Getting Away and Getting Back

marawi_b5cce9f481d03c549f6a321ee9458c3e.nbcnews-ux-2880-1000Jesus got away from it all and went the mountains to pray – to be clear, I’m not saying that I’m Jesus. What I am saying is that this rare occasion serves as a helpful reminder, especially for people like me, that all of us need to take time away from our regular routines.

Nearly two weeks ago, our family left the Philippines to spend some quality time with my in-laws in France.   This was our first extended time away since moving to the Philippines — but also this visit was an extension of my commitment to spend quality time with family as much as we could.  Ever demanding and relentless has been the pace of life for the past few months, so we gladly disconnected from Facebook and breathed in the fresh mountain air on hikes and savored my father-in-law’s empanadas and enjoyed the smiles of satisfaction from our daughter who devoured fresh supplies of strawberries and cheese.

A few days before our return to the Philippines, we learned of some alarming news while scanning through our Facebook newsfeed:  a group of ISIS-inspired terrorists were attacking a city in the southern Philippines called Marawi.  Philippine President Duterte had cut short his trip to Russia and had already declared martial law in that southern province called Mindanao.

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What makes this attack and this declaration of martial law more than mere news headlines, but something more personal and close to home is that the Maute group had already been destroying several properties on the campus of Dansalan College – a United Church of Christ in the Philippines college which serves many students and much-needed education and employment in this city and region.

UCCP General Secretary Bishop Marigza and the other jurisdictional bishops already prepared their response in a pastoral statement.  Now, several UCCP church leaders are assessing the situation on the ground and discerning the next course of actions which include finding out about the 7-unaccounted-for people from the college.

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This is not what our family expected to come back to, but then again this is a small piece of the world as we already glimpsed it during our vacation:  Upon arriving in France and awaiting our family’s turn to go through customs, I detected one solitary sign with some helpful hints about a passenger’s rights:  for example, what to do if one is forcibly removed from a flight.  Of our first visits in Paris was a memorial erected for the victims after the Bataclan bombing.  Of the several bookstores that we visited, I noticed and later picked up a book about refugees called “Eux, c’est nous.”  A nearly completed mosque in my husband’s childhood neighborhood is among the many new community buildings.  During our Metro rides and train rides and walks around mostly tourist spots, the national police with larger-sized ammunition served as a reminder of the heightened security considering many recent events in France.  Hours before our flight back to the Philippines, during our last visit to a children’s park, at the entrance with both French and British flags at half-mast, to remember the victims of the recent Manchester bombing.

Somehow the tourist in me still found a way to reflect more on fear and the fragility of life:  Yes, I even thought about how quickly all of this, this life and this visit, could disappear in the blink of an eye.

Just a few days after returning to the Philippines, I am caught with the physical and social and emotional demands of jet lag.  Part-zombie, part-person, I can only hope that I can continue with a full and whole heart.  I’ll be returning to the US for 3 weeks, and maybe there’s one question that will still linger and guide my reflections and conversations with people:  Where is our faith amid this fear and fragility?  It keeps me getting away to those mountains, maybe not with more trips to France, but getting back from those mountains with more appreciation for my family and for my family of faith through many UCCP brothers and sisters.

Art and Science of Letter Writing

To save the life of Jennifer Dalquez, there has been an outpouring of support through prayers, social media posts, pastoral statements, and letters from advocates around the world.

What follows are three different letters that I helped to write, in collaboration with the PCUSA Human Trafficking Roundtable, and finally sent to the Office of Stated Clerk with the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson II

Joint Letter from UCCP-PCUSA for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte

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Letter for Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan

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Letter for all PCUSA members

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Write Up Too

 

When I last wrote about my emotions surrounding the U.S. presidential inauguration and the Women’s March, there was one more “up” to add to the litany that closed out my previous blogpost:  write up.

