Sermon by Rev. Diane Rollert, 15 April 2012
A snapshot from my sabbatical in the Philippines: Recent rains have made the road nearly impassable to Nagbinlod, a small village (a barangay), up the road from the town of Santa Catalina in Negros Oriental.
The road is a long ribbon of mud and rocks threading up the hills through rice fields and mango orchards. Huts made mostly of bamboo and palm leaves dot the roadside. People watch us with suspicion: a woman pouring out a basin of water, a young man bouncing a baby on his knee as he sits on a bamboo porch. Who are these white strangers riding past in a van that is sure to lose its shock absorbers over the next pile of rocks?
We are ten foreigners along with our Filipino drivers and our guide, Rev. Rebecca Siennes, president of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines. We are Unitarian Universalists from around the world who have just concluded a one-week conference as members of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists. We are making a pilgrimage to several churches in the south.
The rice fields are green and lush, bordered by towering palm trees. The blue sky peeks through, as the sun bakes down on us through heavy clouds and the humidity is high. Motorscooters with long extended seats that the locals call hable-hable navigate the rutted road with ease, while our van labours to make it to the top of the hill. Five people riding one motorscooter fly past. They are bareheaded, their feet in plastic flip-flops perched to avoid the mud. I imagine they must be husband, wife, and their two young children. Balancing at the very end of the seat is a woman with gray hair, something rare to see in the Philippines. Her arms are braced on the shoulders of the child in front of her. Surely she is the grandmother. They pass around puddles somehow never getting splashed. Even in the silence of the country, there is no silence here, as the small but very loud motors of the hable-hables roar up and down the road.
Around a curve we reach the point of no return. The van driver struggles to make it over the next soupy obstacle, but the van won’t budge, its tires trapped in the mud. He backs up and eases forward, but it’s no use. We will have to walk the rest of the way. We pour out of the van, trying to hop over the mud to reach the drier grass on the roadside.
We haven’t gone very far when we find ourselves in front of a small cinderblock building with a sign below the peak of its roof. It reads: Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines, Nagbinlod Congregation. Beyond the church, there are more palm trees and a water buffalo grazing. As we walk to the entrance, small, beautiful, smiling people rush forward to greet us. They reach out their hands and they hug us, “Hello, my name is ….” Everyone is wearing a pink nametag with their name and the name of the group to which they belong within the church: the Board, the Farmers’ Group, the Women’s Group, the Men’s Group, Youth, Children.
Inside, the church has a rough cement floor and a simple table at the front with a chalice and a banner. Children are filling the first two-thirds of the wooden benches, the simple pews of this church. They are bright-eyed and expectant. Perhaps this is one of the lucky congregations that has a partner church in the US, so their children are receiving small stipends to cover their school expenses, perhaps 200 pesos (less than $5) a month for each child.
This is a community that doesn’t have much, but food is served in abundance. Freshly roasted sweet potatoes, a rice and coconut soup served in mugs. We eat, as our hosts are introduced group by group. Then we introduce ourselves, we the strangers from the unknown with funny names and big, protruding noses. There’s lots of laughter, smiles and nodding heads. Girls from the youth group perform a dance to a pop song, dancing the way adolescent girls dance all over the world. You can imagine them practicing together, debating the best steps and music, choosing their clothes and deciding to wear their Sunday sandals with tiny high heels. A choir of children sings for us, and then we’re asked if a member of our group would like to share a message. Someone in the group nudges me. “You’re staying, you should speak.”
I get up to look at all those children and the adults sitting beyond them. Their lives are so different from mine. How can it be that we have this connection to each other? How am I even here, so far from home, already living in the time zone of tomorrow, while I’ve left my family behind in yesterday? What can I say that will be inspirational to a community I have only just met? I search for the essence of what it means for all of us to be Unitarian Universalists, to describe this faith that is more like a many-faceted jewel than a hard stone with a single truth. How will I speak in language than can be easily translated and understood?
