Last weekend I went back to stay with the family who had kindly hosted me in October in Navotas. We had a great time singing karaoke till 3am – lots of Beatles of course! Navotas is a ‘squatter area’ i.e. what might be referred to as a slum area in Manila – overcrowded and under-served with utilities. Over the years it has become better established with electricity and running water in some areas, but there are still many areas where there is none.
That is why I was very excited to find out about this Philippino initiative – called ‘a litre of light‘. Fantastic! Just by getting an empty plastic bottle and filling it with water and household chemicals – and placing half of it so that it catches the sun. This ‘solar bottle’ could make a big difference to the life of many people around the world. It is also recycling waste products. I can’t wait to see it being installed in Navotas. The video below shows you how it works. You can also find more about it by clicking on their website – click here.
This wonderful project reminds me of another story i have just posted on my other storytelling blog – click here. A wealthy Chinese businessman was now old and wanted to retire. He called his three sons too him and said to them, ‘ I have decided not to divide the business into three, but will give it to the one of you who proves himself to be the best businessman. You can prove this to me by passing a simple test.’ Each son was given $10 and instructed to use the money to purchase something that would fill a big empty room.
The first son went and bought a big tree, after cutting it down, he dragged it to the room, it filled up about half the room with its leaves and branches. The second son went and bought the kunai grass that some of the farmers were cutting in their fields, this filled up most of the room. The third son went and bought a small candle for 25 cents, and in the evening after dark, he called his father over to the large empty room. He put the small candle down in the middle of the floor and lit it. After a minute he turned to his father and said, ‘Dad can you see any corner of this little room which is not filled by the light of the candle?’. He won the business.
Today sees quite an event in Manila. Up to 8million people will throng the streets for the procession of the Black Nazarene. This is a black statue of Jesus carrying his cross. Placed on a shoulder-borne carriage, the image is carried by marshals (you can see them in yellow shirts).
Originally a statue with fair complexion the ship that carried it from Mexico to Manila caught fire. It barely survived the fire, thus its charcoal color. Last year, the procession took 14 hours to travel the short distance. Referred to as the translation - the annual procession commemorates the transfer of the Black Nazarene on Jan 9, 1787 to St. John the Baptist Church in Quiapo Manila.
As tertians we visited Quiapo back in September – on just a normal day – and it was crowded with people with queues of up to an hour just to visit the statue. What is behind this devotion? Filipinos identify with the struggles and sufferings of Jesus Christ’ In the statue Jesus is depicted getting to his feet after falling under the weight of the cross – this resilience is valued strongly by Filipinos – even in the most difficult circumstances they never seem to lose hope.
There is something of a frenzy about today’s event – in previous years people have died from stampedes. We were advised not to attend because of the dangers inherent – and also we are occupied most of the day – so I have taken a video clip from last years procession to give you a flavour. You will see people desperately trying to touch the statue – and also throwing handkerchiefs so that they may be rubbed on the statue and passed back. You will also see the crush, danger and discomfort that many of the ‘devotees’ voluntarily undergo. From a Western perspective – this is unsettling – and such religious fervour is challenging to witness. One of the ways to cope with this discomfort is to dismiss it as hysteria or superstition. But maybe there is something deeper at work….. the power of the incarnation ….. an almighty God who came down to Earth, renounced power and privelege – and entered into the reality of our suffering .
So the event can be interpreted as being many different ways. It is a popular devotion – to non-Catholics it may seem superstitious . Having lived here for a few months with the privilege of sharing life with so many Phillipinos – in the slums, in mountain villages – having seen two devastating tornadoes – I have only admiration for their hospitality, warmth and cheerfulness. Their identification with the sufferings and resilience of Christ makes sense to me. This year organizers believe thousands of survivors of tropical storm Sendong will attend.
The German Philosopher Rudiger Safranski says that religion in Western Europe has become “a cold religious project”: a “mix of social ethics, institutional power thinking, psychotherapy, techniques of meditation, museum curation, cultural project management, and social work.” This insipid form of a religion, yearning to be socially acceptable in a society that has changed rapidly, some argue has helped to empty Western Europe’s churches. It is through this lense that I believe we should watch, with a certain humbleness, the outpourings of ’popular religiosity’. It is easy to mock or scoff, but it always leaves you with a sense of emptiness….
What did the big firework say to the little firework? 'My pop is bigger than your pop!'
