Two People We Admire

Posted: May 2, 2011 in Life in the Philippines, NGO's
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The week before Easter, we participated in the Global Hunger Fast, an experiment in poverty where we attempted to live on $2 per day, as much of the world’s population does. It was eye-opening, challenging and unexpectedly rewarding (see this recent series starting here). As with the rest of our time here, we were honored by responses from friends and family back home about how great this was, how much people respect what we’re doing, how people can’t imagine doing it themselves, and so forth.

It’s true that life in Manila isn’t easy. But last week, we had the mental ibuprofen of an imminent return to our relatively comfy missionary lives, where we can buy vegetables, exercise, check Facebook at home, and even occasionally go out to eat or watch a movie. In the same way, our Manila grind has always had the soothing “just for a year” refrain in the background. But what if it didn’t?

Dave and Maria Cross are part of Servants, an international NGO whose mission is living with, befriending, and helping poor urban people around the world. It’s a fascinating approach to volunteerism and service that inverts the typical Western missionary souls-and-tasks-first, culture-second paradigm, and for us, and anyone considering such work, prompts serious reflection.

Hailing from oft-idyllic New Zealand, Dave and Maria were living and working with tenement dwellers in a city there, but then felt called to something even less comfortable. So they moved to the Philippines, and now live in a squatter community down the road from us in Quezon City. Since the Servants model is cultural immersion and relationship-building first, projects second, Dave and Maria are spending their first year here studying intensive Tagalog in language school, and getting to know their thousands of neighbors.

In addition to knowing the language, Dave and Maria are also living just like those around them. Their home is about 250 square feet, consisting of a kitchen/dining area and bathroom downstairs, and prayer nook and bedroom upstairs. They do all their cooking over a 2-burner propane range; there is no microwave, toaster,  blender, oven, dishwasher, or even refrigerator. There is no glass on the windows, and no air conditioning; to battle the heat they splurged on two fans, one per floor. They don’t have a TV, and to use the computer they take public transportation to the Servants office 15 minutes away.

When we first met Dave and Maria at language school, we were immediately curious about the life they’d chosen. When we visited Samaritana women in their squatter communities, we thought of Dave and Maria, and were impressed. But when they invited us over for lunch, and told us that the minimum commitment with Servants is three years, we were inspired, humbled, and challenged.

Dave met us at the entrance to the squatter area, and walked us through narrow alleyways, around goats and chickens, past men lounging with potbellies out and women cooking lunch in communal woks.  Everyone seemed to know Dave, and he introduced us to a dozen curious onlookers on the short walk.  When we sat down to lunch, little kids peered in their window to check out the newcomers, and didn’t go away even after Dave and Maria had chatted with them and had turned back to us.  We asked them about all of the things that we knew would be tough for us in their situation.  How did they deal with the lack of privacy?  Were they worried about their health?  Did they constantly feel compelled to give away their own modest dinner? What do they do for fun?

We left with more questions: Could we do it ourselves? Is it the right thing for us? We’re not sure yet. It would’ve been tough, if not impossible, to offer our skills in writing and communications to IJM and Samaritana (and for Laura to write her novel) if we’d lived in a squatter community without a computer. We also have a millstone of a mortgage tying us down, necessitating a return to paid work. And yet Dave and Maria’s commendable lifestyle brings a number of worthwhile points to mind:

  • Wherever we live, we could make do with less.
  • While people with specific backgrounds have their valued place in volunteer work (lawyers and social workers, for example, at IJM), an organization like Servants challenges us to remember how important relationships are in any kind of ministry.
  • Dave and Maria didn’t just up and move to a squatter community the day after their wedding; it was a gradual process that started in their home town. So for the rest of us, maybe it’s time to just donate an hour or two around the corner, and keep an open mind.

— Nate

  1. Liza says:

    I thought this post achieved the delicate balance of provoking introspection without being guilt-ridden. Interesting idea that some missionaries need computers to be effective, and some need to go without.

  2. Jennifer Rolander says:

    I am so completely blown away by people like yourselves and those like Maria and Dave. I am so happy that there are people in the world willing to make the sacrifices for others in such an all encompassing way. I know I would not be able to.

    • freeisaverb says:

      You know JR, we’re honored, as we’ve said, but I think what gets lost is that it’s a gradual process–we may seem like such different people, like Do-Gooders, and yet eight years ago this was just an idea we were tossing around. What we’re hoping is that warm-hearted friends like yourselves will simply be open to these kinds of conversations–looking, listening–and allowing life to touch you. Longest journeys starting with a single step and all that . . .

      • Jennifer Rolander says:

        and what an amazing journey it has been for you both! Just know that we are always open to these conversations and are behind you 110%. Much love to you both!

      • freeisaverb says:

        Thanks JR! You have been such an encouragement to us, and the faithfulness and warmth of folks back home has been such a big thing for us this year.

  3. amillah says:

    wow brave of them!. although living with the people is a basic model in community organizing/development work. my roommate before who took up community development in the university had to do this for one year as part of their course requirements. those who do this are eventually more successful in making lasting changes in the community. there’s an order of priests in pasay who do this, and now they have housing and livelihood projects. but it’s definitely a long term commitment.

    • freeisaverb says:

      Right Amillah, it seems so logical when you think about it, and yet moving someplace is something so many of us–myself included, for most of my life–are unwilling to consider. It’s the long-term part, though, that still intimidates us, although we’re trying to keep open minds for the future.

  4. Billy Gray says:

    Fascinating post, Nate. It’s odd how that coincides with some of the thinking and discussion Megs and I have been having about having more (probably MUCH more) than we need, and that we have been incredibly blessed in ways that we didn’t and never could deserve.

    I also like the idea of being compelled to invest 3+ years with people before performing any projects. At the same time, I can understand the comfort that the susurrus of “it’s only a year” can provide on a short-term missions trip. Hang in there, bud. You’re still doing great work.

    • freeisaverb says:

      “Susurrus”? Well played, my friend. Having friends who deploy words that spell check doesn’t know is one of life’s little pleasures. And thanks, as always, for the encouragement!

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