A sermon by Rev. Diane Rollert, 8 April 2012
When I left for my sabbatical, I dashed down a quick title for Easter, a placeholder for this Sunday. Perhaps, I thought, I would not be the prodigal daughter, but we might be a prodigal family, returning to each other after a time of change for both of us. I wasn’t thinking too carefully. To be prodigal means to spend money wastefully, and that certainly wasn’t what I meant. But it has become pretty common to think of the prodigal as someone who, as in the parable, wanders and then is compassionately welcomed home.
How good it is to be home, to be here with you for Easter and Passover. How good it is to be standing on firm ground. My travels took me as far as the Philippines where I served as sabbatical minister to the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines for two of the three months I was away. I have met your Philippine cousins in faith, and I know that you would love them as much as I do.
Much of my time was spent with poor, rural congregations in the mountains of Negros, a large island in the Visayas, one of the many collections of islands that make up the huge archipelago known as the Philippines. I met whole communities of people that live without electricity or running water, for whom 75 cents for a kilo of rice can be a dire sacrifice, for whom medical care can be too distant and expensive to be obtainable. Yet they welcomed me with open arms and the warmth of their friendship, proudly offering handmade gifts and their favourite foods. They are Unitarian Universalists struggling to stay alive in a religiously conservative, mostly Catholic country. They treasure their relationships with other Unitarian Universalists. Our connections are vital to their spiritual survival.
I preached in churches overflowing with children, laughter and music. I led workshops with youth and adults thirsty for a deeper understanding of Unitarian Universalism and a place to share their pain. I was invited to teach, to be the authority, yet my students became my teachers. We may differ in culture, theology and in circumstances, yet there is a strong cord that binds us together. I found myself renewed and inspired by a people who truly believe that love and the inherent worth and dignity of every person are at the core of our faith.
This is the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines, the legacy of Rev. Toribio Quimada, a powerful preacher who began his ministry as an evangelical Christian. In the 1950s, he found that his theology had evolved into a Universalist faith in a loving God. By chance, he stumbled upon a directory of Unitarian Universalist churches being used as recycled paper. He wrote and answers came. He built friendships with North American Universalist ministers, and built a movement that would grow organically. As members of his church moved to new communities, he would help them form new congregations, until there were more than 2,000 Unitarian Universalists and 27 churches spread across the island of Negros. Sadly, he was murdered in 1985, most likely for the work he was doing on behalf of poor farmers who were disenfranchised from their lands.
So many stories to tell. So many islands (more than 7,000), so many people (94 million and growing every minute), so many languages (perhaps 175). For three weeks I lived in the capital city of Manila spending time with two emerging UU communities there. Crowded, crazy, fascinating Manila deserves a better reputation. You can forgive a city for its lack historical buildings and rational planning when you realize that its previous grandeur was bombed to oblivion during World War II; Manila, the most devastated city in the war, second only to Warsaw.
On February 5th, I flew from Manila to Dumaguete, a small city of about 120,000 people. For the next five intense weeks, my home base would be the guesthouse located at the national headquarters of the UU Church of the Philippines, just behind its lovely sanctuary, which is actually a converted garage. My schedule would be set by the amazingly courageous Rev. Rebecca Quimada Sienes, current president of the national church, and daughter of Toribio Quimada, who is carrying on her father’s vision. My first assignment was to attend the one-day gathering of the International Convocation of Unitarian Universalist Women. I spent my first night getting to know UU women leaders from India, Transylvania, Canada, the US and the Philippines.
The next morning, February 6th, we were driven in shifts by van to nearby Silliman University, one of the finest universities in the Philippines. Our meeting was held in a large meeting hall inside a modern and massive concrete building next to the campus library. There were perhaps 50 of us present, mostly women, sitting at long tables classroom style, our chairs facing a narrow stage with a large podium. After listening to several speakers, we were split into small groups. I sat with four Filipinas and one young Filipino who acted as our translator. In this part of Negros, the people speak Cebuano, also known as Binisayan. Most everyone has a knowledge of English as well as Tagalog (the imposed national language, as some Visayans will tell you), but levels of comprehension and fluency vary, mainly based on education and class. (Although the Spanish ruled the Philippines for 300 years, Spanish was never taught to the indigenous people, a conscious decision made by the ruling Spanish friars who believed that language was power. Instead, the friars learned each local language. Today, Spanish is only spoken by a very small elite.)
“What are the main issues facing women in your communities?” our facilitator from the US asked. “Issues?” the Filipinas in my group asked, looking very puzzled. After a few moments of consultation with the translator, recognition dawned in their faces. “Oh! Problems. You mean problems.”
They talked about the need for work, how expensive rice has gotten, how the men make very little a day in the fields. “Women need more work to support their families. We need education,” they said. They struggled to keep their own children in school and talked about their concerns for the street children in their communities. School is supposed to be free, but there are fees to be paid. The schools are far away from the villages and the cost of transportation, 20 pesos a day (50 cents), is so prohibitive that these children roam the streets without supervision. I was disarmed by these women, who were both shy and direct.
We moved from our groups back into rows to hear the next speaker, Rep. Luz Ilagan, a member of the Grabriela Women’s Party, currently serving in the Philippine House of Representatives. “This is really well done,” I remember thinking as she used a PowerPoint presentation to carefully illustrate the connection between global events and the conditions of women. With so many Philippine foreign workers sending much-needed money back into the country, conflicts in the Middle East and shrinking global markets are having a direct impact on the lives of women and children at home.
Luz stopped to take a breath. Suddenly, there was a strange low and loud rumbling sound. For a moment, I thought that the air conditioning system was failing. Then the building began to shake. That huge, heavy concrete building shook from side to side, rumbling as if it might break apart. I ran outside with everyone else, passing quickly beneath a thick concrete overhang, wondering if it would fall on us. Outside, as we stood on a concrete slab set into the grass, my knees felt as unstable as jello.