I spent most of New Years day in Cebu airport waiting for a delayed flight. The cause for the delay….. Snow? – no, Erupting Volcanoes? – no. Believe it or not it was because of smog caused by the clouds of smoke from the NewYear fireworks in Manila ! New Year is celebrated in style here in the Phillipines – but unlike in the UK where a lot of people will go to shared displays organised by local govt, or other bodies here they are all ‘private’ displays ( if you can ever call a firework display private).
After the simple joys of Christmas in the Mountains I enjoyed a few days of wonderful hospitality with fellow Brit Prov Jesuit Stefan Garcia’s family in Cebu. New Years Eve was marked by a sumptuous meal and celebration with the extended family in the hills outside Cebu. The fireworks were truly impressive – as different families were trying to outdo each other. Stefans father, who owns the Visayan Electricity Company, explained to me that you can tell who has had a good year by their firework display – this year it seemed to be the lawyers and doctors with the biggest displays! Instead of conspicuous consumption – this was a case of conspicuous combustion!
As always those with less resources join in with their own (less safe) fireworks. Very popular is the ‘judas belt’ which is are essentialy firecrackers arranged sequentially along a common fuse. . As the fuse burns, it ignites each of the explosives in turn at a rate of up to 1000 rounds per minute. The noise produced is similar to that of a machine gun, but slightly irregular due to the inherent differences between the rounds. Due to the proximity of the individual rounds, it is possible (and common) for an unexploded round to be thrown some distance by the explosive force of the adjacent one, before exploding itself. This unpredictable nature makes the Judas belt more dangerous than it seems. This year there were only476 victims of firecracker accidents in ‘one of the world’s most raucous and dangerous New Year celebrations’.
Happy New-Year to all – good luck with all those resolutions.
We had a powerful celebration of Mass for the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary today. This is a big feast here in the Phillipines where Marian devotion is incredibly strong. In spite of tropincal storms many turned out for a procession to honour the Immaculate Conception last Sunday in central Manila. As you can see from the photo they made sure that the statues were kept dry – unlike most of the faithful. This is a feast celebrating the sinlessness of the Mother of God who, we anticipate in this second week of Advent, will give birth to the King of Kings. Today the presider was a famous Jesuit called Fr Manoling Francisco. What is most notable about Manoling, as well as his writing, his teaching as a theologian, setting up a foundation to support education for youngsters from the Mountain Region (were we depart for tommorrow) is his musical compositions. His songs seems to be sung everywhere. Most of them are in Tagalog – I can’t get his Our Father of my head at the moment….
Anyway it is clear he has a wonderful romantic spirit and it was a pleasure to hear him speaking so passionately about Our Lady today. That her ‘fiat’ her ‘yes’ to God was an act of incredible generosity and purity of heart – considering the punishment off stoning that was given to Women who become mysteriously pregnant out of wedlock. I was musing about this whilst wandering through the campus here at the Ateneo de Manila when I stumbled upon this. Addressed to Lila with the Golden Eyes…..
Courage certainly! Purity of heart? – I’d like to think so!
I bet you didn’t realise that Adele was so popular over here (not bad for a Tottenham girl!)
The newspapers in the Phillipines have all had David Beckham on the cover the last couple of days. He is in town to play a game – but is doing impressive work for UNICEF too. His LA Galaxy beat the Philippine National team (the Azkals) 6-1, and as he left the pitch after 70 mins he handed his shirt to a certain Manny Pacquio who was in the crowd. It is a testament to Beckhams global appeal that he even seems to outshine Pacquio. Well who outshines Beckham? Well for devotion in Asia – Saturday was the feast day of St Francis Xavier – close friend of Ignatius and great missionary to Asia. His voyages are now legendary – and his popularity as a saint seems to be universal – he is truly an A-Lister! His popularity can be measured by the amount of institutions, schools, parishes, universities, centers that are named after him. Perhaps an even more impressive legacy is the impact of his name – Xavier is the name of his home ‘town’ or estate. Just think about how many people you know who are named after him, Javier – Xavi – Xavier – Javi.
The Madonna and Child in Glory with Saints Ignatius of Loyola and Xavier – Pacecco de Rosa
In honour of the feastday – ignoring the big game – we tertians were invited on Saturday night to the Xavier school in Manila. As well as celebrating mass, a very generous dinner was laid on – and the highlight of the dinner was the presentation of a painting to the Jesuit Community and College of Francis Xavier. The benefactors and donors of the painting – the D.Campos family (former students) -were attending an auction of Princess Diana’s goods on behalf of the Spencer Familyat Christies in London. This painting of Francis Xavier and Saint Ignatius with the Madonna and child caught their eye, it is an original by Pacceco de Rosa and it was bought at an auction . In a commemorative postcard given to is all said May we have the burning zeal to bring everyone to the Lord.
