Home for the Holidays

Ten months after my recovery from an injury in 2018, I accepted a job to support the refugee crisis in Uganda. By mid-November, 2018, I found myself changing continent once again, and psyching myself to live up north, west of the Nile river. 

Uganda, like the Philippines, is mostly Catholic. They have the same faith practice as us, though we are more into the fanfare, colors, and traditions. Theirs from my experience is mostly tradition and loud music.

When December came, instead of me planning to take my holidays outside of my new country, I decided to spend it with the locals. Thinking that since it’s with a family, I’ll get to experience “holidays a la Uganda.” Of course, I had a bias coming from the Philippines where Christmas season begins the moment the months’ last syllables end in “ber.” 

It was not the same. Instead, I get to live and experience, central Uganda way of life, especially on food and experience my good friends family’s faith practice without the fun-fare, lights, and colors I am used in my country. 

That’s why when I was asked to stay for another year, one of my conditions was to be allowed to travel home and spend my collected leave in my home country. 

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As always, the Philippines did not disappoint. 

I arrived with music and decorations fitting to my expectations. The airport was alive with live music from a chorale while families and friends are eagerly awaiting their loved ones. 

At my home, the motif was blue and silver with LED fairy lights. My dad’s little yellow house is like always on fire when the tree is lighted. Food, of course, was what I missed – the traditional rice cakes and the pork dishes I only imagined back in Uganda. 

Meeting friends was inevitable, and it is still fun catching up on what has happened since we last met, also going back to our kindergarten life. 

I got sick, of course. The change in the weather and long travel made me weak after Christmas, so New Year was a little subdued, but still, nothing beats an hour of fireworks display before I return to a slower welcome to 2020. When I welcomed 2019, I was in bed before midnight, and we don’t have the big table of food and pastries that are served to welcome the year, and I was not part of our family’s welcome photo. But this year, our yellow motif was punctuated by me wearing my yellow and black Ketenga cloth wrap dress. 

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As I continue to enjoy my seven weeks break, the Taal volcano, which is 50 kilometers away from where my dad lives, erupted. One moment was still planning to make a road trip; the next thing I knew, all the places we planned to visit is covered in ash. 

The momentum change. I cannot be idle while on holiday. I was avoiding to work, but I cannot let my friends down. I helped in any way I can. 

Two days after it erupted, I had my eye surgery. A minor operation, but very sensitive. It prevented me from going to ash-laden provinces and be at the forefront. Instead, I used my connections to help mobilize support to the most vulnerable people in times like this – the people with disabilities and the elderly. Pretty much the same as what I am doing in Uganda.

I am glad I have friends that are present on the ground and providing specific support to people with disabilities in the evacuation centers. And those, making sure funds received are provided to those that needed them the most. 

In the end, my holidays turning out to be very enriching. I don’t celebrate the hardship people have now because of the Taal volcano erupting. I celebrate the people that heed the call for help, and the Batangueno affected for trying to help each other out. 

I celebrate those behind the scenes, helping in any way they can to support the efforts on the ground. 

I have a couple of weeks left before I go back to Uganda, but before I do that, I will celebrate my birth month through our yearly feeding program. Isang Bata Isang Tasa (One Child One Cup) started 13 years ago, as a way to thank God for a new year by sharing my blessing to the children in my community. 

We give special attention to children under five and children with disabilities to encourage them to live healthier. We also educate their caregivers – mother, father, sisters, grandmother, etc. on how to continue to live a healthy lifestyle, in body and mind. 

Once done,  I will plan now for the 14th year, looking for sponsors and additional activities to make sure that we bring this service beyond my village and help more kids appreciate growing up healthy and clean all the time. 

Until the next celebration!

This article had been published in World Pulse

https://www.worldpulse.com/community/users/coolasas/posts/93687

As a Catholic Spending Holy Week in the Holy Land was the Greatest Experience I had in My Life

When I took the job for Gaza in the occupied Palestinian Territories, I didn’t know I will have the grandest pilgrimage I will have in my life.

Although I lived in Gaza most of the time, I had at least 2 weekends in a month to enjoy the old city and visit all nooks and cranny inside it. Reliving the stories I read in the bible at the same time understand the plight of my Palestinian friends against the oppression they were dealt with in this modern times.

I arrived in Israel in early February of 2016 and settled-in first in Jerusalem while waiting for my papers allowing me to enter into Gaza.  The Christian world was preparing for the Lenten season. It took a while before I was able to appreciate where I was until I get to visit around town and inside the old city. I was happy to have made acquaintances with other Catholics from Spain and Mexico who’s been living in Jerusalem for over a year and are well versed with the happenings in and around town and of course the Passion of Jesus Christ.

