Monday, June 21, 2004

Switzerland: Bossey Institute and Geneva's Filipino migrant workers - some notes...

At Bossey Institute, a graduate institute affiliated with the World Council of Churches and University of Geneve. Attended a week-long consultation on Religion, Power and Violence. All the major religions including indigenous spirituality, are represented by about 35 participants to talk about peacemaking in a world where religion is often used towards violent acts. The participants were from both the First and Third Worlds (so tired of these terms already!) and so the relationships of power were immediately palpable. We spent so much time talking about language use, power dynamics, tensions. Some folks thought we didn't have enough time to have indepth analytical, theological discussions on religion and violence because of the focus on process rather than output. But the focus on the Consultation was on "encounter" rather than intellectual proceedings but apparently there was still the expectation of a certain intellectual/theological output. As one of two rapporteurs, it falls on me to then "intellectualize/theologize" these experiential encounters when I write the final report.

It was a transformative experience to participate in each other's religious and spiritual practice (every morning a different meditation practice). The Filipino from Mindanao who is a Protestant (UCCP) and a practicing yoga and a peace activist did a rajah yoga meditation. A Thai professor of Buddhism and Christianity did a Buddhist ceremony; two Arab scholars from Cairo did a reading and meditation from the Koran; a Hindu ashram director from Bangalore did the Hindu meditation; two Jewish rabbi doing the Friday shabbath; and a Christian service on the last day. There was sharing of peace work from Bosnia, South Africa, the U.S., India, and Japan.

One of the small groups started to produce a sourcebook on "Litanies and Liturgies for Peacebuilding." I was with a group that proposed how the World Council of Churches should sharpen its focus on the violent consequences of economic globalization by providing a platform in cyberspace for the work of monitoring, advocacy, information-sharing, linking that could possibly lead to the creation of a "World Religious Forum" similar to the "World Social Forum." A third group produced a conceptual framework on healing and reconciliation.

After Bossey, I visited friends in the Ticino canton, near the border of Italy. I took the train (breathtaking views of the alps) from Geneva to Gallarate which is in Italy and where my friends were to pick me up. Arriving at the train station, I forgot that I was in Italy so when I tried to buy a phone card, they asked for Euro and I didn't have any. Looking outside the station I saw a store sign (Banyan Grocery) and thought for sure that it must be owned by Asians and so I went there. A young man from India tried to help me call my friend on his cell phone after giving him two francs. He also couldn't figure out how to call Switzerland from Italy...another young man came around and they finally were both able to dial my friend's number for me. When I left the store one of the young men continued to talk to me and I told him I was thirsty but didn't have money to buy water. He approached a group of young middle eastern-looking men and one of them went with him to the store and he came back with a bottle of water for me. Then the other young man at the store also went to the station, bought a pack of gum and gave it to me. They seemed to enjoy practicing their English and telling me that they plan to go to the US next year to visit their relatives. When my friends arrived at the station, they said that they didn't like the looks of the station (referring to all the brown people milling around) and I told them I felt right at home!:-). Oh, at the train station in Geneva, I saw a Filipina domestic and I talked to her and turns out she is from Mexico Pampanga. She is a Magtoto...before I could interview her further, she had to get off at the station in Nyon.

Spent two days in Locarno and Lugano -- the mediterranean flavors and sights of Switzerland...

Leaving Ticino canton, I took the plane from Lugano to Geneva hoping to see the Alps but there was a layer of cloudcover. My Geneva hotel was right in the middle of the city center. Never having travelled to Europe by myself, I was nervous at first but slowly found my bearings. The first thing I did was eat at Burger King!! which was right next to McDonald's but was too crowded. Lani,a Filipina who works for the UN ambassador from Trinidad and Tobago came to the hotel the next day and drove me around the city until 2pm. She speaks French fluently as she's been in Geneva a long time. At 2pm I met Diwata, an old friend, and we took the bus to a an older part of town. I told her I didn't want to sightsee anymore and would prefer just to visit so she took me to a nice tea house in Carouge and we had tea and cake before we went to her flat. She made a nice dinner of salmon. Her boyfriend Tomas is Italian Swiss. It felt awkward and embarrassing at times to be queried as to what I thought of Bush and Arnold or when asked to explain how Americans can put up with their political leaders.