The Devotion to Francis in Asia transcends religious groups. I still have fond memories of taking a group of students from Wimbledon to Goa. We were given permission to celebrate mass in beautiful Jesuit Church (and UNESCO site) the Bom Jesu – but had to wait about half an hour. The reason we had to wait was that a Japanese goverment minister was visting the chapel. It is a very popular place of pilgrimage in Asia as the chapel holds the glass casket where St Francis’s incorrupt body is on display. The Japanese minister, not a Christian, had traveled all the way to Goa after a ministerial meeting in Dehli just to pay his respects. The Body of Francis is brought down for veneration every 10 years and millions travel to Goa (Christians & non Christians) to venerate this holy man. Amongst Jesuits, Xavier is treasured for many reasons, his successful missionary work, his capacity of inculturation, the beautiful letters written to Ignatius and distributed throughout Europe. He was sent by Ignatius to the ‘Indies’ as a last-minute replacement for Bobadilla, who had suddenly fallen ill. The very next day he packed up his things to leave Rome for Lisbon never to see Europe or his beloved Ignatius again. This freedom of spirit, ‘availability for mission’ and generosity is what we are asked to live up to.
Karen Carpenter is reincarnated in Navotas, Manila
Yes the phenomenon / curse (delete as appropriate) of the big brother of Karaoke – Videoke. It doesn’t matter how poor the family or how desperate matters are in Manila – there is always a videoke machine nearby. Another testament to the joy and resilience of the people here . But there are certain things a foreigner should always bear in mind – this is taken very seriously. Everyone seems unfazed about bashing out a tune, often without even a hint of irony. Coupled with the Asian principle of not losing face, criticising or laughing at someones performance is seen as very rude and may even provoke a violent reaction.
This phenomenon is Asia Wide – in 2002 the dictatorial ‘prime minister’ of Cambodia, Mr Hun Sen, closed down all the countries karaoke bars in order to stimulate production and the economy. Japanese newspapers, very sensitive to the Obama administrations demands, talk of ’karoake diplomacy’ i.e. singing to someone else’s tune. Back here in the Phillipines videoke is ubiquitous. In my family in Navotas the father is very accomplished and could hold a tune very well. He takes it so seriously that he wouldn’t drink or eat anything cold – in case it affected his vocal chords! Fr Agus from Indonesia, stayed with a neighbouring family, whose taciturn father didn’t say anything to him, the only way he communicated was through videoke!! So why this craze? Surely this is the power of escaping, briefly, to another place. Ballads are by far the most popular tracks – and everyone seems to have a dream and a microphone to share it with you.
For me, in Navotas, I was hooked after a reluctant start – I have a new love of singing (not sure it is shared universally). I instantly bonded with my family when they found out I was from Liverpool – ah the home of the Beatles – they said admiringly! It may have given them a false expectations of my singing abilities, but it meant for a long night in front of the videoke – going through the Lennon-McCartney back catalogue! I ended up pleading exhaustion …. at 11.30pm!
Getting ready for the celestial karaoke night
Anyway as St Augustine is alleged to have said ‘ He who sings well prays twice’. I couldn’t find where he said that directly but this i did find in CCL (93) – For he who sings praise, does not only praise, but also praises joyfully; he who sings praise, not only sings, but also loves Him whom he is singing about/to/for…..What do you think Augustine would chose to sing in a Karaoke night in heaven?
More than 50,000 people per sq km in Navotas
It has been very interesting listening to my companions reflections on their time in Navotas. One of the most challenging things for all of us was the lack of space. Not all of our familes had toilets (holes in the ground) – misleadingly called ‘comfort rooms’ here! The first adjustment to make was being able to perform our daily routines knowing that within 5 meters you could hear the voices of dozens of people – who where only seperated from you by a billowing curtain, or a flimsy piece of cardboard! Luckily I was able to relax quite quickly and get into the routine – but I think this was a bridge to far for some of my brothers!
The creative use of space became a source of wonder to me in Navotas. I remember when I was about eight and had my first airline meal, I was fascinated by how everything was designed to fit into the tray neatly. Plates, cups, were designed to maximise the space. In Navotas too, especially when I stayed with the Estayo family – everything was neatly stored, hung up, folded away – to maximise living space. Water, a precious commodity, stacked and stored, used efficiently for washing and shared generously with the poorer neighbours. I felt very comfortable with my families – but some of the other tertians had much more challenging ‘living quarters’ – constant flooding, fumes from cooking (asthma a big issue), corrugated huts soon becoming baking ovens. But I think once you get over the chock and adjust you start to see the incredible order and organisati0n that exists.
