Manila is a sprawling city of 12 million people encompassing numerous areas like Angeles City. It just happens to the most famous because it is centered around legalized prostitution and employs around 50,000 women, boys and girls in a mile and a half long section called Walking Street. The nation itself is poverty stricken, which has largely propelled the advancement of the sex industry. Its existence has drawn the vile and the violent. Because it has consistently produced money, it has consequently drawn more than its fair share of corruption.
The war began innocently enough with a drive from the airport to our modest guest house in a distant suburb of Manila. The city is literally covered in the soot from decades of the exhaust of diesel burning vehicles. The rivers that you cross leading to the sea are covered in the trash and debris of left behind in the wake of constant human activity; a literal mountain of discarded wrappers, plastics and containers of all sorts, sticks and boards. Manila has a well developed sewer system, but the sheer mass of people and the mess from their pets leave the streets and sidewalks as a minefield for the pedestrians. Most people travel around the city in hired Jeepnies (the cab of a Jeep with an extended passenger section capable of seating 20 people on two facing benches), a taxi cab, or the ubiquitous motorcycle driven sidecars that are everywhere.
The rampant air and water pollution is a major cause of the decreased life expectancy in Manila proper; 68 for women and 63 for men. As a greyhair of 68 who can still get around with facility (I am proud to say) I was reverenced, as one might the last living dinosaur or caveman. Medical care is widely available, yet is unaffordable for the vast majority of the population, so there is effectively no preventive medical care to speak of.
College in the Philippine is not what we would expect to experience in the US. For one it is for hardcore learners only hell-bent on acquiring practical knowledge that will allow then to survive, perhaps even prosper. Secondly the education is more akin to a vocational school where one would go to earn a trade. Fighting poverty builds a pretty effective system. In contrast, a US based college education costs an arm and a leg and doesn’t really prepare a young person to do a damned thing. The difficulty for Filipinos is that the job market in the city is flooded with people. College graduates hope for job at one of the numerous American flavored fast food restaurants where they can make $10 per day. The only other option is to open your own store front selling clothes, shoes or food. So there are thousands of vendors along every major thoroughfare, each with their 8’ by 10’ store front, where all their goods have to be carted in and out each day because there is no actual front on their structures, just enough of one to protect them from the rain when they are open.
Then in August we spent a week in West Jackson, Mississippi at a ministry located a stone’s throw from the State’s Capitol buildings, in the heart of a dilapidated section of town generally referred to as the Farish Street area. It is a run down area marked by a strange combination of urban blight the product of drugs, poverty and neglect, generally mixed with clusters of newer construction driven by out-of-the-area do-gooders bringing subsidized housing to the hood because it is so close to the heart of the State’s more noble activities. It is a vivid picture of the cultural clash that pits the reality of life for fourth generation welfare recipients against the interests of those who are more concerned with the way things look than radically attacking the source of the scourge.
The ministry operates a former YMCA, complete with 25,000 sf of educational space, a huge gymnasium where 30 dropouts from 14 to 32, assemble everyday to play basketball, an acre and half playground with a wide range of equipment and open spaces. On the backside of the property they have incorporated a 24’ by 100’ hot house that produced 1,100 pounds of tomatoes and an equal amount of other assorted vegetables that were given away to local families. The produce also helped feed the scores of volunteers that come from churches on the weekends and the dozen and a half fulltime “interns.” The interns are predominately single females who live in a compound of small houses rescued from the bulldozer by completely reworking the remaining shells of the long abandoned structure.
This section of the city has been inhabited by African Americans several decades following the city’s incorporation in 1821. The city of Jackson, largest in the State of Mississippi, experienced a major amount of white flight beginning in 1980, continuing unabated until it finally slowed during the decade following 2000, swelling the bedroom communities of neighboring Counties, predominately to the East. The city sold the six row houses to the ministry for a dollar each, but demanded that the original siding and windows of the dilapidated structures, with gaping holes in the roofs and no existing floors, remain for their “historical” significance. While we were there during August the temperature soared each day to 103. The air conditioners ran constantly because the single pane “historically significant” windows were no match for the heat. More evidence that our wonderfully well educated do-gooders remain totally disconnected from the reality of the cost of their “historically significant” preservation decisions. The next to last day of our visit coincided with the 1st anniversary of the racial rioting in the St. Louis area and it brought up a number of discussions and observations about the plight of blacks in hundreds, if not thousands, of neighborhoods like this one all across America.
