Last weekend, my husband and I were blessed with the opportunity to serve at Living Hope Community’s “Road to Damascus” (or RTD). This is an overnight retreat we usually hold ~3x a year, and is patterned after the Life in the Spirit Seminars. We’ve served at numerous RTDs before, but this was different: this RTD was for our Kiniliteens.
For about ten years now, our community’s outreach ministry (called the James Ministry) has been meeting children from the squatter areas of Pineda, near the Holy Family Parish in Kapitolyo, Pasig. Around twice a month, they’d meet with these kids, sing songs, tell Bible stories, and do different activities that teach them about God’s love. Since then, the number of kids who come for their “Kinilian” sessions has grown to more than a hundred, and the first batch of kids, now affectionately called the Kiniliteens, help with handling the kids every Wednesday. It was for this first batch of children, now teenagers, that we held last weekend’s RTD.
Let’s paint a picture of these kids and their living conditions. These boys and girls, aged 13-20 (but all look at least 5 years younger in terms of stature, no doubt due to less than adequate nutrition), live in the squatter areas of Metro Manila. Meaning they live in flimsy houses with makeshift enclosures, that have no hope of surviving extremely harsh weather conditions. They go to public school, but every year (perhaps every month), the threat of dropping out looms in the background as their families struggle to make ends meet. For one girl, not passing her subjects didn’t just translate to the embarrassment of staying behind another year, but being told by her parents that if she didn’t make it, she would have to drop out because they simply couldn’t afford to keep her in school for another year; she would do better to start working and contributing to the monthly income. These are teens who see the vices of adults in their neighborhood and take up the same for themselves–drinking, smoking, drugs. One candidly admitted to having been so plastered the night before the retreat, he ended up sleeping on the cold concrete under a bridge. These are kids for whom survival is an everyday struggle, and yet they dare to dream dreams for themselves, even if the hopelessness that often comes with poverty is so difficult to unlearn.
Saturday night, we arrived to facilitate the Praise and Worship session part of the retreat. From the introductory measures of the first song, I could already see some hands being raised in prayer, eyes closed in focused attention. I’ve been serving at retreats like this for almost 20 years now, and I’ve never seen a group so open, so surrendered. By the time we were singing the 2nd song, I was in tears–not because the words being said or sung struck a chord with me and my present situation, but for some reason that I couldn’t quite put my finger on at the time, I was moved at the sight of these kids letting go, and worshipping with abandon.
I tried to pinpoint the reason behind my emotion. Was it because I felt they were so much more in the world than I was, my concerns seeming so trivial and vain compared to theirs? Or perhaps it was the realization that it was so much easier for them to relinquish control over their lives and let God take over because as it was, they already didn’t have much control over their circumstances in the first place? Still, maybe it was the knowledge of the weight of their problems, the burden they are forced to carry at such a young age, that just broke my heart?
Maybe I don’t even need any of these reasons to be so moved, as I need only one: I was moved at the sight of their faces, reflecting, for once, not the pain and suffering so unjustly forced upon their shoulders, but joy–pure, overflowing, irrepressible joy. They were allowed to be kids again, and rejoiced at Christ’s call to let them come.
It is difficult to find Christ in the situations these kids have to come home to after the retreat, but I pray they take with them Jesus Himself, now dwelling in their hearts. 2 Peter 3:13 tells us that we are waiting for the new heavens and the new earth where “uprightness will be at home.” I saw the Kingdom of Heaven on their faces that weekend–I saw Christ come and find a home in their hearts.