A Journey of Letting Go (Audio Available)

Sermon by Rev. Diane Rollert, 15 March 2015
(Click Read More for access to the audio file for this sermon)

People ask me, why the Philippines?  Why would Unitarian Universalists be there?  

Sadly, too few of us have ever heard of Rev. Toribio Quimada.  Yet he deserves to be known as one of the great heroes of our faith.  He was a courageous and generous man, living in a poor rural community in the mountains of Negros in the Philippines.  In the early 1950s, he succeeded in founding an open, progressive religious movement within a very repressive society.  That, in and of itself, is miraculous.

Toribio had been raised as a Catholic and had then become a Pentecostal Christian pastor.  But his heart cried out for his people.  He found he could not believe in an angry, punishing God.  God was love, he was sure of this.  He walked down from the mountains to preach of this love, and his church excommunicated him for his ideas.  So he began his own church and he called it Universalist.  

One day, by a total fluke, he received an invitation wrapped in a recycled piece of paper.  That’s how you do things in the Philippines.  Absolutely nothing is wasted.  The piece of paper turned out to be a directory of American churches and on the list were some Unitarian and Universalist congregations.  Toribio wrote to the addresses he found, a relationship developed, and the Filipino Universalist movement grew.  Tragically, Rev. Toribio Quimada was murdered in 1985, most likely for the work he was doing on behalf of poor farmers who were disenfranchised from their lands.  

Today there are 27 UU congregations in the Philippines, the majority on Negros Island, and the newest one in a poor neighbourhood of Manila.  All of these congregations are indigenous communities, many living without electricity, most struggling just to have enough to feed their children, yet they live with a inspiring spirit of hope and joy founded in the love that Toribio preached.
 
Three years ago, I spent two months serving as a sabbatical minister for the UU Church of the Philippines, the body that knits these congregations together.  During that time I led workshops, preached at different congregations, and built lifelong friendships.  The first time there, my senses were overwhelmed by all that I encountered.  This time, I found that it was more like coming home.  I am so grateful that I was able to realize a dream of leading a pilgrimage for a group of North American UUs.  My greatest delight was to watch 19-year old Trevor (a member of our youth group in Montreal) as he was transformed by all he experienced.  He was the first youth to join a pilgrimage, and his presence was treasured by us all.

The last time I came back from the Philippines, I asked this congregation to help support the Our Whole Lives human sexuality program being developed for youth and adults there.  We raised about $800.  That money has been spent to bring workshops about AIDS and domestic violence to many of the congregations on Negros.   The people of the Philippines are crying out for the right to information about reproductive health, but the Catholic church and a powerful group of political conservatives in the Philippines continue to oppose a reproductive health bill.  The UU congregations are courageously providing sexuality education to their communities, and the money we sent has gone a long, long way to making a huge difference.

Trevor and I have both agreed that our dream is to build a partnership between the Unitarian Church of Montreal and a congregation there. To engage in a partnership with a specific UU congregation in the Philippines would be powerful for us all.  The Filipino congregations are eager to be in contact with other UUs.  They are so isolated as they continue to live in a pretty repressive culture.  We’d begin in small ways, staying in contact with their leaders, sharing our joys and sorrows together.  We’d e-mail, Skype, and have our children write to each other.  With time, after several years of building a relationship, we might look to other ways of providing support, but partnership is really about building bridges across cultural differences, finding common ground in our faith, and learning from each other.

As Trevor and I travelled, our days were often richly overwhelming.  But we both found a few moments to post some reflections on Facebook.  I’d like to share with you a couple of our posts.  

This first one is from me:

Friday, our destination is the seaside town of Hinoba-an, Negros Occidental.  Our guide is the amazing Marife, Filipina, farmer, born UU, out lesbian who is able to bridge across many divides. Our day will be spent at the Cansauro congregation, where Gina, the student I have been sponsoring, lives.  

As we drive along the coast and then head up into the hills, Marife shares some if her story.  Her grandfather was a UU minister and her parents were married by Toribio Quimada.  Her grandfather told the family that it was a blessing that she was a lesbian. Her partner's family accepts her for who she is.  It is not easy being gay here, yet the ties of family often override everything else.  

The congregation of Cansauro is in the mountains near the town of Sipalay. To get to the church, we climb a steep, rocky, unpaved road. This is the road Gina has walked one and a half-hours each way to go to school each day.  I cannot imagine the physical and mental strength this must have taken.  

The church is a small one-room cinder block building on a crest.  Children wait at the gate, shy and excited. Gina is there.  We both shout with joy and hug each other. It has been three years since I have seen her and since I agreed to sponsor her return to finish high school.  Now she will graduate in March and begin college. This is no small feat for a mother of three in a culture that expects a mother and wife to stay home. It was Marife who came up to the village to convince Gina’s husband that her education would benefit her whole family.

Gina leads the congregation in a welcome ceremony. The front altar has been decorated with beautiful flowers. The children have prepared a dance. Gina provides the music through her cell phone.

As we introduce ourselves, I get very choked up. I am so moved to see Gina standing here in a leadership role in her community. She is nervous. It is clear that she has put her heart and soul into preparing for this visit.  She sings a song.  It's a pop song I don't know, but it ends with words about being able to realize a dream. More tears well up in my eyes.

The minister, Howard, tells us that we are the third visitors they have ever received. He tells us that they had worried that we wouldn't make it up the rocky, winding road.  To have visitors, fellow UUs, come all this way to their remote village means the world to them.