Writing is more than me hunched over my laptop and tapping away in the hopes of putting some words and phrases into something meaningful.  Writing means having the strong enough muscles to sit – and to stand – and to stand up.  Yesterday I stayed home to rest strained back muscles that were more tired than I thought:  one press conference, one prayer vigil, two protest marches, and several writings later, my body was trying to tell me to rest.  These were firsts for me, which also might account for the additional energies expended for these efforts.

Here’s a peek into those writing muscles at work: In response to an advocacy campaign for an overseas Filipino worker (OFW) named Jennifer Dalquez, I have tested out some new forms of writing, mostly to lift her situation and plead for her life. She is imprisoned in the United Arab Emirates and is awaiting appeal from the death penalty, in a hearing that will take place on March 27.  She fatally wounded her former employer who was attempting to sexually assault her. She is claiming self-defense.

When Jennifer’s parents represented her at a press conference, I joined several other church advocates in their support.  I represented the PCUSA and UCCP, so they invited me to write a prayer to include in the press kit.  Around then I also prepped for an International Women’s Day Forum, which I would provide the Rationale.  Trying to make sense of a theme prepared by the United Nations, as well as another UCCP theme of “Spirituality of New Humanity in Eliminating Modern-Day Slavery,” as well as the pursuit of peace talks, I attempted to put something coherent for this forum.  PHEW!  I asked my partner church UCCP if they could provide a statement in support of Jennifer Dalquez.  This is when I learned that when you ask, be prepared to act upon it:  I drafted and crafted until General Secretary Bishop Marigza refined and approved the statement.  Thanks to one of my UCCP colleagues Pastor Nonie Aviso, he gave me the crash course version on pastoral statements:  challenge, response and call.

As if an advocacy campaign, a forum, and a pastoral statement were not enough to stretch me, I also enlisted the support of the PCUSA Human Trafficking Roundtable, to join the appeal for life for Jennifer Dalquez.  One conference call, along with more crafting and drafting letters for the Stated Clerk also built up writing muscles: a letter for PCUSA churches; a letter for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte; and a letter for United Arab Emirates Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan **If/when I receive permission, I will share those letters.

Challenge, response and call: besides pastoral statements and letter writing, could this apply to a sermon, an article, or any other written or spoken word, or song?  What else could work here?  Maybe conversations with young daughter about why we’re praying for the president or Jennifer.  Maybe other speaking engagements or upcoming blog posts.

Here’s a sampling of “write ups” from the past few weeks:

Save the Life of Jennifer Dalquez (UCCP pastoral statement)

Rationale for International Women’s Day Forum (scroll to bottom of page)

 

 

 

More Together than Alone

 

To the sisters and brothers who gathered to march throughout the world for the Women’s March, I was right there with you.  There were no sister marches here in Manila.  Thanks mostly to my Facebooks news feed and the news diet that includes both local and international newspapers, I enjoyed watching the live speeches and songs, as well as the many colorfully creative posters.

Being surrounded by other Americans is what I thought that I needed this weekend, since most of the time I’m the only American in the room.  It used to be that I was the only Asian-American clergywoman under 40 when I lived in the U.S., but now it seems that I’m the only Korean-American clergywoman under 50 serving as a mission worker in the room.  This distinction is noticeable during instances like this past Wednesday, when I attended an ongoing series called the Wednesday Forum.  Originally started in the 1970s at the UCCP-Cosmopolitan church, this forum provided a place for dissenting voices during the martial law years under President Marcos.  Church leaders relaunched this forum last October to discuss critical issues such as the impact of the peace process on indigenous peoples, war on drugs, and most recently the status of foreign relations under President Duterte.  I have attended all but one event, but I have yet to comment or raise any questions.  Considering the upcoming weekend with both Presidential inauguration and worldwide marches, I hoped to say something – but in the end, I sat back and listened.

