Friday, September 25, 2009

Church in the Middle

This short video today is taken at the foot of a place called “Smokey Mountain.” It’s well known to all in the area. Thousands of people have made their homes all around it. It’s an old garbage dump site.

As you will see in the video, life goes on. That’s the theme of this country, I think. They live, laugh, buy and sell and go on despite their circumstances. I could learn a thing or two.

There is a little church in the video that is smack in the middle of a little neighborhood. On one side, there is a well known drug dealer and on the other, not 8 feet away, is a brothel.

The church stands.

How powerful is the Truth of Christ. How life changing it is!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Leaving You Hanging . . . Day Three

Leave you hanging.

I realize the last note / bog / article I posted might have left you hanging a bit. I mean, it was a pretty harsh and realistic piece about a particularly tough part of the Philippines. To leave you with the impression that most of this wonderful country is in this condition is completely untrue and is certainly not representative of most of what we witnessed.

However, after leaving the cemetery we proceeded to visit with ministers and those whose mission it is to go face to face with the people of Manila, share the Gospel with them (no matter their circumstances or living conditions) and commit to stay with them as they learn the Truth.

After that, we drove (in the driving rain) to another part of the city of Manila known as Smokey Mountain. They say it’s so big and puts off such smoke that it can be seen from space. It’s the main garbage dump for the city.

One thousand tons of garbage arrive each day. And yes, you guessed it, there are people living in the garbage dump. This is not some Sanford and Son recreation. If it were possible, it’s as dark – literally and figuratively as the cemetery slum. People build makeshift dwellings among the piles of filth and garbage. The mud and whatever else was on the ground was ankle deep. When new trucks arrive, the people of the dump run to claim sacks of garbage, then start to rummage through to see what treasures they can find.

We didn’t get out of the truck to have a closer look. And I didn’t shoot any video. Honestly, by that point, after the cemetery, it was all just, well, just too much. I don’t know when I’ve ever felt so sad and helpless. I remember thinking, “Just get me out of here and back to the hotel.” It wasn’t so much a spoiled, western cultural attack - “Ok, I’ve seen enough of this pain and I want my clean sheets and shower and wash all this off me.” It was more of a need to get somewhere safe where I could be alone. If you’d asked how it all affected me at that moment, I don’t think I could have answered.

But can I tell you how focused these men and women are that work for Bible League International in the Philippines? I mean, they’re not distracted or put off by anything. They keep their eyes on the one thing that means something. And they are committed to telling their countrymen about Christ.

The next day was to be our “hike into the mountains and visit a remote village” day. We were all told about this before we left the states. We were told to buy serious bug juice – I think the stuff I got at REI really was called Bug Juice. We were told to bring some kind of mat or inflatable pad to sleep on. We would be sleeping in the village – on the floor – or at least that’s what we were told!

We boarded a ferry - yes, the old tubs that you hear about turning over in the Philippines and other parts of the world. The ride on the ferry was a little over two hours. Our destination was the island of Mindoro. After we disembarked, we loaded onto two vehicles that would drive us as far as they could. On the way, several sections of road were washed out from the heavy, seasonal rains. Finally, the trucks pulled over, drivers got out and said to the interpreters something akin to, “This is as far as we can go.”

There was only a light mist falling at this point, so with healthy, hearty attitudes and adventure in our bones . . .

OK, can I say here that I’m not a camper kind of guy. I’m not really a hiker either. I do like to ride my motorcycle and have been on some long trips on two wheels, but at the end of the day, adventure, to me is pulling into some new town without a hotel reservation. Edgy!! I slept on the ground one time, I think, when I was a kid in Boy Scouts. I think I nabbed my camping merit badge and resigned the next day. OK, so there you have it. Take your best shots!

….we set out up the mountain toward the village of DubDub (spelling is only a guess).
Of course, the rain began to get heavier, the incline more steep and the mud more deep. Geez, that sounds like a song! Several in our troop lost shoes in the mud. There was a trail maybe a foot wide in places but deeply grooved by the constant rainfall. In lots of places, we had to take to the grass to progress. There was falling, tumbling, laughing, mild grumbling (hmm…another rhyme…I’ll get a song out of this yet.) and somewhere between hours one and two, someone shouted “village in site.”

