It was noon. For the past four hours, 35 of us students from five countries worked side by side with teachers and construction workers to simultaneously build two houses with Gawad Kalinga (GK) in Bagong Silang, Caloocan. The Australians dug ditches, the Indonesians mixed cement, the Japanese hefted bags of sand, the Hong Kong participants passed buckets of gravel, the Filipinos did a bit of everything.
We wiped sweaty faces with grimy hands before reaching for ice-cold water. Children weaved in and out of our legs, zooming around with makeshift toys. Their mothers passed hollow blocks to us. The lolas shouted encouragement.
The kids teased us. We teased them back. Their happiness was infectious. Soon we were playing with them. After all, as Xavier School President Fr. Aristotle Dy, SJ emphasized in his homily on Martha and Mary, listening and being fully present do as much good as busying ourselves in tasks.
Despite my aching back, I felt immense joy.
Dead or Alive
The Ignatian Student Leadership Forum (ISLF), a week-long immersion program from July 21 to July 27, 2013, under the Jesuit Conference of the Asia Pacific, was instituted last year under former director Fr. Johnny Go, S.J. According to ISLF coordinator, Mr. Brian Maraña, the goal is to form student leaders in the tradition of Jesuit founder, St. Ignatius. Seven students from each of five Jesuit schools (St. Ignatius Riverview College in Australia, Wah Yan College in Hong Kong, Canisius College in Indonesia, Sophia Fukuoka in Japan, and Xavier School in San Juan, Metro Manila) lived, explored, and, in true Jesuit tradition, bonded together.
The week started with a showcase of our culture. With teachers Mr. Palan Reyes, Mr. Alex Santos, Mr. Alvin Ang, Mr. Jules Hernando, Mr. Franco Addun, Mr. Glenn Gomez, and Mr. Christian Bumatayo as guides, we visited San Sebastian Church, lunched at Binondo, and toured Intramuros.
As a Filipino, I have taken things for granted, but as I narrated the epic story of the 1986 Revolution, described a sari-sari store, and discussed territorial disputes to my newfound friends, I finally appreciated my own culture. Touring foreigners around my own hometown made me glimpse the familiar with new eyes. I noticed the piquant smells of Chinatown, the serenity of the EDSA Shrine in the midst of a bustling city, and the flag waving over Bagumbayan. As I retraced Rizal’s footsteps to his martyrdom, I was proud to be Filipino.
Soon I grew sober when, the next day, I came face to face with the stark contrast between rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless. In Quiapo, we paid homage to the Black Nazarene and ventured into the iconic tiangge, all the while trying to dodge pickpockets and beggars. Right across town, at the sprawling American Cemetery, walls sparkled and sprinklers hummed over trimmed grass and perfectly-aligned graves.
As one of our Australian companions aptly put it, “More money is spent on the dead than on the living.”
Not So Different
In the technical school run by the Educational Research Development Assistance (ERDA) Foundation in Pandacan, Manila, we got a taste of working with our hands, knees, and tongues. According to Principal Mr. Marc Magsalin, ERDA trains street children, kids in conflict with the law, and out-of-school youth various trades so they can earn a living.
We tested circuit breakers on the factory floor. We welded objects together in the manufacturing workshop. We baked brownies in the kitchen.
My favorite was working on a drum brake, the contraption at the rear of the car that stops the wheels from turning. It was tough work. Just removing the bolts required a giant wrench, a spray can of WD-40, one person to hold the wheel, another to kick and tug the wrench, and two photographers-cum-cheerleaders to egg us on.
What students learn in ERDA is not what we take up in Xavier, but that doesn’t mean that what they learn is any less difficult, nor less essential. I was being taught how to fix a brake by a girl my age.
At lunch in the home of an Erdanian, we ate galunggong, mongo soup, sinigang, mangoes, all with our bare hands. The fare was simple, but the hospitality grand. An Indonesian marveled that the taste was similar to what he is used to at home.
“We share Malay blood,” he concluded, smiling at our host.
We repaid the ERDA students’ generosity later in the week by showing them around Xavier. They drank in the sight of our football field, basketball courts, spacious canteen with a huge variety of food (compared to only one concessionaire in their school).
One Erdanian turned to me. “Your school is so big, you have so many things. How can you not want to learn?”
GK and ERDA were memorable experiences, but sharing them with peers from other nations made it more meaningful. At first, mingling with one another was a duty. Though everyone could speak English, proficiency levels varied. Many of us felt more comfortable speaking in our own dialects.
It turned out that pusoy dos (Big Two in Australia) would save the day. Apparently, card games are universal. In every spare minute–stuck in traffic, before dinner, after reflection time–we whisked out packs of cards with various motifs (Indonesian batik, Bicycle classics, Philippine Airlines) and commenced game after game.
We grew so close that we talked about serious topics like bullying. In four schools, the target of the bullies would be the nerds and the outcasts. To our shock, our Hong Kong friends disclosed that in their school, the nerds were at the top of the social castes. Because academics was prized in Hong Kong, the bullies were the nerds.
So Dare to Do
Ignatius was a bully himself, a brusque Spanish soldier whose aim was to glorify himself in the service of the king, but when a cannonball injured his leg, he spent his time reading the Bible and the Lives of the Saints. Afterwards, he dedicated his life to God.
ISLF is a leadership forum, but we did not tour Malacañang, Congress, or the Philippine Stock Exchange. We did not attend seminars by business executives or government officials. Instead, we fixed cars and built houses. We listened as School Chaplain Fr. Art Borja, SJ guided us towards discernment, and Australian Rector Fr. Ross Jones, SJ talked about our Lord’s preferential option for the poor.
For a true leader is one who follows in the footsteps of the Lord. A leader serves the people, especially the underprivileged. As my Australian friend put it, “Quantum potes tantum aude.” So much as you can do, so dare to do.