God’s Grace Amidst The Garbage

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as told to Andy Butcher, Decision Magazine ’93

If you had told me few years ago that my search for meaning in life would end on a garbage dump,  I would have probably thought you were crazy.

But that is just what has happened.  As a missionary with Youth With A Mission (YWAM), I work among the people who live on Smokey Mountain.  It’s largest rubbish dumps in Manila,Philippines.  In recent years this dump–named after the fires which burn across its surface as refuse spontaneously combusts–has become well-known around the world as a symbol of the terrible poverty afflicting large parts of our country.

Amid the piles of garbage, the noise and the clinging stale odor, some 20,000 people make their homes and the best living they can from scavenging among the trash for bits and pieces to resell.

In befriending and helping care for these poorest of the poor, my family and I don’t have the material comforts we had when I worked in industry.  But we have found our lives enriched beyond measure.  We have found a peace and a purpose that eluded us all the time we were trying to make a comfortable future for ourselves.

I was working in the Middle East, away from my family and my home in the Philippines, when God called me back to him.  I had grown up in the Church, as had my wife, Cristina, but we were both drifting when we married in 1980.  During the four years that I worked in the Middle East, my mechanical engineering skills were able to secure a good salary.  We invested in a nice home and car, aiming to set ourselves up for the years ahead.

But there was a high cost.  Because I was able to be at home with my family only four weeks a year,  I was missing important growth stages in my children’s lives, like the first tooth and the first step.

With spare time on my hands, I joined an expatriate workers’ church, and soon found myself with a new hunger for the Bible.  As I read Scripture, I came to a crossroads.  What really was the most important thing in life? Was it money, or the fact that one day I would be standing before God, accounting for my life?

THE QUESTION WHY

When in 1987 I returned to the Philippines, Cristina and I rededicated our lives to God.  Not long afterward we attended a Crossroads Discipleship Training School operated by YWAM Antipolo, on the outskirts of Manila.  This was a time for us to devote ourselves to learning more about God.

During that time, we were introduced to the work at Smokey Mountain.  We found our hearts drawn to the people living at the rubbish dump.  We wondered, “Why should some people–like ourselves–have so much while others have so little?”  Cristina and I knew that we wanted to give ourselves to sharing God’s love with the people on Smokey Mountain.

Afterward Cristina and I,  our 3 children moved to  Smokey Mountain  joining the existing YWAMers there.  At first we spent time simply befriending people and getting to know them.  When YWAM began ministering at the dump in 1984, it was with a belief in the saying that people don’t really care what you know until they really know that you care.

In the early days much of that practical expression of God’s love centered on health care.  Binding words from scavenging or fighting, and treating diseases so common in such unhealthy surroundings.  The team began immunization programs, a health clinic and feeding programs for malnourished youngsters.

FAITH IN ACTION

Over the years the work has expanded to take in wider needs beyond the immediate life-or-death needs.  We immersed ourselves in a wide range of project to help develop life in the community.  To realize the Bible’s promise of “a future and a hope” for God’s children.

We see no separation between “preaching the Good News” and “releasing the oppressed.”   Each of our practical expressions of God’s love is linked with a declaration of the Good News.  Prayers as we work with the people.   Conversations about our faith.   Bible study groups for those who want to know more.

As a Filipino, I am touched that so many Christians have come from overseas to give their hands to the work of caring for my fellow countrymen.  At present there are five nationalities represented on our 20 person team.  In addition, support in the form of prayers and pesos comes from individuals, groups and churches all over the world.

I am now responsible for directing the various ministries of our team.  It is frustrating to spend less time with the people.  But rewarding to see the ways  lives are touched and changed by Christ.  I’ve seen many people leave behind their old ways –alcoholism, drugs, violence and even occultism.   They turn their lives over to Christ and  become actively involved in the growing churches on the dump.

