A letter from Paul Matheny and Mary Nebelsick in the Philippines
It is 5 am in the morning and I am sitting at the dining room table. The roosters are crowing outside and our cats are running and jumping all over the furniture. My thoughts are with you and with the people I met this past week. Last Tuesday I travelled two hours from our home in Dasmariñas Cavite to Manila to participate in a doctoral student’s dissertation defense. This is our usual trip. We walk to the bus stop, take a bus to a central terminal, change to a city bus, walk a little way and change to a smaller jeep and get down at the University.
The University was particularly quiet that day since the Philippines was celebrating the EDSA Revolution, the day that they peacefully freed themselves from the Marcos dictatorship and returned to democratic rule. Many people had gathered in public places to celebrate this liberation over tyranny. In the Union Theological Seminary boardroom we were also talking about liberation. We were discussing a dissertation devoted to conflict transformation. Our student, a woman pastor devoted to her congregation, asked, “Can conflict be transformed into growth? Can death be turned into life?” She was concerned with all the violence within and without the church and developed a curriculum to begin to address the problem. Women in the Philippines are dedicated to addressing issues of violence. Its destructiveness seeps into every part of life. “We have to begin to find a way to talk about conflict,” she insisted. “We must find ways of working through conflict so that a new vision of church life can emerge.”
At the end of the dissertation defense I was given three oranges. They were lovely, perfect globes that fit exactly in the palm of my hand. Their skins gave off a spicy, clean perfume that promised sweetness. I carefully placed them in my bag because they seemed too beautiful to eat.
After the defense I got into a jeep to travel one hour to another part of Manila. I was going to visit a fellow faculty member who had contracted a high fever and fallen into a coma. I decided to give him the oranges. Perhaps, I thought, the sweetness would remind his family of God’s perfect goodness and the sweetness that lies beneath the outer, seemingly impenetrable surface. But when I got to the hospital I was disappointed. He was not there. He had been transferred.
The oranges stayed nestled in my bag. I sadly made my long way back home. The jeep was full of tired passengers sitting facing each other. Most people were leaving the hospital with large manila folders containing x-rays and doctor’s orders. The jeep made a stop at the famous Quiapo church that houses the statue of Jesus known as the Black Nazarene.
At the Church another passenger entered the jeep. He did not duck his head to climb into the back of the jeep and bend down to sit on the benches that line the side of the jeep as did all the other passengers. Instead he crawled in on his hands and knees. In his hand he held a rag and with it began to wipe everyone’s feet. Most of us were wearing sandals or flip-flops and his soft rag brushed against our toes and skimmed the soles of our feet encrusted with the city’s grime. When he had wiped all our feet, he raised himself up onto his knees and held out his shaking hand to ask for donations. Most people physically shied away from him and looked down at their laps, not willing to make a connection. I looked into his face. I was surprised to see the face of a young man with dyed reddish orange hair and a pleading look in his eyes. Into his outstretched hand, I placed an orange. Its scent filled the jeep. He looked at it, surprised, smiled at me and ducked out of the vehicle a little taller and a little more sure of himself.
I could still feel the slight pressure of his rag on my foot and thought of Jesus who washed his disciples’ feet. My feet seemed to have been blessed by this unknown young man. The orange I gave him had been transformed from a simple piece of fruit to a foretaste of God’s love. The young man who had expected rejection had experienced acceptance. Instead of resentful looks he had received hope. In this small way, we both witnessed to a new kind of life where the delicious things in life are shared and all of God’s people are invited to eat. I still had two more oranges in my bag waiting to be spent.
This is the way we, with your help, do ministry here in the Philippines. It is not only teaching, it is living the gospel in every aspect of our lives. Our teaching has a direct connection to all the people we meet, whether they are our students or the people we meet on the streets. Your gifts to us are the oranges, sweet and fragrant, that help us reach out to the people of the Philippines in love. Wherever we are, you are with us. We thank you with all our hearts.
Mary and Paul
The 2014 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 238
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