Philippines

Signs of Things to Come

buttchi 3 Sha Life / Shutterstock
buttchi 3 Sha Life / Shutterstock

FOR THOSE PAYING attention, this has been a fairly terrifying winter and spring. And I don’t just mean the presidential election. I mean that the signals we’re getting from the natural world indicate we’re crossing thresholds much more quickly than expected.

February, for instance, was the most anomalously hot month ever recorded on the planet, crushing all records. The world had pledged in Paris in December to try to hold global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius—well, February was just about at that level already.

The elevated temperatures were especially noticeable in the Arctic—for long stretches of the winter the region as a whole was as much as 18 degrees Fahrenheit above average. (Christmas Eve was almost 50 degrees warmer than normal at the North Pole). Not surprisingly, this meant the lowest levels of Arctic sea ice ever recorded by late March.

Meanwhile in the Antarctic, new data showed that sea level may be set to rise far faster than expected, as the great ice sheets start to slide into the ocean—the water could go up by meters in the course of this century, which would make the defense of most of the world’s great cities a nightmare.

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It Doesn't Have to Be This Way

An image of "Charina" / Photograph © International Justice Mission

If you’re reading this, you probably already know that modern-day slavery is a thriving, lucrative, global business. There are more slaves alive today than during the entire 400 years of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Human trafficking generates about $150 billion in profits every year. And 1 in 3 trafficking victims are children.

The statistics are staggering.

For me, it was a single story that moved me through the numbers to a place where I could take action. I heard about Charina* when I joined International Justice Mission. She was one of the first girls we helped rescue in Cebu, Philippines.

Charina was 13 when she was sold for sex.

Her family was very poor, and she had dropped out of school in fourth grade. Her mother was the first one who sold her. For the next couple years, pimps took turns selling her from street corners and seedy piers. They earned extra because she looked so young.

Charina was finally freed from this harsh cycle of violence in 2007. She was addicted to drugs, pregnant and unable to trust the people who wanted to help her. The work of freedom was just beginning.  

My colleagues started meeting regularly with Charina. She needed professional care and a customized plan to meet her unique and complex needs. She needed trauma-focused counseling. She needed to learn how to trust others and to believe in herself once again.

When I first heard her story and saw a photo of Charina—her bright eyes, her small frame—my first reaction was anger. This young woman should never have suffered in the many ways she has.

And that anger is right. It’s not fair.

Charina’s story has illuminated another reality for me, a more hopeful one. It doesn’t have to be this way.

The Internet's Toxic Waste Dump

BY NOW MOST of us know that when we use the internet, we are giving up privacy and exposing ourselves to potential surveillance and fraud. But we probably didn’t know until recently that in poor and distant lands, souls are being stained and scarred for the sake of our internet browsing experience.

There’s an old saying that nobody really wants to know the details of making sausage or passing legislation. Now there’s an update: You really don’t want to know how—in a world peopled by thousands of internet-capable sickos, murderers, perverts, and fanatics—your social media feeds remain so remarkably free of beheadings, snuff videos, and child porn.

Like me, if you ever thought about that, you perhaps assumed that some miraculous algorithm was automatically filtering all the bad stuff. Well, think again.

In the early days of the internet, porn sites occasionally popped up in the course of ordinary, innocent internet use. But search engine filters and various parental control programs seem, to my experience, to have made that a thing of the past. Today, every evil and dehumanizing image and act under the sun is still out there somewhere on the internet, and we are all much more connected to one another than ever before—yet, for the most part, you have to go looking for the dark side.

But keeping your internet experience relatively clean doesn’t happen by magic. In an article posted on Wired.com on Oct. 23, 2014, Adrian Chen reports that more than 100,000 human beings are employed in the business of internet “content moderation”—viewing and deleting offensive material that users have attempted to post to social networks. That’s twice as many as the total number of employees at Google and 14 times the number at Facebook.

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In the Wake of Haiyan's Wrath

IN THE EARLY evening of Nov. 8, 2013, Arnel Montero convinced his mother, wife, and three children to evacuate to a two-story concrete house above the coastal area of Barangay 70, a fishing village in Tacloban City, on the island of Leyte in Central Philippines. He expected the worst, with the news reporting the arrival of super-typhoon Haiyan the following morning, and thought the house would be a safe place where his family could take shelter while he remained in their shanty by the coast.

Even though Haiyan’s fury hit the islands at speeds surpassing 200 miles per hour, the strong winds alone would not have created such a major tragedy. But Haiyan precipitated a storm surge that led to grave loss of life and massive devastation. Barangay 70 is located near the city’s main pier, and the tidal waters pushed cargo boats toward the coast, smashing shanties and buildings, including the concrete house where Arnel’s family sought shelter. Arnel managed to save himself, but the rest of his family perished.

The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, as of mid-March 2014, reported 6,268 deaths, although the actual number could be double that. In Barangay 70 alone, there were close to 300 people who died. An estimated 12.2 million Filipinos were affected by the disaster that hit eight provinces in the Visayas islands region; close to 2 million houses were either washed out or partially destroyed.

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A Shift in Priorities?

IN MINDANAO, Philippines, a cheer went up: Mayron tayong cardinal! (“We have a cardinal!”) In January, Orlando B. Quevedo, archbishop of Cotabato, was one of 19 new cardinals named by Pope Francis.

Cardinal Quevedo rose from newsboy to archbishop. He’s renowned for his interreligious work and cofounding a Catholic-Muslim peace community in the southern Philippines where there is violent ethnic conflict. Quevedo is a leader in the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, a body representing more than 100 million Catholics that has courageously pushed forward the values of Vatican II amid traditionalist backlash.