I come from Canada, I tell them, from a place of ice and snow. In my church we have many children like you, and sometimes, this is what we say together:
“We are Unitarian Universalists
with minds that think,
hearts that love
and hands that are ready to serve.”
I teach them the hand motions, and Rebecca translates the words into Cebuano, and we repeat it all together again:
“We are Unitarian Universalists
with minds that think,
hearts that love
and hands that are ready to serve.”
“We have minds to think and question, to learn and to wonder, to find our own truth,” I tell the gathering in Nagbinlod. “We have hearts to love each other, just as you are loved by every person in this church. We have hands to serve because we are the hands, and feet and body of God. To make things happen, to do good in this world, we are the ones who must use our hands and do the work.” That was it, my sermonette on the mount.
Smiles, hugs, goodbyes, and we are whisked back into the van. Riding down the hill, the people who had watched us with suspicion as we arrived now wave and smile. Children run along the roadside, trying to keep pace with us. Word has travelled quickly down the hill. We are no longer strangers to the barangay; we are family.
Our next stop: a pilgrimage to the tomb of Rebecca’s father, Rev. Toribio Quimada, founder of the Unitarian Universalist movement in the Philippines, a man who walked from the mountains down to the marketplace to preach the good news of a loving God, a man who was murdered for his faith in the poor. We leave flowers on his grave and say a prayer.
The afternoon has gotten away from us. The poor road conditions have set us back several hours. The group is tired and decides that it is too risky to head back into the mountains so close to sunset. But there is no way to reach the next congregation, and Rebecca is resolved to personally let them know that the plans have changed. Two of us decide to join her, Rev. John Luopa from Seattle, WA, and me. This time we take a truck and head for the barangay of Banaybanay.
We turn onto another rocky dirt road, but the rains have not been as heavy here. We travel up through the hills, winding through more rice fields. Rice and other grains have been spread on tarps on the road to dry. Our truck squeezes by. People are walking slowly uphill from the marketplace carrying bundles of firewood, dried palm leaves and chickens tied by their feet. Women are carrying sacks of rice balanced on their heads. A man is riding a water buffalo, balancing a toddler between his knees. Children are carrying plastic jugs of water.
When we reach the top of the next hill, a crowd of children comes pouring out onto the road to welcome us. It is four-thirty now, and the congregation has been waiting for us since one o’clock. They know that there are always delays. We are greeted with joy, more introductions, more dances, and more food.
“Share with us those words again,” Rebecca encourages me as I am invited to speak.
“We are Unitarian Universalists with minds that think, hearts that love and hands that are ready to serve.”
Again the words are said in the local language of Cebuano, again everyone following me with hand motions. Again, the laughter and smiles, again the abundance of children looking expectantly at the two strangers with our white skin, our noses, our height (mostly John’s) and the funny way we speak English.
Riding down the hill as darkness sets in, there is a peacefulness to this long strong stretch of road. There is no electricity. A few stragglers continue to walk up from the market. Most of the huts are dark, but here and there you can see a lantern or a fire burning. In Negros, the air is always filled with the smell of smoke, of trash burning, of sugar cane fields on fire, of food cooking over open flames. On this dark, moonless and starless night, there is a mystery, a beauty that fills my soul with longing.
Minds, hearts and hands, this is what comes to me as I visit churches and work with the people of this island. All my carefully constructed sermons, my lectures, my theological papers are useless here. These are people with a wisdom that comes from the closeness of large extended families living in small quarters, of generosity that finds a way to share food even in the worst of times, of washing clothes and bathing at the public well, of waking up and going to sleep with the sun, of living in awe of great volcanoes and vast seas, of learning to survive through love’s promise.
The people of the poor rural and urban congregations cling to a more theologically traditional Universalism. God is omnipresent in all they do, and it is easier to move with the crowd, than to speak as an individual. In the cities there is a small cadre of young Unitarian Universalist adults whose views are what you might call more modern and Western. They are educated professionals. They have travelled to North America and Europe. They live middle and upper class lives. They read UU blogs, and have intellectual exchanges across Facebook about balancing atheism and agnosticism with their Roman Catholic roots.