“I don’t feel that scared, so why are my legs shaking?” I asked myself. Then I realized that the earth was still moving. My mind seemed to be having trouble comprehending what was happening. It seemed as if everything had stopped, and then someone pointed to the windows. The glass was shaking, almost rippling like water, even though the building looked as though it was standing still.
When the movement stopped, we went back inside and Luz continued her talk. This time, there was no electricity, no PowerPoint, no microphone. We opened the blinds to let the sunlight in, and she spoke to us in the semi-darkness of the room. Then, suddenly, the room shook again: the first major aftershock, a half hour after the quake. This time we left in greater chaos.
The University decided to send its students home and we were asked to stay outside. We concluded our conference with lunch on the lawn, calmly eating, talking, and laughing. It was over, we thought. Nothing more than a few shakes and we were fine.
Quietly, one of the conference leaders came to our table. “We’ve just been informed that there’s a tsunami alert.” Pictures of tsunamis washing over Indonesia and Japan began to play in my head. Here we were on an island sitting on the lawn of a university known for its proximity to the sea. I had only arrived the day before. I hadn’t seen a map yet. I had no idea which way the water would come, if it came. What were we supposed to do? Should we go back to the hotel? Should we head into the hills to the town of Valencia where our final speaker lived? None of us really knew. We stood in a circle, we held hands, and someone said a prayer. A short prayer, thank you, God. A short prayer.
Several of the women from the rural churches were very distressed. They were far from home and receiving text messages that things were worse closer to their villages. They were worried about the safety of their children. All I could think of was the many motor tricycles that I knew would be running back and forth along the main road in front of the university. In the Philippines, this is one of the main means of transportation and livelihood. You take a motor scooter with an extended seat and attach a sidecar with a bench or two inside, and you have an instant mini transport that can hold six or more people depending on your idea of comfort and whether you are willing to ride on the roof or sit behind the driver. The ride is loud and bumpy, and it is a miracle that the scooters have enough power to carry so many people, especially uphill.
In the end, that’s what we did, loading six women to a tricycle, forty-two of us in all, taking the one hour ride uphill in tortuously slow traffic along with half the population of Dumaguete. The rest of the city’s residents stood on the sides of the road staring at us as if we were crazy, while others were foolishly heading to the beach in hopes of seeing a tsunami roll in.
How can I describe that hour-long ride? The woman sitting in front of me was frantically distressed. I held her hand, I kept her calm, and as we rode I thought how ridiculous my decision was. There we were sitting in a low contraption made of flimsy metal. A tsunami sweeping across us would have surely killed us.
“I need to rethink my relationship to death,” I told myself as we painfully inched along. “I’m not really ready to die right now,” I thought, “But I guess there isn’t anything I can do but be here.” Calm came over me and I stopped thinking about what could or could not be.
By the time we arrived in Valencia and were dropped at the doorstep of Our Lady of the Abandoned Parish (yes, that really was its name), the tsunami alert had been pronounced a false alarm. At dusk, we held our final worship circle in Valencia on the front lawn of the house of Celia Hoffman, our final speaker. I led the group in a spiral dance, singing “She changes everything she touches, and everything she touches changes.” We were singing for the earth and we were singing for women. We looked into each other’s eyes as we danced and we smiled. Everyone was connected. We had been bonded together forever by an earthquake. We had had a challenging day, but it had ended with grace.
The aftershocks continued for weeks, but it seemed silly that we would have felt so panicked that first day. Then, nearly two weeks later, I travelled north with Rebecca, passing through the area closest to the epicentre of the earthquake. Over a stretch of nearly forty kilometres we saw buckled roads, a bridge torn in half, building after building collapsed, a section of the coastline wiped out by a small tsunami, and landslides that had sheared off the whole side of a mountain. We saw the tents of the evacuees, and the lines of people waiting for relief packages. We saw the signs saying SOS and “Salamat sa tabang.” Thank you for your help. If our timing or the earth’s tectonic plates had shifted in another direction, it could have been us. It can always be us, no matter where we are.
And well, here we are on an Easter Sunday morning, and perhaps this is my resurrection story. Life is such a gift, handed to us with no guarantees other than to be born and to die. We think we understand this earth, we talk about solid ground, about the earth holding us and supporting us, but it isn’t really solid at all. We have no control, not any minute of our lives, no matter how much we plan, no matter what precautions we take.
It is not a matter of coming back to life, but of facing death and returning with a greater appreciation of the present moment. Maybe there is a way that we can embrace each other and welcome each other home after those moments when we feel we have lost our way, or when we have come close to the inevitable that we all must face some day.
Biblical scholar Amy-Jill Levine says that the parables of Jesus are there to challenge us, to throw us off balance. They are “a provocation, so that we will live in the world more abundantly, compassionately or generously.” I read the parable of the two sons (the parable of the prodigal son as it is more commonly known) and I think that we may each play the different roles in the story at different times in our lives. We can be the younger son who has lost his way and wasted the gifts he was given. We can be the older son who stays home and never takes time to enjoy life, working too hard and never asking for what might be rightfully his. We can be the compassionate father who needs no explanation or apology. He is simply grateful for the son who has returned home to make the family whole.
If I were a parable spinner, I would figure out how to weave this tale into an Easter message that joins our hearts with the hearts of the Philippine Unitarian Universalists I have come to know. Perhaps it is this: Our two peoples have a message of love to share that can reach beyond our singular sanctuaries. The earth can shake, things can change, great stones can be rolled away from tombs, but we can remain steadfastly present, ready to keep a wider faith alive.
I am glad to be home. Happy Easter, Chag Same'ach, Happy Passover.