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?


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.


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.


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.


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.

Gideon, from Zero to a Hero

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How to conquer our fears and doubts

As a farmer , Gideon possessed zero credibility to act as a general in the army neither had he any training at all to be a soldier.  An ordinary man of no reputation yet he rose from zero to a hero of faith in Hebrews 11.   He  proved himself to be a brilliant military strategist when he led 300 warriors to fight legions of Midianites.

For 7 years, Israel faced numerous invasions from their enemies who ruined their crops, devastated their cattle and livelihood.

The invaders forced them to build shelters in mountain clefts, caves and strong holds.  Surely the  consequence of Israel’s unfaithfulness to God when they worship foreign gods and idols!

When the  Israelites hit rock bottom  they cried out to God for help.    Later God sent them a prophet reminding them how He rescued them from slavery in Egypt and how He commanded them not to worship idols in the Promised land.

How quickly they had forsaken and disobeyed God (Judges 6:8-10).   Yet He heard their lament by sending an angel to Gideon while he was threshing wheat in a winepress pit.  Gideon accepted the challenge after overcoming his doubts and fears. He recruited 32,000 men to defend Israel from invasion .

Against their enemies swarming like locusts, Israel was definitely outnumbered.   Gideon discharged those fearful ones leaving him 10,000 warriors.  But God  said “there are still many men” so a water drinking test was initiated.  The Lord eliminated those who kneel  at the river banks from those who lapped like a dog with their hand.

With the remaining 300 who laps water like a dog  it’s getting crazier because God told them to fight with just trumpets and jars.  When they blew the trumpets and shattered the jars with torches inside, their enemies turned to one another. They killed each other screaming and  running in all directions.  All hell break lose!!!  Chaos and confusion descended in the enemy camp.  And Israel wins.

Worship in Battle

The story sounds similar in 2 Chronicles 20 when King Jehoshaphat won the war  sending his Worship team.  Here in Judges 7 Gideon’s 300 seemed to worship God by blowing  trumpets and breaking jars.  Surely this is God’s size solution to this giant problem.

If God  allowed 32K or 10k man to fight the Midianites, the Israelites would have boasted that they won the battle by their own strength.  But with 300 man God would get the full credit.  Yes, God deserves all glory.  Here’s 3 lessons in Gideon’s  story:

Lesson 1: God sees the Best in You

Hiding in fear in a pit while threshing  wheat,  an angel  appeared to Gideon and addressed him as “mighty warrior”.  “Save Israel from the Midianites “!  and a quizzical response “Who,  why me?”

Gideon had a reality check.  “I am just a lowly farmer, my name means ‘cutter’ — it sucks. I belong to  the weakest and the least  clan of Manasseh. The lowest in the food chain.   So me against all our enemies who are skilled warriors countless as swarms of locusts in Judges 6:5, 7:12. “ Are you kidding me? “

Evidently, Gideon was terrified to face the enemy.  He doubted God 3x, despite the miracles in the burnt offering and the 2 fleece test.  But God was patient with Gideon.  Mighty warrior was a prophetic word, its Gideon’s future.

Okay maybe pathetic not prophetic – that’s how the enemy would taunt you!  However God declares what you could become, He sees the best in you.  You are not who you think and say you are.  You are not who people think and say you are.  YOU are WHO God think and says you are.

Lesson 2:When God gives vision, He gives the provision

Remember Nehemiah’s project of rebuilding the great wall in 52 days? Sometimes God gives us a gargantuan task, an impossible dream , in this case a rescue operation.

Our lack of training, education, money or resources would make us feel inadequate.  Being old, disabled  or  weak  would seem to be reasonable excuses not to go.

But look how 80 year old fugitive Moses,  Joseph the slave, and shepherd boy David have accomplished  great feats.  Let’s do what is humanly possible and God will do the impossible.

The Lord uses common people for HIs glory.  Now take note the kind of provision, equipping or assurance He’s saying in Judges  6:16  my presence will be with you”

See also passages such as;  I am with you always” Isa 40:10, Mt.28: 20,  

“I will never leave you nor forsake you  Hebrews 13:5

This promise sounds the  same in Genesis 39,  5x  – its says, “ the Lord was with Joseph”.  

Moses when told to lead Israel to the Promise Land  — “ If your presence is not with us, do not send us up from here”  Exodus 33:15

God’s way of empowering us to do the task is simply His Presence.  He will be with you,  “I will never leave you nor forsake you” Hebrews 13:5. 

Meaning—I will be with you,  I AM all you got,  …. I AM everything you NEED.   So be bold and courageous.  Courage is not the absence of fear but the presence of God.

Lesson 3:  Obedience results in success and victory.

With only 300 men, your odds in the battle would be one person versus one million.  That’s a scary thought.  Was Gideon afraid? Yes, indeed.  In fact, prior to the attack, God told Gideon that night if he’s afraid just sneak in at the enemy’s camp with his assistant  Pura, take a look and listen.

So when they arrived at the enemy’s camp, the divine assurance came as  they overheard someone who had just a bad dream.    One of them gave the interpretation that Gideon’s sword would attack and  wipe them all in  defeat .  That surely emboldened Gideon!  He therefore obeyed.  Then success and victory followed immediately!!  Amen.

Check out  Mark Batterson’s  book “In a Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day”  (754 reviews to date)  for more edifying stories.

You Stink : Light a Match After Using Toilet

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Few seconds after I boarded a jeepney in Manila, the passengers started looking at me and covering their nose. I know I took a shower , wore a clean shirt and pants so I was confident that wasn’t me..  Some passengers put a cigarette in their mouth and lighted a match,  Oblivious until someone told me “ you probably stepped on a manure or something.”  I turned the sole of my shoes to show them there’s nothing.