The next day, Ding Bagasao, who heads an NGO in Geneva and Philippines, came to pick me up in a new full size mercedes benz (most cars that I saw were compact so this was unusual!). He took me to lunch at a posh Filipino restaurant, then to World Council of Churches, to World Health Org, pointed to UN sites, to the Philippine Mission office, and then drove into France and back in a matter of 30minutes border to border. Ding is the President of ERCOF (Ercof.org) which aims to help migrant workers learn how to invest their earnings and on the other side, to encourage rural banks in the Philippines to develop microfinancing strategies for migrant workers' remittances.

Third day: Eliz Tapia, Filipina faculty from Bossey, came into Geneva by train from Celigny and we went to the flea market at Plainpalais (she says this is her therapy)...looked around for couple of hours and Lani met us there and then drove us to Old Town where the outdoor music (and ethnic arts) festival was going on. It started to rain and I didn't have any jacket with me so I ended up buying a cotton shawl from one of the booths selling ethnic stuff from Latin America. There was a booth of "workers without papers" (SIT) where the Filipino migrants congregated and I interviewed about six of them. Lani asked each one of them to sit with me and asked them to tell me their story because "she is writing a book":-)...their stories are so moving, amusing, and perplexing. I learned a lot! By 9pm we drove back Eliz to Bossey and on the way visited yet another migrant worker. Amazing stories!!!

anyway, if you have read this far, thank you! there is so much to say...more later...

Sunday, June 06, 2004

In Praise of Fil Am poets

I am re-posting the entire column of Luis Francia which appears in the Philippine Daily Inquirer this week.

Different Times,
Different Rhymes

By Luis H. Francia
Inquirer News Service

New York-In a previous column I wrote about the late
José Garcia Villa's archival material and what
possible future awaited it and its creator. With the
recent death of his peer Nick Joaquin (a man to whom
Pigafetta's encomium for Magellan can be applied, "our
mirror, our light, our comfort, and our true guide"),
that generation of outstanding writers has all but
disappeared. Reflecting on Villa made me think of the
younger Filipino-American poets, who are a very
different breed, less into intramural sniping and
one-upmanship than into what appears to be a genuine
spirit of encouragement and mutual respect. In
contrast, Villa had an almost Darwinian sense of
competition and he would tear down some of his
contemporaries, often with unabashed glee (though to
be fair, when he liked a writer, he was generous with
his praise). Part of it was simply Villa's outsized
ego, one that matched his talent. Part of it stemmed
from the status accorded him, as arbiter of literary
worth, by Manila critics. Part of it might have been
that in his time, in addition to himself, there were
only a handful of Filipino writers who had made their
mark here: Carlos Bulosan, NVM Gonzalez and Bienvenido
Santos, pioneers in Filipino-American, and indeed,
Asian-American, literature who, while incredibly
brave, nevertheless must have felt fragile, exposed,
and misunderstood, not the least by their own
compatriots and often deliberately so.

The Filipino-American population has since grown
exponentially, with estimates of at least three
million, with several centers across this wide, wide
land, from Honolulu to New York, from Chicago to Los
Angeles, from Virginia to San Francisco, a literary
diaspora that revolves around cyberspace more than any
geographical location. Along with that has come a
greater degree of ease in inhabiting the skin of a
hyphenated citizen, one who looks upon difference no
longer as an oddity (if it ever were) or merely a
peculiarity to be tolerated like a sixth finger, but
as a prized asset, to be celebrated and explored for
all its layers of richness. The empire does write
back, not only from afar but from within as well.