MISSIONARY FROM THE DUMP –NOT US

Recently one of the fellowships closely involved to us sent out its first missionary group to travel around in the Philippines!   They  shared with others the riches of heaven they had found in the dump.

Pedrito,  a feared member of the most violent gangs in the community now become one of the missionaries.  His tattooed body speaks of his angry past, but a big smile shows the peace and contentment that he knows today as a Christian.

Another man who used to drink and fight is now a deacon in one of the churches on the dump.  He says he doesn’t want to move to a nicer area.  Smokey Mountain is where he found God and he’ll serve his own people.

There is a growing sense of community on Smokey Mountain, and we believe that it is due in large part to the influence of the churches and the Christians.  Despite the hardships there is much happiness.  Friends greet us with warm smiles and generous hospitality when we squeeze into their lean-to-homes.

But even with many physical improvements, such as fresh water supplies and electricity, the dump is still a difficult place to live.  Sickness and violence, with resulting deaths, are still common.  We have wept with many families and helped them bury their dead.

TRUE COMPASSION

Faith and hope strains us sometimes.  In the face of grinding poverty it is easy to become overwhelmed.  AS we seek to minister, we try  our eyes fixed on Jesus rather than all the difficulties around us.

Smokey Mountain visitors never fail to be moved by the plight of the people.  Many Westerners puked when I walk them around the area and introduce them to my friends.

To work here we need to have true compassion, something which flows from the heart of God.  That is why we believe spending time with God in prayer and worship is a vital to our ministry.  Just as feeding and caring for the people.

Psalm 113:7 declares God’s goodness and great ness over all the world.  It attest that, “He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap.”  We see him doing that at Smokey Mountain.

How to get a US visa? My Experience

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 “What is the purpose of your visit to United States?” “To go Hawaii on a missions train…” We barely finished the sentence when we heard the familiar sound as if Judge Judy banged her gavel. The Consular official stamped the date on our Philippine passports meaning our visa application was “denied”!  Several denials later and waking up 3:00 am for the long queue at the US embassy, my wife and I finally gave up. Think of it. Hawaii, missions, are you kidding me?  Oh yeah, imagine me sitting ashore the white sand beach sipping a refreshing cocktail pina-colada. Well, yes, we tried to explain our HQ is in Kona, Hawaii.  And I had wired US $2000 initial down payment for our training.

LOOKING LIKE FOOLS

Hundreds of aspiring Filipinos line up daily at the US Embassy in Manila hoping to get a visa in that land of milk and honey. I think I said its easier for a camel to enter a needle than for a rich man to get a US visa. Resigning from my lucrative job in Saudi Arabia and giving up our house to serve God sounded noble but you see, the officer wasn’t impressed. I know, even our parents, pastor and friends didn’t like the idea because I had a big family to feed. Except that my wife and I took it to heart His word in Luke 14;33 to give up everything to follow Jesus and be His disciple. Our underground church in Saudi Arabia stood behind us with their blessings and we’re emboldened with their eventual funding. Looking like fools we joined YWAM but our training was supposed to be in Kona Hawaii. Maybe we heard it wrong from God so like Peter I went back to fishing. I applied for jobs local and overseas but my efforts turned futile.

OPENING NEW DOORS

Few months later the Lord seemed to make a way when we met National Director Larry Baldock announcing the first Crossroads DTS training in Antipolo , for families with children and that they also got our downpayment from Hawaii. Our children Sarah, Mykee and our parents were thrilled to the bones. Getting out of a tricycle we noticed its drawing of Hawaii Island printed at the back as it faded from our sight.

After a year in Smokey Mountain, YWAM catapulted us into leadership position opening doors of opportunity to speak in churches in Holland and Germany. Interview at the German embassy few years later prompted us to show as a proof a copy of Billy Graham’s Decision Magazine featuring our testimony working in Smokey Mt garbage dump. Our European partners loved to hear beautiful stories of children scavengers turning their scar into star. These children scavengers scoured scrap metals day and night as means of livelihood instead of going to school. Poor plus no education was no means to break the cycle of poverty. Indeed our gospel integrated Student Sponsorship Program provided a brighter future for them. As our saying goes, “we don’t want to send an educated soul to hell”. Years later we produced some of the finest businessmen, professionals, leaders who were great community models.