Later I realized its the smell of the stinking smoke from the burning garbage dump attached into my clothing and my perspiring body. Walking around the dump for years ministering to people you’d surely get used to the stench.


Pardon me but I thought same thing happens when you used the toilet you also don’t smell a thing. Until one day the late Ted Mina, former Hawaii representative visited us at our Manila missions house.  When he entered our restroom he puked on  the stench of someone who’d just been there.

Jokingly I told him there were 20 staff living in that house and they would not smell the difference after being in the dump whole day. He simply smiled, asked for a match and lighted it. He explained the burnt phosphorous absorbs the stench and it does smell good afterwards. Oh yes, lighting a match, that’s a good practice as courtesy to the next person.

Mang Angel, my barber from Smokey Mt. warned me though to be careful lighting matches on the toilet.  He knew an incident when a toilet exploded.  Inquiring further, he said some workers were excavating an extinct septic tank.

One guy wanted to inspect first so he removed the old toilet bowl and made the hole large enough for him to go down below with a flashlight. After a while he complained of the stinking smell and demanded a cigarette from the other guy. When he lighted the cigarette, there was a big explosion. So friends, be careful lighting that match… ha ha.


On a serious note it seems that Christians emit some kind of smell too.. a fragrance, according to 2 Corinthians 2:14-16. That fragrance can be smell of life or death. There’s a smell oozing out of us spiritually and its not the cologne or the perfume we are wearing.

Its the fragrance of Christ  I believe that fragrance is supposed to be something that creates a positive atmosphere. It can leave a mark or impression  to those around me by the way I speak and act., or the way I behave.

We are meant to be the salt and light of the world by His grace. The One who lives in us empowers us to love people. God is love.  He is the Source.  So I begin to love those unlovable people.  Many people walked around  broken, hurting, lost or in some kind of need.  I was told that I cannot give something I do not have.

Love is giving… when we begin treating the other person just as Jesus would treat them the result could be amazing.  Remember those WWJD bracelets .. “What Would Jesus Do” ? We should decide to be a blessing instead of being a burden. Let’s release those “fragrance” and make someone’s world rock today by speaking the savory Word of life.

Cross Cultural Bloopers

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A German outreach team of eight young people came to visit our missions house for a few weeks in Balut, Tondo Manila. My wife and I served as their house parents helping them to get around Manila and to deploy them to the different ministries in Smokey Mt. garbage dump. As houseparents we gave them orientation about common Filipino culture and tradition like respect for elders saying “po”, “salamat po” (thank you), how to take the bus, the jeepney and the LRT., taking them to SM Megamall , where to exchange foreign currency, etc. During community meetings with our sponsorsed students we introduce them as our guest team. We have worship and mealtimes together with staff and the guest team.

The next morning one German guy woke up early, put on his gear and started jogging in the streets oblivious of the pedestrians who were staring at him, some pedicabs even stopped wondering who or why this young white guy was running. Until he passed by a group of unschooled children playing early on the streets and hollered at him “Hi Joe!!” . The next day, he encountered the same smiling, giggling children who greeted him “Good morning Joe!!” This Joe-thing had been going on for three days. He became annoyed that he decided to confront them.

“ Hey, @#& for your information I am not an American, I’m German okay? So stop calling me “ Joe”! “ So he went on his way. He’s just about a few feet away jogging when the kids shouted in unison – “ Hi Hitler!” There you go, it got worse. The young German was indeed offended and we had to explain to him that to those kids they thought all white people are Americans.  We told him also our famous American TV show “Combat” where the enemy were Germans.

When we moved to the US in 2001 we lived in a community with Gleanings for the Hungry.   Its located in Dinuba CA, a small town where people seemed to know each other.  Our missions house was the favorite hang out of teenagers who served at Gleanings because of our 4 kids, 3 were teens that time.  My wife cook for them chicken adobo with rice, lumpia and sometimes we offer them to eat “balut” for fun.

We remember those times in Manila when riding those jeepneys we could ask other passengers who were total strangers, questions like —“ are you married, how many children you have”… in here, it’s not quite acceptable.  Personal stuff – you keep it to your own, you don’t share.  Not unless, you know the person and have good relationships then maybe you can ask personal things.  We sometimes feel homesick since we’re the only Filipino living in a community along with the Swiss, Americans, Canadians at Gleanings.  Someday we wanted to live in Daly City — we heard that the foggy, cloudy sky was due to lots of Filipinos using rice cooker.

One day while shopping at SaveMart in Dinuba we met this charming big chubby lady who gave us a quick friendly gaze. My wife complemented her nice maternity dress thinking she’s having a baby girl. “ How many months, when are you due?”  But the big lady retorted “Excuse me, I am not even pregnant. Darn. What are you talking about?”  Only our daughter Sydney, 7 year old at that time can easily get away when she says, “wow you’re fat!”  That was because, many people in Smokey Mountain garbage dump are skinny and being fat means you are rich.

Another cross cultural challenge we face is the language, my accent in particular. My friend Ron usually asks me twice before he can understand what am trying to say.  Sometimes I wonder why the Germans and the Swiss on our base when we talk we don’t say “what???” to each other.

Paul, another friend from New York invited us to speak in his church and I thought I was doing well.  The church was very responsive.  They listened and laughed out loud especially when the pastor whispered something to me when I told them “sorry I have a problem with my ‘bowels’”.  He mumbled if I needed a restroom. I explained I have problem with pronouncing a,e,i, o, u (vowels).  No difference to me pronouncing “v” and “b” and “f” and “p”.  I learned my lesson.  So later when I was assigned as one of the team leaders going to El Salvador to help the earthquake victims, I practiced well my  California accent.  When its time to move to another location and put all our stuff in our luggage , I would tell them really, slowly and carefully… that it is time to p-ack up!!