Once the introductions and ceremony have been completed, we go outside to share food.  There is coconut milk with shredded coconut meat, fried bananas, cassava, yams, and rice cakes.  After the meal, Trevor sings “Hallelujah”, sounding like a young Leonard Cohen. Soon we are singing songs back and forth, the visitors and hosts calling "Response! Response!"  to each other with each song.  We share a Filipino circle dance we had just learned that requires coordinated thigh slapping and hand clapping. Our hosts know it, too.  Then we lead them in the Hokey-Pokey, a big hit that requires no translation.  

The children are shy, but soon they warm to Trevor.  A tiny girl in a pink dress gets a game of tag started and soon the children are running after Trevor, up and down the steep terrain and in circles around the church.  One moment he is the pursuer, the next the pursued. Two teen boys watch from the church doorway. They are too cool to play, but I wonder if they wish they could.  Trevor finally surrenders in a heap of exhaustion on the ground.  "Those kids are fit!" he tells us later. "Usually, I can outrun everyone.  But not here."  Out of energy, he resorts to entertaining them with origami and passing out Canadian flags.  

Gina gives me a handcrafted card with a beautiful letter, carefully written in English with perfect handwriting.  In it she tells me the story of her trials over the years to complete her studies.  She nervously asks me if I will now help her through college.  Of course I will.  Rev. Rebecca Quimada Sienes, Toribio’s daughter and president of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines, has already seen Gina’s potential to become a leader. This is why she had asked me to support Gina’s education  when the three of us were talking about the future, sitting in a juice bar in a Dumaguete mall three years ago.

Gina asks me if I can return on March 27 for her graduation. Sadly, this would be impossible.  me.  I promise her that I will return for her college graduation.  "I will be old then," she says.  I disagree, of course.

Before we depart, Trevor presents another Quebec flag — he’s been presenting these huge flags to each congregation we visit — and I wonder what each congregation will do with them. Will some Quebecker stumble upon one of these communities one day and be shocked to see the fleur de lys flying?  Who else would even recognize these flags? Kevin, the seminary student travelling with us, has decided that, the next time he comes back, he will bring rainbow flags.

Marife lets us know that we need to go before the rain comes.  We really don't want to leave, but we know we have no choice. We say our sad goodbyes, load into the van. One of the church elders joins us for a ride down the hill.  We haven't gone far when Trevor realizes he has forgotten his shirt.  We turn around and head back up the hill.  "I shall return!" says the elder, jokingly mimicking the famous promise General McArthur made to the Philippines during WWII.  

We return to the front of the church just as Trevor realizes he has his shirt.  "Wait," he says, trying to make sure this isn't a wasted trip.  "I have lollipops for the kids." He distributes them from the van window.  

"I shall return -- for the lollipops," intones Marife.  This becomes our joke for the rest of the trip. (Just for historic accuracy, Trevor later tells us that he distributed gum, not lollipops.)

That night, we stay at a seaside resort that caters to a Filipino clientele.  We end the evening playing the Philippine national sport: duelling karaoke.  No self-respecting resort would be without a karaoke setup.  To win, all you need to know is the timing of the words.  No points lost for being horribly off-key, and no one cares if you are.  Marife and our van driver Ricky are pros. They can sing every song, although I admit I was rather proud of my rendition of “Hotel California”, and Rev. Pat, another member of our group, does one really mean “Wild  Thing.”

"Wild thing, you make my heart sing.  You make everything groovy."  Now I know how Filipinos cope with adversity and heartache.  You just keep singing.

***

And finally, this post from Trevor that makes me cry every time I read it (he would have read it himself, but he had to be in Pennsylvania today):

***

In case you're wondering why I haven't been updating about my trip, it's because I ran out of words.

The words died when we saw the headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines, with a giant sign welcoming each of us by name. As we entered the gates and they gifted us with their beautiful, one-of-a-kind pendants, I knew that I would never be able to describe the experience, never be able to put words to this welling-up of emotion. For the first time on this amazing voyage, as the locals introduced themselves to us, one by one, it struck me how important this was to them. For us to fly halfway across the world, to see /them/, and to see how thankful, how grateful they were, for us to just /be/ there, it was....there are no words.

As the trip went on, the wordlessness kept growing. I have /fangirls/, because I was young, tall, blond, and, most importantly, single. I have played with kids whose families could barely afford a bag of rice, a playtime that they will remember for the rest of their lives. And the way they offered us food, and showed off their dancers and their singers and their -people-....there are no words.

Exploring this place, this magical place, Dumaguete, the City of Gentle People, I took the paths that the tourists never take. I found Dario, the old, poor man with his tiny home by the canal, who was shocked, amazed, and delighted that anyone of better means would so much as give him a second glance. His Canadian flag, and all the others spread all over Negros, and all the paper birds and boats and dragons and frogs, made by my hands or by those whom I taught, all these will be treasured for generations as heirlooms and memories of /my/ passing. We went to congregations where we were only the third visitors to ever come. By my interactions, by my mere /presence/, I have changed lives. And that...well, there are no words.

Dumaguete, more than any place I have ever traveled to, feels like home. For once in my life I have seen a niche, a home I could fill within the artistic community. Because of my openness and my attention to those who are ignored as part of the scenery, because of my outstretched heart, I now have friends, true friends, halfway across the world from where I live. It is...well. There are no words.

I leave tomorrow. It is like leaving a life that I have had but a glimpse of. The future remains clouded, as always, as ever, but now, maybe, just maybe, there is a pinpoint of light, to act as a guide and a saviour from stagnation. To have that light, to have that choice, that potential path...
I have no words. No words but these:

I shall return.

***

Amen.  Blessed be.  Namasté.  Daghang salamat.

Download A Journey of Letting Go