It’s been well over a year since I arrived back on American soil after surviving a typhoon, travelling for three weeks and coming down with an illness on the way home from the Philippines. I was in Guatemala followed by metro Manila, the Philippines area for most of July. I came back with much more than I thought I would. Certainly there were great memories, many relationships formed, but there was one gift that I never thought I would be bringing back with me.
During my second week in Manila, I decided to serve with the Missionaries of the Poor, which is a Roman Catholic order of brothers who serve the poorest people around the world. I arrived early in the lobby of our nice hotel where the young people’s conference wrapped up in Manila. The brothers were supposed to pick me up at 10AM. It was now 10:15. By 10:30 I had wondered for a moment where I would stay in Manila that night. I decided to use the phone in the hotel to phone the monastery.
After several rings, a soft spoken brother with a strong accent answered the phone. He told me that someone would be there to pick me up. To this day, I’m still not sure if they were expecting me or not. I had made prior arrangements through email, but nothing felt planned. They welcomed me anyway. After waiting for several more minutes, an old beat up truck with a white robed man drove into the hotel parking lot. It was the brother! He finally arrived!
We drove farther away from the nice high rises into a part of Manila that had shack on top of shack where people called homes. The brother looked back as were stopped at a stoplight and said, “Welcome to the slums of Manila. It’s a little different than where you stayed last night isn’t it?” I certainly agreed. Poverty was everywhere. Homes with no windows, floors or lights. It was difficult to comprehend my new neighborhood for the week.
We drove into the monastery grounds, fully gated, and the brothers showed me my room. Next to the brothers dormitory building was a complex still under construction. This was the homeless shelter where I would spend much of my next week. I would do some basic household chores such as cleaning the courtyard, sweeping and mopping the shelter and spending time with the homeless men who stayed there.
It was great getting to know the men who lived there. Many of them were homeless, found on the streets of Manila prior to being housed by the brothers. I would play games with them, watch bad Filipino shows and just talk with them. One man in particular drew my attention. He wasn’t able to talk well, but he seemed to have a gentle spirit. Eventually I learned that his name was JoJo with the help of one of the teenage boys who lived in the area. JoJo knew a little English and spoke mostly in his native Tagalog. He had an English/Tagalog dictionary so I would try to pronounce words to the delight of the young man and JoJo. They thought it was hilarious as I would try to sound out Tagalog words. We laughed hard that day.
During one of the last days in Manila, I was talking with JoJo. He was wearing this nice beaded bracelet with a cross in the
center of the bracelet. I had commented to him that it was very nice, as I was just trying to continue the conversation. Without skipping a beat, JoJo slipped off his beloved bracelet and put on my wrist. He grabbed my hand and said “Your bracelet. Pray for me.” I immediately prayed for him asking God to bless him. During that prayer I realized that God was blessing me through JoJo. God was calling me to live with the same generosity that this homeless man in the Philippines showed me. For me, JoJo was no longer a homeless man, but a teacher showing me the way to faith. If I wanted to live my faith, then I should: “Love God, love neighbor. Give to the poor. Be generous.” All words of Scripture. All lessons. All true.
I came back from the Philippines with a new bracelet, yes, but also a renewed spirit toward generosity and loving my neighbor. Everyday since the moment JoJo placed that bracelet around my hand I have worn that bracelet and prayed for JoJo. It’s often a simple prayer, but it’s a prayer nonetheless. We remain connected through prayer. This bracelet is now a never ending reminder to me to be generous. I brought back so much more than I thought from Manila last year.