Journey to the Promised Land

a writing by Elizabeth Padillo Olesen

Elizabeth Padillo Olesen

Coming to the promised land has been the highest dream of many Filipinos. As a child, I was a witness to the on-going exodus of good Filipino men and women into the promised land. I considered them the cream of my home country. They were nurses, doctors, lawyers, musicians, priests, scholars and politicians. A number, however, managed to return. But the greater number never returned at all.

At present the exodus continues. And what has become a very usual phenomenon is that many Filipinos who have now settled in the promised land still find the Philippines an ideal place for holidays. Their homeland is still considered the source of their own roots, worthy of their visits. There are also among those who have decided to spend their old age in the Philippines, they who have the romantic longing to be buried in their own land where their umbilical cords were kept. Both these groups are able to demonstrate the power of the green currency they carry along with them. Their capacity to buy goods and properties displayed to the public eye, further rekindles the dream of the many Filipinos to enter into the promised land.

As a young student in high school, I had already questioned why we as Filipino students should use the language of the promised land in our classrooms. To my young mind, I found it sheer hypocrisy in our own system of education that denied us from speaking our mother tongue and having our national language taught only as a subject in schools. I often dreaded the times when my English teacher fined each student caught up speaking the local dialect, for my case, Cebuano, my mother tongue. We would be fined by centavos or pesos depending on the number of Cebuano vocabulary we uttered during English lessons.

I think I was born as a nationalist. In a protestant university my misgiving towards English, the language of the promised land, was very much relived again. I simply hesitated or refused to participate in a class discussion in English, especially in subjects with Filipino professors whom I discovered, continued to speak the language of the promised land even outside the classrooms, or even when they were confronting folks in the local market. As a young student, I was very much pre-occupied with the questions on national identity and national integrity.

But then one day my turn to enter into the promised land came most unexpectedly. From the office of the World Council of Churches in Geneva, I received an invitation to serve in the worship committee for a conference of the WCC Commission on World Mission and Evangelism meeting in San Antonio, Texas. Provided with free ticket and living allowance, I considered it good luck and God`s grace. Three months pregnant with my second child, I left Nepal towards the promised land with the newfound joy and wonder, keeping in mind the earlier prejudices I had had with the USA, the Philippines` promised land.

Arriving at the airport, seeing signs and hearing instructions in a language I could well understand, made me feel so at home. There was no fear in my heart being in a place which I had never been before. I simply felt at home, felt at home even in spite of the thought that I might lose my way to the conference site.

The conference was held at Trinity University in Texas. It was huge campus of sports complex, cultural auditorium, classrooms and dormitories. Crossing from one building to another, passing by a huge space of grasses and trees, I was able to see the resemblance of Trinity University to the 27-hectare protestant Silliman University in Dumaguete City, Philippines where I studied, the one founded by an American Presbyterian, Hubbard Silliman. I began to see how part of an American culture could be transplanted into the context of another culture.

The conference was one week but I was there in San Antonio, Texas for two weeks, spending one week earlier to work with other members of the committee. We were to prepare liturgies for the 700 delegates who came from different continents, representing different church denominations. In the course of working with the committee and participating in the total conference life, I was able to see the greater value of English language that enabled me to forge common understanding among peoples of different cultures, races and languages.

I was able to see how quickly Americans were able to demonstrate leadership in the whole conference which to my mind re-echoed what others referred to as American domination. The WCC Commission on World Mission and Evangelism was headed by an American Eugene Stockwell. The worship committee was chaired by an American, Jane Armstrong. The whole conference body was welcomed by a humble and radical American General Secretary of the National Council of Churches (USA). The Catholic Vatican was represented by a very prolific American theologian, Elias Mallon. And one American priest in our committee showed incredible knowledge in doing creative liturgy through movements and dramas. I valued their contributions. I saw that living democratic principle in the process of working with them.

But my journey to the promised land did not end at the campus of Trinity University. That hospitable American member in the worship committee, Fr. Bob, took us to Sea World. I was so amazed to see the sea of people coming in and coming out from that huge stadium, the great experience to be entertained by seagulls and whales that followed the baton of their own trainers. For the first time in my life, I experienced the great creativity of the promised land in entertainment industry on top of its TV programs which could be watched from my homeland.

Partly, I have understood why Filipinos have always found it the highest dream to be in USA. Aside from the possibility of earning dollars that gives the power to buy goods to demonstrate a higher economic status, in contrast to our much devalued peso, the promised land which has been a cultural presence in the Philippines since 1898, gives the Filipinos that sense of at-homeness.

It is feeling at home in a language that they themselves are able to understand. It is feeling at home in the presumption that the Philippines was once “owned”, ruled and freed by the Americans. For that reason, a journey to the part of the world, cannot pose a threat to the Filipinos but will automatically give that sense of security. It is recognizing that aura of democratic leadership and self determination the Americans possess in contrast to our dreaming for our lost self-esteem. And of course, the entertainment possibilities like Sea World, can serve as a balm for healing the ills of our struggling identity which we carry along the way as we journey towards the promised land.

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