One of my brothers in community (a Canadian national) is fascinated by the fact that Filipino girls wear earrings on ordinary days. In other cultures, I am told, these ornaments are worn only by ladies (never by girls) and only on special occasions.

Of course I am surprised by this observation since I have always taken for granted the practice of earrings being worn so casually in this country. My sisters’ ears were pierced early on and if you go to the nursery ward you may even be able to spot the baby girl from the boy by noting that piece of thread dangling from the infant’s ear.

Culture is always a fascinating and surprising thing. I define it simply as the different ways people do the same thing. You see it in language, in cuisine and clothing, in music and dance, even in the types of electric plugs we use for our appliances. You see it in our myths and stories and in the many artful ways we try to weave meanings and make sense of life. Such diversity even thrives in religion and worship. Sometimes the differences (as with earrings and plugs) are neutral; other times the divergences can be volatile and lethal.

These days, culturally diverse Mindanao is in ferment. As of this writing, close to 160,000 people have been dislocated from their homes. Cultures and constituencies are being subverted by anger and violence. The questionable process behind the crafting of this Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain which led to its aborted signing has eclipsed (hopefully only momentarily) our dream of peace for the peoples of this beautiful yet broken island.

If heaven had been looking for a place and time other than the Middle East for Christ to be born, I would have trained its sights on Middle Mindanao, circa now.

In the Gospel today, Jesus is confronted with a Canaanite, a foreigner (and a woman at that), who begs him to heal her daughter. She is first met with silence. Upon the prodding of his disciples to just send her away, Jesus tells her instead that he has no business dealing with her since his mission was only to the lost ones of Israel. The woman is not fazed by this exclusion. The next reaction of Jesus is crude (by 21st century standards) and shows him to be a man of his place and time: why should food meant for children be given to dogs? Nowadays, a sensitive foreigner would have bristled at the insult and its sheer political incorrectness. But the woman takes it all in, seizes the metaphor and deftly throws it back: even dogs are not denied whatever crumbs come falling from the children’s table.

The Master must have been taken aback by this feminine wit and persistence. Foreigners (and women) do have a way of disarming us. She was not asking for the main course; she was an outsider. The crumbs would have been enough. She knew she was “not worthy to receive” whatever grace the Master could give. Yet, for all her foreign, unworthy ways, she believed and hoped that the Master would relent and give. Moved by her faith, the Master did relent and give.

If we are citizens of heaven in the eyes of our God, why do we continue to live painful lives of exclusion? We live as if we are foreigners to each other, even if we are told every time we say the “Our Father” that we are God’s very own.

Once upon a time, 27 years ago, I went to Sur Allah to visit a T’boli princess who had gone to the Ateneo when I was a student there. I remember spending one evening with her and her companions on a grassy hill under a sky full of stars. We spent quite a while singing songs we knew and sharing stories from our young lives. We celebrated our coming together from different places and origins and cultures. There we sat under a Mindanao sky strewn with starlight, foreigners no longer, but children of a beneficent God, eating crumbs and main courses falling from the tables of heaven.

As far as I can remember, she of the T’boli was wearing earrings the way Filipino women do, that is, with casual elegance and disarming grace.

(Fr. Jose Ramon T. Villarin SJ is president of Xavier University, Ateneo de Cagayan. For feedback on this column, email tinigloyola @yahoo.com)








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