But in the mountains and in the one poor urban congregation in Manila, the people hold fast to their Bibles. Maybe it is the only book they own. Some days they see it as a blueprint for life. Other days, it is something that is set aside while the faint wisps of ancient traditions are subtly passed from one generation to the next.
In Manila, there is a captivating tour guide named Carlos Celdran. Look him up if you ever go, and tell him I sent you. Carlos says that Philippine culture is the most multicultural of all Asia and the national dessert called halo-halo is its perfect metaphor. Halo-halo, an overflowing melange of crushed ice, ice cream made from ube (purple yams), cornflakes, whole corn kernels, red beans, chopped up jellies, and just about anything sweet you can find. Philippine culture is like halo-halo, a mixture of Malay, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, and US blood, tradition and language. To say there is no Filipino culture is wrong. It is not nothing, it is everything. To live in this country for two months is to only skim the surface of something that is as unfathomably deep and complex as the ocean and its coral reefs that beckon from its shores.
Minds, hearts and hands. This is what I preached. This is what I taught when I led an Our Whole Lives human sexuality program for the youth and young adults. Minds, hearts and hands. This was the format I used to lead a workshop with a group of religious education teachers - a dozen mostly women aged 16 to perhaps early 40s – during my last week there. “Teach us theology,” they said. This is it, I told them. This is all the theology you need. Teach your children to wonder and to question, to read deeper into the Bible beyond drills and memorization. Ask yourselves, where is the love in the stories you read and the lessons you teach. Encourage your children to use their hands to support each other, to show their love to their families and their communities. That will be enough. That will be a lot.
We spoke of forgiveness and love. One day, we filled a jar with small stones representing acts of kindness we had each witnessed in our lives.* The group spoke of the acts of kindness that had been returned to them: the mayor who paid thousands of pesos for a child's medical care, the neighbour who provided money for rice when the family had none. Tears of pain and gratitude emerged. “We need places to share our pain,” Rebecca said to the group. “We stuff our emotions inside, because that’s our culture. So our tears come when we finally find a safe place to speak.”
That safe place was a place of love, not easily created, but essential for survival.
Minds, hearts and hands. These are words I have been saying for years. But I had to travel halfway around the world to fully grasp their meaning. This is what we hold in common with Unitarian Universalists everywhere. This is the starting point of our divergent theologies: We have hearts that love. We may have intelligence, but without love our intelligence is useless. This is why the heart is in the middle, between our thinking and doing. In everything we do, we must begin with love. This is the essence of what the first Unitarians and Universalists taught. This is what sent Toribio Quimada down into the marketplace to preach. This is what built a movement in the Philippines. It is love that saves us. This is where our covenants with each other have to begin.
During the closing worship service with the religious education teachers, we pass an empty bowl around the circle. Into the bowl, we each symbolically place some love. Gugma is the word for love in Cebuano, a word I will never forget. Some offer love for each person present in the room, love for their families and communities, love for God and the beauty of the earth. We pass the bowl around a second time. This time, we each take out some love to carry home. The teachers promise me that they will take my love home to their churches. I promise them that I will take their love home to you, to my church. This is our promise to each other, love’s promise to survive.
Amen. Blessed be. Namasté. Shalom. Ug Gugma.
* Thank you to the UUA Tapestry of Faith for the following ideas: Acts of Goodness
from Moral Tales, Alice Anachecka-Naseman and Elisa Pearmain. UUA Tapestry of Faith, www.uua.org/re/tapestry/children/tales/index.shtml; Bowl of Love from Love Surrounds Us, Rev. Lynn Kerr and Christy Olson. UUA Tapestry of Faith, www.uua.org/re/tapestry/children/lovesurrounds/index.shtml