That degree of confidence can be seen in the way that
contemporary Filipino-American poets move through the
American landscape, not furtively or at a frenzied and
hurried run (a moving target is harder to shoot at),
but openly, in measured, even leisurely, strides. In
the 1970s and through the 1980s, it seemed to me that
few Filipino-American poets were visible; there were
surely more kindred spirits around-in the Bay Area,
for instance-but I had no sense of who they were. I
didn't feel as though I belonged to a specific poets'

Even organizing, with a few others, a writers' group
in the mid 1980s didn't help. Called by the rather
stolid-sounding Filipino-American Writers of North
America (FAWNA), after some well-attended readings,
and a couple of newsletters, however, the
organization, like an extremely endangered species,
perished. (In the mid '90s two other poets and I
created the NPA, or New Poets' Army, but that was more
a concept than flesh-and-blood and still exists as

Today, there are scores of us. From the Pacific, from
both coasts, and in between, rises the chorus of
distinct voices, astonishing for its range. A
consequence of the boom in Asian-American literature
as well as of demographics, the vibrancy and diversity
of the poetry scene has come as a welcome development.
I don't mean that I like everything that is being
written. Far from it. Like any poet, I have my
preferences, my intense prejudices, of what works and
what doesn't. A lot of the writing I find to be
informed by a prose sensibility, with its emphasis on
narrative and linear meaning, so that the lyric line
and the cultivation of indirection and music suffer.
As in jazz, it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that
swing. Could this be due to the proliferation of
writing workshops, where the bland often lead the
bland? Perhaps, but no matter. What counts most is the
vitality, the tremendous, buoyant poetic energy that
feeds off, and is fed on, all sorts of styles. This is
what keeps the Republic of Poetry democratic, chaotic,
and constantly in a state of flux-precisely all the
qualities which got us bards banned by Plato from his
version of a republic.

Kundiman, a group of thirtysomething New York-based
poets, embodies this new energy, this bold
participation in helping to shape the literary
zeitgeist. In late April, Kundiman held a benefit to
raise money for its summer retreat (at the University
of Virginia) for emerging Asian-American poets, the
first ever offered by an Asian-American literary
organization, and modeled after Cave Canem, an
influential African-American poets circle, whose
workshops have drawn many of the most promising in
African-American poetry.

I read at that benefit along with some of the better
known Asian-American poets-Mei-Mei Bersenbrugge, Vijay
Seshadri, Timothy Liu, Meena Alexander, and Patrick
Rosal, the last named a rousing reader, whose powerful
debut collection Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive
successfully incorporates elements of hip hop. The
place-the Yale Club-was packed, and ensuring that the
evening proceeded smoothly, and humorously, was Regie
Cabico, a performer/poet himself. Audience and readers
afterwards imbibed good wines while savoring dark,
gourmet chocolates, heady complements to the night's

Kundiman aims laudably to foster the "discovery and
cultivation of Asian-American poets," its mission "to
celebrate and promote a strong and positive
Asian-American culture and identity." Forming the core
of Kundiman are Sarah Gambito, Joseph Legaspi, and
Sanjana Nair, with the three being part of a larger,
loosely knit group that includes, among others Rosal,
Oliver de la Paz, Paolo Javier, Barbara Jane Reyes,
Rick Barot, Aimee Nezhukumathatil, and Leslieann
Hobayan. Kundiman also sponsors a regular series at a
Lower East Side bar, the aptly named Verlaine, which
features both established and up-and-coming poets.
I've attended readings there, lured as much, I have to
confess, by free vodka cocktails as by the proffered
verse. These poets exhibit a welcome bent for
hedonism, looking both to Dionysus and Apollo for

I hope Kundiman will soldier on and thrive once the
first flush of excitement and welcome wears off. The
group emerges at a time much more encouraging than it
was almost two decades ago. Since the dawn of the new
millennium, there has been a veritable deluge of
Filipino-American poetry titles. Among them have been
Rosal's book, Luis Cabalquinto's "Bridgeable Shores,"
Eugene Gloria's "Drivers at a Short-Time Motel," Eric
Gamalinda's "Zero Gravity," Reyes' "Gravities of
Center," Eileen Tabios's "Reproductions of an Empty
Flagpole," and de la Paz's "Names Above Houses." This
year alone, books are forthcoming from Gambito,
Javier, Oscar Peñaranda, Lou Syquia, Nick Carbo, and
yours truly, by no means a complete list. This is one
deluge that needs, and brooks, no royal sanction, and
one I encourage you, dear reader, to drown in.

