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At the Table of Hope: A Volunteer’s reflection staying with the Religious of the Assumption in the Philippines

May 1, 2024

Deep gratitude and hope springs to mind when I think of my three weeks’ experience in Manila, Philippines. This unique opportunity to volunteer as well as immerse myself into the daily rhythm of prayer and community life of the Sisters has been a real blessing and gift.

The majority of my time was spent living on site with the Assumption Sisters at an elementary school in Malibay, Pasay. The mission school, supported by generous benefactors was opened in 1969 in the squatter area near the garbage dump. Over the years, the dump was cleared, and improvements made, but the school still provides education to children belonging to one of the poorest communities in Pasay, Manila. 

A proportion of my day was spent taking part in the community and prayer life of the Sisters. The other proportion of my day was working within the school setting where my role was to check the nutritional status of the children and to deliver a first aid workshop to staff members which I very much enjoyed. This balance of work, prayer sung in choir and community life had a synergistic peaceful quality to it. Perhaps much needed in Malibay, which is often described as a ‘place that never sleeps.’

Prior to coming to Malibay, I expected the place to be filled with an air of dreariness or despair given that I had been warned that it was an area of deprivation and poverty. However, I immediately took a liking to the place, struck by the vibrancy of Malibay filled with the chaotic hustle and bustle of people going about their daily activities, tricycles (similar to a tuk tuk) and colourful gas guzzling jeepneys weaving through the crowds of people down the little colourful painted streets of Malibay (decorated with bunting following a recent fiesta). Stray cats and dogs would saunter through the marketplace co-existing in harmony with the locals, whilst a man selling tofu would expressively cry out ‘towka’ throughout the day. It is true, this little place never seems to sleep. The constant murmuring of activity, though lacking a degree of privacy, isn’t as intrusive as one might imagine. Late night chattering and karaoke singing in Tagalog drift through the air as does the laughter and play of children, only to be rudely awakened by roosters crowing in the early mornings.

My first day at the school was like being greeted by a big warm hug. The joy and warmth that spilled out from the children, teachers and Sisters was profound. In Filipino culture, as a sign of respect to elders, a young person takes the right hand of the elder and places the hand on their forehead whilst bowing slightly forwards and saying the words ‘Mano Po.’ On my first day, when I was introduced to a group of seven-year-olds in the playground, I was overwhelmed by how respectful and well-mannered they were. Approximately ten children unreservedly got up from where they were seated and greeted me by gently taking my hand and placing it on their foreheads. It came so naturally and freely to them that it left a lasting impression on me.

Indeed, the longer I spent with the children over the weeks, I observed how happy the children were that I often forgot that I was in one of the poorest districts in Manila. The children genuinely enjoyed being at school and would enthusiastically wave at me or greet me in the corridors as I passed by. They carried an air of cheerful confidence that certainly would help them in future life.  Each morning was started with singing and prayer.  How they would love singing ‘I Am Ever with You’ by Arnel Aquino SJ and would belt it out at the top of their lungs. It made me smile when the children’s enthusiasm was so infectious that it encouraged their peers to sing even louder! I was so impressed with how well behaved and obedient the children were to the teachers and Sisters, as well as how neat they looked in their pristine kept uniforms. Indeed, they looked much smarter than me as I frazzled under the Malibay heat! 

During my short time here, I was also warmly welcomed by different Assumption Communities for birthday and feast day celebrations. It was so much fun getting to know the Sisters who really have a good sense of humour and it was nice to see that they also know how to relax and ‘let their hair down’ whilst leading a deep spiritual life. I was also honoured to meet Sr Margarita who was instrumental in setting up the Associate Missionaries of the Assumption (AMA) Philippines. Particularly a special privilege to be able to spend a couple of hours on Pentecost Sunday caring for Sr Margarita in a medical capacity during her final days of life. Indeed, I could perceive that AMA was very close to her heart as her eyes lit up when she knew that I was an AMA volunteer. Her gentle presence made a great impression on me. The following week, it was moving to present at the thanksgiving Masses in memory of Sr Margarita’s well lived life, and to be amongst her loved ones, family and Sister Communities, Assumption family lay community and AMA.

On one of my final weekends, I was happy to attend the annual teachers retreat given by Sr Vicky. It was heartwarming to see how readily the teachers were able to express their life challenges and joys with one another. It amazed me that I too was able to share my experiences with them so comfortably when Sr Vicky picked me from the back row to come to the front and take the mic! It was a blessed time of bonding with both joyful and sorrowful tears shed by many of us. I valued the importance of the retreat, whereby the school community bond with one another was strengthened and renewed, so that they would be able to close one chapter and be ready and motivated for the next academic year.

I had a glimpse of the environmental reality of what it is like to live in Manila. I experienced temporary water shortages, electricity outage, flooding, intense heat which made my feet burn and swell, and pollution that stung my eyes. I was surprised at the lack of parks and green open space in Manila, so a day trip to cooler greener Tagaytay on my free day was such a welcome relief! There I was able to survey the beautiful lush green side of the Philippines and marvel at the scenic view of crystal blue waters with different islands dotted around it. It was such a contrast to the murky river waters of Manila strewn with rubbish.  Garbage disposal and recycling capacities is a huge problem in Manila and healthcare access is limited.

Through this experience, I gained a deeper appreciation for things that I had taken for granted; things I wouldn’t normally think twice about. It made me more grateful for things like tap drinking water, regular water supplies, having adequate garbage disposal and recycling facilities, our NHS and accessibility to healthcare, green spaces and parks and England’s cooler climate.

A humbling experience for me was visiting the homes of local families living near the school. One family of four lived and slept in one room in cramp conditions. Their home floods at least several times a year, and I sadly witnessed the consequences of overnight knee-high dirty waters flooding this family’s home which required a clean-up operation the next morning. It astounds me that this is a regular occurrence, yet this family and community continues to soldier on. I am in full admiration of the Filipino people’s resilience. Despite challenging living circumstances, they continue to work hard to support their families whilst maintaining a joyful disposition which is truly remarkable and inspiring. I found in Malibay how the strength of community, as well as unwavering faith in God, helps people to endure any hardships and gives them the necessary graces to persevere, regardless of the situation they find themselves in.

Despite the harsh environmental conditions, I felt so much joy in Malibay. There is so much richness in this place. It may be a place of material poverty, but I have witnessed that it has a spiritual richness that overrides the hardships and poverty. This to me is more precious and life giving than material wealth.

I see this mission school as a beacon of hope and a gift to the people of Malibay. I am in awe at what the Sisters (along with teachers, Assumption friends and Alumnae) have achieved here. An image that comes to mind when I think of the school is the painting by Joey Velasco ‘Hapag ng Pag-asa’ (table of hope). Jesus, fully present amongst the children and being the ‘food’ that sustains them. 

Prior to coming to the Philippines, it was my hope to be a light to people I met, however the communities I encountered were the ones who taught me how to really shine through their kindness, joyful resilience, positivity, hard work, and dedication. Having spent these weeks in Malibay, I feel assured that God’s love is fully alive here in this place. From the bottom of my heart, I thank the Malibay school Community and Assumption Sisters Communities for all the beautiful experiences, the tears and laughter shared together and to the Assumption Volunteers (AV) and AMA for paving the way to making these three unforgettable weeks a reality. 

(Joey Velasco’s ‘Hapag ng Pag-asa’ print hangs in the dining hall of Emmaus community, Manila)

Written by Jayne