The German official gladly issued my wife and I a Schengen visa that enabled us to travel around Belgium, Nederland, Denmark, etc. As an added bonus to our missions trip I took my wife to Harrods in London— okay, just for window shopping. Harrods was our infamous First Lady Imelda Marcos favorite lavish shopping place. I promised my wife we would go shopping somewhere else. Instead our prim and proper friends drove us to many scenic places because I was not used to driving on the left hand side of the road.

MULTIPLE ENTRY

My mother in law became ill in California.  Surprise.  My wife  got a visa quickly without being interrogated like a terrorist. Our passports already bulged with all sorts of visa from our trips overseas. From that time on we began traveling to the US frequently to visit mom and also for vacation. Fast forward 12 years in Smokey Mountain, Wally Wenge, Director of Gleanings for the Hungry in California invited us to distribute food not only to Smokey Mt, but also to 40 nations. By the time we decided to go Wally Wedge, the Director passed away. The new leader Len Nylin welcomed us to their first Discipleship School where I joined the outreach to El Salvador building houses destroyed by the 2001 earthquake. The 7.5 richer scale tremor killed hundreds of people and devastated 4500 houses. Overwhelmed by the urgency I forgot to file our R-1 religious visa that would allow us to stay of 3-5 years. Our 10 year multiple entry US B2 visa allows 6 months stay per entry.

My US visa expires in a month while in San Salvador, the capital city posing a dilemma of “going in and out of US and El Salvador” which was possible but risky and expensive. So I phoned the US Embassy in San Salvador to extend my visa but it would take 3 months waiting time. The new system would be get an appointment online or phone to eliminate the long line of applicants at the US Embassy.  I need to apply for R-1 visa in my home country.

THE AMERICAN ANGEL

Our team prayed earnestly for me. Night came, I recounted the days and reminisced the exhilarating feeling of turning over to the Salvadoran people those concrete block houses we built. With our limited Spanish love seems to be a universal language. Some Salvadoran men volunteered to help us while their wives offered us snacks. With these happy thoughts I prepared myself to go home to Manila.

During my last weekend , Dave Romero our dynamic team leader was playing golf with another young American he just met. He showed great interest in the works we do in San Salvador. Until Dave remembered the one problem we faced as a team — my visa. The American guy said “Meet me in my office tomorrow” and gave his business card —“ United States Embassy El Salvador”. Praises and glory to God.

This is funny

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My sister in law told us about her funny  and memorable missions outreach (Discipleship Training School)  in a far flung village North of the Philippines.   She described people there as very hospitable, hardworking and cheerful. The women wear colorful clothing  that look like a rainbow and most men were half naked covered with bright colored flags.  Their missions outreach involved distribution of  modern clothing, toys and medical services.

 

One particular  lady was so cordial and persistent to the point of being annoying  in asking them to wait and stay for lunch while she cooks.   But our friend can’t help but  notice the  tiny green piece of malunggay (moringa) leaf lodged in between the teeth of the smiling lady.

 

She  politely declined the nice lady’s offer telling her how she appreciates her hospitality and  that she really liked the  delicious smell of their lunch.  Our friend almost got out of it but then

she wanted to make fun of the malunggay in her teeth.   So she told the lady she had a gift of prophecy  and  she can tell  their lunch.

 

“Really,  can you  tell?”, the nice lady replied.

 

“Yes, of course, I ate them everyday and  I think I can live without them today “

 

“Okay then, please tell me … but if you miss , promise me you have to dine with me & my family”

 

“Promise”

 

“so what’s for lunch?”