Another “camping” note from the expert. I was doing the last minute shopping and prep for the trip at our local Academy store when I came to the aisle stocked with parkas. The prices ranged from about a buck to ten or fifteen. I don’t know what came over me, but I picked up this tiny pack that said there was a rain parka inside. It was light and wouldn’t take up much room. The price was $2.99. Just a word here. Don’t skimp on the parka when you’re going to be in a rain forest! Mine was little more than a Glad Bag with arm holes and a hood.

Darkness was falling at a pretty raid pace. The reality that we were going to spend the night in a place with no electricity, no running water, that we would sleep, who knows where and eat who knows what, began to sink in. But we were soaked through with rain and perspiration and weren’t too concerned about much of anything but stopping.

We found out that some of the 70 citizens of this tiny village had TB. That spoke volumes to the food preparation issue and we feasted on bread and water that night.

Evaluating the sleeping options, I chose to roll out my mat (it automatically inflated to, oh, about two inches of buoyant luxury right before my eyes) in the chapel. I was told there was more room there.

The chapel was occupied, when I walked in, by two pigs, a goat and several chickens or members of the chicken family. I bet they all tasted like chicken. Never got a chance to find out.

The chapel was a grass-roofed hut with a dirt floor with several boards nailed to posts in the floor for seating. The size of the entire place was probably 10 x 15 feet. The hosts began pulling up the boards and placing them three across to provide some place for us to lay our mats. Their hospitality was awesome. They would do anything to accommodate us – even rearrange their chapel “pews.” I’ve been in a lot of churches that require a committee meeting to move a piano.

About 40 of the 70 that lived in this village were believers and followers of Christ. The others, we were told, were Muslim.

The believers gathered in the chapel as the deep darkness settled in. We sang with them and listened to their leader speak to them from God’s Word. It was beautiful. I played a couple of songs for them myself.

We found out later they’d never seen a white man. We were the first in their village.

After the great fellowship and worship, everyone retired for the evening.

No Sportscenter for you!

I think we laid our heads down about 8:30. There was to be a bell at 4 AM calling everyone back to the chapel for prayer. This was not a special service for our benefit – they gather every single morning at 4 – for an hour and a half of prayer. Humbling.

I guess the leader was a little excited. I saw him creep in the chapel and ring the bell. Assuming it was 4 AM and time to rise and try to shine, I hopped up. Looking at my watch that said 12:30 AM, I softly announced to the others that it was a tad early to be getting up. I rolled back over and caught a few more minutes of sleep. Where are those ear plugs?

The other alarm that shook me was the bleating of a goat a few inches from my head. Say, have you ever heard a goat in the middle of the night a few inches from your head? They should capture that sound for some alarm clock. . . . you’d never oversleep!

At the real 4AM, the bell was rung again and the little chapel soon filled with children and young adults ready to sing and hear the Word. I was overwhelmed at their innocence and their zeal for Jesus. It wasn’t complicated with what kind of church building, what version of the Bible, what one was wearing or anything of the sort. They simply gathered to revel in the common love they shared – the common redemption by Grace they’d been offered. It was truly sweet in the finest sense of the word.

You’ll want to read the next installment about the trip back down the mountain!


Sunday, September 20, 2009

A Cemetery in Manila


Leaving the hotel on this the second full day in Manila, I remembered reading in some of the materials that we were going to visit a cemetery of some sort. It is the rainy season in the Philippines, so for most of our trip, there was a cloudy sky and everything from a light mist to heavy rainfall.

This day was no exception.

I had somehow come to the conclusion that we were going to visit a military cemetery. A final resting place, perhaps, of some lost American soldiers that gave their lives in the service of their country and, well, this country, too.

As we drove from the hotel, we passed by different scenes in the city. Some that were visual reminders of the extremes in this country. Here, like in so many places all over the world, there are the obvious “haves” and “have nots.” It just seems like the differences are so much more pronounced here. In the city of Manila, we pass startling images of children running in and out of traffic, approaching vehicles asking for money or food, dangerously close calls between the thousands of motor scooters and cars and trucks.

There is very little road rage that I can see. They tell me it’s because everyone understands the rules. You own where you are – not where you’re going. In Houston, we drivers claim where we are and where we’re going, thank you very much and out of my way!

