For International Children’s Day on 1 June, we hear from Rebecca Williamson about her experience working with kids in Manila and inner-city Chicago.
Kids in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, and Chicago are surprisingly similar, Rebecca Williamson tells me.
And she should know.
Before going to the Philippines through OMF’s Serve Asia (short-term mission) programme Rebecca volunteered with a non-profit serving inner-city kids. And in the Philippines, she worked with OMF’s urban poor team doing sports outreach events on the streets as well as teaching at Faith Academy International Christian School, which offers education from Kindergarten to 12th grade for missionary, national and international students.
Sports: A Great Connection Point
The spark for spending 10 months in the Philippines was a two-week mission trip to Manila with Moody Bible Institute. There Rebecca got to know the OMF missionaries and says: ‘I was intrigued by the missionaries and the work they were doing there and, in some ways, it was really similar to work I had done in Chicago with inner-city youth. In both places sports is such a great connection point. So, I really understood the kind of strategy that they were after.’
Re-joining the team a couple of months later, Rebecca joined in the street outreaches, visiting a different district each day of the week. Some kids were interested in the Bible stories and the coloured bracelets that explain the gospel story. Others just enjoyed the games. But it’s the same in Chicago, Rebecca says. There are open hearts in both places.
Rebecca shares eagerly about some of the kids she met. For instance, 15-year-old Nicole* was ‘so impressive’ in the Bible studies hosted on the floor of Nicole’s house each Tuesday afternoon. Nicole asked ‘amazing questions’ and was ‘so curious about the things of God’. Then there was the teenaged guy, looked up to by his posse of friends, at one of the street outreaches. It turned out he was a Christian, a rare person to meet in these outreaches, Rebecca tells me. She says, ‘It’s really cool to think about the potential that’s there, this teenager who’s really funny and animated, leading these other boys and claiming to follow Jesus.’ What could he go on to do for Jesus?
Home Life Matters
As well as the spiritually open in the Philippines and America, Rebecca explains how the home life of teens in both countries plays out in their behaviour. She mentions one teenager she taught at Faith Academy who had problems behaving in class. Rebecca says she struggled to understand why he was like this until she got to understand more of his situation at home. She says: ‘It’s the same here [in Chicago]. Maybe it’s just the make-up of a teenage mind! But when there’s brokenness in the home, it plays out in behaviour. Knowing that from the States helped in the Philippines.’
Rebecca continues: ‘I think in some ways my experience with youth in America prepared me for some of those things in the Philippines, in both contexts of the urban ministry on the streets and at Faith Academy. So it’s cool to see how even God was working in things that I’d experienced in the States.’
Knowing the God of the Poor
Rebecca also shares about some of the life-limiting poverty she has seen, not only in the Philippines, but also through her work in inner-city Chicago. She reflects on the impact of poverty in both places but says it’s more severe in the Philippines. She shares the story of John Carlo’s* family, who she met in Quezon City. To get to John Carlo’s tiny house you have to step over the sewer. Inside, John Carlo, one of six kids, is sadly bedridden, unable to speak and looks ‘like a skeleton with skin on’. Not only that, with better medical care, his condition could have been prevented. Now John Carlo’s condition affects the whole family.
‘It is very heart-breaking to see’, Rebecca reflects, ‘but I really do believe he can understand and knows what’s going on. When we would walk into the room, when one of the guys on the team would blow the whistle for a game or we would sing a song about Jesus, his face would light up.’
She adds that when we look at John Carlo’s situation from simply a human point of view, we’re missing something important. The name of the neighbourhood in Tagalog is ‘Pag-asa’, which means ‘hope’. Rebecca was ‘so amazed’ when she learned its name and that, in Jesus, there is hope, even for such heart-breaking situations.
Rebecca says it was discouraging knowing there are many children like John Carlo in Manila, ‘but I found a lot of comfort knowing that the poor are very close to God’s heart and through this experience, I was able to put a picture to the stories in the Bible when God talks about the poor. I see it in a different way now. And I’m very thankful for that. I know that God really cares about John Carlo and his family.’
Following Jesus, Showing Compassion
In both the US and in the Philippines, Rebecca says she has been inspired by the example of Jesus, who never turned away those who are hurting and broken. She says: ‘I think about Jesus a lot in those situations [in the States] when it’s hard and maybe somebody smells or a child’s behaviour is a little bit crazy. But then you start to learn a bit more about what’s going on at home and my heart starts to break a bit more. I’m able to have more compassion for them, instead of just, ‘would you just listen and do what I said?’
Rebecca says she has discovered this kind of compassion even more working in the Philippines. God’s compassion for the poor and his invitation to life in all of its fullness is needed by kids all around the world. Rebecca’s story shows that. Will you pray for children today?
*Names changed to protect identities
By Reuben Grace
Will you pray for East Asia’s Children?
• More people, inspired by Jesus’ example, to move toward the hurting and broken in love. There is great need and great opportunity.
• Manila – This massive urban area is one of the most densely populated in the world. With so many people, there are a lot of families like John Carlo’s. Pray for Christians to meet needs with practical acts of service and point to the love and hope found in Christ.
• Christians and churches serving kids in the Philippines – for strength and renewed compassion when facing such great needs.
• More kids like Nicole with open hearts to accept the transforming love of Jesus.