Thursday, August 31, 2017

A trip to the Philippines -- Sharon McCart

My Trip to the Philippines, July 24 – August 5, 2017

By Sharon McCart, Chair, DisAbility Ministries Committee of The United Methodist Church

I met with Joy in a nondescript chain restaurant. I had been wanting to go to the Philippines since 2009, and when she invited me as one recipient in a mass e-mail, I wondered if this might be the time for me to go. There in the restaurant, she told me about the planned trip. I asked questions. It was an ordinary conversation until she said, “Part of this year’s trip will be to help the faculty of a school learn how to better include students with disabilities.” Suddenly the noisy restaurant seemed to go silent. I didn’t know what to say and I just looked at her. She knows how passionate I am about inclusion for people with disabilities. She had just answered my unspoken question, “What can I contribute to this team?”
Joy is the chair of the Philippines Task Force of the California-Pacific Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. The Task Force has sent teams nearly every year for about eight years now. The purposes of these trips have been fact-finding and to stand in solidarity with the marginalized and those working for justice in the Philippines. Until that moment, I wasn’t sure if that was something I was called to do. I was sympathetic and supportive, but that wasn’t enough to get me to sign up. I needed the trip to connect with my call to advocate for inclusion of people with disabilities, both within the Church and outside of it.

Suddenly, I found it did. And I knew I would go.

The entire trip was incredible, but my focus here is disability ministry, so I will restrain myself to that topic. One evening we went to dinner with two United Methodist deaconesses, Zarla Raguindin and Norma Dollaga. I had met Deaconess Zarla in Louisville at UMW Assembly 2014 when she attended the workshop I co-taught with Lynn Swedberg. She is doing great work in disability ministries, holding trainings and events and even travelling to Jakarta and Indonesia to share her knowledge in those places. Deaconess Norma was instrumental in raising funds to build the school we were going to visit, among other accomplishments in her work for a justice organization called “Rise Up.” We met a number of deaconesses during our trip, but connecting with Zarla was important to me because of the disability ministries connection. It was encouraging and exciting to learn about her work and talk about ways we might support each other. She will be in China for the next three years to earn her PhD. Her research topic is on best practices for advocacy and I look forward to reading her thesis very much.

Joy and I then travelled to the state of Mindanao. On the way to the school where we would spend four days, we stopped to tour St. Genevieve Hospital, which is currently under construction in the town of Tagum. There are no medical facilities specifically for the indigenous (Lumad) peoples, and they typically encounter less than welcoming attitudes at other hospitals, so the Mindanao Foundation for Medical Disaster Preparedness and Response, Inc. decided to build a hospital to serve their needs. The administrator, Asha A. Mendez, RN, and I talked about the great need to provide psychological counseling as well as medical care for the Lumads who have been exploited by foreign corporations, targeted by the Philippine military, and denied assistance from their own government when they were starving because of drought.

From Tagum, we travelled through acres and acres of banana plantations to the Community Technical College of Southeastern Mindanao (CTCSM), which is a Lumad school. Previously the Lumad people have remained illiterate or they were educated in schools with the purpose of pursuing careers away from their own communities. This residential school prepares them to help their own communities. It is culturally sensitive and includes education in organic farming and herbal medicine. Traditional dancing and music are encouraged. Despite the word “college” in the name, the school educates children from preschool through high school. Next year they will add college classes.

Part of the culture, as in many places, holds a stigma about disability. The school administrator and the faculty were not completely forthcoming about disability in their community. It was not until the end of our time there that I sat down with the lead clinic worker, Jill, and we talked about the needs of the students. There are students with ADHD and learning disabilities and other needs. Jill gave me a list of resources that would be helpful. This made me feel that I was doing at least some of what I had come to do.

There are also many students who have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This is understandable because many of them came from militarized areas where there is daily conflict. Some of the children saw a school administrator shot in front of them. Others heard bombings and gunfire daily at the schools they were at previously. Some had lost parents and siblings to the fighting between the indigenous people and the military. The political situation there is violent, and the children pay a price. The faculty is getting training to help with this. There are a number of students on medication for anxiety and other mental illnesses, but the teachers still need to know what to do when a student is struggling. I was grateful to know that this training is taking place.

After four days at the school, we returned to Manila. When we were in Manila the week before, we had met Jenn Panelo Ferariza from the United Methodist Women’s Board, a conference-wide board. She had proposed gathering a few other women from the board and meeting with us before we left for the United States and we had eagerly said yes. The last day of our trip, then, we met with Jenn, who had invited Liza Adamos Cortez and Pastor Marie Sol Villalon to join her. They shared with us about the work they were doing to help the victims of human trafficking and to translate Vacation Bible School curriculum, including adding Philippines-relevant stories. When they finished, I gave them each a packet of disability ministry information and resources and talked a bit about the work of the DisAbility Ministries Committee of The United Methodist Church.
We also talked about Deaconess Zarla’s work. Soon I found that we were planning to have a Disability Ministries Consultation in Manila in the summer of 2018 and I realized that I would return to this country that had shown me both its beauty and its hardships. Dates will soon be set for the Consultation and we will begin planning in earnest.

The conversation then shifted and the women spoke for several minutes in Tagalog, which I do not understand. When they stopped, they looked at me and said, “We were just discussing which conference board the Disability Committee will be under.” The Philippines Central Conference does not have a Disability Committee yet and they were deciding to propose one! This is great news! A centralized committee to provide trainings and resources will help the churches of the Philippines to become more welcoming and accessible to people with disabilities!

This is how my relationship with people in the Philippines has begun. I can hardly wait to see where it will go!

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