There are beautiful homes just a few yards from lean-to shelters made of tin and cardboard. While we were driving past these flimsy shelters, I was thinking of how unfortunate it all is and why something can’t be done to improve the station in life of these people. “How did it come to this” I asked myself. What I was about to see would make the people living on the streets seem like some kind of third world middle class.

The cemetery was not a memorial site. Nothing of the kind. We slowly drove down the muddy side road, suddenly finding ourselves surrounded by burial vaults. Stacked 8 or 9 high like bookshelves, these vaults are the final resting places of the departed from this city. At least that's the intent. It seems that family of the deceased pays a fee to bury their dead, then have to continue to pay a fee each year. If the fee isn’t paid, the grave is not only not maintained, the bones are put in a sack, thrown to the side and the vault is used for someone or something else. In some cases, as you can see from the pictures and the video, the vaults remain open – containing several sacks of bones and debris. Some are empty but are used as sleeping quarters for people that live in this cemetery among the dead.

By the way, to see the video, go to youtube and search under Wayne Watson in a Cemetery in Manila. There's another video shot by a radio talk show host from New Zeland as well.

It’s beyond anything I’ve ever seen or heard of. The odor is beyond description. The thought of what we’re walking on and walking through is horrifying. All you have to do is look down, if you can bring yourself to look.

A couple of weeks before we were there, a typhoon had flooded parts of the city – of course, this part of the city, and washed up even more trash and debris into the aisles of the cemetery.

This sight and this experience struck me like a brick to the forehead. It’s one thing to see poverty . . . most of us have seen it to some degree or another. But the poverty mixed with people living among the dead was almost too much.

Still, there was the laughter of little children. They’ve known no other life and, most likely will not. There were bands of teenagers – you could tell that the life they lived was getting a hold on them. They were growing cold - their eyes steely and ferocious. The few adults, and it seems there aren’t too may that grow old here for obvious reasons, have eyes that are distant and hopeless – angry, resigned.

We talked to a few of the people that spent their days and dark nights there in this horrible place. One woman that came walking past, dressed in her black jeans, white t-shirt and Coca-Cola cap said she’d lived there for 45 years. 45 years! She spent her days as a maid then at the end of the workday, took the bus back to “her home” in the cemetery. I don’t think she imagines ever leaving.

Still, there were others that were different. Something had changed their hearts and lives.
They still lived among the dead bones of their ancestors, strangers and kin, but there was liberty and a lightness in hearts. Someone had shared the Truth of God’s Love through the scripture with them. The unstoppable Love of Christ had come to dwell in their hearts, releasing their souls from a bondage even more dark and despicable than the place they laid their heads every night. For these, the horrors of poverty took a back seat to the hope they have in Christ. The vulnerability of their dwelling was overwhelmed by the security and safety they find in the Father’s Hand.

As a westerner, my thoughts are, “How can we change this?” And again I ask, “How does it come to this?” I thought of farms with pastures and lakes and trees where animals live better than these human beings. “What the heck is going on????” The term Godforsaken takes on a new meaning. “Who Is Responsible?!?” “I want an answer!”

The depths of sorrow and tragedy have fallen to a new low for me. The wages of sin take on a new meaning. While my occasional infractions seem to have little consequence on the world, the collective depravity and our regular dabbling in dark places will certainly lead mankind further into this nothingness, this deep pit, but for the redemptive work of Grace done at the cross by our Savior.

To say this experience makes me grateful simply for what I have sounds petty even as I write it. “There but for the grace of God” doesn’t work either. I know what I deserve. And I don’t want it. I’m thankful that God doesn’t give it.

I cannot change what I’ve seen. I can’t. But I can do something. And I will.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Day One In the Philippines

After getting off the plane, a filled to the brim, somewhat ancient 747, we stormed the Hong Kong airport in search of something….uh…western, I guess. In other words, only away from our home shores for a dozen hours or so, the urge for a friendly sign or a recognizable something was strong.

Starbucks to the rescue. I paid for it in Hong Kong dollars on my debit card, and honestly, have no idea if it cost the equivalent of two American dollars or twenty. Frankly, I didn’t care. Just pour the stuff down my throat!

We made a quick walk to our connecting flight to Manila, coffee cups in hand. Comforted in the fact that (watch out for the ear worm to come!) “it’s a small world after all!” ARRRRGGGGHHHH.