These folks may live in poverty, but they are not ignorant. They may not know the basic principles of physics, nor could they conjugate a verb, but they know “the system” inside and out. They and their forefathers, actually fore-mothers, because there are no at-home-fathers here; haven’t been for three generations, have studied the system well and know how to work it. The number of social “anti-poverty” programs available through State, County and City agencies is more significant than you can imagine. So the mantra of most youth, when asked if they’ll graduate high school is “No. Don’t need it. I’m gonna git me a check.” Work ethic is only directed toward one thing, getting a check so I don’t have to work. The vast majority of young people you see working in the area are females. These sections of the city have become a female dominated culture, so it is actually the mothers and grandmothers who make up the strength of the social fabric of this community; the first and last bastion of social order. Yes, alcohol and drugs also play a large in this and several other such similar communities across the city. There are about as many bars, strip joints and liquor stores here as there are churches here, and there’s three crack houses within a stone’s throw of the guest house I stayed in. Slow moving cars inching their way past the front of crack houses looking for signs of life from a dealer with an invitation to enter was a common sight. The amazing thing about We Will Go Ministries in Jackson, MS is that they possess a dogged determination that the Gospel of the Kingdom inherently has the ability not only to turn around individual lives, but entire communities as well. They demand they make of all their Interns and ministry guests is that they give their testimony of how God changed their lives to every contact when they engage the locals. I've not seen such dedication, nor intentionality in sharing the power of the gospel to change a life since our first encounter with poverty in Uganda. It was a challenging experience.
This visit caused me to again question the eternal value of what we do in ministry. I know that we’ve helped hundreds of people move on with their lives after major trauma, death or disaster; we’ve seen God do some miraculous things. That’s a given. But the question always remains, Can I do more? And if so, where and how?
Here's a book review recently by Radhika Jones, published in the August 17, 2015 issue of Time Magazine that characterizes one element of how I feel. The book is "The Dust That Falls From Dreams" by Louis de Bernieres;
"The new novel is about World War I. In Eltham, outside London, in a nation mourning its long-lived Queen as it crowns a new King, live three families with happy children: the four McCosh sisters, led by pretty Rosie; her sweetheart Ashbridge Pendennis and his two brothers; and the two neighboring Pitt boys, half-French and all mischief. The Edwardian years of their youth form a pastoral prelude to the novel's action, a time of prosperity verging on complacency."
And perhaps it's the battle against complacency that is the real war the Lord wants us to engage, and the primary reason these brushes with the effects of dire poverty have me stirred up.
That reminds me of a conversation with an unemployed widow who seems reluctant to do anything of consequence for herself or anyone else. She said, “I didn’t apply for the job because it was 16 miles away.” Then 15 minutes later she said, “I never go to that store, it’s too icky for me, so I drive into Blah-blah, its only 15 minutes away to do my shopping.” The fact that she can’t survive for long without a second income doesn’t seem to outweigh inconvenience on any level. Yet when it comes to shopping among people who appear to be beneath her, she’ll go miles out of her way to avoid the great unwashed. There's not a bone in my body that doesn't get riled up over her decisions, but then again, it’s not like I'm chomping at the bit to saddle up to go rescue the poor and care for the dying either.
Has it come to that for us in America? A place where the value of people and my willingness to associate with them is determined by how they look, their race and the way they dress? A place where my personal convenience is paramount? Where I can’t be in the company of people different from me? Since Jesus said He didn’t come for the well, but for the poor and infirm, how will the Gospel ever reach them if that’s our attitude?
When I turned 60 I took some time to do some serious soul searching. The question before me was this ... Assuming my health remains good, I've probably only got 15 or so, good years left where I can actively work hard to accomplish something significant for the Kingdom. What's it gonna be? Well .... here I am 8 years into that 15 and two of those years were interrupted by cancer and the recovery process. Here I am again faced with the same question, but with fewer years to execute the answer.