“If you belonged to this world, it would love you as its own; the reason it hates you is that you do not belong to the world. But I chose you out of the world.” – John 15: 19
I remember the days leading up to the start of our mission at the Don Bosco School in Manila. It has been five years since I went on a mission with ACTS, having served as a youth leader in ACTS’ earlier missions to Cambodia between 2007 and 2008. The difference then and now, apart from the location, was also the different phase of life that I was in. In 2007 and 2008, I was still an NUS undergraduate. Now, I’m a junior executive working in the corporate world, clocking sometimes eleven hours of work depending on the season.
The days leading up to the start of our mission trip was a hectic week in which every conceivable attempt to clear as much work before going on leave was the order of the day. I was still in the office on the very morning we were due to be flying off. Work never seems to be done. After a quick lunch, I was soon on my way to the airport. Does these frenetic activities sound familiar? I suppose this frantic lifestyle can be empathised by most working professionals in Singapore who spend the each week in meetings, conference calls, never-ending emails, “whatsapping” too many friends ... and the list goes on.
We were greeted almost immediately by a Manila traffic jam when we stepped out of Ninoy Aquino International Airport. Unlike the orderly and efficient procession of cars at Changi Airport’s pick up points, Manila’s airport resembled a “pasar malam” jam-packed with people and vehicles. By the grace of God, we managed to spot Sr. Rica who was there with a driver to pick us up. Soon we were meandering in one of Manila’s many traffic jams as we made our way to the hotel. Truth be told, I was hoping that this mission would bring a break to the pace of my office work and as we sat in the thick of the heavy traffic, “Gosh, I just traded busy schedules in Singapore for insane traffic in Manila!” As it was my first trip ever to the Philippines, let alone being part of ACTS Manila, I really did not know what to expect except it would be very different from my previous experience to Cambodia. The crowds and automotive jams did not help but premeditated that it was going to be a rather hectic mission trip.
Our mission took place at the Don Bosco School in Santa Mesa right in the heart of Manila. It is also the Salesian Sister’s Provincial House in the Philippines and the Laura Vicuna Technology College (LVTC), a vocational school for post secondary school students. Like our counterparts in Cambodia, our main mission was to teach at the school and to prepare handouts of essential items to the poor. Being an engineer previously (I say ‘previously’ because I no longer work as one), I volunteered to teach the Electronics Class at LVTC which involved assembling an AM radio and a water detection sensor.
In the mornings, we would go to class at the LVTC to teach our respective subjects. Getting to school every morning involved negotiating with heavy traffic that would have made the otherwise 10-minute journey stretch a full and sometime more than 30 minutes. After lunch, we rotated functions among ourselves – some remained to help with the packing of ‘goodie-bags’ to the squatter children, others made trips to the squatter communities to conduct activities for the children and to distribute these handouts to them. Going out into the squatters gave us the opportunity to see up close a real and different side to Manila. It enabled one the sense of how massive and densely populated this city is. The harsh reality of poverty can be seen evidently everywhere. We would end our days in the evening with activities conducted for the Vicunans (children from the neighbourhood who attend the school and are part of an after-school programme) that included craft sessions, rosary making and dance lessons.
Interestingly, each day of our mission did seem as busy as those I had back in my office but the stress and tiredness was different.
I vividly recall noticing the peace and serenity one felt the moment our van past through the gates of the Provincial House in our numerous trips to and from the Sister’s compound. It was as though we entered a different place, a different world, and it gave me the impression that I was not in Manila. The compound did seem like a haven, with its high walls surrounding the schools and the house to keep out the hustle and bustles of Manila. But surely it was not just the walls keeping the noise out. There had to be something deeper and special.
As we went about our tasks, it never failed to impress upon me that we were in a place that was constantly filled with the sounds of children’s laughter, loving smiles and warmth. Very soon, I came to realise it was not the formidable walls that was keeping the noise out, but rather the tunes of loving voices that drowned out the dings of the world and caring patience which took over the bustling of city life. I saw this in the many people that we encountered during our short stay, particularly in the Salesian Sisters who live and work there every day. I could not help but admire the glow that radiated from the faces that greeted us each morning. Of course it was not makeup that they were wearing! It was a youthful glow that could only have been the light of Christ shining through them, and for a splitting moment, I thought I had a glimpse of what the Kingdom of God is.
As I observed the Sisters going about their duties I could sense that there was always urgency in them because there was so much to do to help the poor of Manila, especially the most innocent of them all: the children. I understood that their ministry was filled with many challenges and they too had personal crosses to carry. Many left their homes and came from afar in order to answer the Lord’s Call to live a life of service. But yet despite it all, their faces shone with Christ-liked affection, a radiation that can only from a close relationship in their lives with our Lord Jesus. Their thoughts, words and deeds were in many ways like a constant prayer that was being said throughout the day. It was a prayer of peace, joy and hope that filled the hearts of all that were present and a grace that came from above. Just as Blessed Mother Teresa so famously said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”
As I reflected deeper upon this, it only made me wonder how much do we truly love Jesus in our lives. My encounter with the Salesian Sisters at the Don Bosco School in Manila showed me firsthand the Kingdom of God being built in this world and in the midst of a truly struggling and messy city. It is something as simple as the love of Jesus that transformed a school into a little part of heaven on Earth. What I also witnessed each day was how imperfect and broken people came through the gates of the school in search of a better future, and left with more than just an education, but with hope, love and joy.
It too served as a timely reminder that I am also guilty for being caught up in the bustling world of achieving success. We are blessed in unaccountable ways in Singapore with the freedom that we enjoy, the standards that we live in and a future of possibilities that await us. As Catholics, we often forget that we too have a role in building God’s Kingdom here and restoring Him in our lives and those around us.
Although the time spent at the Don Bosco School was but a fleeting moment in a busy year, the encounter I had truly made my Christmas special again. It made this Christmas unique again because I was caught up in the business of the world that I had forgotten Emmanuel... that God is with us. The Salesian Sisters whom I met taught me once again that when we embrace Jesus in our lives as much as He did will our lives become a living prayer in which we start to serve others with the love of God... turning our homes, our parishes and possibly even our workplaces into a little part of heaven on Earth.
After all, it is Christ Jesus who chose us out of the world so that we may serve others with love.
Joseph Tey - ACTS Manila 2013 Mission
ACTS Manila 2013 Mission
ACTS Manila 2013 Mission – at the Laura Vicuna Technology Center
ACTS Manila 2013 Mission – joining VIDES on their daily visits to the squatters
ACTS Manila 2013 Mission –with the vicunans
The Salesian Sisters saw the need for education, human promotion and development of youth, especially of children and young women, particularly in the area of women and youth education, primary education and skills training. Read more at their website >