After landing in Manila, we met the first two people from Bible League International. All smiles, they were so friendly and glad to see us. We went straight to the hotel to check in, spend a few minutes freshening up from the trip, then off to the Bible League headquarters. In the video below, you'll see some of the staff, hear a wonderful testimony from Linda and see the storage facilities that need to be filled up with Bibles for them to share with their fellow countrymen.

The staff spent time making us feel welcome and sharing insights to the ministry in the Philippines. I was impressed by their passion for their work and the depth of love they have for their people.

From a purely educational standpoint, it only took a few minutes to open my eyes to the scope of the need in those thousands of islands. Yes, I said thousands. Before our orientation, I suppose I thought of the Philippines as a handful of islands in the far western Pacific. There are over 7100 islands that make up this country and over half of them are inhabited! Amazing. Immediately, you realize the need to get the Word of God in to their hands, introduce them to the Liberating Christ. And the need for copies of scripture is tremendous. That’s why we’re here.

Bible League International is represented in 60 countries. First, let me tell you what their mission is NOT. It is not to fly over a country or even a village and drop Bibles on their heads. It is not to knock on the door of a hut, put a Bible on the ground and run! It is not to leave boxes of scripture on the ground in the village square and hope they are found.

What they DO is this. Utilize local pastors and other believers that can share the Word with others. When the connection is made, the individual stays with the new prospective student of the Word, meets with them regularly, teaches, shows them answers to questions about life in God’s Word – first through a little book called “The Answer.” When that is complete, they are included in a small group study, included in a local body, then they become owners of their own Bible.

Now look, I can’t speak for you, but I have, oh, at least 10 Bibles of various and sundry translations. These folks value and treasure this one copy like no other earthly thing they possess. It’s beyond special to them.

Makes me want to re-assess my property and the value I place on certain things that are really no more than just that . . . things. Let the appraisals begin!


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Across the Big Pond

Across the big pond.

I have to admit, when the Brits or anyone from Europe uses the term “across the pond” from now on, I’ll think of crossing the Atlantic in a whole different light. It seems like a commuter flight compared to crossing “the other pond.”

I remember the first time I went to Hawaii. In my head, I just thought “off the coast of California, a few miles over water, then you’re there.” Right? Wrong. It’s another five hours of flying time from LA to Paradise. You just have to hope the plane is in good mechanical order. I mean, in case of any failure, you would hope for that gentle approach to the water, lightly kissing off the waves then coming to a floating halt among the whales, but really, what are the chances?

So when it came time to start thinking of flying to Hong Kong, then on to Manila, my little brain, again, started to calculate and envision this flight. “OK, so I’ll fly Houston to San Francisco, then from San Francisco to Hong Kong (I know it’s way past Hawaii!), then Hong Kong to Manila. No sweat.

When you pull up google earth and start spinning the globe around from San Fran to Hong Kong, well, let’s just say, it’s a big spin . . . “Yep, there’s Hawaii and . . . and . . . and. . .OK, there’s China! Gulp. Where are my floaties?

I departed Houston on the 1st of September and arrived in San Francisco around noon. I checked into the hotel for a few hours before our flight left for Hong Kong at 1:30 AM on the 2nd. It’s noon on the west coast, so I took off on foot to find a quick lunch before trying to catch a few hours of sleep in the quiet, still environment of my hotel room. I would check out around 11 PM and go back to the airport.

Walking from a hotel in a place where you’re unfamiliar is an adventure. At least I called it that. After what took place in the Philippines and China, I’ll be careful what I label “adventure” from now on.

So, you walk a few hundred yards, then a few hundred more with no food in sight. Then you rationalize the failure with “Well, at least I’m getting some exercise.” Then you reverse direction thinking “There’s got to be something out there.” Of course you’re looking for something good. Something that says San Francisco. But as the minutes and miles tick by, Wendy’s sounds pretty good. Arby’s. Chick-Fil-A?


Starbucks! But not a real Starbucks. One of those that you find in a gas station alongside the wall of coolers and STP products, spare fuses and duct tape. Pass.

I ended up settling for chicken fingers in the hotel. And thankful for that.

Thankful is the key, isn’t it? Ridiculous irritations over petty nuisances all get put into perspective over the next 8 days as we find ourselves face to face with indescribable poverty and darkness offset by Godly servants and the Christ-like hearts in the Philippines.

More to come.