people are no-sayers, and will shoot down ideas before you can finish articulating them.  Especially when it comes to helping in controversial areas of social justice—and in questionable parts of town—it can be very, very difficult to get the proper approval by following the proper channels.  In Brother Paul’s view, if something really needs to get done for the mission, there’s time to worry about or ask for forgiveness later.  Of course, this can’t be taken too far or abused, but…well.  You get the idea.

 

This was actually one of the favorite phrases of the founding saint of the Divine Word Missionaries, and it’s what got him through a lot of tough times and even tougher tasks.  And in case you didn’t catch that, let me repeat:  Arnold Janssen been canonized as a saint, even with this quote behind him!

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Don’t forget to bring biscuits

It doesn’t have to be much to be effective.  My first night out on the streets, I couldn’t help wondering what we were doing.  We left the SVD missionary compound at the University of San Carlos and wandered the adjacent neighborhood, or barangay, for hours, to meet up with prostitutes, hear their stories, distribute biscuit packets and condoms, and generally be a presence in the case of emergency.  Brother had his crackers, a bag of condoms, his two ears, his local language Cebuano, and me.

I’m not going to lie, at some point I thought about how absurd it was to show up with a pack of flaky biscuits and condoms, for people whose main job was to sleep with others in order to eat that night and hopefully the next.  What good were we doing?  In fact, weren’t we doing some harm by distributing these condoms?  Wasn’t that encouraging this behavior, supporting and in a sense “enabling” the work of these women—and some men?

And then, then, I saw the smiles when we opened the bag of biscuits.  Peoplskyflakes chocolatee knew Brother Paul, and their faces lit up in the darkness around us.  “Skyflakes, Brad?”  “Brad!  Skyflakes?”  As soon as that bag opened, a small crowd developed, and hands appeared.  Skyflakes!  After the biscuits, then we could offer the condoms, and people felt comfortable.  Then, they could share, and we could listen.  Then, we could make room for God in their lives.

Call this work simple, call it absurd, call it sinful—plenty of people have; just read this feature on Brother Paul from the WHO—but it’s best not to leave the house without at least bringing Skyflakes.  Preferably, chocolate.

Biscuits, too, can connect people to God.

Don’t let limitations stop you from serving. Find a way, no matter how small.

Limitations are not an excuse.  Paul Bongcaras does not have medical experience beyond what he learned on the streets, when he was accompanying another missionary brother back in the eighties, to Inayawan garbage site.  At this time it was a raging, squelching, fuming black plot of land that received tens of thousands of tons of garbage a day from all over Cebu.  At that time Brother Paul learned how to take vitals, what medicines could be used for the simplest illnesses, and other first-aid basics for meeting people and their families in the garbage dump.  Now, his stethoscope and bag of medicines accompany him—along with the SkyFlake biscuits—whenever he goes out.

When I asked Brother Paul about this, he just smiled, and said something about not needing to get through years and years of medical school to be of service to others.  This struck me as quite…well, as my kind of answer.  I may not have the experience, and that can be daunting.

It may be easy to say that I can’t help, because the problems are so overwhelming and I’m so limited.  That, in turn, can lead me to turn away from others’ pain, from problems, from others’ suffering.  Sorry, I can’t help you.  Then, pretty soon, I won’t even try.

Danger!

This simple statement struck me as one of the most profound that Brother Paul could offer.  Find a way to serve, no matter how small.  Even if you have nothing else to offer except a blood pressure reading or SkyFlakes biscuits.  Don’t wait for the four or six or ten years of medical school.  Use what you can, how you can, now.  Use the connections you’ve made, get others’ help, and then get out to serve.

You may want to wait, but others can’t.

Don’t go to do; go to be.

Presence.

It’s a powerful word, and it’s as difficult as it is effective.  Over his four decades of ministry, Brother Paul has certainly learned the power of presence.  Especially when it comes to being with those in prostitution, those with drug addictions, and those with diseases—but really anyone—presence is vital.  Let me explain.

I found myself questioning why we weren’t going out into the streets and to the red-light area to do something to get these women out of their situations.  What were we doing to help?  And, more importantly, why couldn’t we be doing more?

Yet by my second night on the streets, those questions dissipated.  They had to.  You can’t fight and condemn your way through a red-light district.  Mission is about connection, and it’s about presence.  And that presence cannot be one of fury, of fire, of finger-shaking.  Who’s going to listen to that?  Who’s going to improve their lives simply because you tell them it’s currently not what it should be?  And also, what kind of doing is that, anyway?

What I learned, in some sort of answer to this, is that if you’re present, if you’re there with Skyflakes, condoms perhaps, and a stethoscope—to listen—then that’s how hope can come in.  If you’re there to be open to their difficulties, to let them give you their stories, to really feel and understand what they might have to share, then—and really only then—can hope take root and begin to grow.  When they trust you not as a doer or a problem-solver or another do-gooder trying to fix them, but when you’re really there for them, then hope can flower.  In the meantime, your presence through their journey is transformation, is growth, is a blossom already.

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