 

“ Simple , it’s malunggay leaves”

 

“You’re   wrong!!!!   That was  our lunch  yesterday.

Fed by the ravens…

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A young married couple in SMokey Mountain attending our Bible Study group shared this interesting story of how God provided during their time of desperate need.   If Elijah was fed by the ravens in the brook of Cherith this lovely couple got their supply from a —?.   Here’s their story:  Christopher was looking for a job aside from scavenging in the dump while his pregnant wife supplemented their income by washing the neighbors laundry.  The couple pray together daily for provision and for Christopher to find a steady job.  Until one day they ran out of money except for a handful of rice.  That’s it, no meat or “pagpag ” (re-cycled left offer fried chicken from McDonald thrown in the garbage)  as source of protein.

They usually can afford to buy a dozen of eggs and they have ways of multiplying their meals to last for a month.   One way was the wife cooks daily  3 cups of rice in a pot, cracks a fresh egg and mix it when the rice boils.   Nice flavoring.    But this time there’s no more eggs.  So here she would put out the 2 plates  and 2 glass of water then serve the rice.  At this point Christopher felt sad and  useless he couldn’t provide for his wife and the unborn child.  Her wife sobbed in tears as he led the prayer.  When they opened their eyes… surprised,  they saw their cat with a live pigeon clutched on its paw.  Yes, they barbecued the cat,…  I mean the pigeon, eating it in small pieces  which according to them  lasted for 3 day meals.  Next day the good news– he found a job in a factory.  Praises to Jesus!!

Smokey Mt

Note: Smokey Mountain was a garbage dump in Manila, Philippines. The government relocated the people to Permanent housing in 1993.

Our Journey Begins

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23535_413064965630_528815630_5678875_6769469_nOftentimes when smart people travel they bring a map.  But if  you were going anywhere in Manila decades ago,  your map might not work because the streets were changed or not yet in the map.   Inner streets have no signs, some closed because young people were using it as a basketball court.  So the best way was to ask around people who would likely tell you a few landmarks.  Now when you say landmark , most of us may think of a church, a park or a mall  but definitely not a 50 meter- high stinking garbage dump in the capital city of Manila.

SMOKEY MOUNTAIN GARBAGE DUMP

That’s our ministry location in 1989, a squalid heap billowing with smoke called Smokey Mountain where about 20,000 slum dwellers survive.    Poor as a rat,  people scavenge scraps, paper, and metal to sell to recycling vendors.   My fancy title – Director or base leader.  Job description –overseer , but at times driver of the 26 passengers Sarao jeepney  for a half day (due to  traffic) to pick up YWAM teams from the airport.  Whereas Sandy Wilks,  the leader of our  Student Sponsorship Ministry often drives the same  jeepney to be used as a funeral car to pick up a dead body and its dear family from the dump to the burial site.   Mang Anghel, my usual cheap barber from the dump,  makes express coffin out of plywood as part of the YWAM ministry.    I purposely remind him not to shave the back of my neck for fear that I might end up to be his next customer  in his plywood coffin business .  One time, a family was able to rent a casket somewhere and they  had a wake for 2 weeks to raise funds through gambling.  After two weeks the corpse was gone missing because it was borrowed by the other relatives next baranggay so they could also raise money by gambling.

One funny thing,  people from Smokey Mt. would not believe that my wife Cristina and I were the new “base leaders”,  they thought we were the humble “katulong” (servants) of these white people from abroad serving with us in YWAM.   They prefer to talk to our American counterparts and we end up to be their translators. One time we went to Malacanang Palace, the Office of the President of the Philippines all dressed up in our national costumes (barong tagalog for me) with Dra Emma Palazo to be awarded for her Botika Binhi Project.   I drove the Sarao Jeepney fully packed with people attending the ceremony.  While I parked the jeepney they all went ahead but the security guard would not even let me in because he said drivers like me were not allowed inside the building.   Until the YWAM staff realized I’ve been gone long and they have to ask another white guy to get me outside.  See, how we were discriminated in our own country.

