Reflections on an Asian Urban Exploratory Journey in Manila

By Elena Yeo


It was a whirlwind of a trip to Manila, where I spent 41 hours with the team of international students from Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, brief yet so packed with inspiration, encouragement and celebration.

I remembered the first meeting in January 2018 with the students who had signed up for the NAFA Global Awareness Project. Even though we were meeting only for the first time, yet in them I saw so much potential, from one creative to another; that initiative to use creativity to help spotlight urbanisation problems, the sensitivity to see pollution and poverty issues and hopefully see solutions too. The weekly meetings with them encouraged me to take the bold step to book a flight with them to Manila, even though my schedule would permit just two days with them. Surely one would think that it’s stupidity buying tickets and only going for 2 days. Yet what I got in return were reflections and experiences that money can’t buy.


Firstly, I saw the Lord’s amazing work amongst the poorest of the poor in Manila. It really broke my heart seeing the hills of rubbish, yet it was in these rubbish heap and unwanted materials, swamped with houseflies and a sensational stench that treasures lay buried, providing items that can sustain the livelihood of the urban poor living near the dumpsite. Looking at the streets, it seemed like picking out recyclables from trash has become a norm for the folks living in the slums, both adults and children. Amidst decomposition, disease and even despair, God has raised up leaders and called amazing individuals to live and serve in these communities. Some of them grew up in the slums, others had the opportunity for better jobs yet they chose to stay amongst the poor to serve and minister to these folks who have become their community.

Pastor Fred, an amazing man, well advanced in age yet strong in heart and body, is an example of one who is giving his life to the community at Payatas. Pastor Ramon and his colleague Pastor Bernadette, are pastors serving the Wawa slums along the river, helping the slum dwellers to finds means of livelihood. Pastor Bernadette saw these children in the slums and started a school, reviving the children’s dreams for a better future. And it was from these lives made good, especially those that have come out of drug addiction, with joy and contentment shining through their worn-out wrinkles and rough faces, that we witness a transformative power at work in their lives. From their own testimony, we see our Living God who does not forget the poor in our midst.

Sure many have experienced hardship, even with their jobs and livelihood taken away, yet the chances of these urban poor leaving their slums are slim, as I’ve learnt that these slums are tightly-knit community that provided relationships, security and freedom to these people. Freedom while trapped in poverty’s cycle. We hear from them tales of God’s faithfulness (the Filipions are mostly Catholics if not Christians), we see their hearts of thanksgiving to their God of love. What does that leave us other than joining and giving the same praise and thanksgiving to God our Father? Is there any reason for us who have been blessed with much to complain about things in our own lives?

I sense that it is from the walks along the narrow walkways, the careful steps across bamboo bridges over waters, the interactions with the people that has truly also changed the lives of the students. I see the Christians in the team having their faith strengthened and once again renewed. I see the non-believers opening up to see the transformation work of God, in even encouraging the locals to continue trusting in Jesus Christ, joining in the chorus that ‘God is good, all the time’, and even signing the cross when we visited the Manila Cathedral as tourists. Truly the Lord was also working and moving in their midst. Stirring their hearts towards good works, tuning their minds to see true contentment in life’s simple joys. Friends, family and community trump any endeavour to seek joy and purpose from material possessions. From this trip, the students started to appreciate the simple things in life, and began to treasure what is enough. I pray that the Lord will continue to stir and move their hearts.

Mr Lawrence is right in saying that artists are passionate people and I hope that out of this trip, they will utilise their artistry to produce works that not only encapsulate their learning but also share their findings effectively with others through visuals and art forms. I really can’t wait and I am so thankful to have opportunities to also share with them my experience as a designer. I enjoyed the times we shared in encouraging one another during our long van rides and dinner conversations. Hey, perhaps student ministry is also a possibility for me too! This further affirms me in the Lord’s burdens for me amongst people and God’s gift in allowing me to work with people from all walks of life regardless of social demographics.

My heart is so so full from the experience, even though it was 41 hours. It was 41 hours well spent. Coming back to school reminds me that I was coming back to the grind. Yet it was this weekend trip that has given my studies and education meaning. It has fuelled, strengthened and motivated me. Ministry fuels preparatory work here and learning here in turn equip and inform ministry. It’s a symbiosis. I hope that helpful doses of both will be God’s way of shaping and moulding me to become an effective future minister.

3.13am: Sleep beckons and another week beckons.

I doze off …keeping the beautiful country of Philippines in my prayers: the team, the pastors, the ministries, the people. God is good, all the time.