World Student Christian Federation - Asia-Pacific Region (WSCF-AP)
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Ecumenical Student Ministry
in the Asia-Pacific Region

Its Challenges and Mission

by Sharon Rose Joy Ruiz-Duremdes

To reflect on the situation of the University students is to make a pronouncement on the educational system of most universities. I was taught by SCMers and the militant student activists that the academe is but a reflection of the socio-economic and political terrain of the larger society. In most semi-feudal and semi-colonial countries like the Philippines, the school, the church and media constitute the State instrumentality for promoting its ideology. For instance, the Philippines decided to remain as a neo-colony of the United States, being its supplier of natural and human resources. To serve this political framework, the Philippine educational system is patterned after that of the United States. Nursing students are taught skills that will make them effective care givers at the New York General Hospital. Medical students learn how to operate medical equipment found in North America, instruments that are totally absent in rural Philippines. It is safe to say that, for the most part, Filipino doctors are incompetent in a countryside setting. Or since Japan wishes to project its military superiority in the region, history textbooks conveniently blot out Japan’s war crimes—an issue that the National Christian Council of Japan has mounted a campaign against.

My reflection today contains two major sections: First—My Lamentations About the Academe. Second—Some Notes on Churches and SCM Partnership Towards an Ecumenical Student Ministry.

A. My Lamentations About the Academe

Progressive teachers and students in the Philippines claim that education is elitist, commercialised, and colonial. Today, education is no longer a right. It has become a privilege and only the privileged are able to be educated. Sure, there are scholarships but these are available only through hard-nosed competition. With the privatisation of State Universities, a college degree is almost beyond the reach of ordinary students. Statistics has it that, in the Philippines, of the 100 pupils entering Elementary, less than 10 will be able to finish University. When I was teaching at Central Philippine University many years ago, I had to counsel a student who was traumatised by her experience during the week of finals. At CPU, as in most schools, students are allowed to take the final exam only if they have paid all outstanding accounts. This student came from a peasant family and the farmers had an extremely bad harvest that year due to the El Niño phenomenon. As could be expected, her parents had nothing to send her. This student was graduating and it was imperative for her to take that final exam. To make the long story short, she had to lose her virginity in exchange for a measly Peso 3,000.00 to pay for her tuition fees so that she could take the exam. In talking with her, I discovered that hers was not an isolated case.

The colonial aspect of education shows up not only in the content of education but also in its export-oriented perspective. Most of my former students are at a drilling site in Riyadh or at an engineering project in Brunei or in a geriatrics’ home in Canada or in a Videoke bar in Osaka. You know as well as I do why they are there.

In a country where 75% of the population live below the poverty line, what can we expect of the youth of the land?

I lament the fact that education in most schools is repressive. I am aware of some schools in my country where even the Student Christian Movement is not recognised by the administration as a legitimate student organisation. Moreover, I see repressive education reflected in which departments have the largest enrolments. These are departments whose courses are technical, exact, and neutral. Learners are not encouraged to take courses that make them think, analyse, critique and reconstruct. In a subtle way, students are forced to gloss over the truth—to the way things are and to hold in abeyance, nay, stifle the urge to unearth uncomfortable and painful truths. Has it ever occurred to you that the learners’ natural inclination to inquire and to seek is actually repressed by education? Has it ever occurred to you that learners’ natural disposition for creating and seeing things afresh is, actually, obliterated by education? I fear that this pattern will raise generations of, what I call, “bonsai intellectuals” who are not analytical. Unable to critique situations, they will, no doubt, allow the ruling class to ride roughshod over them.

I am deeply concerned that the educational system in most universities is domesticating. Where do many graduates end up? Aren’t they turned into any more than domestic helpers in places where the work environment is no different from a household? Take a look at the situation of domestic helpers: (1) the master assumes that he knows everything and the helper knows nothing; (2) the master talks and the helper listens meekly; (3) the master disciplines and the helper is disciplined; (4) the master chooses and enforces his choice and the helper complies obediently and passively; (5) the master chooses the activity and routine for the helper and the helper is expected to adapt to it. That finds easy translation in the schools. The classroom teachers’ task, as defined by the educational system, is to “fill” the students with a perception of reality that has become motionless, static, lifeless and petrified. A reality that is disconnected from that which has engendered the learners and given them significance.

I am disturbed that the university setting creates an unreal world for the students. The classroom projects a seemingly artificial environment that eventually alienates the learners from their class origins and themselves. For the professors, the “publish-or-perish” policy impels them to grind out just any kind of reading material. Never mind if it does not make sense to people at the base. The more esoteric, the better. Research is a matter of physical survival instead of an aid for social reversal. For the students, the university resurrects the law of the jungle: survival of the fittest. The push to be competitive strengthens the “crab mentality” which gives license to people to excel at the expense of others. In most cases, the academic community institutionalises rugged individualism at the expense of community and solidarity.

Globalisation does not make matters any easier for University students. It is true that information technology opens more opportunities for faster communication and wider access to new knowledge. The world is flashed right on one’s computer screen. But has the University helped its students acquire handles to sift through the maze of information, considering that selective attention needs to be guided by some modicum of appropriateness?

There is some unity that the effect of globalisation on people is one of indifference and fundamentalism. There is a tendency to be inward looking and simplistically literal, to emphasise personal or individual salvation and to reduce faith to almost a personality cult. In a situation of complexities and uncertainty, people are wont to turn to a faith-perspective that calms and soothes and provides black and white answers. This kind of perspective only compounds the unthinking culture of the University. Moreover, globalisation highlights capitalism’s “get rich quick” philosophy which is under girded by the prosperity gospel. In a condition of poverty and deprivation, the promise of appliances, opportunities to climb the social ladder, wealth are most attractive.