 

DISEASES AND PARTIES

Tuberculosis, diarrhea, worms,  intestinal and respiratory disease, you name it that’s the kind of thing we face and breathe everyday.  Anyway,  “Combantrin” was our excellent deworming brand.  We have to take this magic pill once or twice a year especially when we have that ticklish feeling inside our tummy.   Dining with the people in the dump was inevitable especially if you’re the one leading Bible Studies or when you’ve been invited at a birthday party.   Filipinos are hospitable people.  Imagine at times  they were cooking noodles (pansit) with firewood while those blue flies flying like fighter jets were landing dead on the wok.  Doug Donithan and  I have to  watch out for those small “raisins” in our pansit and flicked them with our finger one by one.

One day we were invited at a wedding party and the young couple borrowed utensils  from our  Daycare for malnourished babies ran by one of our heroes,  Els Van Teylingen, from Holland.   During our time, we don’t use yet those expensive disposal diaper but we have those white plastic buckets from Gleanings for the Hungry as our containers for A– soaking the dirty cloth diapers , container B– wash with soap & water and C- rinsing & ready for drying on the clothesline.  There was  lots of food-  lechon, pansit (chinese noodles).   And jeez.. the  powdered orange juice drink were being mixed with water and blocks of ice in one of those Gleanings buckets.   I thought my wife was trying to be funny waving her hand and mumbling … its letter A,  bucket A, container A and I was not getting it.  I was oblivious but my wife Cristina and our YWAM Secretary began giggling incessantly when I drank that living water, ahem, juice!!

 
TURNING THE WORLD UPSIDE DOWN

jeepneyOur YWAM team of 40 targeted 1000 children for educational sponsorship, we served 24,000 people per year for TB control- immunization & the nutritional daycare.   A whooping 0.5 M pesos budget per year!!   Our amazing team conducted home Bible Study and also started two new churches in the dump.  The best part was equipping the Smokey Mountain people  with  education and skills  as we observed the astounding success  of some friends a few years later.    That was priceless.   But without  the gospel  of our Lord Jesus we say we might be just sending an educated soul to hell.   Raising up community leaders like Manuel Manarang, Dennis B,   created quite a stir in the dump — they literally “turn the world upside down” for Jesus.   We even saw the boldness of  Manuel approaching military General Ramos during his visit to present our issues in the dump but the bodyguards prevented him.  Many people drastically changed lives spiritually and economically hearing of their powerful testimonies about Jesus.

 

GOING TO CHURCH IN THE MALL

Although we supported the  church in Smokey Mountain,  most of our team members attended the Union Church of Manila on Sundays whereas we, the Ancheta family joined Victory Christian Fellowship under Pastor Luther Mancao.  The crazy thing, whenever we ride a  jeepney people start covering their nose as we boarded.  Even if we’ve taken a shower.   So we refrain walking in the dump before going to church  because the stink sticks to our clothings.    Later on when we afforded buying a car  we enjoyed driving to Greenhills or the SM Mega mall Victory church.  After church, where else you want to go– we’re already in the mall.   The catch though,  we always have to lay our hands on the Toyota car because every time we close the door the “balakubak” flakes starts falling, … that’s the rusted pieces falling on the ground.   I forgot to tell you, our area in Balut was always flooded most of the year not because of the rain or typhoon.  It’s  the high tide, a salty corrosive water.  Not good for cars.  Every day the Earth experiences two high tides and two low tides.  Could be the reason why sometimes we have more than 7000 islands sometimes less in the Philippines.

