A City Of Their Own Making

Manila, Philippines

Written By: Nic Hughes, Director of Strategy & Operations

It is hard to miss Jesus in Manila. There are pictures of him (and his mother Mary) on nearly every gate and home. In some ways this is comforting, as if this place and these people are being watched over by a loving god-man and his mother. I think this is what most see when they come here: a Christian city, a Christian people, a Christian country. But what if this is only what I insist on seeing? What if the Christian veneer belies a much bigger and more complicated story – one that is much harder to tell? Especially to an outsider.

I first met Fred and Nestor outside of their own country. They felt comfortable, almost familiar. Their disarming smiles and quick laughs, made me feel at ease. It wasn’t until I was in Manila, in their world, that those disarming smiles and laughs began to look a bit more rehearsed, a bit more for my benefit than I wanted to admit.

It was still on the first day of our visit to Manila when suddenly my eyes began to play tricks on me. It was disorienting, even a bit frightening. What if the smiles and the laughs and the sights and sounds were a mirage of my own making? What if my eyes, my whole way of seeing was only telling a half-truth? And did I really want the whole truth?

And then for a fleeting moment I saw something I didn’t expect. I saw myself as a white man in Manila. I saw the faint outlines of what is so obvious to those who were born not white and not male…that everyone and everything bends in my direction. Some call it white privilege, others call it “code switching”, but no matter what it is called, it dehumanizes and prevents trust and relationship. I was undone by a glimpse of the reality I am so privileged to ignore.

In that moment, I was lost. I was lost in a foreign land for what felt like a lifetime, but seconds later I see Nestor. He is still laughing, but his eyes have a new and knowing look. I feel as if he is inviting me to come and see how he sees, to borrow his eyes and peer behind the curtain of my birthright. Do I dare? Do I really want to see? The questions press in, but his eyes give me confidence.

What followed was a blur of cityscape and heat, air so thick it was hard to take in, and traffic, so much traffic. The skyscrapers and relentless noise fell away and suddenly, as if through a portal into another world, we were strolling on a narrow street, far off the map of our scheduled itinerary. We made our way through space and history and progress and poverty to the threshold of another place – a sacred place…a place where Fred and Nestor and their community gather. No kitschy Jesus here. They took me to a place deep inside the bowels of Manila, where they gather and meet with other grassroots leaders – a place where they find peace in a city that seeks to take it away at every turn – a place where they are reimagining a new narrative for themselves and their fellow Filipinos – a place where they call home.

And what a place!

Foot traffic and small shops filled with artists and social revolutionaries. Beautiful lights and plants and colors and animating it all is the seductive beat of the grassroots leaders Fred and Nester were excited for me to meet. Poets and painters and theologians and rappers, potters and mothers, chefs and brothers.

This place, these people…I could never have imagined. And isn’t that the point? I came here to see God at work, from below, off the well-worn path of my expectations. It took a loving invitation and a knowing guide to lead me by the hand and show me. And now I see, if only a glimpse, if only a moment with borrowed eyes, I see what these leaders are giving their lives to. They are breathing life into a new city, a city being birthed right there in the center of Manila through midwives like Fred and Nestor and their friends. This is a city of their own making, informed by a Gospel free of Western, white privilege and all that comes with it.

Missional Question

How are your expectations being challenged by the invitation to see with new eyes the beauty of God at work?

Stories that remind us what is possible when leaders undergo the Incarnational Movements.