Pastor Eddie leads us in the light rain through a few communities in Payatas, until at last, we find ourselves at a well, right in the middle of the small path that cuts through a sprinkling of houses in this neighborhood. We wait there as Pastor Eddie speaks with a couple women at their house while his two young daughters decide to play with the bucket to draw water. He gently sees what they’re doing, and decides to show them how to draw water; gently laying the bucket down on it’s side, allowing a little water in, until finally, the entire bucket is submerged and full. Once they wash their feet, Pastor Eddie invites us through a tight space in between two homes, into a tiny 7x5 foot room.
My two students, Jorel and Nico, and I awkwardly shuffle into a room as we’re invited to take a seat. We quickly take seats around Kuya Eliseo, who is lying down shirtless on a mat on the ground, shaking from Parkinson’s disease. This is where we’re doing church today. As we sit and listen to Kuya Eliseo’s story from Pastor Eddie, we come to find that he’s only 51 years old, and that his wife left him, took the children, and started a new family when he was diagnosed with his disease. The other two people in the room were family of his; an older woman who is his primary caretaker, and a younger woman who lives in the room as well, making floormats from scrap cloth, as a means of income.
Pastor Eddie outlines our time for us: “Maybe a couple of us can share a word of encouragement to Kuya Eliseo and his family; and then we’ll pray for healing.” He then breaks the ice by handing Kuya Eliseo’s caretaker some medicine that he got a hold of; one of two prescriptions Kuya Eliseo’s condition requires to control the symptoms; medicine that they are no longer able to afford. Pastor Eddie does what he can. After this interaction, he comes back to the outline, and looks at me and my students to see who would like to share first. Jorel and Nico both take bold risks as they shareabout the fullness of life and healing that Jesus offers.
In that moment, my faith is confronted by reality: Are the things that I believe in my comfortable, North American, middle-class life about Jesus and his Kingdom, good enough news for a man like Kuya Eliseo?
It’s in this moment that I begin to wonder what Pastor Eddie’s days must be like. Pastor Eddie has been with Manila Underground (MUG) since its inception, three years prior. He was formerly a missionary church planter with another organization. MUG began as an exercise of faithfulness, to empower and plant house churches in slum communities across Metro Manila. In the last three years, more than 90 house churches have been planted, and the total number of people who are being reached is around 1000.
While these numbers may sound sexy, the hours that are put in, certainly are not. One of the aims of MUG is to empower leaders who outreach and serve the communities in which they live. As these are slum communities, the house churches are a way for them to become less resource-dependent than traditional church planting and church-growth practices. As I watch Pastor Eddie, I realize that the most precious resource that they use on a daily basis is their time.
As we finish up with Kuya Eliseo, we quickly move into another home, where 6-7 other people from the neighborhood, along with their kids, join us in the living room. We are doing church again. We open up with a worship song. Pastor Eddie then asks people around the room to share their testimonies of how they’ve come to trust, rely on, and follow God. Koritha boldly tells the story about her childhood in the Philippines, as her mother worked in Kuwait during the Gulf War, and they had lost contact with her for weeks. She shares about how her mother miraculously got onto a plane while her leg was injured, and came back home to them in Manila in the middle of a storm that flooded the city. Another woman then shares about how her son was spared at childbirth, despite having had the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, and the doctors declaring that her child would not make it. He’s sitting with us, playing in that room today.
Pastor Eddie then asks me to share and preach from the Word…something I do faithfully, albeit poorly, given my broken Taglish and clear hesitation. I share from the account in Luke of Jesus calling his first disciples (a passage I normally feel at home in). As Koritha and Pastor Eddie translate for me, they graciously fill in the gaps of the message. Though the entire room has turned over by the time we finished, a man listens and sits there the entire time. Kuya Ramon in the last few years has had three strokes (he wasn’t too old either). As I listen to his stories and conversations with Pastor Eddie, it becomesclear that Kuya Ramon no longer wants to live. Pastor Eddie, almost pleading with Kuya Ramon, reasons that there is still much life and meaning to make of it, given that three strokes, he is still alive.
If it hadn’t rained earlier that day, Pastor Eddie, Jorel, and Nico would have tried to make it to another of their house churches. By the time we finish, I am tired. As we wrap up our visit, I began to chew on what “incarnational ministry” and “church” look like. What if incarnational ministry (ministering by being among, in the flesh with a people or a place) in the most mundane of ways, is to sit and be present with someone that others have chosen to forget. What if it’s to, in Koritha’s words, “remind someone that they even exist”. What if it’s to sit in a living room, telling stories to each other of God’s faithfulness as kids run around, for the sake of helping someone to find meaning in the life that they live, and encouraging them just a tiny bit.
My North American, Filipino-American, evangelical Christian experience of church is far different from what I encountered today in Payatas. And while I, as a full-time minister, often have opinions about how ministry should happen, today I am a student, humbled by my brother, Pastor Eddie. I wonder what the church, especially the North American church, can learn from this outpost of God’s present and coming Kingdom, tucked away next to a garbage dump. What would the church be like if we were less focused on stages, and more focused on stories; less focused on pledges, and more focused on presence. What if the church chose to turn its focus towards the forgotten of our society and cities.
I long for the day when the church looks a little more like that. May it be so.
My family and I are in Metro Manila this summer, leading 29 college students and 7 staff on a trip called the Global Urban Trek. The vision of our trip is to call this generation of college students to consider full-time incarnational missions for at least two years after graduation.