What I have said thus far smacks of one who has nothing but repugnance for the academic community. Maybe I do detest the University. I had to un-learn all I had accumulated from school when I moved out into the real world. Facetiously, the only blessing I received from the University was my husband. On second thought, this bleak negative view of the University is its saving grace. It creates favourable conditions for transformation. To the extent that students are frustrated over the way things are, to that same extent will they search for alternatives. And I believe this is one of the reasons for our being at this Consultation. The restlessness that our students and teachers feel about the academic community pushes them into organised actions that will embody that which they believe is the solution.

B. Churches and SCM: Partners Toward An Ecumenical Student Ministry

From that subjective assessment of the academic community, I turn my gaze to partnership in the ecumenical student ministry. I refuse to name alternative ways. I am most uncomfortable with mandates. Allow me to merely pose initial thoughts which I hope will be given some thought at this Consultation.

  1. If the academic milieu were as I described earlier, we would need a dismantling-supplanting ministry. It would be a ministry that consistently poses a critique of the educational system: content and process. As it opposes the repressive, elitist, commercialised, colonial, domesticating aspects of education, so must it lift up the liberating and liberative dimension of the system, if any, vigorously pushing for its perpetuation. Most churches and Councils of Churches specialise in Ecumenical Education and Nurture. These have, through the years, articulated a philosophy of ecumenical learning and contextual theologising. University students who are active church members may very well be the channels through which this philosophy of education is made to permeate the schools. This, then, makes the students “prophets in residence”.
  2. It is significant, for me, that we are underscoring the fact that our student ministry is ECUMENICAL. I wish to suggest that ecumenism is, in the first instance, about relationships. The whole inhabited earth is always seen as an arena of relationships-a venue of community. Ecumenical student ministry, therefore, should be a cradle for nurturing relationships. In an impersonal, alienating University in a dog-eats-dog setting, if the churches and SCMs are unable to provide this community, we have lost our purpose for being. Furthermore, ecumenism is a praxis of solidarity with those who are suffering at the margins. In our countries, the youth suffer at the margins. The praxis of solidarity propels us to immerse ourselves in the lives of those whom we are in solidarity with-accompanying them on the road toward a more meaningful existence. And who could very well accompany the University students but students themselves? On many campuses, student ministry is FOR students. Churches deploy their professional youth workers or “full timers” to do student ministry. This has worked in some settings but it still is an intervention of some sort. I would like to see active church youth who are themselves students and SCMers who are themselves students walking alongside their peers, struggling WITH them and pursuing their common vision. It is so much easier for a student to enter another student’s life. To this end, I see the churches and SCM providing youth and students with tools for organising their fellow youth.
  3. An ecumenical ministry is, for me, an integral part of the struggle for the liberation of the oppressed. To be involved in this ministry is to give meaning to the struggle for humanisation, the overcoming of alienation, the affirmation of women and men as persons-values that seem lacking in a University setting. This ministry is to assure the fearful and subdued (in our context, the University students) that they no longer need to extend trembling hands in an act of solicitous mendicancy and subservience. It is to encourage all striving that these hands be extended less and less in supplication so that more and more they become hands which work and working, transform the world (Paolo Freire).
  4. On a more practical note, the ecumenical character of student ministry must avoid pitting the more fundamentalist Christian student groups (IVCF, Campus Crusade for Christ, etc.) against the more progressive ones like the SCM. Says a report of the National Consultation on Campus Ministry in the Philippines in 1999: “Campus ministries are still quite scared to be identified with SCM because of the latter’s militant and active stand on student and social issues.” I am not calling for the watering down of perspectives in the interest of accommodation. Student ministry programmes of churches and the Student Christian Movement will do well to clarify what their particular roles and contributions are towards the organising of students. Awareness of their individual roles in student organising teaches them appropriate demeanour and conduct vis-à-vis other students. It often pains me to see SCMers carrying themselves around with a distinct air of arrogance because they are “progressive”, “radical”, “liberated”, and “activists”. For one, these labels mean nothing and are not very helpful at all in rallying students around a cause that they should really be common to all.
  5. Ecumenical student ministry should not concern itself with student affairs alone. The academic community also includes the teaching staff. It might be well for the churches to encourage their church members who work in the academic community (professors especially) to organise themselves or join nationalist teachers’ organisations to the end that they, too, may work for reforms within the University and be partners of the students. In the Philippines, ecumenical student groups and SCM find allies in the Association of Concerned Teachers (ACT) and the Confederation of Teachers for National Democracy (CONTEND).

Concluding Remarks

I am a product of the elitist, commercialised, and colonial educational system: 16 years in the Philippines; 3 years in the United States. All that brainwashing churned out a person who was conservative, fearful of novel ideas, unaware of objective reality, arrogantly feudal, very pro-Western. In the early 80’s while I was pre-occupied with teaching University students to speak impeccable English, my students forced me to see the world as it really was, to be more sensitive to the concrete realities around me, to make a connection between theory and practice. My students led me through a painful process of conscientisation that stripped me of all the academic garbage that I spent so much money and time in collecting. I changed gears in 1985 and travelled the road toward integral redemption (people’s liberation) together with my students and the oppressed classes of Philippine society. As I look back on that “conversion experience”, all I can say is: I am grateful to God that the students then fearlessly challenged me to step out into “ever new frontiers and emerging unexplored areas of life.” My hope is that, as in the eighties, our campuses will once more reverberate with the youth and students’ passion for freedom, peace, and justice.