On July 9, Illinois became the first state in the U.S. to that require Asian American history be taught in public schools. For Asian Americans, this was a moment to celebrate our stories and cultures entering into the mainstream. Indeed, hearing the news helped me remember the stories of my childhood in the Philippines, especially those of my lola (grandmother), Mama Lilia, whose wisdom and poetry continue to strengthen me today.
When I was a child, I would wake up every morning to the pleasant aroma of freshly brewed coffee. Mama Lilia was preparing for a busy day ahead. After raising 10 children, she had turned her attention to growing papayas, duhat (Java plums), ferns, and beautiful gumamelas (hibiscus). As the sun rose, she’d water her children with outstretched arms; the plants waved in thankfulness. Indeed, Mama Lilia spent so much time in the garden that her name became synonymous with “gardener.”
One day, I saw her speaking to the plants. With shears in her hands, she pruned and cut away long branches and dry leaves. But with every snip, Lola apologized to the plants, “I’m sorry, my darlings. I’m sorry.”
When I asked why she talked to inanimate objects, she paused for a moment. And with sweat dripping like tears down her cheeks, she smiled gently. “The plants breathe like us, too. Like us, they can feel pain.”
She looked to the sky and closed her eyes. “But also like us, they need to be pruned. Because without pain, one can never know what growth is.”
I grew up in Misamis Oriental, a province on Mindanao island in the Philippines, near the Gardens of Malasag Eco-Tourism Village, an attraction that promises visitors a chance to enjoy gardens, nature trails, and the culture of Indigenous people like the Higaonon tribe — whose ancestral lands have been exploited by agribusiness. Malasag is located on a mountainside, filled with trees, waterfalls, wildlife, and the sound of Indigenous drums and dances. The Higaonon people call it home, but it often struck me how everything in Malasag was designed to be seen by outsiders.
As the Higaonons sang and danced, white people would watch from the sides, grinning. Deer, snakes, and birds were confined in cages for the enjoyment of others. Trees were tagged with their scientific names instead of what the Higaonons originally named them. Exiled from the very land they belonged to, Indigenous peoples, wildlife, and plants have been reduced to tourist attractions, providing resources, food, and vacation spots for white people to enjoy.
“We all long for Eden, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most human, is still soaked with the sense of exile,” wrote J.R.R. Tolkein in a letter to his son Christopher. But for Black and Indigenous people groups, whose Eden was taken away from them by Western imperialism, this deep-seated longing for Eden runs especially deep.
In Toward a Theology of Struggle, Eleazar S. Fernandez notes that the Iberian and U.S. projects to colonize the Philippines never really ended. Iberian colonization began in 1521 for the purposes of expanding Spanish imperial power and presence. The United States’ colonization efforts began in December 1898, after winning the Spanish-American War, and the impact of these colonial efforts are felt to this very day. The problems of many Filipino Indigenous peoples today are rooted in land disputes as the state continues to hoard natural resources with an insatiable hunger for more. This is the residue of colonialist thinking.
Before native lands and peoples were subjugated under the fist of Spanish emperor Philip II in 1543, the land was sacred and life-giving. It was a place where all life flourished, where trees and animals lived in harmony alongside Indigenous tribes. In many ways, native land was like the Garden of Eden. The land breathed life. As Filipina theologian Agnes Brazal writes, “Indigenous peoples of the Philippines believe that land has been granted and entrusted by the Creator for everyone to harvest, cultivate, sustain, and live on.” But as soon as colonization began, land was segregated into a commodity we now call “real estate.”
Even today, the consequences of colonialism continue to uproot many Indigenous Filipinos from their homes. The Iberians brought more than just military power and European technology to the lands they claimed to discover — they also brought a restrictive paradigm that compared all people to the white, masculine body. For theologian Willie James Jennings, the results of colonialism were not only a social and theological imbalance, but also an ecological imbalance as he notes the ways in which colonizers “articulated a Creator bent on eradicating people’s ways of life and turning the creation into private property.” Such is the case in Malasag, where life organized itself around the arrival of white tourists, causing native dances and songs to reinforce the colonial imagination.
Even in the midst of our lands groaning for their future restoration (Romans 8:22), the body of Christ dismantles the colonial systems that have privatized God’s creation. For in Christ, land and resources are not meant to be segregated but rather shared through hospitality for the flourishing of local communities, especially for the vulnerable and oppressed among us (1 John 3:17-18). In this way, Christ’s body is a new ecology between all lands, nations, and peoples through a common love for each other.
Today, the people working toward that end are women gardeners and farmers like my lola who are participating in God's work of a shared, divine ecology. At 83 years old, Mama Lilia is co-running the Love of Lilia Nature Farm with my aunt, seeking to promote sustainable farming practices alongside the Association of Women for Organic Farming. Farming associations in the Philippines, like the Association of Women for Organic Farming, seek to promote organic and sustainable agricultural practices as a way of cultivating the earth and shaping a new ecology. These farmers are standing up against mass production and international trade by practicing thoughtful land cultivation and resourcefulness. One example of how they are doing this is by empowering struggling families to provide for themselves and their local communities through organic farming and sustainability. These are the gardeners who are bringing about God’s kin-dom on earth.
Just as my lola once mused, growth never happens in a vacuum. We cannot know growth without the pain that comes before it, and that is why gardeners prune their plants. Our stories never end with pain, for there is growth on the other side of it. Knowing that he would suffer and die on the cross, Christ still admonished his disciples to plant the seeds of a new creation, saying, “The fields are ripe for harvest!” (John 4:35-36). Thus, it is now our turn to participate in Christ’s work, embody our faith, and garden our lands well until all of creation is truly emancipated.