In my first encounters with the Philippines, I was surprised by how often people asked me about my meals. ‘Have you eaten?’ This included during conversations online. I learned, over time, that the question arises out of an economic context in which food is often scarce owing to high levels of poverty, and a cultural context in which the health and well-being of one’s neighbour is considered important. It means the question is literal and it calls for a literal response. If I answer ‘no’ while I’m there physically, I’m likely to be offered and given a meal; even if the person who’s asking is poor.
Rudo Kwaramba, a Zimbabwean colleague, explained a similar dynamic whilst working together on an assignment in Uganda. I had been invited there to help an NGO address a key challenge: that managers in rural community-based projects were, apparently, bad at addressing poor performance. Rudo reflected: ‘In wealthy countries, if you can’t earn an income or lose your job, your government provides you with financial support; if you become injured or unwell, your health system or insurance covers you. In poorer countries, people can only look to each other for support.’
It means that, in such contexts, to establish and maintain positive relationships with one’s extended family and neighbours is essential for survival. It also means that to support the health and wellbeing of one’s neighbours is critical too. There is a sense of radical interdependence, a pragmatic-ethical need, that drives cultural behaviour. Against that backdrop, we discovered that managers who were living and working in the same communities as their staff felt unwilling and unable to address poor performance – in case it damaged the network of relationships. It was the core issue for them.
This insight moved the culture-shift question in the work from a simplistic-transactional, ‘How to change the performance management system’, to a deeper-relational, ‘How can we hold honest conversations that don’t harm community?’. It proved transformational. As I focus back on South East Asia, I notice that as some countries have grown in wealth, they have experienced a corresponding shift towards individual-orientated cultures. It's as if: the richer I am, the less I need you. ‘Have you eaten?’ is often retained, yet as a simple greeting, not as a literal inquiry or as an invitation to a meal.
So, I’m curious: what have been your experiences of working cross-culturally? What have you learned?
‘What is it your plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’ (Mary Oliver)
Íñigo López de Loyola suggests a fast-forward in your imagination to the end of your life, then to ask yourself seriously from that standpoint what you will want your life story to have been. Having decided it, rewind back to the present and ensure that your vision of the future guides your priorities, decisions and actions now. This idea resonates with Stephen Covey’s 'begin with the end in mind', and Simon Sinek’s 'start with why'. According to John Kotter, if our vision is convincing enough to the mind and compelling enough to the heart, we are most likely to see it through. Without such a vision, we may drift meaninglessly.
I believe the best visions are rooted deeply in ethics and values and, in essence, a fulfilment of them. I have been incredibly inspired by Jasmin’s vision, a poor follower of Jesus who lives among the poor in the Philippines: ‘Whatever status or power you have, use it for those who are vulnerable; whatever money you have, use it for the poor; whatever strength you have, use it for the weak; whatever hope you have, use it to bring hope to those who live without hope. Speak up for justice and truth – whatever the cost. Pray.’ The challenge is not just in the aspiration itself but in her sheer determination to live it out in practice. She scares me.
My own vision is shaped by a trust in God too. I slip and slide on route and have sustained and caused too many scars to prove it, yet Jesus still influences profoundly the purpose, focus, boundaries and possibilities of my life and my work. As I get older, I'm experiencing a subtle and gradual shift from what I want to do in the future, to what legacy I want to leave behind me. It doesn’t feel like a mid-life crisis. Echoing Richard Rohr, it feels more like a falling upward than a falling apart. I still want to make a significant, positive and tangible difference in the lives of the poor and most vulnerable people in the world. I – you – we can be hope.
What’s your vision for 2022 and beyond? How will it influence your decisions now?
A disaster unfolds.
Viewed at a distance of 22,300 miles (35,880km) through the lens of a weather satellite in space, the super typhoon that hit the Philippines this week looks quite majestic, its swirling shape displaying a serene, mystical beauty about it. Viewed from ground zero in the eye of the storm, it could not have looked and felt more different. Zoom in now to Jasmin, a poor woman braced with her children, wind and rain battering their fragile home ferociously. Typhoon Rai is one of the strongest storms recorded on Earth this year with wind speeds of 150mph (240kph) as it slammed into the islands.
