It was noon. For four hours, 35 of us students from five countries worked side by side with teachers and construction workers to build two Gawad Kalinga (GK) houses in Bagong Silang, Caloocan City.
The Australians dug ditches, the Indonesians mixed cement, the Japanese carried bags of sand, the Hong Kong residents passed buckets of gravel, the Filipinos did a bit of everything.
As children weaved in and out around us, zooming around with makeshift toys, their mothers passed hollow blocks to us. The lolas shouted encouragement.
The kids teased us, we teased back, their happiness infectious. Soon we were playing with them. After all, as Xavier School director Fr. Ari Dy, SJ, emphasized in his homily on Martha and Mary, listening and being fully present did as much good as busying ourselves in tasks.
Despite my aching back, I felt immense joy.
Dead or alive
The Ignatian Student Leadership Forum (ISLF), a weeklong immersion program in July under the Jesuit Conference of the Asia Pacific, was instituted last year under former director Fr. Johnny Go, SJ.
ISLF coordinator Brian Maraña said the goal was to form student leaders in the tradition of Jesuit founder
St. Ignatius. Seven students from each of five Jesuit schools (St. Ignatius Riverview College in Australia, Wah Yan College in Hong Kong, Canisius College in Indonesia, Sophia Fukuoka in Japan and Xavier) lived, explored and, in true Jesuit tradition, bonded.
The week started with a showcase of our culture. With teachers Palan Reyes, Alex Santos, Alvin Ang, Jules Hernando, Franco Addun, Glenn Gomez, Christian Bumatayo and Mark Que as guides, we visited San Sebastian Church, lunched in Binondo, toured Intramuros.
As a Filipino, I have taken things for granted. But as I narrated the epic story of 1986, described a sari-sari store, discussed territorial disputes to my newfound friends, I finally appreciated my own culture.
Touring foreigners around my own hometown made me see the familiar with new eyes. I noticed the piquant smells of Chinatown, the serenity of Edsa Shrine in the midst of a bustling city, the flag waving over Bagumbayan, now Luneta. And, as I retraced Rizal’s footsteps to his martyrdom, I feel proud to be a Filipino.
But I also came face to face with the stark contrast between rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless.
In Quiapo, we paid homage to the Black Nazarene and ventured into the iconic tiangge, all the while trying to dodge pickpockets and beggars. In contrast, on the other side of the metropolis, at the sprawling American Cemetery, walls sparkled and sprinklers hummed over trimmed grass and perfectly aligned graves.
An Australian commented, “More money is spent on the dead than on the living.”
Not so different
In the technical school run by the Educational Research Development Assistance (Erda) Foundation in Pandacan, Manila, we worked with our hands, knees and tongues. Principal Marc Magsalin said Erda trained streetchildren, kids in conflict with the law, out-of-school youth in various trades so they could earn a living.
We tested circuit breakers on the factory floor. We welded objects together in the manufacturing workshop. We baked brownies in the kitchen.
My favorite was working on a drum brake, the contraption in the rear of a car that stops the wheels from turning. It was tough work. Just removing the bolts required a giant wrench, a spray can of WD-40, one person to hold the wheel, another to kick and tug at the wrench and two photographers-cum-
cheerleaders to egg us on.
What students learned at Erda were not what we studied in Xavier. That did not mean they were less difficult or less essential. I was taught how to fix the brakes by a girl my age.
At lunch in the home of an Erdanian, we ate galunggong, mongo soup, sinigang, mangoes, all with our bare hands. The fare was simple, but the hospitality grand. An Indonesian marveled that the taste was similar to what he ate at home.
“We share Malay blood,” he concluded, smiling at our host.
We repaid the Erda students’ generosity by showing them around Xavier. They drank in the sight of our football field, basketball courts, spacious canteen with a huge variety of food (compared to only one concessionaire at their school).
One Erdanian turned to me. “Your school is so big, you have so many things. How can you not want to learn?”
GK and Erda were memorable experiences, but sharing them with peers from other nations made them more meaningful. At first, mingling with one another was a duty. Though everyone could speak English, proficiency levels varied. Many of us felt more comfortable speaking in our own languages.
But pusoy dos (Big Two in Australia) saved the day. Apparently, card games are universal. Whether stuck in traffic, before dinner or after reflection time, we brought out packs of cards with various motifs (Indonesian batik, Bicycle classics, Philippine Airlines) and played.
Ignatius started out as a bully, a brusque Spanish soldier who wanted to glorify himself in the service of the king. But when a cannonball injured his leg, he spent his time reading the Bible and the “Lives of the Saints.” Afterwards, he dedicated his life to God.
Although ISLF is a leadership forum, we did not tour Malacañang, Congress or the Philippine Stock Exchange. We did not attend seminars by business executives or government officials. Instead, we fixed cars and built houses. We listened to school chaplain Fr. Art Borja, SJ, guide us toward discernment and Australian rector Fr. Ross Jones, SJ, talk about our Lord’s preferential option for the poor.
For ISLF, a true leader is one who follows in the footsteps of the Lord. A leader is one who listens to the people and knows how to discern right from wrong. A leader is one who serves the people, especially the underprivileged.
As my Australian friend put it, “Quantum potes tantum aude. So much as you can do, so dare to do.”
Scott Lee Chua is a second-year high school student at Xavier School. His book of essays “My Take: Growing Up, Liking It So Far” is available at National Book Store.