Wednesday, 30 November 2011

The Power of the Word

Teaching English, I am spending a lot of time thinking about words at the moment. This, however, has very little to do with that, but it seemed like an appropriate introduction! Rather, as our thoughts turn towards preparations for Christmas, it is a reflection on the prologue to John's Gospel.

The Power of the Word

In the beginning was the Word
The word that is, the word that does
The word of creative power

The power to create us instead of me
Drawing in those who were out

And spirit

Building relationships
Enabling dialogue
Bringing together

And the Word was God

The Word was the real light
The word that speaks, the word that is silent
The word of wisdom and truth

The wisdom that breaks the boundaries
Understanding through the eyes of the heart

And Spirit

Guiding thought
Challenging assumption
Inspiring change

And the Word was God

The Word became flesh
The word that lives, the word that breathes
Meaning becoming being

The Word that chooses weakness with us
Dwelling together, co-creators of a new unity

And Spirit

Uniting peoples
Liberating truth
Becoming humanity

And the Word was God.

(John 1: 1-14)

Sunday, 27 November 2011

What we take for granted

We have reached the end of our second week of teaching at TVED, and between teaching, planning and marking there has been less time for blog post writing ... but there has still been a huge amount to reflect on.

I am not going to start listing all the differences between this teaching job and others I've had, but I have certainly been struck by just how many things I, as a teacher, have always taken for granted. And I'm not just talking about things like interactive whiteboards and computer suites. I'm talking about things as simple as paper.

When it comes to teaching, paper is fairly fundamental; and although comments about how many rainforests have passed through the photocopier that morning are probably familiar in a lot of staffrooms, paper is not exactly rationed.

In the UK, I would not have thought twice about printing off a homework sheet for every child, and probably a few spares. Here, we print one copy per class, and the students have to organise themselves to make sure they copy down the questions.

I have often had students who have reached the end of a school year with a half empty exercise book, but come September are given a new one, leaving the empty pages of the last one unfilled. In my first lessons here I was surprised by the students asking "do we need a whole page, or a half" and it took a while to realise that this was because they didn't want to hand in a whole A4 sheet if they could fit their answers on a half.

Last year when my students handed in homework I expected it to be on a piece of A4 file paper, and if they gave me part of a ripped off sheet, or their homework on the back of a page that had clearly already been used for something else, I would have been thoroughly unimpressed; now I'm having to learn to accept that a torn, pre-used piece of paper is being handed in, because paper is precious.

It has added to the learning curve of teaching in a very different situation and I am having to adapt to using resources in a very different way. For example, there are no reading books for the students here (another thing I have always taken for granted), but my thoughts of printing off sheets of text for them to practice reading have had to go out of the window.

We don't have much involvement with the main fee-paying school here, but even there it seems clear that the resources aren't as good as those we take for granted in UK state schools. In TVED it is an even more stark reality.

It has made me very aware how much we take for granted, and that we have a lot more to be thankful for than we remember to appreciate. In some ways, it is good that we are able to take so many things for granted; but I guess it has also brought home how dangerous a road we travel if we start to allow  those things to be eroded away; if we cut budgets because the value of something can't be counted in economic productivity: the last thing I would want for UK schools (environmental issues aside for a moment) is for them not to be able to take for granted photocopying an interesting resource for thirty children.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Reflecting on violence

A week ago, for the first time in my life, I sat through a boxing match from start to finish. As a general rule, watching people beating each other up isn't one of my top past times, so last week's fight has given me a fair amount of food for thought, leading me to reflect on the nature of violence and aggression.

I have not become a boxing fan, nor am I likely to become an advocate of a sport where the winner is he who hits the other hardest and most frequently. But I can't help thinking that there are far worse forms of violence than the one that had millions of Filipinos glued to their TV screens last weekend. 

When Marquez and Pacquiao stepped into the ring last Sunday, they did so because they had chosen to be boxers. I can’t help thinking that the reality of this choice makes a huge difference to the danger of this violence. There are no innocent bystanders caught in the cross-fire; nobody caught in a spiralling web of violence from which it is hard to see a way out.

There is also something to be said for the equality of a boxing ring; unlike on the battlefield, strict rules mean heavy-weights are not pitched against feather-weights. Outside the ring, it strikes me that violence rarely follows this rule, just as in the school playground the big kids are likely to single out the weak-looking ones; on the world stage too; the rich and powerful choose their victims carefully: and not on the basis that they’re evenly matched and would be up for a “fair fight.”

