Meeting in the Now
One morning early in the southern Philippines, I was coming back from Mass. As I walked up the hill, I saw in front of me a tiny woman, with small spindly legs which came down beneath her tribal dress. She was probably from a distant village. I said, “Maayong buntag, ‘Nang” (Good morning, older sister). She gave me a big smile and replied, “Maayong buntag. Pinaskohan!” This was a cultural way of saying, “have you a gift for me?” “Pinaskohan? ‘Nang” I replied, “It is only October, and Christmas is far away.” “Ah,” she replied with an even bigger smile, “but it is now that we meet.”
I stopped in my tracks. What had she said? Is that the meaning of Christmas—the remembering and celebration of an event that invites us to recognize each other and greet each other as brother and sister each and every day? “It is now that we meet.” That is the Christmas event. I gazed at my little tribal “teacher” in wonder and love. I gave her all I had in my pocket, a small return for her incredible gift. I never met her again, but she continues to smile her precious smile and to speak to me as I walk the streets.
Another moving encounter took place in our local Filipino market. It was with some young Badjaos. These are a Muslim tribal group who live in boats off southwestern Mindanao. Sometimes they gather around big ships in local ports and dive for coins that passengers would throw into the sea. I have even seen them dive with babies strapped to their backs – it was good for business. One day as I walked up the main street of Pagadian City, two young Badjao girls, about 14 years old, came up to me. They were tall, very thin, with matted hair. Their skin was very rough from constant exposure to the sea, wind and sun.
They asked for money, but instead I offered them some lansones (local fruit) that I had just bought. They took a handful and went away. Later, that night, I began to ask myself, “why didn’t you give them the whole bag?” Some days later I met them again; the request for money was repeated. I replied, “No money, bread,” and we went off to the baker where they chose buns for themselves. This happened a few more times. Every time they would come running and say “No money, bread,” and always with a big grin.
One day as I walked across the market I saw one of the girls who was on her own. She ran up to me, linked my arm and off we went to the baker’s shop. She stood looking at the buns and then said with that mischievous grin, “Ice cream.” I started to say, “No,” and then thought, when has this child ever been bought an ice cream? So we went off to the department store. Out we came with a big ice cream cone. With delight written all over her face she went off. I often think and pray for her, and her hard life. Soft ice cream cones will always speak of her to me, my Badjao friend and her captivating grin.