Friday, June 04, 2004

"Purpose-Driven Life"

This is the title of a bestseller evangelical Christian 40-day workbook by Rick Warren on how to achieve the "purpose driven life". Apparently, it has now been exported to the Philippines and it's being promoted by famous celebrity Christians like Gary Valenciano. But here's what Filipino theologian, Melba Maggay, has to say:

One person who has expressed “discomfort” over the popularity of the PDL is theologian Dr. Melba Maggay, executive director of the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture (ISACC), a 21-year old Christian research and training organization specializing in Gospel and Asian culture issues, community and social development, and writing courses for church personnel and communities.

Maggay says that one should not reduce the God-ordained purposes in life into five spiritual laws of worship, community, discipleship, ministry, and evangelism. “This campaign has worked so well because of a very good marketing strategy. Americans like things to be standardized, simplified, and packaged well like an assembly line but biblically speaking, you can’t do that.” She says that there are many other well­-written and more profound books such as those by Eugene Peterson, Dorothy Sayer, and even some Filipino authors, but these are not so popular because they are not packaged as well. “The PDL is an American creation and the American culture is dominant here. The American understanding of Christianity, therefore, became easily accepted.”

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Gura's post about "praying in buildings" reminded me of a book about architecture (but I can't find it in my shelves to reference it - dang!)on how sacred space became separate from other kinds of spaces deemed "secular" and why churches became places of refuge, confessionals, places to purge oneself of sin.

Indigenous animist peoples didn't really have a concept of sinning against the will of a personal God. They acknowledged that there is a Great Spirit that brought all things into being and imbued everything with sacredness and spirit and therefore they saw themselves as part of this creation - neither special or separate - but intricately interconnected with all life forms.

The idea that human beings are special because they supposedly possess a reflective mind able to think about abstract ideas may have also resulted from the invention of writing, first the consonants (e.g. Hebrew aleph-beth) and then the vowels (Greek). From ancient hieroglyphs to pictographs to phonetic writing -- human beings came to transfer to the written word former bodily experience and knowledge of the sensous world. Oral history and literature would eventually erode and give way to literacy. As Albert White Hat, Lakota leader, says: Before Christianity, we had relatives - the sun, moon, trees, rivers. Today we have God but we don't have relatives.

Folks like Ivan Illich, Walter Ong, Daniel Quinn, David Abram and others have documented how this shift drastically changed human consciousness. The split - as it is commonly called - between the body and psyche/mind would be perfected during the Age of Reason. And we know what the consequences of this Age has meant to indigenous peoples around the world.

But there is some magic in the world left still. The growing yearning for that re-connection of our physical body as part of the body of the living earth is being re-animated. It's in the air. Can you feel it?

I've been asked by a friend who is writing about Filipino family caregiving to talk about how my family coped with my Mom's illness then death in the Philippines. "Transnational caregiving."

Another friend is still in dark mourning after her father's sudden, but not unexpected death, a few months ago. I tell her not to rely on pills to go to sleep.

My nephew who is a reserve captain in the army has been called into active duty and is awaiting deployment to Iraq.

A girlfriend is getting ready to go back to Costa Rica because her father has been diagnosed with cancer that has metastasized.

More backchannels about the silent malaise that this war brings on: a sense of helplessness.

On my bedside reading, I read about the obliteration of the babaylan within the first century of Spanish conquest. Read between the lines of these church accounts are the powerful women's strategies of subversion, resistance, and deception in order to protect their animist religion from the Inquisition.

In all of the above, the past and future meet in the present. Presently,I am thinking of my participation next week at an interfaith dialogue and consultation on Religion, Power and Violence.Thirty scholars, theologians and peace workers from the five major religious traditions from around the world will meet to discuss how churches can address the role of violence in religion and develop models for peacemaking. The World Council Churches launched the "Decade to Overcome Violence" after 9-11. This interfaith consultation is one of the many strands in this theme.

How does someone like me - unchurched, de-Christianized,newly self-proclaimed animist - end up with this group? I don't know...well, I feel that I do know but this will be for another later post. The past brought me here. The body says: live this moment.

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