The wind rips off her house roof viciously, as if lashing out with a merciless knife, and the windows shatter, exploding glistening shards of glass everywhere. She runs downstairs with her family to hide under the stairs, praying hard to Jesus, Saviour, in the pitch blackness of night with the deafening, terrifying roar above and around them. As morning breaks and the winds and rain start to subside, the devastation around them emerges from darkness like a war zone. The house looks like an empty shell and everything she had owned has been destroyed. (The poor have no savings – and no insurance).
People are walking around, dazed and dismayed by what has just hit them. Power supplies are down and long wooden posts covered in tangled cables lay broken across the roads. Debris is everywhere. People’s homes and possessions are strewn around heartlessly on the streets, as if by some angry, deranged monster. Jasmin looks around for water. Nothing. People are fighting to get onto passing motorbikes to look for help in the city. The petrol price has leapt to £8 (US $10) per litre overnight and the bike fares have soared high with it. Banks are closed, ATMs down and shops broken. No cash.
Emergency vehicles with supplies can’t get through, even if they are available and want to. The roads are impassable and impossible. The village is the epicentre of a disaster zone. The floodwater from the storm risks overwhelming the fragile sewage system, contaminating any fresh water that remains and creating a dangerous public health hazard. Fears arise that corrupt officials may covertly divert relief to their own families, friends and political supporters. All infrastructure is wrecked – and desperate people can become dangerous. The poor are left to pray, hope and fend for themselves.
Jasmin calls me, briefly, with a weak and faltering phone signal. She urges me to be calm. ‘Jesus is with us’, she says, with a strength of conviction that makes my own faith feel weak and pallid by contrast. Her battery goes flat and the call breaks off. There’s nowhere to charge it and no access to cash to buy a top-up card. She’s still looking earnestly for water, her children are too, and there are long queues of scared and frustrated people everywhere. Her words are ringing loudly with me as I write this and await further news: ‘Jesus is with us.’ Light shines in darkness. Remember the poor.
Advent is – arrival. I bought an Advent calendar for some refugee friends in the UK recently. It was the first time they had seen one and they were intrigued by its idea of opening numbered doors, or windows, as a countdown…to what? For followers of Jesus, the deeper question is to Who. Advent signals the arrival of Jesus in the world, the Saviour who shines dazzling-divine light and dispels spiritual darkness. It’s a celebration, anticipation and invitation to radical faith, love and hope.
Jasmin, a Filipina, spoke today – a voice of the poor, a lived experience of the poor, from among the poor: ‘The poor feel invisible. To discover that God sees us, that he truly loves us, is the greatest gift.’ She’s working hard to provide Christmas gifts for children in a slum community who live beside an open sewer, whose makeshift homes were burnt down in a fire last week. She lives Advent by arriving with Jesus in dark places so that the poor and vulnerable experience God’s love as real.
Whatever Advent means to you this Christmas: Light shines in darkness. Remember the poor.
'Not all those who wander are lost.' (J.R.R. Tolkien)
I felt ridiculously excited last week to get first class train tickets for the same price as second. It was a brand-new experience for me. Not used to this level of luxury, every time a steward passed by and offered me food or drink I asked, hesitantly, ‘Is it free?’ They looked back at me and smiled, perhaps with a hint of pity in their eyes, and said, ‘Yes sir, it’s included in the price of your ticket.’ Wow. I’ve never eaten so many bags of crisps, ham-salad sandwiches and chocolate brownies. Amazing.
Yet a far more adventurous journey for me was 4 years ago, from the UK to the Philippines. 30 mins drive + 2 hours on train + 2 hours wait in airport + 12 hours flight to Hong Kong + 2 hours transition in airport + 2 hours to Cebu (West Ph) + 30 mins motorbike to port + 2 hours wait + 12 hours ship to Samar (East Ph) + 30 mins drive in car + 30 mins on motorbike + 30 mins up-river on boat + 30 mins trek through jungle – to arrival. The warm welcome of Waray children made it all worthwhile!
That was, however, nothing compared to the journey of a Christian biker friend, ‘Iron Butt Rob’, who met and prayed with me at the start of that journey then set off at exactly the same time as I did on a gruelling non-stop 1800-mile motorbike ride to all 4 extreme corners of the UK. The whole time I was on route, he was riding…and riding…through torrential rain to finish at the same time as I did. His remarkable feat raised sponsorship money to support the Filipina activist who was hosting me.