As much as I felt like I was there with the women’s marchers, I also felt strangely alone, maybe because I couldn’t march here, maybe because I regretted my choice to stay silent, maybe because I was caught in trying to find the right adjectives or metaphors to explain how I was feeling over the weekend.  Starting Friday, black was my wardrobe color of choice.  In the afternoon, I read through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the quietness of our national church offices.  I stayed in that shroud of sadness, although I did come up for air when it was time to eat or time to dance and sing to the soundtrack of “Sing” with my daughter.

Sometime on Saturday I received an invitation to participate in a Facebook Secret group called “The Resistance.”  I accepted the invitation because I knew the colleague who invited me, but I didn’t recognize many of the people in this newly formed group.  After a day of watching different posts, one pinned post came through with this question, “Small acts of resistance matter… What’s yours?”

Getting dressed for church on Sunday morning, I chose to exchange the Friday black for Sunday green, to be more precise, Pantone 2017 greenery.   Walking into church a few minutes late, with the opening strains of a familiar hymn tune with different lyrics, God must have known that I needed to hear these lyrics and let them come over me:

For stories told and told again to every generation,

To give us strength in times of pain, to give us consolation.

Our spirits to revive to keep our dreams alive,

When we are far from home and evil seasons come;

How firm is our foundation.

 

For God our way, our bread, our rest, of all these gifts the Giver

Our strength, our guide, our nurturing breast whose hand will yet deliver.

Who keeps us till the day when night shall pass away,

When hate and fear are gone, and all our work is done, and we shall sing forever.

 

Although the hymn writer Ken Medema originally wrote these lyrics in celebration of the Reformation, which I learned only recently, I am still struck by how this hymn inspired by events 500 years ago, could still provide me with much needed comfort on this day.

To my sisters and brothers who are serving as mission workers throughout the world – and to the many individuals and churches who support them, I wonder if any of you feel like your work is considered “resistance.”  Maybe the individuals, church partners, and the organizations with whom you serve are doing everything to upset the status quo, which could be corruption in government, a culture of impunity or generations of poverty.  Working with and for a church in the Philippines, along with many organizations that are striving to write a different narrative for this country, it is our privilege to witness and testify to their acts of resistance through their pastoral and prophetic ministries.

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To my sisters and brothers of the resistance in the United States, I wonder if our work as international mission co-workers could also support the work that you’re already doing, or now it’s the work that you’ve committed yourselves to.  I don’t know what it looks like to be part of the “resistance,” in this in-between space of being American and serving in a country that wants to redefine its relationship with America.  Strangely both countries desire to cultivate their relationship with Russia.   Here’s what I know how to do:  wake up, show up, speak up, listen up and join up with people.

Indonesia: You are Invited

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Sometimes the best photos are people also taking photos:  Muslim schoolgirls on a field trip to Borobudur which is the largest Buddhist temple in the world

In 1950, the first woman was ordained as a pastor.  This happened 2 years after the Indonesian church was formed as the GPI, in English known as the Protestant Church of Indonesia with its origins in the Dutch state church.  66 years later, this denomination is the second-largest with 322 congregations in 26 provinces, with 582 active pastors, more female than male.  All of this in a country with the highest population of Muslims, with approximately 2% Christians.

For the week starting November 10, we met with a wonderful mix of female church pastors and church leaders, in the three cities of Jakarta, Solo and Yogyakarta.  I joined Presbyterian Women staff members Susan Jackson Dowd and Kathy Reeves and 2017 Global Exchange Chair Peggy Free, that together with our Indonesian sisters, we might make plans for the upcoming 2017 Global Exchange in September.  In case you were wondering whether there were any men in attendance, we also met many such as the chair of local church council, Synod chairperson, and seminary intern.

