Archive for the ‘Our work’ Category

Take Back the Night is just 15 days away.  As we do our best to prepare for the fun run/race that will, we hope, raise the funds needed for Samaritana to accept the women who are currently on the waiting list, we are grateful for prayers, encouragement, and support from all of you who are near and far.

We’ve recently been asked by a few people back in the States if it’s possible to sponsor a Samaritana woman (or multiple women) to run this race.  The answer is yes!  The whole point of this event is to raise money for Samaritana; whether that money comes from race registrations or donors overseas, the result is the same: more women can get off the streets and start a new life.

There are currently 21 women at Samaritana.  Many of them hope to run and finish their race on June 4.  Please pray for these women, for sponsors to support them, and for all of the planning we’re doing during the next fifteen days to make this a great event for everyone involved.

If you would like to sponsor the Samaritana women, you can follow these 3 easy steps below:

1. Send an email to to let them know that you would like to sponsor a woman (or multiple women) for Take Back the Night.  For example, you might say, “I’d like to give $25 for every Samaritana woman who runs and finishes the race.”

2. Write a check to Samaritana’s non-profit partner in the US, Mission East Asia National Support (MEANS), and designate Samaritana in the memo. Samaritana is certified by the Philippine Council for NGO Certification (PCNC); your donation will be tax-deductible.

3.Mail your check to: P.O. Box 8434, Bartlett, IL 60103.

We’ll post pictures, race results, and other news after the race on June 4!

-Laura & Nate

After Taste for Freedom, our fund-raiser that many of you attended or helped make happen, I said to myself, “Never again!” Event planning is just too stressful for me, since it requires both organization and detail-orientation, two things which I most definitely am not.

And yet here we are again. As you may have read a few months back, Laura had the idea to use her coaching experience to start a fitness program, Super Babae, for the women at Samaritana.  Super Babae is gaining momentum (Nike’s second donation is en route from the States!), and when we were talking to our friend Ryan (who worked in sports marketing and managed events), the idea came up of doing a fund-raising race for Samaritana. (All the Samaritana women will get to run the race and get the t-shirt for free, so we’re encouraging them to train the next few weeks as 3k is still longer than most of them have run.)

June 4 is closing in fast, so we’d appreciate your prayers! So far we have a venue, a few partners, and a water sponsor, so all we need is a few hundred locals to register and it’ll be a smashing success!

— Nate

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

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With the enervating smog and climate in Manila, exercise is far from the mind of the average Filipino.  In fact, one native trait we’ve adopted is doing almost anything to avoid walking; Filipinos will stay on a bus those extra ten feet, take a tricycle to avoid a plodding two blocks, and of course stand on the escalator rather than step up it as impatient Westerners do.  Let me be clear that we’re not talking about laziness here—we’re talking about self-preservation, which is what’s required if you don’t want to always carry a backup shirt (see our earlier post, Sweaty State of Mind).

Despite all of this, as a former coach, one of my goals at Samaritana was to start a fitness group for the women.  My hope was to help them reclaim their bodies through exercise, live healthier lives, and learn important life skills like goal-setting and working through stress, grief, and frustration. Giving this fitness group a big step toward reality was a generous donation of $1,000 in workout clothes and running shoes from Nike, which we boxed up, shipped to Manila, and hoped we’d find there on the other side.

Our first sign that we weren’t in the U.S. any more was a notice from the Quezon City post office telling us that we’d have to pay $375 to have the packages released.  It seemed like a blatant attempt to extort from the Americans; we’d already paid $300 to ship the packages from the US, so this additional fee would almost cancel out the value of the donation! We solicited help from Samaritana, Nike, the Fulbright office, the University of the Philippines, and practically everyone we knew here, but the message was the same: pay or say goodbye to your packages. Our resources exhausted, we made our way to the post office, praying for a miracle to the only One we knew who was bigger than corrupt government officials.

We walked up to the window with a Filipino friend, listened as a woman behind the counter rattled off a conversation in Tagalog, watched as she flipped through a packet of documents we mostly couldn’t read, and then . . . smiled at us, gave us the packages, and we walked away without paying a peso! We got our miracle, and our befuddled Filipino friend said that perhaps there was a new customs official who changed the rules, but that he didn’t really know what had just happened.

Back at Samaritana, I wasn’t sure how the women would respond, but I need not have worried.  During our first meeting, before there was any mention of the Nike donation, the women talked about how they wanted to get stronger so they could pick up their kids without straining their backs, how they hoped exercise would make them feel more awake and alive, and how they wanted to improve their health.

After spending the last four years handing out equipment to my Mills College cross country and track & field teams, I’m used to the usual cheer that accompanies getting a new uniform, feeling like you’re part of the team.  But for the Samaritana women (many of whom have never worn any such affluent exercise wear) the reaction was better described as pure joy.  They walked taller, smiled bigger, and giggled endlessly when they saw each other in Dri-Fit outfits, ready to work out.

Over the past two months, Super Babae (babae, “women” in Tagalog, is pronounced buh-bah-eh) has grown and taken shape, and now includes three morning meetings per week where the women do yoga, strength training, and jogging.  My short-term goal is to teach them these exercises well enough that they can do them without me, and to empower the women to lead each other so the group can continue beyond the immediate future.  In the months to come, I hope that the morning routines will not be mere exercise, but a means to healing a broken past and a distorted view of their bodies.  We’ll work on goal-setting, reframing our perceptions, and learning how to conquer our fears—all through moving our limbs and sweating a lot.

