by Wilma Lara
Relationships in missions are not immune to the economic order.
About 20 years ago when I was a young Christian, a missionary taught me what Matthew 7:3-5 meant. I was a college student then and relatively passive about the raging issues of nationalism, imperialism, and the U.S. military bases in the Philippines. My missionary mentor pointed out how ironic it was for Filipinos to charge American imperialists with exploitation when they themselves exploited their housemaids at home. Since then I have married and now try to rear four children at home while working in a government office. Inevitably, I had to hire a maid to help me with domestic chores.
After employing a housemaid for 12 years, after discussing and debating the since-closed U.S. military bases in the Philippines for 25 years, and after observing the structural issues in some mission agencies for 20 years, I have come up with certain similarities. There are striking likenesses in the structural set-ups of relationships between (1) domestic helpers and their employers; (2) the Philippine government and the U.S. government; (3) Filipino mission agencies and their missionaries and foreign mission agencies and their missionaries. Of course, there are some exceptions to these general observations.
1. The relationship is immediately a subordinate one because of economic considerations. Domestic help is at the command of the employer. The Philippine government has been engineered by the Americans. Filipino Christians have been influenced by the expatriate missionaries. Filipino mission agencies are relatively young and financially dependent on funds from abroad. They do not have economic leverage with their foreign counterparts.
2. Subordinates now recognize their rights, privileges, and limitations. Consequently, they are now asserting themselves. The Filipino domestic, the Filipino government and people, and the Filipino and agencies and missionaries now realize they are important to the realization of the interests of their employers, the U.S. government, and the mission enterprise, respectively.
"I am a human being and I deserve a day off and good treatment," says my maid. She can now to leave immediately when her self-esteem is slighted.
"The treaty of friendship, cooperation, and protection is one-sided," says the Philippine Senate. "We would rather let the bases go."
"We have the people, we do not have the money to send them as missionaries," explains a respected Filipino Christian leader. "Should we fold up as a mission agency? There should be better arrangements."
3. The tension to preserve the status quo brings discussions and concessions. However, because of the provocations of the subordinates and the arrogance of the masters, there have been undesirable results. Usually the underprivileged Filipino is highly sensitive to people tampering with his or her self-esteem. There comes a point when convictions cannot be sacrificed. They are held even at the expense of eco-privilege. Both parties lose.
4. The subordinates’ assertion of rights and privileges, and their calls for justice, are interpreted as rebellion, disrespect, and insubordination. Filipinos would call this walang utang na loob ("no debt of gratitude"). I’ve found this to be the case in worker-employer relationships, and I’m rather sure it’s also true of Filipino-international relationships. Meanwhile, expect to on being masters, while subordinates aspire to be masters themselves. Are Christians exempt from these tendencies?
Based on these observations, I have come to the following conclusions:
1. We need healthy geographical distance. Live-in arrangements for domestic workers encourage their exploitation by their masters and accelerates the maids’ dislike for their masters. Except for days off and vacations, the housemaid stays in the 24 hours a day. Thus, she is subject to abuse of working hours. She is asked to wash clothes at odd hours, make coffee at short notice, disturbed to make juice when unexpected visitors arrive, and care for the baby at all hours. Closeness contributes to exploitation.
When the U.S. bases were in the Philippines, the consequent lifestyle connected with them (prostitution, jobs dependent on the bases, etc.) created feelings of concern and abhorrence in many of us.
When workers of various nationalities within a mission agency cannot work well together, they need distance. Unhealthy proximity can cause discord and inefficiency rather than cooperation.
2. We need continuous communication. Both sides in the three sets of relationships described above should continuously talk and listen to the feelings and desires of each other. Whenever there are personnel changes, fresh relationships should be established, lest comparisons and expectations be based on past relationships.
I kept limiting my maid’s movements based on my previous experience with maids. That seemed wise to me, but my maid reminded me that she was not the same person as my previous maid.
The Americans could have been banking on their past methods of dealing with the government of the Philippines, when the base treaties were being renegotiated, so they had to be reminded by the Philippine Senate that there was now a new breed of Philippine leaders-no longer as beholden as their predecessors were to the goodness of America.
Similarly, there is now a rising number of outspoken Filipino Christian leaders who still love their mentors in Christ, but who are able to observe the realities of the "natural man," even in missionaries.
3. New respect and new expectations are needed from both sides. Maids are expected to live simpler than their masters. The Philippines gets the junk left in the U.S. bases. Except for a few, missionaries have higher standards of living than those to whom they minister.
People look down on maids; the U.S. looks down on the Philippines. Filipino Christians generally look up to missionaries as having better ideas and biblical interpretations. Filipinos usually work under missionaries de facto, even if structurally they should not.
4. New structures are needed that will give more dignity to all parties. Unless the underprivileged are prepared to suffer and pay for the cost of changes in relationships, no effective differences will occur in the future. As the saying goes, "There are no tyrants where there are no slaves."
Unless Christians are willing to think through relationships (domestic, international, and inter-mission), and apply the Lord’s teachings, and work out the implications in their own lives, we cannot expect households and international relationships to prosper. Would Christians and Christian workers be prepared to initiate upheavals in established oppressive systems, so that the Kingdom of God may indeed be established among us?
Let the household help live together, or live as families on their own, get higher wages, and live with dignity. Let them work with set time limits, like office workers, so they can live lives of their own.
Now that the U.S. bases are gone, let the Philippines unite and work together toward self-reliance. We must mature and aspire as a nation.
In church-mission relationships, I see some encouraging signs. Handing over new churches to Filipino leaders, and trusting them to run their affairs with accountability to the congregation and to God, is a good move.
Of course, we must expect difficulties, especially economic ones. This is a consequence of our nationality. But again, this should be taken as a challenge rather than a cause to look back to the past Caution must be taken, lest new institutions and national organizations be abused and become simply dummy organizations for the furtherance of selfish empires, rather than be under the lordship of Jesus.
We should learn to cooperate and function and work together as a family of God-from different nations, tongues, and peoples. We should do this on the basis of mutual respect and cooperation through proper links and channels. It is deplorable when Christians bow down to the laws of economics and forget the Lord’s example of gentleness, humility, forgiveness, and grace.
I believe Filipino households can manage without live-in maids. I believe there is life after the U.S. bases are gone. I believe it is possible for nationals and expatriate missionaries to cooperate in kingdom building.
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