Our initial conversations were in English, with the occasional outburst of common English-language experiences; however, as the days passed, we realized that we needed a translator and more time to know more about each other:

*Within minutes of our first conversation with church leaders, we learned about the issues concerning church and society, such as domestic and sexual violence.  These women also discussed interfaith marriage and conflicts about natural resources with multinational companies.  For the fourth or fifth year in a row, these women would soon launch their own 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, as part of the United Nations global campaign that is happening now until December 10.  They are inviting us to “orange the world,” what will we do now?

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Enjoying lighter moments at the Museum of the Presidents in Bogor

*One day of site-seeing, we passed by a park with many female deer, I mentioned that the English word was “doe” as in female deer.  Without skipping a beat, the vanload of women burst into “Doe a deer, a female deer,” followed by eruptions of laughter.  Who knew how Julie Andrews could bring us together like that!

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Taking a break from Hindu temple sight-seeing

*After that same day of site-seeing, I sat in the backseat with a woman named Ejodia.  I learned more about her than what she learned about me:  She has worked extensively with international NGOs that work in Indonesia, for example, serving with volunteers after the 2007 Banda Aceh tsunami.  As she shared about her work, she also shared about her life and ministry.  I learned more about her leadership in an organization called Association for Theologically Educated Women in Indonesia.  The more she shared, the more I was convinced that I should ask her about human trafficking in Indonesia, specifically if she knew Mary Jane Veloso, the Filipino woman imprisoned in Indonesia for drug trafficking.  I was encouraged to learn that these women knew of Mary Jane and have stood in solidarity with her.

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ATEWI local board members from Jakarta and neighboring cities:  during recent inauguration in Jakarta, the women also used the occasion to “Orange the World” and stand against violence against women and children 

From a recent e-mail exchange, Ejodia asked me for specific books about contemporary issues and theology, to share with this association.  She invites anyone to recommend book ideas or to support this group with actual e-books or physical books.  It is female seminary students who will benefit from these resources, and I am certain that they would welcome the opportunity to hear from you and maybe even participate in some book club exchanges with U.S. theologically trained women.  Please contact me at cathy.chang@pcusa.org for more details.

*Over our last dinner with the GPI women, it occurred to me that we knew about our lives, but not specifically.  I started to ask the pastor to translate so that we could talk about our respective families and church membership.  Most of this group of women had been long-term church members who grew up with Christian families, but I was also surprised to learn that two women converted from Islam because of their husband’s influence. Unfortunately, the conversation got cut short.

These and many other conversations with men and women formed the basis of my first impressions of Indonesian church and society.  I look forward to continuing these conversations, in the months to come and especially during the September 2017 Global Exchange, with these new Christian sisters, as well as Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist sisters.

 

Thailand: Getting to Know You

 

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At the Overbrook Hospital in Chiang  Rai:  name of the hospital comes from the Philadelphia-area church that has provided financial support

“I do not plead for returning calls, handshakes, chairs, dinners and teas as such. I do on the other hand plead for all of them and more if they can be expressions of a friendly feeling, if these or anything else can be the outward proofs of a real willingness on the part of the foreign missionary to show that he is in the midst of the people to be to them not a lord and master but a brother and a friend.”

“Through all the ages to come the Indian Church will rise up in gratitude to attest the heroism and self denying labors of the missionary body. You have given your goods to feed the poor. You have given your bodies to be burned. We ask for love. Give us friends.”

During a seminary missiology course and a visit to Edinburgh, I came across these quotes from Bishop V.S. Azariah at the 1910 Edinburgh World Missionary Conference.  Especially at times like these when I feel like I want to do more, and I wish others could join me in the struggles of learning more about migration and human trafficking and then doing something about it.  That’s when I remember that friendship from the global church can be the greater and the greatest gift.  Some of these people might never become my Facebook friends, yet they are friends because they have helped shape my perception of the world beyond the facts and figures during my first visit to Thailand:

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Learning about the challenges of obtaining ID cards for tribal minorities, with CCT pastors

*Originally Pastor A is from Myanmar and settled in northern Thailand.  He crossed the border only now to fight discrimination because of his lack of ID card.  Without this card, he has no identity and no rights.  In multiple attempts to complete the paperwork, he paid countless fees to shady government or law enforcement officials and was arrested over 30 times.  After many years, he has received his ID card, granting him permission to work, vote, receive medical assistance, and to travel freely.  I am confident that his story of perseverance gives hope to his congregants for their process which can last anywhere from 2 to 10 years and include exorbitant fees from more shady government officials.