The slum areas in Navotas are incredible human colonies – full of energy and activity – carefully hidden from us was the suffering , tragedies and desperation. I remember the amazing series on the BBC last year The Human Planet, well worth watching, about how Human life is capable of colonising and adapting to such varying conditions – Deserts / Mountains / Forests / Ice Sheets – and there was a sense of fascination just being briefly part of daily life here. What seemed to be keeping so much of the community together, amidst the pressures and stress of Navotas were incredibly strong mother figures. I think that is where we as Jesuits should focus our support and training. Below is a small clip of my daily journey home through the narrow streets, as well as all the friendly greetings – see if you can spot the man preparing icecubes, the videoke birthday party and when I get lost – I am following Maricel (the woman in red). Apologies for my creeping finger covering the lense – its not easy being 6ft 2 – walking through such a narrow space!
These urban slum areas are growing at a huge rate – according to the UN 2006, was the first time when the majority of people in the planet lived in urban areas. So there is a huge migration from the rural to the urban taking place especially in Asia. This presents a real challenge to the political classes – particularly at a local level. How do we protect and respect the dignity of these people. They seem to be living in a constant state of uncertainty, corrupt local officials exploiting them, fires being started by unscrupulous businessmen who want to clear the area for development, relocation always hanging over them – as the government want to build stronger flood defenses, adn of course the weekly threat of typhoons, monsoons and storm surges. I saw many signs of hope in Navotas – but the Church needs to be on the front line as advocates for these vulnerable communities.
I have just arrived back from a very special 10 days of ’Phillipino Life Experience‘ living with two families in Navotas – which is effectively a shanty town in the North of Manila. As in many shanty areas – space is a real premium, so many houses and even ‘streets’ are built out into Manila Bay – with families and whole neighbourhoods precariously surviving on bamboo stilts. It has been an unforgettable experience of community, hospitality and new friendship. A very special place. Many people surviving on very little – but with a great joy and simplicity, sharing and singing. As I let the experience sink in, I will share some of my stories on this blog over the next few days. It is truly one of the great graces of the priesthood to be received into the heart of a community like this, and it was an honour to be able to celebrate mass with them, and join in their vigils and processions. Something I intend to continue to do whilst I am in Manila.
In Navotas - Space is at a premium!
The four pillars of this community seem to be - A) their faith, particularly their devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, B) the family (often very extended!), C) Karaoke – every other family has a karaoke set, and yet more proof of the universal popularity of the Beatles (and perhaps more suprisingly also the Bee Gees and the Carpenters!) and D) TV! Soap operas and game shows are staple here.
Our stay was facilitated by a charity called PPF – run by lay people, who have been alongside the community for 20 years. Run by lay people – with a close connection with the Jesuits, they help to organise, running nurseries, housing schemes, scholarship schemes, bible sharing groups ( the dynamos of the community). I will be designing a website for them over the next few days. An impressive outfit with UN observer status – even though relatively very small.
The community here face many threats – forced eviction, poor sanitation, fires that are rumoured to be started by hostile political and commercial entities, and an incredible vulnerability to the challenging tropical climate and typhoon season. 2000 families are still in emergency evacuation facilities after the recent typhoon Nesat/Pedring. In the face of all this they are incredibly resilient and never give up hope. As one of them said to me – when you do not have much it is easy to rebuild and start again. Below is a video showing some of that spirit in the face of these problems.
Half way through the clip the children ask me to dance ‘Kendeng Kendeng’ from a popular game show – hence the smiles and laughter! This seems incongruous in the face of such difficulties but that is the infectious spirit of the place!
You can donate directly through the bank details on the previous post.
I spent some of the dying days of August with the fisherman of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides. Looking after a couple of parishes up there I always jump at the chance of going out in boats with some of the parishoners. So I was delighted to hear that the next stage of our experience here will be living with Families in the ‘fishing capital of the Phillipines – Navotas’. I think it may be quite a different experience to that of the Outer Hebrides. Navotas is one of the cities that comprises Metro Manila – however unlike the wild beauty and space of South Uist, here there are over 250,000 people living in an area of less than 5 square miles! Many families, escaping the violence at the end of the Marcos Regime came and settled here, sometimes referred to as ‘squatters’, they live very precarious lives, many of them building houses in stilts out in the sea. Overpopulation and Pollution are serious problems in this part of Manila.
