“How old are you?”

When I meet new people, one of the top three first questions they ask is my age. For someone my age in British culture, it’s a bit of a shock. This is private information. We don’t put it on our CV or résumé. At first I was a bit surprised and embarrassed, not that I’m ashamed. It’s just that ‘we don’t do that’. I wondered why the difference here. I found out the reason while I was listening to some teenagers introducing each other. They also needed to know each other’s ages, although it is actually more common for teenagers anywhere in the world to ask this question. Age is a big deal to them and kids use simple ritual questions like this to help them to talk to strangers in spite of their shyness. But one comment help me understand that there was more to it here in the Philippines. When one of them found out she was younger than another, she said “Oh, so I’ll have to call you ‘Ate.’” ‘Ate’ means older sister and is also used to address older women or superiors at work. It’s an honorific, a title showing honour to the person being addressed. “How old are you?” isn’t a trivial question in the Philippines. It’s actually establishing rules of status within a new relationship.

Honorifics are common to all SE Asian cultures. European cultures also have them, although our egalitarian trends have made them old-fashioned. Years ago we would never have called our bosses by their first names. (Apparently Asda changed all that.) It’s like the British tradition of calling strangers ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’. Maybe you still say ‘Officer’ when talking to the police or ‘Doctor’ with your GP. Children address their teachers as ‘Sir’ or ‘Miss’ and judges are literally ‘Your Honour’. These honorifics are legacies of our own hierarchical class heritage. They are valuable in the way they encourage respect, but they can be damaging in devaluing those who have no right to be addressed in an honourable way. Those without title are without honour.

Really? But it’s just words, right? Ate, Kuya, Nay and Tay. Isn’t it harmless? Well, language is the tip of a cultural iceberg. Many cultural influences are not even perceived, because they are so immersive. I work in a prison. I guess I’m a prison chaplain, although I have no official title. In the West, this kind of work is applauded and respected, especially among Christians. I’ve come to think that attitudes here are different – yes – even among Christians and I think it comes down to who is and isn’t honoured in Filipino culture.

When we talk about honour we have to talk about money. Wealth and status are hugely linked. Money is quite literally and unashamedly the biggest god in SE Asia. Money is honoured above all things, and all other social honours are connected to it. Filipinos are the most widely dispersed people in the world because they can earn more abroad. Many leave their families and travel all around the world for better-paid jobs in order to improve their families’ social status at home. I’ve learned here that being poor doesn’t mean that money is not your god. It’s just less obvious because you don’t have much. It’s less obvious in the churches too, but it’s absolutely there.

The newest and biggest ‘city’ churches have been founded on student ministries. College campuses are a fertile place for the gospel. They are also big money-makers and going to college or university is expensive. If your family can give you a college education, it’s because you have more than most Filipinos or because you have a sponsor. So students and their families are already more likely to be well-off, simply because they can go to college. Then, of course, students graduate and (hopefully) get well-paid jobs. Churches complement their heavy investment in students with special groups and venues to nurture their ‘young professionals’.

Money gets you into college. Money gets you out of jail. The criminal justice system here is based on patronage. If you have influential friends, or the money to buy them, you can get justice and you can avoid it. The Philippines has no ‘Get out of jail free’ card. The poorest people here are simply forgotten. Whether the people I meet are guilty of a crime or not, I rarely know for certain. They aren’t in prison because they are guilty. It’s because they are poor. One good thing about this terrible injustice is that it helps me keep an open mind about the people I meet and work with. Much better to have nice thoughts about people. It shows on your face.

One of our leaders in the prison, Vito, has a public defence attorney, which means he doesn’t have to pay for his legal costs. That’s good, right? Not really. I went to see his attorney recently after Vito’s father died. I went to ask him to make a request to the court to allow Vito to visit the funeral. ‘Don’t bother,’ he said, ‘this judge always refuses.’ ‘Let’s try,’ I said. He humoured me and put in the request. Request granted. The judge was sick that week. Different judge. Ok, thanks to God we got a miracle, but who needs a defence lawyer with that attitude? Vito’s next hearing is in six months. That’s a long time to wait on remand. He’s already been in prison – on remand – for over three years, since before Yolanda. His attorney didn’t appear concerned as he told me these things. As I left, he said it’s good that someone like me is helping Vito. ‘Yes,’ I thought, ‘because that’s a job that you’re clearly not interested in.’

Edsel is our worship leader and his trial is on hold because the SOCO (Scene Of Crime Officer) is on maternity leave. Elisyo’s documents were destroyed by Super Typhoon Haiyan. He may never be brought to trial, but never released. The list goes on and the only explanation I have is that these people are just the lowest of the low. The culture just doesn’t care what happens to them. It’s why a man can say he’ll kill 100,000 of these people and still be elected as President.