 

FROM SCARS TO  STARS

In 1993 news headline, Cory Aquino the new Philippine President “ordered to wipe out Smokey Mt from the face of the earth” due to the stigma brought to the nation by its  worldwide publicity.   Smokey Mountain became the symbol of poverty in the Philippines.  People  relocated to a nearby government housing.   YWAM  ministry continue to exist to this day turning their scars into stars,  trials into triumph giving them the Living Hope.  We recognize  also the accomplishments  of a friend  parish priest Ben Beltran who implemented many great projects in the dump.

MOVING TO SAN FRANCISCO, BAY AREA

In 2001,  my family moved to the U.S.  at Gleanings for the Hungry in Dinuba, California .   We were amazed how this ministry sends tons of food to more than 40 needy nations around the world.  Hosting thousands of youth to process the drying of peaches in summer were some of our memorable experiences.  Later with the influence of CPA Bill Cornell we  introduced  Quickbooks  and  the Denari  donor system when I was assigned working in the Finance Department.   Every Monday,  staff introduced themselves to hundreds of volunteers and we have to tell them our spiritual involvement, such as DTS, Bible Study, hospitality.   Crunching  numbers doesn’t sound religious at all, especially when we’re Religious Visa status.   After much thought,   I would say my ministry involvement was most  biblical,  –”the ministry of reconciliation ” (2 Cor 5:18)  reconciling books and people’s relationship with God.

In 2007  we met Tim & Karol Svoboda in  YWAM SF, a ministry reaching out to more than 3,000 homeless in San Francisco.  Every time we cross the Bay Bridge,  my daughter Sydney and wife Cristina holler “I love San Francisco”!!!!   The Tenderloin, and the Ellis Street reminded us so much of the poor living in Smokey Mt.   Except for this  difference.  The poverty here is spiritual not  material.  Most of the “poor” here receive  welfare checks as compared to the poor from the garbage dump who gets help personally  from the hand of a YWAM person –plus they hear the gospel.  The poor we know are generally grateful, downcast and humble but the poor in SF, not all of them I believe,  have an attitude problem– ungrateful, narcissistic & that sense of entitlement.  That’s why we are so blessed being part of YWAM San Francisco under the leadership of Tim and Karol Svoboda in transforming this dark city with the love of Christ.  People, Passion, Places.  My wife one day had a frightening clash with a mentally ill homeless gal pushing her around .  Later on our then 8 year old  Sydney complained her ears were hurting due to the constant blasting shouts of invectives  in the streets!  Oh well, drug addicts, mentally deranged, alcoholic … what should we expect?

TRIBUTE TO A HOMELESS FRIEND

Butch, a Filipino homeless, was exceptional.. “was” because he just passed  few months ago.  He loves to be on the street with his buddies but he actually had a single room occupancy (SRO) awarded to him by the government.   Although he was alcoholic, he was trying to put his life together, attending our Bible study, our church and reconciling with his loved ones.  He was also one of our  financial supporters  for a few months when we were starting as staff in SF.  He also fixed our plumbing and electrical …while he was drunk.  This is quite difficult for me to understand– alcohol withdrawal is  dangerous than withdrawing from drugs?  So that time, too late for me to realize that I scolded him to stop drinking while he was staying in our small gettho house in the Bay Area. He obeyed.  During the night his body was vibrating wildly wondering if I should call 911.  Reluctantly I ran fast to buy a bottle of alcohol and it was a miracle– he was healed,  I mean from that wiggling body.

My wife Cristina  joined a ministry called 360 — a  one year discipleship program for those homeless who are committed to change despite they still struggle with loneliness, depression, sex, alcohol or drug addiction.    We started a Bible study with some homeless friends until we had a  small church  attended by about 30% “special needs people” ( mentally & physically challenged ).  I was later ordained as a pastor with the Foursquare church.  As you can imagine the atmosphere in our church  could be uncomfortable and distracting to some people so I figured you should have a special calling to be a part of our church.   Our vision  is  to reach out to thousands of  Filipino immigrants  in  the Bay Area,  we are called as a community to give the life and light of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.     And so is our faith journey ….   .