Three of the values that Servants cherishes are that of wholism, creativity and beauty. By wholism, we believe that Jesus died to ‘restore the whole of creation back to himself’ (Colossians 1:20). Last week, while visiting the Servants team in Manila, I had the privilege of seeing these values being lived out in a way that was bringing deep, new life to the urban (and rural!) poor.
Joshua Palma is a Filipino who spent many of his adult years on Smokey Mountain, living and working with urban poor people who eked out livelihoods as rubbish pickers. Rachel Hauser is Swiss, and has lived in slum and squatter areas in Metro Manila since 1990. In their time, they have seen plenty of dirt, garbage, raw sewerage, smog clogged sky and black waters. But it is this very history of having lived incarnationally among the suffering and oppression of these crowded concrete slums that has given them a vivid dream to see more of God’s Kingdom (“the new heaven and the new earth”) come to the urban poor in Manila.
Step by step, Joshua and Rachel are turning their dream into reality – a little slice of Eden a few kilometers from the edge of Metro Manila. Having purchased a 1.5 hectare block of bushland through Lilok (Lilok means ‘to shape’, and is a Servants project for mentoring community leaders), they and a few friends are developing a beautiful organic farm and retreat site among the green jungle and rolling hills of Tanay. They have built gorgeous bamboo (with inset steel to thwart the termites) structures for sleeping, eating, contemplation and worship (including a large, stunning octagonal meeting room that opens on all sides to the jungle and mountain views). Composting toilets recycle human waste, converting it into manure that renews the soil. Rain water is captured off the roofs and added to the supply of the aquifer they have tapped into. Only biodegradable soap is used when bathing. No chemicals, insecticides or plastics are allowed into the ground. Worm farms flourish. Native rice crops, corn, peppers, chilies, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, cassava and peanuts are thriving, along with the many native fruit trees (bananas, papaya, mango and more) that were already established. Two native pigs (non smelly and flu free!) oink with pleasure as table scraps are recycled. Nearby, a clear mountain stream bubbles and surges, before tumbling over a cascading water fall.
Joshua and Rachel talk about their passion to see the Lilok farm become more and more a place where “people come to know God, the Creator, and come back into contact with the overwhelming beauty of his creation”. Almost every month, groups of urban poor from Metro Manila come for retreats where they can talk and pray and be silent together among the green abundance of this beautiful place. For many of the children who have grown up in slum and squatter areas, this is the first time that they have been exposed to trees and fruit and vegetables that actually emerge from rich brown soil into which they can plunge their hands as they work it. For many of them, it is the first time they have experienced clean air and restful silence, punctuated only by bird song and insect calls. For nearly all of them, it is the first time they have been able to swim in water that was not blackened by sewerage and industrial waste. For nearly all of them, it is the first time that they have been allowed to see that God is a creator of beauty, not of ugliness. This is a transformational experience for most who come, and part of Rachel and Joshua’s dream is that they return to their urban communities as agents of transformation, committed to reversing the effects of the waste and pollution that have accumulated there.
Every week Joshua leads a gentle ‘Bible listening’ group, to which neighbours are invited (fellow farmers, and a team of workers from a waste recycling plant located just a kilometer or so away). They listen to dramatized recorded sections from the gospels, then discuss what they mean for their lives, and how they can ‘go and do likewise’.
Joshua has also been gently building a relationship with the people of the Dumagat hill tribe, who live about 3 hours hike away in the nearby mountains. They have come to love the philosophy of cherishing creation that the farm embodies – so different from all the environmental pillaging that they have witnessed, that has now hemmed them into a small corner of wilderness and undermined their way of life. They embrace Rachel and Joshua’s vision, and have given much free labour to the farm, and have planted out large areas with an indigenous variety of mountain rice that they want to see preserved and multiplied. They too are keen to join in ‘the Bible listening’, and Joshua will soon start a regular listening-talking time with them too.
It is early days in the life of the Lilok Eco Farm, but already it is fulfilling its vision of helping others “come to know God, and the beauty of his creation”.
[Written by Kristin Jack, Asia Coordinator]