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At the New Life Center, everyone takes their shoes off before entering the buildings — that included us during our introductory meetings

*Girl B lives at a residential facility for at-risk young girls called the New Life Center.  Her family includes her, brother, mother and father, and they are tribal minorities.  When she was old enough and no longer lived with grandparents, she found a job in construction and worked alongside other children.  She lacks education.  Her father encouraged her to claim her ID card, so that she could receive benefits.  She also has abusive father who attacks her mother, and soon turns against her in multiple attempts to sexually assault her.  Each time she screamed loud enough and ran away far enough to get people to help her and to evade these attempts.  Eventually her mother believes her, leaves her husband, and Girl B can begin a new life at this facility.  Her strength and courage to run away from her father, must be a source of strength and courage to her fellow residents.

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Younger school-aged children can attend a version of school while they are detained with their families at the Immigration Detention Center

*Girl C lives in an immigration detention center in Bangkok.  She and her sister and their family have been detained for over one year.  They left Pakistan because of attacks against their family members who are Christian.  On the same morning of the U.S. election returns (12 hours ahead of EST), I spoke to her and her family mostly through yells and screams.  In a noise-filled room, there is an arbitrary separation with moveable gates about 2 feet apart on one side for detainees, and another side for visitors, we introduced ourselves and quickly connected because of our common faith.  She dreams about becoming a missionary pastor and already reads the Bible regularly and preaches to the women in her same room.  Her favorite story and character is Daniel.  She and her family are waiting for the UNHCR to grant them status as refugees.

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During Sunday worship service, Pastor Sirirat shares messages of hope for the children, while displaying their artwork prepared the week before

 

*Rev. Sirirat Pusurinkham is a Church of Christ in Thailand (CCT) pastor serving the Prachakittisuk Church.  As a schoolgirl, some of her friends were sold into prostitution by the families.  Some of the children in her current community have lost their parents to HIV/AIDS, leaving them in vulnerable situations where other family members might not be able to care for them and open to options like forced labor or sex trafficking.  The women also lack education and skills which could leave them to consider moving to the city for better opportunities.  Many pleas and prayers later, there are now two extra buildings near the church to serve as the orphanage.  Through the church and its orphanage and livelihood projects, the children and women live in relative safety and security, away from the conditions that lead them susceptible to trafficking.

For the first ten days of November, I traveled to Thailand, with a Presbyterian Church USA delegation that included General Assembly co-moderator Denise Anderson, Carl Horton (Peacemaking), Ryan Smith (Presbyterian Ministry to the United Nations), Barry and Shelly Dawson (regional liaisons of southeast Asia).  Many thanks to Barry and Shelly for preparing this informative and engaging visit.   This will be the beginning of many more visits to come, since Thailand is considered my secondary site of service with partners such as the Church of Christ in Thailand (CCT) and Christian Conference of Asia (CCT) and other organizations.

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Elected leaders such as Moderator and Vice Moderator and staff members of the Church of Christ in Thailand offices in Bangkok

In these first eight months of living in the Philippines, I have been learning about how best to represent the PCUSA and UCCP at different activities and events. For the first time, I would not be the sole PCUSA representative because now I could enjoy the perspectives and insights of my fellow Presbyterians.  All of us knew something about human trafficking before this visit, but all of us left Thailand with new awareness and information and people.  It was as much a time getting to know Thailand and the church, the government, and culture, as getting to know one another and exploring ways of working together as colleagues in ministry.

