Dan Stringer

navigating the convergence of faith, culture and the common good

Grief journal (7 months)

June 20, 2011

Grieving has been surprisingly easy this month. Maybe it’s because we’ve been in the Philippines for the last 5 weeks, removed from most of the common “triggers” associated with routine life at home. Or perhaps it’s because of a more frightening thought: I’m moving on.

Let’s stick with the first option.

It’s one thing to read about life in poor countries, but spending a significant period of time overseas is a different matter altogether. According to a recent government report, a Filipino family of 5 needs an annual income of about 85,000 pesos ($2,000 US) to stay out of poverty. And while 26% of the nation lives below that level, Rizal province (where Rebecca’s parents live) is among the most well-off areas at around 5%.

So here we are, relaxing in one of the wealthier parts of Metro Manila, yet the crowded roadways overflow with street children playing in open sewage ditches. The stench of air pollution wafts between endless rows of dwellings cobbled together from trash and stray sheet metal. You can show me an official document stating that 95% of these people are not in poverty, but the social worker in me is not buying it.

Of the world’s 50 most densely populated cities, 10 are in the Philippines. Only India (with 18) has more. I cannot explain how 100,000 human beings can inhabit a single square mile in sweltering heat, but it happens not far from here. While our family has the privilege of exchanging American dollars to enjoy an “affordable” shopping spree at one of Manila’s many cavernous air-conditioned mall complexes, we’re among the fortunate ones. As awful as it is to lose a child, my life is pretty stinking easy.

On top of it all, people here in the Philippines smile far more than I do. In fact, they seem to always be smiling. It’s not just in markets or tourist spots where something is being sold. It’s everywhere—in kitchens, schools and churches; on hillsides, basketball courts and jeepneys. They laugh and joke among each other, not merely around foreigners. [I should have recalled this from my days as a missionary kid here, but that’s asking a lot from a teenager more concerned with climbing the high school pecking order.] For better or worse, this is not a stiff, competitive, commercially-driven culture but a relational, sociable and gregarious one.

I wish Vincent could have seen the Philippines. I wish the Philippines could have seen him.

Humans are resilient creatures. Suffering is rampant, but we somehow find ways to keep singing, laughing and dreaming about a better world. We lose our children to cancer and typhoons, yet we adapt and survive. I’m still not ready to admit that I’ve accepted Vincent’s death, but I’m starting to think that tears are not the only way to honor his memory.