But the church is different, right? I thought so too. I got involved in this work because it’s clear to me that God is especially interested in these people. It’s also clear to those I work with, and there are many others who have rooted out their pagan values. But they are exceptions, in my view. I cannot find support from local churches for prison ministry in the same way that I see churches enthusiastically investing in their campus and young professional ministries. Local churches, whether they admit it or even see it, are biased to the rich. I’m hard-pressed to otherwise explain why I’ve found such a shortage of leadership and investment in a ministry which Westerners, even non-Christians, on seeing the challenges these people face, would support without hesitation. The liberal West is more egalitarian. Prisoners have rights and organisations exist which defend them. Prisoners are without honour in Filipino culture. Inside the prison they have created their own hierarchy and honorific titles, but outside the walls they have no value. And the church appears to have to same attitude. Nowhere else – even here in the Philippines – have I found people meeting together to worship God having to sit on their flip-flops because they have nothing else.

The overwhelming reason people go to jail in this country is because they have no money or social position. This isn’t supposed to tug on the coat strings of your compassion. I didn’t have to follow my wishy-washy Western liberal values or my ‘heart’ to do what I do. Investment in this kind of ministry is biblically unquestionable and that’s why I do it. James outlines the reversal of social status in the kingdom of heaven. “The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position. But the one who is rich ought to take pride in his low position..” (James 1:9) Often when I visit a church, I’m shown to the front row for a seat. Many times I’m offered food, and if there is a meal, I am given a place of honour with the pastors. It’s the legendary Filipino hospitality because I’m a foreigner. I smile and accept out of politeness but I feel awkward, ashamed even, because it clearly falls foul of God’s priorities. This hospitality is not shown to less glamorous newcomers. The words of James burn my heart.

James goes on to make God’s priorities in the world abundantly clear. “Listen dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and inherit the kingdom he promised those who love Him?” James walked with Jesus and heard first-hand these words: “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did it for me”. Not ‘even the least of these brothers of mine’, which would remind us to treat them equally as well as others. Not even ‘especially the least…’ which might suggest that what we do for the least is of higher value. Read that sentence again. No-one other than ‘the least of these brothers of mine’ is either mentioned or implied. Taking the words at face-value, whatever we did for anyone else doesn’t actually count.

Poor ministry is not just a ‘heart’ question. It’s simple, biblical obedience to the teaching of Jesus. There’s no doubt in my mind where the reward is, both for me personally (Matt 25:40) and for the building of the church and God’s kingdom (James 2:5). Couple these scriptures with Jesus’ words on the eternal chances of the rich “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 19:24, Mk 10:25, Lk 18:25 ..take your pick) and I’m left wondering why ‘poor ministry’ is just a department of large, rich, middle-class churches. Surely – biblically – ‘rich ministry’ should be the compassion-led side-line, the struggling department of a churches packed full of poor people because these are the people God wants in heaven. They are the white fields of the kingdom.

I made it my mission to provide these men with all the things that I expect to see in a church. Again, the Philippines is not poor. Most church buildings are well-equipped. Now we have instruments, PA, projector, tables and chairs. We still meet in a corridor with no fans, but I’m working on that. Attendance has more than tripled in the last year. It’s taken investment from outside this culture to do that. This isn’t because the church here lacks resources. The church I partner with at the jail is half-way through constructing a five-story building on its downtown site. It’s huge. In my view, the problem is the infection of cultural values that the church has failed to identify and remove.

No church or Christian is immune to the Trojan Horse of cultural influence. I can see this issue because I’m an outsider. Outsiders to my own culture will see my own compromises more clearly than I and I welcome their discernment. Filipino culture has some very sophisticated defences. It presents itself as vulnerable, exploited and threatened by foreign influence. However true this is, it’s dangerous for the church to think like this about its own traditions. Insecure leadership means that critical friends become a threat. Habitual cultural sins are not dealt with. Protected by a cloak of familiarity, they then spread as an infected church replicates them as it grows. Worst of all, the seeds of revival are rejected because they were blown from abroad and not home-grown. The hypocrisy of welcoming foreign money but rejecting foreign leadership reveals a proud church with a divided heart.

I like the poorest and lowest people. They are more often less proud and more ready to receive new teaching. I think it’s why I have been most successful with prisoners and children. These are the humblest people in the Philippines. Their welcome is more genuine and their openness more real. Prisoners have been rejected by their people and culture so they are more than ready to return the gesture. Children are freer from prejudice and not yet indoctrinated into their culture. Both groups are ready to trust a newcomer, even a foreigner, who shows them care and attention. Leading children and prisoners is not the greatest of positions but I accept it wholeheartedly in order that a kingdom revival finds a home somewhere in this country.

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