Every morning before we begin, I ask the women to close their eyes, breathe, and acknowledge whatever it is they’re carrying on that particular day—sorrow, anger, fatigue, fear—and to ask God to help them let those negative feelings fall to the floor as they move their bodies.  It’s a small thing, these mornings of teaching them to be aware of their bodies and to push themselves.  But so much of what we’ve learned here is that healing happens not in big, dramatic moments, but in learning to sit with life as it is, flex your muscles against the things that restrict you, and break free when the time is right.


Thank you to Nike for the donation that made Freedom Fitness possible, and thank you to everyone who has supported our work with these incredible women both financially and through your prayers!

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Quezon City, like most of metro Manila, is a cloud of exhaust, a cacophony of roosters, stray dogs and permanent traffic, a wet blanket of heat. But step through the doors of Samaritana Transformation Ministries, and you find yourself in an open-air courtyard with a stone labyrinth set in the grass, a soothingly trickling fountain, and the airy feel of freedom in every room. Women sing as they cook or clean, and others laugh as they make earrings or greeting cards to sell in the Philippines and the U.S.  You may also see women working on their English language skills, sharing past hurts in Tagalog Bible studies, quietly talking in individual or group counseling, or more recently, gathering together for yoga or strength training in our newly-formed Freedom Fitness group (more about that later).

Samaritana has been sending volunteers and staff out to the bars to build relationships with prostituted women since 1992, when then-seminary student Thelma Nambu and other friends met to pray for, visit, and befriend these poorest of the poor, lowest of the low who make the worst kind of living by selling themselves each night for the equivalent of $2 or $3. The ministry was inspired by the story of Jesus meeting an outcast woman at a well, and showing her the way to a new life that didn’t involve men using and then discarding her. Bringing that story to life today, Samaritana is a haven for women who have left, or want to leave, their lives on the streets.

During an orientation meeting for new volunteers, we learned about Samaritana’s extensive programs: in addition to the daily schedule for “women friends,” there are scholarship programs for children, medical missions, police training (to educate them about sex trafficking and to view prostituted women as victims, not criminals), partnerships with faith-based and secular feminist NGOs alike, and visits to squatter communities to spend time with new women friends who have not yet left life on the street—just to name a few.  To hear the women’s stories of abuse, poverty, and shame, it’s astounding that anyone can recover, and yet we see daily proof that healing is, in fact, possible. The same young women who have been pushed to the edges of society (both culturally and geographically) are now giggling as they watch Nate wash dishes (kitchens are generally women’s turf here) or teach us how to eat fish and rice with our hands.

Healing from lives of abuse and shame is slow, hard work, but it’s clear that Samaritana has spent every bit of the last eighteen years figuring out how to best serve these women, and that God has blessed that work.  We’re honored to be a part of it, and grateful to all of you who have supported us (and Samaritana) in our work here!

On the Streets

Posted: August 20, 2010 in Our work
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We’ve been in Manila for nearly a month, and after days of language school, orientation with three different organizations, and three weeks of Friday-night outreach training, it’s time to venture into the world we’ve been hearing and reading about for the past several years, the world of prostitution and sex trafficking.

This past Friday, after two hours of training at Samaritana,* half our group of volunteers prepares to head out to the bars; the other half stays to pray for the safety of the group and the conversations we will have. We are excited to meet these women face to face―this is why we’re here―but also a little scared.

We go to an area just a few miles from our house on Commonwealth Avenue (one of the main roads through Quezon City). It’s an area we’ve passed by many times on our way home from work or school, with one dingy “karaoke barafter another. These bars are often little more than shacks of corrugated metal and plywood, with a fluorescent tube or string of Christmas lights to attract attention, a lone TV up front for the sham entertainment, and tiny curtained-off rooms in back where the true, sordid business goes down.

These poorest-of-the poor women mostly wear T-shirts, shorts, and flip flops, and spend hours standing or sitting on the curb, breathing exhaust from the 8 lanes of passing traffic, and pimping each other, or letting their bar owner or pimps advertise them to passersby to avoid the potential shame of being rejected directly.

During the hour and a half that we’re out, we sit and talk with women from two neighboring bars. In our halting Tagalog, we attempt to ask their names, ages, and whether or not they have kids (most of them do).

A pretty, petite girl catches our attention, because she is the oldest daughter of the bar owner. We’ll call her Lucia. She is my first “woman-friend,” a term we use at Samaritana rather than “prostitute” or “sex worker.” It’s a distinction I’ve come to appreciate: these are women who have had to make a “choice” when there isn’t another option. Lucia says she is twenty-six, but she looks more like sixteen. She and the other girls with her are continually rubbing their noses and sniffing, a mannerism we later find out is the result of sniffing “rugby,” or rubber cement. (Incidentally, Lucia tells us that she gave birth to a baby boy just a month ago, and yet she started working again almost immediately after he was born.)

As we’re talking, the bar owner grabs two of the youngest-looking girls and touts them as virgins to men walking by, who eventually decide to move on to another bar. At one point we walk to another bar, and even though I’m standing right beside Nate, I see every girl we pass eyeing him, doing their best to pose for him and catch his attention. As soon as I reach over and hold his hand, it is as if I have flipped a switch, and they are just girls and women again, slouching back into their resigned stance of waiting. All of the girls we talk to seem surprised to see a man who isn’t there to use them.

One of our first days here, a cab driver told us a girl can be bought for 100 pesos, a little over two U.S. dollars. One girl tells a fellow Samaritana volunteer that she has “no life, because she hasn’t had any customers today.”

This is just the first of what will be our regular Friday nights, but it’s clear to us already that God is at work here in a powerful way―but that doesn’t mean the work is easy. Transformation happens slowly in these lives among the slums of Quezon City, but there is hope.

*Samaritana is a local NGO dedicated to fighting sex trafficking, and the main group that we will be working with this year. We’ll discuss our work with in more detail in upcoming posts, but for general information though, please visit their site listed in our sidebar.