Archive for March, 2011

Surprised by Joy

Posted: March 31, 2011 in Our work
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I always expected it to be difficult.

As soon as we decided to spend a year working with victims of sex trafficking and prostitution in Manila, I knew that while there would be good times, the work would inevitably be depressing, discouraging, and challenging. I was traveling through my own dark season of life, and I knew that if my daily American struggles of workaholism, broken relationships, and disappointed dreams could leave me feeling crushed, then the women at Samaritana would certainly feel even worse.

But the most surprising thing happened: instead of sinking into depression, I rediscovered joy. There have been days when I’ve felt discouraged, when I’ve cried because I didn’t know what else to do—but then I go to the airy, tranquil haven of Samaritana, and my spirits are almost instantly lifted. The women crack jokes and we laugh while eating meryenda (mid-morning snack); I give high fives to a few women who ran farther than they ever have before during Super Babae, our daily fitness group, and tell them how proud I am of them; they give me hugs and I tell them again and again that their brown skin is beautiful; a woman grabs my hand or my arm (an endearing cultural norm that I will definitely miss) as we walk home at the end of the day. There are far more smiles, laughter, and singing than tears or anger. The women I call friends are kind, generous, and incredibly sweet—but it’s not just that. They overflow with joy that I’ve only occasionally experienced in my own life.

I’ve puzzled over this again and again. How can it be that women who have experienced some of the most awful things imaginable radiate pure, unadulterated joy? I have seen them, on occasion, mourn the things they have lost and that have been done to them. But sorrow doesn’t sink them, and hope is never far off.

I think that unlike me–most of the time–these women really understand grace.

I think Samaritana is Christianity the way Jesus meant it to be: full of love and acceptance, but not without a call to something better. The women here are cherished just as they are—even if they choose to stay at the bars—and also challenged and encouraged to start anew. The amazing thing is that it actually works. Every day at Samaritana, the women have love heaped on them, and are shown again and again how special and precious they are. It’s not just through the quiet, contemplative moments of morning prayer, or the validating livelihood training that allows them to make more money than their daily allowance if they are diligent and excellent in their work, or even the counseling administered by staff and volunteers who are at Samaritana for the sole reason that they love the women. God’s love seeps through the walls and circulates in the air in this place. Even short-term visitors can’t help but feel it. No wonder these women have such joy; they’re the recipients of deep, untainted love and grace, and they know it.

I knew that this year would change me, but I never expected that I would receive so much by the very women I came to help.  We  recently booked our return tickets, and are startled to realize that in spite of the many things we love about our life in Oakland, we are sad–really sad–to know that on July 23, we will be leaving these women.

They challenge me to be brave, to stand strong no matter what life throws at me. They remind me of how beautifully resilient the human spirit is, and how my past mistakes or regrets need not define me. I think it’s God’s grace and love that allows them to heal–but what I hope to communicate to them in our remaining time here is how much God has used them to heal me.


Some of you have wondered, “Nate had all this talk about working with IJM. They’re a pretty great organization. So why haven’t we heard more about it?” A few reasons. First of all, IJM’s Manila office is a bit . . .cozy. Cozy to the point that there isn’t space for the communications intern and me. So I’ve been working remotely, and also because of that, less with IJM and more with Samaritana.

It wasn’t what I expected, but to volunteer for both has been an enriching and meaningful learning opportunity, because while IJM and Samaritana both aid victims of prostitution and trafficking, their approaches and structures are almost polar opposites: Though IJM’s staff in Manila is all Filipino, the feel is very Western, with mostly English spoken around the office, headquarters in DC, an international presence, ace legal team, high-drama, time-sensitive operations, and great organizational muscle (they do also have a number of Western interns and fellows). Samaritana, on the other hand, is very Filipino: mostly Tagalog spoken, founded here and with one location, patient, relationship-based work, small, family feel, and humble, yet amazing staff. It’s been a unique privilege to learn from both.

However, in addition to visiting the Samar office (see post here) and the Chiang Mai office in Thailand (post upcoming), one of my regular duties has been writing, editing, and collaborating on the layout for the Kalayaan, the quarterly newsletter from IJM in the Philippines (Kalayaan is “freedom” in Filipino). So to catch up and give you a sense of their work, I’ve included screencaps of the cover of the September 2010 newsletter, as well as of several articles I wrote. In the future I’ll also post excerpts from the two succeeding newsletters we’ve done; let us know in the comments if you’re interested in me emailing you the pdf of the entire 8-page newsletter.

— Nate

It’s everywhere. Walk to your local palengke (wet-dry market), and vendors and shoppers alike are singing along to Journey’s “Faithfully” playing overhead. Try to cross the street and the traffic cop dances to his own, impressive groove, stopping traffic. Hop in a cab and the driver and his radio are unabashedly belting out REO Speedwagon. Go to your local department or electronics store, and if there is a karaoke machine for sale, you can bet your life that at one of the employees will be testing it out. Go grocery shopping, and suddenly the employees break out into a choreographed dance routine. In Manila, life is a musical with a cast of 17,000,000.

Musicals were the stuff I was raised on, so I feel right at home. In an attempt to shelter us from objectionable movies, my parents slyly gave us Hitchcock, Grace Kelly, Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn–and musicals. Lots of musicals. While my friends were having nightmares over Freddy Krueger, I was learning the entire score of West Side Story by heart. My on-screen heroes were Debbie Reynolds, Judy Garland, and Julie Andrews. Since I grew up in a musical household, it seemed natural for Gene Kelly to suddenly break into song as he danced his way through a rain storm, appropriate that Audrey Hepburn’s language lessons with Henry Higgins should take place via song. It was only when I met my husband and his largely musical-free childhood that I realized anyone might find it odd (or cheesy) to sing your way through every fifteen minutes or so of life.

What better way to pass the work day?

The delightful fact of the matter is that Pinoy men and women alike just don’t seem to worry about what others think of them when it comes to song and dance. Put another way, everyone here has stage presence. Finding a Filipino who doesn’t sing is like finding a meal without rice: it’s possible, but rare.

While Pinoys do seem to have more than their fair share of musical talent, lack of talent is not a deterrent. Walk through any busy neighborhood after 10 p.m. and you’re sure to hear at least one off-key karaoke singer doing a unique rendition of a song you thought you knew. It’s one of the more charming characteristics of the Philippines for me, and something I’ll miss when we return to the quiet, self-conscious States. I may take home the habit of singing along in public, because I’ve learned here that whatever your situation, it’s almost always better with a song.

— Laura