Yet perhaps a deeper journey still was into that amazing encounter with those 120 children. They had never met a foreigner and, as we walked between their simple wooden huts, they smiled, laughed, held our hands and skipped along in front of us. They joined in everything we did with infectious energy and, astonishingly, appreciated absolutely everything. When we left a few days later, the children picked wildflowers as gifts as we meandered back to the boat. We all cried as we said goodbye.
When have you taken a life-giving or life-changing journey – literally or metaphorically? What impact has it had on you?
At just 5 feet (152 cm) tall, this Filipina presents an imposing stature. She went out this week to provide emergency food and modest cash gifts to some of the poorest people in the Philippines, those who live at the roadside on zero income owing to the Covid-19 lockdown. She herself is very poor yet determined to share what she has for the benefit of strangers in need. She prays to Jesus, dons a face mask and heads out fearlessly. One family revealed they had barely survived until she arrived. They had been living on just boiled water with a little sugar stirred into it. No rice, and little hope.
One group surrounded her when she at first appeared. Some men grabbed the bags of rice that she carried with her, skulking away in an attempt to avoid being caught. At that, she lifted her mask and yelled assertively: ‘Bring that back now, or I leave here with everything I came with.’ Slowly…the stealthy thieves reappeared, with guilty expressions on their faces now, and handed them back. She explained, ‘We are poor, but this is no way to conduct ourselves. We need to learn to share what we have, like Jesus.’ She then held out the sacks and cash, and every family went home with something real.
I asked her if she had felt nervous, to be confronted and robbed like that in broad daylight. She was, after all, alone among strangers and anything could have happened. She said no, she wasn’t afraid, because she had prayed hard before setting out. ‘I know what it is to be poor, and I have lived my entire life among the poor.’ I reflected on how I might have acted defensively in response, annoyed by their attitude and fearful for my own safety. By contrast, she showed courage, empathy, faith and love. Question: When have you been at your most fearless? What made the difference for you?
‘Of all the things that sustain a leader over time, love is the most lasting.’ (Kouzes & Posner)
I honestly believed I was following Jesus until I took my first step into the Philippines. I had become a Christian some years earlier and, as such, had tried to centre my life on the Christ of the gospels. I say ‘tried’ because it has been a rocky ride so far. Highs, lows and everything in between. I swing from burning inspiration to faltering faith, from close to God to straying widely off the path. I always struggle with church-as-institution and with my own stumbling discipleship. Then I encounter a poor Filipina, a girl who grew up on a remote jungle mountainside, whose life transforms everything.
She is wild, crazy, passionate, funny and compassionate. Much like Jesus – whom she loves – she both inspires and terrifies me: inspires me by what’s possible; terrifies me by what it may call from me. Her life models her own radical mandate: ‘Whatever status or power you have, use it for those who are vulnerable; whatever money you have, use it for the poor; whatever strength you have, use it for the weak; whatever hope you have, use it to bring hope to those who live without hope. Speak up for justice and truth – whatever the cost. Pray.’ She lives it literally – and that scares me.
Where I see issues, she sees people. While I’m still thinking about it, she’s out there doing it. Her self-sacrificial lifestyle looks and feels profoundly reckless and unnerving. It unsettles me. It alarms me. It evokes a spiritual-existential crisis. It shakes everything in me to the core. Yet it also kindles fresh glimmers of light. I see amazing hope on the faces of people whose lives she touches. I see the ordinary-extraordinary miracles that God performs through her every day and it strengthens my own faith. She evokes a yearning in me to see and love Jesus and the poor more deeply: whatever.
A ‘university for the poor’. The past 2 weeks have been an inspiring and humbling experience at so many different levels. A close friend invited me to train and facilitate students, faculty and staff at a college in the Philippines that supports young people who cannot afford university education. It’s based in the inner city, shares basic facilities with various other government institutions and backs onto a market that, at times, fills hot and humid classrooms with a foul stench of waste.