Palm Sunday
Palm Sunday entering one of the gates to the old city of Jerusalem
Palm Sunday
Entered the gate to welcome Jesus Christ

The feeling while in the old city at this time – at Lent was overwhelming. Like all other Christians, being in the place where Jesus lived, walking in the path he walked on meeting his disciples, and while carrying the crossed for our sins humbled me.

For a while I forget why I was in Palestine, all I can think of at that time was the Passion of Christ Jesus, relieving in my head his stories, the stories of his apostles and of Mary and the persecution they received in the hands of those who claim to be high and mighty.  It’s hard not to remember your catechism and you can only do that when you are faced with it in real-time.

I was so happy, no words can explain my feelings when I was there and all the time I was there until I have to leave Israel.

To appreciate the Old City, the Holy Land, one has to be in the moment and feel the spirit of the city speaks to you and bring you back to the time when you become part of the bible history. 

 

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Until the celebration of Easter, of His resurrection. Giving hope to the people that all our sins are forgiven and were given opportunities to become a better person for others year after year.

It was a fitting introduction to the challenges I am set to tackle accepting the job in Gaza. It was an opportunity for me to know the places and the people according to history and to the experience, I had with them daily.  The chance to work with my now Palestinian friends, to help them overcome the consequences of their situation and of the people they helped make me realize that religion knows no boundaries.

It is not enough to just say been there-done that without bringing with you the spiritual high that you experience while in the holiest of the land, the land that is full of history that had been told for centruries on. 

In Palestine, my being Catholic is no issue. Between my coordinator, also a Catholic and me, all our staffs and the people I met in the community to help and to mingle are all Muslim but it was never an issue. The Palestinians in Gaza and in the West Bank are the most progressive thinkers I met, but unfortunately, their situation is one of the world’s greatest irony – the oppressed become the oppressor.

Their experience since 1948 up to now is a product of hatred and self-entitlement of those that persecute them.  And I continuously pray that the history written in the holy book, the Bible, in the new testament and that of the Quoran will eventually come to reality in the present time and we can achieve the peace we all dream of.

Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. — Matthew 22:35-40

I wouldn’t trade this experience with anything. This may not be the best mission for me (work wise), but I can say this is the best experience I had working and living in the Middle East.

Let us continue to pray for peace and freedom to the Holy Land!

On Becoming A Better Human Being

Yesterday I started sending messages to my friends in the Middle East wishing them “Ramadan Kareem” (which means Have a Generous Ramadan) despite all the sadness we hear in the news of Palestinian women, men and children being killed for wanting to return to their homeland and all the other countries at war now and of people being ostracized and killed for being different.

The month of Ramadhan [is that] in which was revealed the Qur’an, a guidance for the people and clear proofs of guidance and criterion. So whoever sights [the new moon of] the month, let him fast it; and whoever is ill or on a journey – then an equal number of other days. Allah intends for you ease and does not intend for you hardship and [wants] for you to complete the period and to glorify Allah for that [to] which He has guided you; and perhaps you will be grateful.
[Quran 2:185]

The faithful continue to believe that all these shall pass and we will see a peaceful world. As Catholic, I also wish the same, and I think others too practicing other religions, wants a world where we can co-exist and enjoy the freedom to express who we are, what we believe and who we want to be.

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Then I remembered a chapter in the book of the Dalai Lama talking about religion and how it can make us a better person.

We know that most of the crisis and war around the world are fought in the name of religion or the belief that that is what their gods believe they should do and gain their place in their heaven.

But many of us know that the teachings of the different religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism) and other faith practices are towards peace, love, tolerance, acceptance of our differences and in fighting off excessive desires (in wealth and fame). And all of that is inert individual characteristics that we already possess. That is why, if we banded together, we would eventually win the war that is ravaging our world now.

According to the Dalai Lama, we can have philosophical and metaphysical views on religion at the same time live it according to your daily existence. But he also said that although the philosophical views differ and sometimes contradicts each other, in spiritual practice all religions are connected. They all recommend inner transformation of our stream of consciousness which will make us better, more devout people”.

True right? It all boils down to our understanding and accepting that we may have different faith beliefs, but we are similar on a spiritual level. Others may profess it outwardly, but it doesn’t mean they are more faithful than the others. It really depends on how you live it out, on how you’re spirituality makes you a better person for others.

Each one of us may believe in one way and one truth but it doesn’t mean that it is the same for the next person, we should be open to accepting the truth of other traditions even if it goes against our own convictions regardless of its reasons and how it affects others.

We as a person should have our own conviction but we should keep an open mind and be tolerant to those who don’t share them because that makes us different from each other but at the same time similar in a way that we accept each other to be like you — a person living each day trying to be a better person for others.

Postscript:

I am happy to say that all my friends who responded to my messages are all fine together with their families. They want us to remember them in our prayers and to keep up wanting for world PEACE!

Reading suggestion(s):

My Spiritual Autobiography His Hoiness The Dalai Lama