Sometimes, we end up in the unlikeliest of places, and there’s a moment when we stop to ask ourselves, how did we get here? What is this all about?
Reflecting on what brought us to that exact moment, we might realize there’s a really Big Force at work to have gifted us with that specific space, that place, that time.
My moment is brought to you by the Big Force of TRASH.
After nearly a year of living and working in Manila, I receive several questions with machinelike predictability. The first is: “How many years have you been in the Philippines?” (Funny note: it’s not even phrased as “how long,” or “when did you get here,” but always, always, to a person, “How many years have you been in the Philippines?” Many explain to me it’s because they’re surprised at my Tagalog, but of course I am not nearly as confident or fluent in my language skills as people assume. Anyway…)
The next question is: what brought you here?
My answer to that is: TRASH.
I first came to the Philippines three years ago, in the summer of 2015 on a mission exposure and immersion experience throughout Asia. I spent several months visiting Divine Word Missionary communities in Thailand, Japan, as well as the Philippines. During my stay in Manila, I visited Smokey Mountain for the first time, the garbage dump I had heard about shortly after entering the seminary. Here, I had already become familiar with the work and priestly ministry of Fr. Ben Beltran, SVD, who spent more than 30 years living and ministering among the smoke and squalor along with 30,000 garbage pickers, or basureros as they’re known in Tagalog.
Needless to say, my time on Smokey Mountain was unforgettable. Extraordinary. Sure, hot, sticky, dirty, and absolutely breathtaking. In that dirt on the mountain, the seed for my future visits to the Philippines was planted. Much like the grass and new fauna that have since taken over and covered the waste on the mountain of waste, my own seeds have grown and now here I am, working in Manila…with trash.
But for me, trash doesn’t just mean garbage.
As a matter of fact, my current boss at the Ecology Center of the Archdiocese of Manila advocates, the word trash should be stricken from our vocabulary. It is demeaning to say that these people are basureros, which literally means “trash people.” While it is true that they spend their lives under the brutal sun sorting through people’s leftovers and municipal waste, it is simply tragic to refer to a whole contingent of society as “trash people.”
Because, think about it for a second or two. What images does this bring to your mind?
So. After much reflection, with the brainstorming help of a wonderfully talented and creative friend from Davao, I have redefined the word “trash.” Today, I leave you with a new conceptualization of this word, a twist on the normal connotation of stink, waste, and worthlessness. Perhaps, now, you can see “trash” in a whole new light.
is for thanksgiving. The Filipino people are endlessly thankful and gracious. As I have seen it, a strong sense of gratitude is one of the characteristics that makes the Filipino culture cohere, when a lot of other forces are at work trying to tear it apart. In the light of poverty, natural disasters, uncertainty about food and political stability – and even sometimes doubt about cultural identity – there is a sense of unwavering thankfulness that pervades all the ambiguity. The average Filipino can find ten things to be thankful for, for every two or three that might go wrong. I, too, am exceedingly grateful and thankful for the opportunity to to share with this warm, genuine, and sincere people, who have taught me what it means to look at life with gracious eyes.
is for respect and relationship. The Filipino society and culture is relational, above all, and the family net is made with iron – strong rope. There is a supremely strong sense of connection, of empathy, of family support, and respect, too. Take as the first basic example the use of the word po in Tagalog. This is the short little syllable added on to sentences and expressions to signify respect, when you’re talking to an elder, a boss, parents and grandparents, or others whom you would like to show deference to. Po is brilliant. It’s a little piece of tape that holds relationships together, a reminder that we must always be aware of politeness, respect, and dignity. I have seen that relationships are so strongly valued here in the Philippines, they are almost sacred. Love runs deep, it runs like a river, strong, bold, sweeping, powerful. Don’t mess with a Filipino’s sense of empathy and connection.
is for amiable. As the saying goes, “it’s more fun in the Philippines!” This is because there’s a lightness, a happiness, a joy in the culture, in the spirit of the Filipino, that just makes it so darn fun. Whether you’re just stepping outside for a quick trip to the grocery, or you’re in the middle of the slums, or you’re out running or shopping or on a ferry boat to a whole new island, it’s impossible to go anywhere without experiencing a brilliant amiability. People love to connect, to chat, to be open, to share. They love to joke, and to laugh. Amiability is in the air, no matter where you go. Only in the Philippines! (As a somewhat related note, perhaps a cause of this cultural feature: Manila is the most densely populated city in the world, with about 111,000 people per square mile in the capital city, and the Philippines one of the most crowded countries in the world. In such close quarters, you better develop a good sense of working relationship and amiability with people. You will learn how to get along really quickly, or you simply won’t survive!)
is for spirituality. There is also a depth of spirituality here in this predominantly Catholic country that takes life much deeper. Now, say what you will about the state of the Catholic Church in the Philippines, I’m talking about my experiences of being able to connect with people on a “God level.” Here, you can actually utter phrases like, “In God’s perfect time,” or “God bless,” without a political uproar. You can say you’re Catholic, and people will respect that. You can go into the slums, and engage in conversation about the blessings, the curses, and the mysteries that fill our lives. Now, as Fr. Ben Beltran has written about extensively, the Filipino spirituality is as complicated, as deep, and as intricate as the language, with layers of meaning that take a lifetime to unravel: or, simply, you need Filipino blood. But I am so happy to be a part of these mysteries, these attempts to connect to God, and so grateful to have learned and grown in my own faith because of this extraordinary strength of Filipino spirit.
is for hospitality, home, and humbling. Hospitality, because of course this is the one word that defines the Philippines and its people. Of everything mentioned above, this is the one word that makes the Philippines so unique and unforgettable, and what really roots this country in your heart. Everywhere you go, this word is on people’s lips. It’s even on t-shirts! People are hugely proud of their hospitality, of their welcoming and embracing spirit. They don’t even need to say “my home is your home,” because it goes without saying. It is quite humbling to have been embraced, with such openness and with such sincerity. It breaks down a lot of barriers, to be offered so much. In turn, I too, have learned to embrace others hopefully with a bit more earnestness, a bit more freely, and with as much hospitality as my Filipino friends and families. I have learned the importance and the beauty of giving freely, of opening the doors of my own life, my own home, my own world, and letting people in to share. Truly, it is more blessed to give than to receive.