By way of an introduction: ‘A holy human heartache’
First appeared as ‘Doing justice: surprised by joy’ a guest post on Ed Cyzewski’s blog in 2013, updated February 2017
There are two of them: two of the most gorgeous, grimiest creatures on this planet. Their faces and tangled black hair heavily laced with sweat and charcoal dust. Big friendly eyes, big shy smiles, tattered over-sized T-shirts, these two little girls have been watching us curiously, giggling, patiently waiting for more contact.
Sitting down on a relatively clean looking slab of concrete – emphasis here on “relatively” as our scene is a dumpsite in Manila – I just know that this moment with these two lovelies must not be missed.
As soon as I’m down, there are two five-year-olds in my arms. A precious big hug minute together: I feel their scrawny bodies, I feel that slight gargling in their lungs from the smoke of the charcoal burning.
Something is grabbing my guts, wrenching my heart. I am a mother after all… For all the years we have embraced little ones like these, the excruciating joy and sorrow, heartache and bliss catch me by surprise.
Twenty-nine years ago my husband Paul and I first came to the Philippines for a Primary Health Care course in Manila. The training school was a short walk away from an enormous garbage dump, and the people who lived there were the ones we practiced our newfound learning on. Of course the inevitable happened: we fell in love with these folks and were not about to go anywhere else!
Before it was closed down in 1995, Smokey Mountain was the name of this gigantic mound of refuse, where the city’s poor scavenged through the city’s waste. Here they literally scraped together a meager living by collecting, washing, sorting and selling recyclable items.
Paul has a favorite story of a confrontation-life-changing moment in our early years here. While walking over the mountain of garbage, he met a little boy who stretched up his arms to him, wanting to be picked up and held. For the first time Paul faced that moment of decision: how to respond to a dirty-beyond-belief child? Then came that moment of revelation: the utter insignificance of a pristine white T-shirt.
Oh-so-many priceless hugs later, on Smokey Mountain II – the garbage dump a mile or so away from the original – I’m saying goodbye to these two grubby little angels, as they run off to play. Feeling subdued by the unexpected impact of our affection, their affection, I catch up with my colleagues, wondering if I’m going soft in the head, but glad to still be going soft in the heart.
Back in the 1990s, after a couple of years of involvement with health care, Paul and I then focused our attention on school sponsorship, seeing education as the long term solution which could give children the opportunity to break out of that vicious cycle of poverty.
We had been in Manila for about five years when sickness totally swiped the rug from under our feet. There was no choice but to return to the Netherlands. We were young then (!) and three months seemed to us like a reasonable time to recover and return to the Philippines. However, it was to be nine years before we set foot in the Philippines again, and another five years after that before we returned to live here. For many – no, for most – of those years in the Netherlands, we assumed that our chapter ‘The Philippines’ was closed. We couldn’t have been more wrong…
‘The Philippines, part II’ began nine years ago, when we moved back to Manila to continue with a school sponsorship organization called Young Focus (*).
No one is more amazed than Paul and I by what has been happening here on behalf of the youth. We are acutely aware of being part of something that is bigger than we are.
Our history, in terms of ‘doing justice’, was that we simply started off ‘wanting to help the poor’, having an inkling that God was in fact on their side. Our suspicions have been utterly confirmed. Over the last nine years in particular, we feel like we have had the privilege of being put on the front row, watching how God moves heaven and earth on behalf of those whose daily existence is a struggle for survival.
Again: we know that this is something so much bigger than we are. The years of sickness in the Netherlands had some brutal lessons for us in terms of our fragility, frailty and feebleness. We are under few illusions about our own ‘do-gooding-ness’.
And even as I write these words, I’m beginning to understand why those two little girls had such a deep impact on me. It wasn’t only the protective maternal juices churning. It wasn’t just the hope and longing that we’ll be able to empower them for a better future. It was also – very simply – our common frailty. In the presence of our loving, faithful God.
(*) For more about our work see: http://www.youngfocus.org