Reflecting further I recalled the TV cameras zooming in on the boxers’ faces each time they returned to their corner. Apparently close-ups of bleeding eye-lids make particularly good television. I disagree, but it did make clear the human face of the pain you are inflicting, and even without the zoom lens of a TV camera, it is clear that in a boxing ring, the fight is up close and personal. You look into the eyes of the person you are hitting. How different from the aggression of a violent world. Modern warfare and technology has meant bombs can be dropped and scattered from thousands of miles away from those who they’ll touch. A series of sub-contractors can allow arms manufacturers to wash their hands and deny all knowledge of atrocities committed where their weapons end up; a fog of numbers and jargon blinds our eyes to who and what is being hurt by our global financial transactions. The unseen victim is much easier to hurt than the one who looks you in the eye and reveals their pain.

I suppose the sum of my reflection comes down to this. Boxing is violent, yes, but it seems to me it is not really oppressive: and the worse forms of violence, the ones which, sadly, govern a lot of the way our world works, are those forms of violence which are used to oppress. The violence of the rich and powerful ensuring it stays that way; the violence of the few to control the many. It’s the violence of guns and bombs and arms dealers; but it is much more than that too. It is the violence of dictatorship and the silencing of the majority’s voice. It is the violence of financial corruption and unfair trade. It is the violence of countless faceless victims. It is the violence and oppression so endemic in the way our world works that we don’t even recognise it anymore. It is the violence that seems to hurt less than a punch in the face but actually does far more damage.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Marked with the sign of the cross

The sign of the cross is a simple prayer. Here it is very visible: all prayers invariably begin and end with it; and it is not uncommon to see people sign themselves with the cross as they get in a jeepney (which is perhaps slightly unnerving) before they take a penalty kick, as they get up to perform karaoke...

As something so familiar, so simple so automatic; it seemed to me it is also worthy of a little more reflection. I have tried to capture some of my thoughts in this poem, although I’m not sure how successfully I have done so.

Marked with the Sign of the Cross

What is this sign?
This symbol of the cross
Instrument of torture and suffering
Weapon of oppression and occupation

Becoming new

A sign of resistance, of the new order
A sign of hope and a sign of love
A sign of God

You are marked with the sign of the cross

What is this sign?
A sign which reaches to the heavens
And touches the earth
A sign which stretches wide
Encompassing all of humanity

A sign of a relationship
God with humanity
On a relationship of humanity
With Humanity

You are marked with the sign of the cross

What is this sign?

A sign that touches the head
Engaging intellect
Encouraging learning
Demanding growth

A sign that touches the heart
Offering love
Inviting a response
From the depths of the soul

A sign that touches the arms
Touched by the cross
To reach out and touch others
To live out the message of the cross

You are marked with the sign of the cross
That you might live the sign of the cross

Monday, 14 November 2011

A weekend in community

One of our reasons for applying to the Salesians, and one of our hopes in coming here, was to have the opportunity to experience life in community. The day to day life of community is of course about doing all the little things, but it is also the more significant communal experiences that contribute to building that community. This past weekend has been a good one for community building.

The first event was on Friday, the 40th birthday of one of the brothers in the community. By dinner time, the dining room was transformed with balloons, banners and table cloths on the tables. There are usually a few people at dinner each evening, but it was clear an effort had been made and virtually everyone was present and sat down together, along with a couple of Salesians from other communities who showed up for the party. A special meal complete with very ugly fish, delicious chocolate ice-cream and birthday cake: special because of the food, but also because of the commitment to sit down together, to take a bit longer over the meal, to talk and to laugh.

On Sunday the community were virtually all present once again, this time to watch the boxing. If I am honest, it is probably not something I would generally associate with religious community life, but after the build up all week it was clear this was going to be quite an occasion. Boxing isn't something I would usually choose to watch, but although at no point in the contest did I have any idea who was winning, and in spite of my mild aversion in principle to the idea of people hitting each other in the head and calling it sport, I was very glad to be present in the community room and part of something that was not only a community experience, but a national one.

International sports stars aren't exactly two-a-penny in the Philippines, so boxer Manny Pacquiao is something of a national hero. Few Filipinos can afford to the pay-per-view coverage in their homes, but that doesn't mean any of them are going to miss seeing their hero perform: the fight was being shown in cinemas and on big screens put up for the occasion  by local areas clubbing together. Ours was probably not the only school canteen showing the coverage. And, as Pacquiao won, albeit not as convincing as they'd have liked, I am probably not the only person round here who has had an uplifting community experience this weekend.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Let's eat!

It mentions in the guide book that at all times and on every occasion, Filipinos need little excuse to utter the words "Let's eat!", and it is certainly proving true here. So as such an important part of life, I guess food is worthy of a blog post.

