Flooded paddy fields, banana and palm trees, a water buffalo and green volcanic mountains in the background – I was soaking in a glorious sight as I was washing dishes on my first morning in the BERTH project. Most things here are unusual to a German who visits the Philippines for the first time. But as my week-long stay commenced, I was about to find out just how exceptional this project and the people involved in it are.
Most physical aspects of the project are very recent additions: The house was erected and the Suzuki pickup was bought in the weeks before my arrival, the plumbing installed hours before I landed. But the BERTH project has really already come a long way since its birth years ago. Michael Dindo Pillora wove all his varied life experiences and professions into this project. From carpentry to youth work, project management and even music: BERTH is not just about houses, it’s about a community and its members thriving against all odds. Where poverty and a lack of prospect have led many to turn to addiction and callousness, Michael has been building friendships and solutions for years.
And much has grown as a result, even quite literally: One morning MayMay, one of the project volun- teers, took me along to the vegetable garden behind the house and we harvested buckets full of long green beans, squash, bitter melon, eggplants and various leafy greens. She remembers well how not long ago, she used to worry about being able to buy food for her family. Now the project’s grounds provide healthy vegetables for the BERTH volunteer community.
Michael has even more in sight. In front of the guest house, a large pond has been created. Soon he plans to farm fish in it which will supply them with a valuable and healthy form of protein. Fertilizer is required to create suitable conditions in the pond and Michael’s neighbour Jolie knows just the thing for that: worms. He has set up a worm farm to produce vermicasting, also known as “black gold”. Given a balanced diet of compost and manure, the special worms work tirelessly to produce the fine dark fertilizer that will boost not only the pond, but also the vegetable garden and, Michael hopes, the rice fields as well. “The young people here have no prospects. But with a small vermicasting production, they can earn their school fees by selling the fertiliser locally and actually get an education.” I realise he knows how to build so much more than houses.
But of course houses, too, shall be built, and the first works are under way during my stay. Together with two teenage girls, Geneve and Griza, we cut the spikes off of bamboo twigs while the men build a frame with parallel spokes. Then, we weave the twigs through the spokes, creating a mesh. A vol- unteer named Junior creates a clay mixture and diligently covers the mesh, and in the end we all press our hands into the moist clay and leave our prints. Michael’s goal is to erect the first bamboo earth home on the project’s grounds soon. Then, he and the volunteers hope to become a training center for groups who want to learn how to build low-cost but high-quality homes in tropical areas.
ith all the growing and building going on in the BERTH project, the most important surely are the core values. Michael has condensed them into twelve words: commitment and compassion, humility and honesty, respect and responsibility, integrity and initiative, simplicity and servanthood, trust and transparency – the first letters spelling CHRIST. As an experienced builder, Michael knows that a solid house needs a good foundation. And the core values are exactly that for BERTH. All the young people and volunteers know them by heart, and in conversation with them I learn how Michael’s practical teaching of them is beginning to change attitudes and lives. At night, as the light in the project’s open guest house shines brightly into its surroundings, I am thankful that BERTH shines by day as well, and I trust it will brighten its surroundings in most meaningful ways.
A few moments I love remembering:
- Sitting on the second floor deck of the BERTH house at night, talking with Michael about the project’s development and vision
Harvesting vermicasting with Jolie and Junior
Staying at MayMay’s one night, cooking the fish we had bought at the market and praying for her family with her
Getting the projector to run and watching “Madagascar” with the young people one night. What a blast! Afterwards, they all camped in the make-shift tent we had set up behind the house. Looking down from the house, I saw the trees lit up by Michael’s solar-powered fairy lights and heard their happy chatter and giggles.
Making Bavarian potato dumplings with the kids at 6:15 am the next morning for breakfast! Most unusual for a Bavarian ;)
The spontaneous conversation over lunch about the book of Esther with Jujie, a project vol- unteer, and MayMay and singing worships songs together. MayMay’s face beamed with joy when we realised we knew the same songs.
Salamat! (Thank you!)
Many thanks to Michael for responding to my email inquiry, inviting me to visit and providing so wonderfully for me all week. I am in awe of all that you are doing and thankful for your kindness, wisdom and integrity that you are blessing others with. Salamat also especially to MayMay and Jujie for sharing your hearts, thoughts and laughs with me, and to Jolie and all the young people for wel- coming me into your community, showing me the ropes and blessing me in countless ways.