During a papal conclave, when a new pope is chosen, much of the world, Catholic and otherwise, pays close attention to the news ticker from the Vatican. For the selection of new cardinals, not so much. But with Francis, everything bears watching.

Historically, cardinals were called “the princes of the church” because of the power they wielded. Functionally, they serve in the College of Cardinals, which meets with the pope to deal with questions of major importance and elects new popes. Sadly, scoring a red hat has been for some the acme of clerical ambition. The season of cardinal picking can devolve into extravagant indulgence.

But, there’s a new sheriff in town: Pope Francis wants deputies, not darlings.

“The cardinalship does not imply promotion,” the pope wrote in a personal letter to his fresh picks; “it is neither an honor nor a decoration; it is simply a service that requires you to broaden your gaze and open your hearts.”

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Friendship as Justice

My friends and I have shared time over coffee and spilled all the deep, dark secrets. wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

Overheard on a Facebook conversation last week: “There is really not much difference between compassion and pity when it comes to being on the receiving end of it.” This thought gave me pause as I consider compassion to be a central tenet of biblical justice, and yet, I experience this to be true. We use the fancy spiritual term of “compassion” when the gist of the sentiment is, indeed, pity. 

The above conversation rose out of a discussion on the viral story of Pope Francis kissing the disfigured man. The media reporting the story highlights the compassion of the Pope, how his actions are pushing outside the box of the papacy, and how revolutionary his love was. Other than a brief medical description of the disfigured man’s disease, there is no additional information on who he is, where he lives, or whether he has a family. We are not even given his name. The buzz generated by this story arises out of an awed respect for someone who could even consider touching such a pitiful, nameless person. I can’t help but wonder how this man feels to have the world captivated by somebody showing love to himself. It seems to me his deformity has been made into a public spectacle.

In Gratitude to My Sojo Family

The Sojourners family
The Sojourners family

Time became suspended for my family and me when Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines nearly a month ago.

Days blurred into one another as my mom attempted to contact her family in Leyte, one of the Philippine islands directly hit by Haiyan. With her mother, siblings and family members still living in the Philippines, my mom feared the worst as she helplessly watched news reports of the typhoon’s devastation and destruction.

Together, as a family, we waited in agony for answers. Would my grandma and relatives survive? If so, when and how would they contact us without power or phone lines? Would this storm wipe out every connection we have to my mother’s homeland?

Two weeks after Haiyan upended our lives, grief gave way to joy as we received word of my family’s safety. My nanay (grandma) and several of my titas (aunts) and titos (uncles) lost their homes, but they managed to survive one of the most powerful storms recorded in modern history.

As you can imagine, there was much to be grateful for when I gathered with my family for Thanksgiving. At our table, we gave thanks to God for this miracle, knowing all too well that many Filipino families were not as fortunate or still waiting for news about their loved ones. We also remembered those who helped us during this time of uncertainty, especially the Sojourners community.

Religious Groups Rally Around U.N. Climate Talks in Warsaw

Yeb Sano, head delegate from the Philippines. Photo courtesy of Sean Hawkey/LWF

The latest United Nations climate summit got off to an unusually emotional start when Yeb Sano, the head delegate from the Philippines, issued a tearful plea at the opening plenary.

With his country ravaged by Typhoon Haiyan — the kind of extreme weather that experts say is becoming more common due to climate change — Sano choked back tears as he announced he would fast in solidarity for his countrymen left without food.

Sano said on Nov. 11 he would refrain from eating during the conference unless important progress was made. Sano’s gesture has so far failed to trigger much of a change in the entrenched negotiations, and with talks expected to stretch into the weekend, he is still on his hunger strike.

A Breakthrough Against Violence

LAST OCTOBER, A historic breakthrough for peace took place in Mindanao. In this region in the southern Philippines, an armed conflict has persisted for more than four decades, killing 120,000 people and displacing millions. Now, after 15 years of peace negotiations between the government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, both sides have signed a framework peace agreement.

For generations, Moro (as traditionally Islamic ethnic groups are called here) and indigenous peoples in Mindanao have been politically, economically, and socially left out and marginalized in the Philippines. It is in this context—and the collective desire of the Moro people in Mindanao for self-governance—that both the armed conflict and the peace negotiations took place. The agreement signed in October outlines a pathway toward the establishment of a political entity, Bangsamoro, that will be autonomous, although not fully independent of the Philippines.

The framework agreement is a welcome consolidation of a long-term peace process that has encountered significant challenges, including periods of lackluster support from the international community and a less-than-successful 1996 peace agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front (from which the Moro Islamic Liberation Front is a breakaway group).

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Report: Religion at Heart of Illegal Ivory Trade

 RNS photo © Brent Stirton/National Geographic
The largest ivory crucifix in the Philippines hangs in a museum in Manila. RNS photo © Brent Stirton/National Geographic

Since the ban on international trade of ivory in 1989, the ivory black market has been on the rise, and a National Geographic investigation found that demand for religious art pieces carved out of the precious material has played a considerable role.

“No matter where I find ivory, religion is close at hand,” said investigative reporter Bryan Christy, whose article, “Ivory Worship,” is included in the new edition of National Geographic magazine, released Sept. 14.

“Elephant poaching levels are currently at their worst in a decade,” Christy wrote. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) estimates that at least 25,000 elephants were poached in 2011, mostly for their ivory tusks.

Philippine Catholics use ivory to construct crucifixes, figures of the Virgin Mary and other icons. The province of Cebu is particularly known for its ivory renditions of the Santo Nino de Cebu (Holy Child of Cebu), used in worship and celebration.

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