“I hope to have communion with the people, that is the most important thing.” - John Paul II
In my last post I talked about the importance of empowerment over hand outs. In this post I would like to move on to the second lesson the Lord taught me while in the Philippines: relationships are more important than the work we do.
As I said before, in preparation for this trip I was looking forward to the work we would be doing. However, I soon came to realize that the Filipinos did not share the same anticipation. They were more interested in meeting us and showing us their world than what we could physically do for them.
We arrived in Infanta, Quezon after a few days in Manila. While in Manila, I felt like a tourist - everything was new and different, we were meeting nuns and seeing sights. However, now we were in Infanta, where the real work would begin.
The day after we arrived in Infanta we toured around the area to see the damage that had been done by the floods and were told the story of how the people dealt with it (which I discussed in my last post). We also visited John Paul II Village, which had been build for those who had lost everything. In the village we met the youth group and participated in a Christmas party that was held inside the church. It was a great time to encounter the people, laugh and play with them. The thing that amazed me most during that visit was how similar we all are. The middle school and high school youth we met behaved the exact same way american middle school and high school youth would act when meeting people they didn’t know. You have the shy ones who are very uncomfortable speaking in front of everyone, the vocal ones who relish an opportunity to speak in front of a crowd, and the boys who try to act all cool and collected. At the Christmas party we even played some of the same icebreakers we would play at youth group!
The second day we visited the Carmelite Convent to share with them who we are, celebrate the Mass, and do work for them. When we got there, however, they told us frankly that they didn’t know what work we could do but brushed it off as unimportant and invited us to eat lunch with them. The sisters eventually said it would be helpful if we cleaned their chapel where the locals come for Sunday Mass. As we were preparing to get to work one of the sisters invited us to go on a hike to a prayer hut in the woods behind the convent. Again, work was not the main concern.
After the hike it felt good to finally be doing work. There was still a struggle within me though. I kept thinking to myself, “Here we came all the way from the U.S.A. And we are mopping the floor of an open air chapel that will just get dirty again.” It was very humbling work and that is the point. The Lord used this first experience to try to tell me that the purpose of our trip was not about the work but about our presence.
The next day we went back to John Paul II village to see their greenhouses and help plant some vegetables. At this point in the trip, I started to get the feeling that many of the places we went the people were just trying to find something for us to do. They didn’t seem to need us. However, the planting project allowed us to have one of my favorite experiences of the trip. After planting for an hour or two we were told to stop and eat lunch (the Filipinos love their meals, and so did I). After lunch we were invited to one of the houses for karaoke! Before we knew it the room was packed with kids; adults looking in from the door and windows. It was probably the closest we got to the villagers we were meeting. We sang songs from “Hero” by Mariah Carey to “Baby” by Justin Bieber and the 10 year old girls tried to teach us how to dance. This was one of my favorite eexperiences of the trip because it was one of the first time that we were able to “let loose” and have fellowship with the people. It is amazing to see how quickly and easily cultural barriers crumble when doing karaoke! Unfortunately, the time for us to leave came too quickly and we said goodbye to all the beautiful and amazing people of the John Paul II village.
On the fourth day we finally went to the school we had come to help with. At the construction site we were shown a pile of dirt that needed to be shoveled into bags that would contribute to making mortar. We set to work and quickly interrupted after about an hour of work by hundreds of school children. Some of us went to play with the students and others continued to fill bags - I was determined to do work. I soon came to realize the lesson the Lord had been trying to teach me since the first day in Infanta. “They don’t need your work. They need your presence and love.” So I, too, put down my shovel and started to invest in the students.
With our ‘work’ done I started to see the beauty in what the Lord had taught me. The work is never as important as the people. I think this can be a very good lesson for many youth ministries. A lot of times we get caught up in our programs and we forget about our youth. The best program is worthless if it does not connect the youth to the person of Jesus Christ. That is primarily done through relationships. This is the way Jesus did it, it’s the way the apostles did it, it’s the way we should do it. If we are too busy to notice the worth of each of our youth then what is the point of the program? I read a youth ministry book recently that stated: Our messages are not isolated to a time slot in the schedule where we get up in front of the group and speak. Every single thing we do or don’t do in our ministry conveys a message. My personal struggle in this area is names. I could give the best talk of my life but if a 8th graders comes up to me to tell me how much it impacted them and I don’t know their name they are going to walk away deflated; thinking that I don’t care about them enough to know their name. This is not true, I do care deeply about each of our kids and I want them to grow in their faith, but my actions are not conveying that message. If we are too busy running around, concerned with the program then a youth might get the message that God is to busy running the world to be concerned with them individually. I would hate for this to happen in my ministry.
In writing this I am convicting myself. I too often get caught up in making sure everything is running smoothly. I find myself behind the sound board rather than beside the youth. Let us strive for relationship so we can say to the youth as St. Paul said to the Corinthians, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1Corinthians 11:1). They cannot follow us if we are not present to them. For the most part, the lasting impact our talks and programs have on the youth corresponds to the degree to which we have invested in our relationship with them.
I am not condoning doing away with formal programs by any means. However, I believe many of us can benefit from a shift of focus (or simply a reminder of where our priority should lie.) Our programs need to be planned in such a way that they foster relationships. I for one need to work on planning ahead so that on the night of youth group I am not still trying to iron out the details but instead have given my volunteers and mentors their tasks ahead of time so I can be free to just be with the youth, and maybe even learns some names.
When asked recently at a dinner, “What did you learn on your mission trip?” I responded, “That we weren’t needed.” It is true, our physical ability and work was not needed. God chose to use us for was our ability to be with. To be with the people of Infanta; allowing them to open our eyes and hearts and hopefully in some way touch their lives too. The same is true for ministry. God does not want us in ministry for what we can do but for who we can be.
Let us thank God that we are not needed and it is only His presence in us that is able to do any good! And let us implore the intercession of Our Lady that she may bring us closer to her son!
More to come...