News and Stories
Fr. Nate Gohlke Reflects on his Mission Experience in the Philippines
What did we see in the Philippines?
Fifteen of us embarked on our mission trip to the Philippines, and we didn’t know what we were going to find. What are the people like? How do they live day to day? Are they able to receive life’s basic necessities? How do they view God amid their struggles? And after traveling nineteen grueling hours with these questions in the front of our minds, we then began to see.
We arrived in Bacolod on Saturday afternoon and settled in. Upon speaking with the director of the village in which we were to build our house, we learned that Mass attendance was nearly impossible for the residents due to the distance they had to travel to reach a church. So with the bishop’s permission we offered to celebrate Mass at the site.
We arrived Sunday morning thinking there would be a dozen or so residents ready to celebrate Mass. Much to our surprise, as we pulled into the village there were hundreds of people waiting for us… smiling and waving. With great joy we praised God as one family that day, pouring out from underneath a big blue tent near our build site.
There were no power tools at the site. We cut down the trees with hatchets and machetes, and dug the foundation with shovels and pickaxes. Under the hot sun the children would laugh and play around the freshly unearthed piles of dirt. The men worked tirelessly at mixing the cement by hand and the women would carry the filled buckets to the trenches. We formed a human chain and hauled some 1000 cinderblocks to the site. Piece by piece and block by block the house was slowly being erected.
Since there was no running water at the village, there would always be a group of women gathered around the hand-drawn well. With sweat on their brow they would pump the water into buckets for cooking and cleaning.
None of the forty-two homes in the village had stoves or washing machines. Their source for cooking food consisted of an often rusty pot that sat atop a clay flowerpot that would be filled with burning charcoal. To wash their clothes, they would fill a bucket with soapy water on their back step and begin scrubbing. The children would often be giggling and playing nearby.
We had eaten chicken about three days in a row, and I was getting tired of it. That day I saw a girl home from school eating rice out of a plastic cup. I asked, “What are you having for lunch?” “Rice,” she replied. She then politely asked me what I had for lunch. “Chicken,” I said. She replied with a big smile on her face, “Oh… chicken! …how delicious!” She then happily continued eating her rice.
The families lived in one-room houses with a small closet in the rear which contained a single toilet with a bucket alongside for flushing. The homes were 16x16 square feet, and I saw as many as seven people living in them. A number of people would invite us in, and I noticed that almost none of the homes had beds. Upon asking where they slept, they would often point to things like stacks of cardboard, bamboo benches, or carpets on the cement floor. I decided to spend the money (which forty-three households here at St. Ray’s donated, providing every home with either one bed or mattress. A carpenter in the village is going to build the thirty-one beds you generously donated through your contributions. I believe these beds will provide the proper rest needed for the children to learn more in school, to help the parents work harder during the day, and to provide shelter and shelving during the flood season. (The homes do flood several times each year with about one foot of water inside.) You would not believe how grateful the people are for these beds… I want to thank you on behalf of them.
In the village I spoke with a father of five who works twelve hours a day, six days a week, driving a taxi-bus. He earns five dollars a day and fears not being able to buy rice for his wife and children. One of the women at the well told me quite somberly that “in the world I am poor,” but with a sudden smile on her face she said, “But in the eyes of God I am rich!”
The people we met were filled with faith in God and affection for one another. With praise and worship music playing in the background, the people who live and work in Bacolod, also known as “The City of Smiles,” were certainly filled with a peculiar joyful Spirit. Strangers would smile and wave at us from across the street and I asked a gentleman why they smiled so much. He simply grinned from ear to ear and told me, “Because frowns make us ugly… we like to be beautiful.” And absolutely beautiful they are.
Am I Ever Going to Encounter God?
We weren’t able to finish the house, but that wasn’t exactly our mission anyway. I think that each of us had a different impression of why God called us to do mission work in the Philippines. Some of us wanted to see the world by experiencing a different culture. Others wanted to form friendships and serve the poor. But above all of these good aspirations, I believe we ultimately wanted to encounter God.
It seems to me that throughout life we are always in search of God… it’s just that at times we either don’t know where to look, or we’re looking in the wrong places. Have you ever felt like the harder you search for God, the more distant God seems? I experienced this frustrating phenomenon on the mission trip.
Before we embarked on our journey, I was determined to have a new encounter with God every day. I was hopeful that God was going to reveal to me something colossal and enormous about my vocation and my relationship with Him. And as we began our trip, God was certainly alive. The morning we were to fly out, I got up early and celebrated Mass… a direct and magnificent encounter with God. I soon discovered that the people in the village (who had no running water, were living at times with seven people to a room, who ate rice three times daily that was cooked in a rusty pot over a charcoal-filled clay flowerpot, and who only dreamed of a washing machine) were filled with the most peculiar Spirit of joy… another direct encounter with God. The men and women and even children were given the strength and the resources to work in harmony to build not only a house, but also a loving and affectionate community… yet another encounter with God. And instead of savoring these daily encounters with God, I was looking for something more… something enormous.
The trip was going wonderfully, but the end was approaching soon and I hadn’t yet received my colossal hoped-for revelation. And then it happened. The last morning we were to spend in the village, the coordinators hosted a farewell party for us with the locals. Music was playing, children were running and laughing, the men were joking and everyone was having fun. And while all of this love and commotion was taking place, I decided to teach a Pilipino student from the village how to make a twine rosary. Her name is Rheaflor. We sat side by side on a bamboo bench tying one knot after another. The work on the house had come to a standstill. Rocks weren’t being shoveled and cement wasn’t being mixed. I wasn’t straining myself to figure out the culture and there was no vocal language being spoken that could be misinterpreted. No pressure. No expectations on my behalf or on hers. We simply sat contentedly and tied knots. And somehow through simply and wonderfully ‘being’ with each other, our souls began to resonate and there wasn’t a care in the world. Though she was poor, she seemed to lack nothing. Though I was at one time spiritually thirsty, my soul was quenched. I have never in my life encountered the peace of God in such a way. After working so hard on my own to encounter God, He decided to shut me down and reveal Himself to me in the simplest and most seemingly insignificant task I performed all week.
You see… I was reminded that at times our relationship with God isn’t so much about doing as it is about ‘being.’ It’s not about saying the perfect thing (like during prayers) or doing laborious tasks (like running spiritual marathons)… it’s about sitting side by side with the Lord and letting our soul simply and wonderfully resonate with Him. Instead of lunging for God, I’m going to strive to sit quietly and let the Spirit of God seep into me. What an encounter!
Along the mission trip of life we will encounter God every day… but not always in the ways we hoped. Perhaps by looking closer at and savoring what seem to be insignificant encounters, (maybe) we will find God the most alive? What encounters have you had this past week (with love, with peace, with joy, with hope, with trust, with strength…)? May your encounters with God be numerous and simply wonderful.
(This article first appeared in two parts in the St. Raymond Parish bulletin where Fr. Nate serves as parochial vicar.)
Ten students from our three Catholic Universities (Benedictine, Lewis and St. Francis) were part of the 15 member Mission team that worked on building a duplex for two families in Bacolod. The homes were 3/4 finished when they departed. The students prepared their own breakfast and packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in order to cut down on costs. They were able to save $1,500 and used that to purchase 50 kilos of rice for each of the 42 homes in the village of Parasio. The families said that this was a month supply of food for them. The students were great - they sang while they worked, had contests to get things done faster and when it was time to get out of the 90+ sun, they played with the children of the village. Taught them games and songs. Leaving was very difficult for the whole team because they had bonded with the families and it was difficult for the villagers as well.