It’s my third time in the Philippines and I’m always struck by the wild, extroverted and, in some ways, quite crazy culture. Dance, song and loud music are everywhere (as are people with guns), intermingled with sounds of all kinds of passing traffic and street dogs barking. The students here greet me with wide-eyed enthusiasm. It’s unusual to receive a visitor from the UK and they are curious, intrigued and keen to learn. We run classes for 3 days and the energy in the group is exhilarating.
At the end of the week, the students first sing a song to me then, one-by-one, come forward with hand written letters and cards, beautifully coloured and designed. I want to cry and yet fight back the tears. They are thanking me but I owe them so much. We move to workshops with faculty and staff using positive psychology and appreciative inquiry. Like the students before them, they are passionate, playful and professional. We laugh, work, sing, dance and learn together.
These memories stay with me: Their faith in Jesus that shines simply and brightly without inhibition. Their vision for the poor that extends beyond academic theory to personal and social transformation. Their kind welcome and hospitality to me as a total stranger. The very special friend who worked so incredibly hard – yet so carefully avoided the limelight. The open-hearted generosity of students who said, ‘We want others to experience what we have experienced here.’
As we walked through the village we were met by wide smiles and eyes full of vivid curiosity. Brightly-coloured clothing hung outside of wooden huts to dry in the sun. Rice and coconut lay on the ground, apparently there to dry too. We had travelled by plane, ship, tuk tuk and boat, meandering through lush green jungle and rice fields to reach this place in Samar, Philippines. The children were excited having waited 3 hours for us to arrive. A rich sense of anticipation felt tangible in the air.
This was my first experience of working with such a large group of children. 120+ turned up, ages ranging from 3 to 12. We were there 2 weeks ago to inspire the children with English language, lead play activities, share about Jesus and provide nutritious food. The children were eager to learn, to spend time with this strange, tall, white alien and his inspiring, energetic Filipina counterpart – and to have fun. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered such wild, sustained enthusiasm in a group.
We chose a theme each day and, at the start, invited the children to teach me some Waray, their local language. The teacher became learner and the students became teachers. The kids loved it, scoring my pronunciation by signalling thumbs up if I did well, thumbs sideways if I needed to improve, thumbs down if I was unintelligible! After each phrase the children jumped up and down with excitement, big smiles and waving their thumbs in the air. A true spirit of encouragement.
This simple idea and approach gave the children real confidence to play and to practise with English language. They had seen my vulnerability, willingness to try, imperfect attempts and friendly laughter. It enabled them to give every activity we tried their best shot, encouraging each other when we-they did well and forgiving each other when we-they didn’t. We were committed to learn together, to travel an exciting journey of discovery together, and that made such a difference.
I have rarely witnessed such a humbling, authentic act of generosity. I was in the Philippines for the past 2 weeks visiting people and communities who are, by global standards, economically poor. The Filipina who accompanied me is poor too. She grew up in a remote jungle hut with no running water, electricity or sanitation. She works hard, long hours to support her children, family and community, determined that others should have better opportunities in life that she has experienced in her own.
We were walking through an island village with children, teenagers and parents staring and smiling to see these strange visitors. The homes they were living in had only one room, no facilities, and we were passing a small hut with snacks hanging outside it on strings. It served as the village shop. We hadn’t eaten or had anything to drink for some time and the weather was hot and humid so I handed some money to my guide to buy herself some food. What happened next took me completely by surprise.
This young woman bought all the snacks that were hanging there and immediately handed them to the intrigued children that had surrounded us. Then she walked around, handing them openly to mothers who were carrying toddlers – and toyed playfully with teenagers who wanted some too but were too shy to ask. The scene around us was transformed into one of spontaneous celebration with smiles everywhere and children running and laughing excitedly. It reminded me of Spirit, of incarnation, of Jesus.
As we left the village with these images and sounds still dancing vividly in my mind, I commented to this special person, ‘You were amazing with them.’ She looked at me, wide eyed, and replied quite simply, ‘Nick – I am them.’ Those words detonated deeply in my soul. As leaders, OD and coaches, how far do we view staff, clients etc. as ‘them’, distinct from ‘us’? How would it impact on our presence, our behaviour, our effectiveness if we shifted our perspective, our stance, to one of radical identity with..?
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