The Jesuits have been involved with this community through a foundation called the PPF who run housing, health and education projects. Through these links, we have been invited to live with the families, to share a bit of their lives, for the next couple of weeks. Because of its location (see the map) – Navotas has been hit very hard by the recent typhoon and the resulting storm surges. Over 100 of the families that we have connections with have lost them homes – simply swept away. The local government of Navotas has placed the city under state of calamity after thousands of residents were evacuated from their homes due to flooding. Because of this, I was a bit anxious about arriving at such a difficult time – but we have been told that it is a great honour for these families to have priests staying with them, so this has put my mind to rest. Also because they have so little – it is easy to rebuild and start again, there is great resiliences (see my previous blog). We are also lucky that because of our long-standing connections John and Myself (the two white westerners) will be quite safe – living in an area where tourists would never dare to go, the people know we are Jesuits. That is one of the great privileges of being a priest – the access and trust that people still offer us all over the world. Why are we doing this – it is not some sort of ‘disaster tourism’, but a privileged chance to learn from the challenges and the joys of the people of Navotas.
So I will be off-blog for 9-10 days. Thankyou for all your interest so far – I started this primarily for my ex-students back in the UK, who were sending me messages asking me for stories from the Phillipines, but the interest has been much wider than just the lads fom St Ignatius College.
Because of the damage down in Navotas – the families are temporarily being housed and looked after by the government in emergency evacuation centers. We are not sure how long that support will last. As they have lost everything – our tertian master is collecting money, and food, clothes and blankets so that we can step in and support them when the emergency contigency plans come to an end. If you would like to help – and a small amount of money will go a far way. You can send some money to the tertian account -
Helping to clean up after the floods
- Name of the bank: BANK OF THE PHILIPPINE ISLANDS
- Branch: LOYOLA/KATIPUNAN
- Account name: ROGER CHAMPOUX and/or KANG YUP JUNG
- Account number: 3084-0568-89
- Bank’s swift code: BOPIPHMM
If you can send a donation please Mark it with – NAVOTAS. When we return from this experience I will be able to give you a first hand account of life in Navotas and the situation after typhoon Nesta.
They say that you only see somebody’s real character when they are really up against it. This is also true of a group of people, The British often talk about the Blitz Spirit in the dark months of 1940-41 when the Germans bombed London (and many other cities) for 76 nights consecutively .
Well a relative newcomer like myself cannot help but be impressed with the people of Manila. This morning, the death toll has risen to 20 (according to USA Today and the Manila Informer) and my companions have told me the number will keep rising, with some fatalities never to be reported. In spite of this, everyone just seems to pick themselves up and get on with life. Standing on the roof at 7 this morning, looking Southwesterly over a large chunk of MetroManila, you could hear a symphony of scraping noises, a myriad of people with brushes and pans out on the streets cleaning away leaves, branches and the various detritus that Pedring had dumped. Schools are open again, the motorised tricycles swarming about looking for passengers and the horn-blowing jeepneys asserting themselves on the city streets that were abandoned yesterday.
Some people claim that this was the worst typhoon for 14 years – others point towards typhoon Ondoy a couple of years ago, when the local river the Marikani rose to 23ms breaking its banks and flooding the low lying shanty settlementswere. There were many local casualties as the waters rose . Last night – with much of the city suffering a blackout – I lay in bed listening to the torrential rain, feeling absolutely powerless. We had the diesel generator running most of the night, due to the infirmary three floors below. This allowed you sporadically to monitor the river levels via twitter and the announcements of MMDA – Manilas Development Authority. 26,000 people were moved to evacuation centers when the river rose to 19m at about 8pm. It carried on rising but much more slowly, so it was a relief to follow the announcements on Twitter of the flood waters beginning to subside around 3am ish. In spite of the power cuts and phones being down it was interesting to see how much you could monitor what was going on through social media – check this very interesting blog for an in-depth account.
So to finish with a Philipino proverb in Tagalog – after witnessing todays heroic and quiet resolve :
Matibay ang Walis palibhasa’y magkabigkis A broom is sturdy because its strands are tightly bound
and if you object to me quoting Tagalog (which I don’t know how to speak!)…. then remember He who does not love the national language is worse than a smelly fish!!!
Appeal from the Red Cross in the Phillipines http://www.redcross.org.ph/donatenow