For two summers I was part of a group of seminary students doing cross-cultural missions trip in the southern part of the Philippines. The location is a small, but significant, island where Muslims built the first mosque in the Philippines. Its 14th century wooden foundations still stand today.
Our endeavor was fraught with both risk and reward. We thought that we prepared in every way for the trip: from cross-cultural communications to understanding their distinct way of life. But, we were dead wrong.
There was a feeling of discomfort once we set foot on the island, as if we were on a foreign land. The architectural design of the houses, the language, and even the food were all new to us. The Philippines prides itself as the only Christian nation in Asia. So for most of us Christianity is embedded in our identity as Filipinos. The existence of our Muslim brothers and sisters challenges such connection, and reveal a form of othering otherwise hidden from those of us coming from the dominant group.
Our relationship with Filipino Muslims is much like Jews’ relationship with the Samaritans. Muslims in the Philippines are geographically closest to the Christians, but are also excluded as “other.” Filipino Muslims are our closest siblings, yet we are divided by our differences and a lack of trust. We were not prepared to address this lurking and lingering issue.
We walked, as it were, down the road Jesus describes in his parable, asking whether we would continue to affirm the ossified lines of our identities, or transcend that which divides us?
Both Muslim and Christian Filipinos cultivate the planted seeds of enmity, harboring mutual hostility. When the ground is fertile for conflict it unleashes its fury. Both groups are caught in the symbiotic bond of reciprocal animosity. Diffusing a historically painful conflict needs both sides to come together to a table laying down accumulated weapons of animosity.
Who is my Neighbor?
Together we broke bread. We listened to their stories of being othered, and we discussed the prospects of a better future. The community genuinely embraced us. Their generosity and hospitality disarmed a deep-seated resentment that we ourselves were unaware we carried.
Mission trips are usually stories of conversion, and oftentimes Christians converting others. But we had a different experience. We were converted by the “other.” Part of such a conversion experience is to see life from the point of view of the other. We see the story, as it were, from the other side of the road. Such experience can be “gut-wrenching” similar to the experience of the Samaritan. We learned that we can have meaningful relationships with others in spite of our differences. Once the veil of animus evaporates in our midst we can see each other clearly. Transforming in the process, ourselves, others and our relationships.