Food creates the rhythm of a day: breakfast, lunch and dinner are all cooked meals. In between the three cooked meals a day, which you might have thought would suffice;  it's also customary to have morning and afternoon snacks. It becomes a little dangerous to approach the community room at certain times, because you know if anyone else is there, they will soon utter the words "Come, take your snacks" - and with it being considered rude to say no, you find yourself once again at table. And when they say snack, they don't mean a biscuit and a cup of tea: it is often far more substantial.

The staple food is rice: staple in that it served at every meal, breakfast, lunch and dinner. When they serve pasta, or noodles, there is still always rice. Even McDonalds here serve rice with your burger and fries! We've had boiled rice, fried rice, every type of both sweet and savoury rice cake you can imagine (and every type you can't), and the local speciality, puso, or hanging ... you guessed it ... rice!

The dinner table has certainly been our main point of contact with the community here, and although life is too busy here for all the members of the community to be present at every meal, there are usual at least a few people at table together; and this does seem to be the place where the community members see each other and talk to each other. Likewise, when visitors arrive, it rarely takes long for somebody to say, "Let's take something." Often when one of the community has been away and returns or when someone visits they arrive with "pasalubong" - a gift shared on arrival, and we've yet to see a non-edible pasalubong.

It is, of course, hard to generalise beyond our experience here, but I get the impression that the importance of food here goes hand in hand with the importance of hospitality. Food is to be eaten, of course, but it is also to be shared and socialised over.

Friday, 4 November 2011

An artistic interlude

With the students all on holiday this week, it has left plenty of time for reflection: here are some of the results; in painting and poetry.

I Am

I am the Bread of Life
I am the food for the  hungry
Sustenance and strength
Holiness found in the every day

I am the Light of the World
I am the flame that flickers in the night
Inspiration and joy
Shining in the darkness

I am the Gate of the Sheep
I am the way in and the way out
Comfort and challenge
The gate
A place of new beginnings

I am the Good Shepherd
I am standing in the midst of my sheep
Guide and protector
And slaughtered lamb

I am the Resurrection and the Life
I am hope for the future
Forgiveness and rebirth
Resurrection and Life
An unending second chance

I am the Way, the Truth and the Life
I am opening a door for you
Faith and fullness
Way, Truth, Life
The promise of a Father’s love

I am the True Vine
I am intertwined with my branches
Support and source
Bearing much fruit

I am.

(John 6:35; 8:12; 10:7; 10:14; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1)

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

For all the saints, Philippines style!

In the UK, All Saints day, November 1st, will probably have passed many people by; in France, it is a bank holiday, an excuse for a day off, but from what I saw, little more than that: here, on the other hand, there is certainly no chance of it going unnoticed!

We knew, both from the guide books and from the community here, that All Saints is a major festival here, and yesterday we ventured out into the cemeteries to see for ourselves what this celebration of the dead looks like.

This is a time for family reunions: in the days before buses, boats and planes are full as people travel to gather with relatives in what might seem an unusual venue for a family get together and party: the cemetery. People spend the whole day, and often the night too, gathered together around the graves of their dead relations. But this is no sad and morose memorial, it is most definitely a celebration: there is talking and laughter, games and food. I can confirm this is the first time I have seen a dunkin' donuts take-away stand inside the grounds of a cemetery!

We visited two different cemeteries: a private one and a public one: even in death there is a clear disparity between the rich and poor here. In the rich cemetery families set up tents over their grassy plots whilst in the poor one, people jostled for space around graves stacked four or five high. Having said that, the atmosphere of celebration was much the same, and vendors still sold flowers, candles and food. In both, coming from my mindset of thinking of cemeteries of silent places of reflection and recollection, it was a very, very different experience; a very different idea of how you remember and honour the dead.

At first view, this party in the cemetery seems to have little to do with a religious feast day: so is this a cultural phenomenon, an excuse for a family reunion, or really a celebration of a Christian festival? The reality, I guess, is that it is different for each person, for each family, but, in differing measures, it is probably all three.

Yes, it is cultural, and I doubt it could be easily exported into a different culture. We are all subject to the influences of our cultural surroundings, often subconsciously, and many of the things that individuals do, they probably do because that is what is done.

Yes it is a chance to gather together with the family. Families are important here and, in a country which counts more than 7000 islands, it is an opportunity to be reunited, to share and celebrate together.

And yes, it is religious too: mass was being celebrated throughout the day in the cemeteries, in between the feasting we did also see people saying prayers; and it does fit within a wider culture of praying for the dead which is much more in evidence here than in the UK.

And as an outsider, of course, I can observe and am very glad I have had the opportunity to do so, but I'm probably not qualified to judge what is really going on.