Our 9-day schedule included visits with church leaders, staff members of non-profit organizations, representatives at embassy and international offices, and at-risk children in residential facilities.  We also met more people in living rooms, community centers, conference rooms, rice fields, hospital and an immigration detention center.  Filled with loads of information to scribble into notebooks, to read later in papers and reports from different organizations, I was humbled to learn through the sharing of life stories from these new friends.

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(Almost) Three Years after Typhoon Haiyan

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Construction continues despite warnings and restrictions

Note:  As I write, Hurricane Matthew has already wreaked destruction with its torrential winds and rains, upon many in the Caribbean.  Many in the southeastern United States are now bracing for the storms.  Prayers for the many people already impacted and who have yet to be impacted, as they bear emotions associated with survival, trauma, grief and loss.      

Last Tuesday, I finished traveling through southeastern Philippines in Leyte and Samar with a PCUSA delegation that included executive directors and coordinators (Tony De La Rosa, Sara Lisherness and Laurie Kraus), associate (Luke Asikoye), mission personnel (Mienda Uriarte and Cobbie Palm), and a program assistant (Dayna Oliver).  Over three days, we visited “barangays” (very loose translation: “local communities”) which received assistance for shelter, livelihood and water/sanitation/health (WaSH) projects, after Typhoon Haiyan on November 8, 2013.  Support for these projects came from overwhelming generosity and developed through a partnership between Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) and Task Force Haiyan with the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP).

Here are some of the ways that this partnership assisted individuals:

*School children can enjoy a drink of clean water.

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*A family is no longer living in trees but now have a home.

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*A health clinic can serve people with standard medical equipment.

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*Farmers can use a rice mill close to their home that also employs their own people.

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*Men can support their families when they provide transportation services with refurbished tricycles.

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Several members of the PCUSA delegation had witnessed the early devastation and the ongoing rebuilding and rehabilitation efforts.  Without that kind of perspective, I still found myself looking back in a different way.  Traveling with this delegation prompted me to reflect on my faith journey from early high school, but also to reflect on my first six months in the Philippines.

On my first short-term mission trip to Merida, Mexico, I traveled with other youth group members.  Admittedly I didn’t care much for how we got there, that is, the missionaries who were already serving in Mexico, and the people who would be served by the seminary dormitories being built by our youth group.  These questions only formed in me over many years of mistakes and misconceptions.  These questions continue to open myself and others to newer conversations and actions around shared ministry and mission.  In preparation for this recent visit, I even practiced sample questions in Filipino that I might ask community members about their lives after Typhoon Haiyan.

From the view of a van, I noticed the signs of businesses and spaces that have been rebuilt after Yolanda.  Thanks to USAID, this sari-sari store is now open for business.  On the main street driving through Tacloban, World Vision has built up a playspace:  the sign is almost as prominent as the playspace itself.  These signs are still displayed, but many of these organizations closed up their operations, one year after Haiyan.

Through brief snatches of conversations with Task Force Haiyan staff members on the bus and during walks, I learned more and now wonder about the future of my new co-workers—because their peoples’ lives are still “under construction.” Many of these staff members are still recovering from Yolanda, and their very work is helping to support their own families:

“Eric” the avid photographer previously worked as a nurse at a hospital. He remembers hearing the warning of an impending storm that morning.  As the eldest son, he urged his brothers not to go to school, even though they had exams.  Now he is still providing for his family and looking out for his brothers, but not as a nurse.

“Lisa” is the primary breadwinner of her family, since her husband and his coconut farming is on hold until the plants mature for harvest.  Her eldest daughter graduated from college and is preparing to be a school teacher, but until her licensing exams which will happen next year, she works at a call center.

Our three-day visit to Samar and Leyte wrapped up quickly without my saying goodbye and thanks to these many staff workers, yet they are now are a part of my growing heart for the Philippines.

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*Check out more videos from our visits throughout Samar and Leyte.