Carmen Manalac-Scheuerman, Pampango Philippines Annual Conference
Images of giving birth in the Philippines can be inspiring or traumatic. Let me quickly bring you to a few concepts, my personal experience of giving birth, pose some questions for reflections, and then connect these to this question: How does the metaphor of childbirth help us inform and transform our understanding of Birthing a Worldwide Church?
In the remote communities and villages of the Philippines, there are no hospitals, clinics, available doctors, not even nurses; therefore, giving birth is through the help of a hilot. A hilot is a midwife of the community, who doesn’t have formal training but has mastered assisting women in giving birth. In the absence of both medical experts and hilots, women die in childbirth.
Pregnant women, who do not have the choice of a doctor or the money to go to the nearest hospital, need to fully trust a hilot. Not everyone can become a hilot. Being a hilot is a special call and gift given to a person and confirmed by the community. The confirmation happens when people come for healing and asked for assistance for giving birth. Hilots are considered indigenous healers in the community.
Iri is what the hilot screams to the woman giving birth. It means push or push harder. It’s the word also screamed by the husband, mother, and sisters who are there assisting the hilot. When a woman does her iri, she does it with all her strength, often accompanied by a loud groaning or scream, and holding on to either edge of the bed (or her husband’s hands). With the guidance of the hilot, the husband and the other members of the family, assist the baby to his or her birth.
The experience of giving birth is different for every woman. Its uniqueness depends on the woman’s body, the baby’s condition, and the space or location where the birthing happens. My own experience of giving birth didn’t require iri (push) but I had a hiwa, a big cut on my belly because I had a caesarian section. My pelvis didn’t allow me to have a normal delivery. Also, my giving birth was unpredicted. I gave birth a month earlier than what my ob-gyn, my husband, and I expected. It was a premature birth because my water bag broke, and I was rushed to the emergency room. The last thing I remember was the anesthesiologist talking to me, and then I woke up with terrible pain in my tummy, surrounded by my husband and other members of the family. I couldn’t move because of my hiwa and the catheter. My body was in constant pain because of my hiwa, and I needed to take a lot of pain relievers and antibiotics. I was hungry and thirsty, but I was not allowed to eat or even drink. Unlike a normal delivery, my caesarian section took longer to heal and to restore my physical strength from the surgery.
It was two days before I was able to drink and eat, and four days before I was ready to sit, stand, and walk a little bit. My hiwa was long and painful. I didn’t have the courage to sit up or take longer walks. However, the moment the nurse told me that she would bring my baby to me and that I was required to breastfeed him, I was so excited. I quickly tried sitting up properly. I will never forget when I saw my baby boy for the first time. Tears fell down my cheeks, I was so happy! It was a sacred experience! I forgot all my body pains. I was able to stand, sit, and hold my baby in my arms, and I started to breastfeeding him. The breastfeeding was very painful, but the joy was greater than the pain.
The mark of my hiwa remains. It will stay on my belly forever, and it will always remind me of what I went through in giving birth; but the joy I received from my baby was worthwhile. My baby is now eight years old, and he still loves to hear the story of when he was born. He loves to see my caesarian section scar. I let him touch it and feel it. He places his head on top of my belly, and he hugs me. At his age, he appreciates what Mommy went through—pain yet full of joy!
One thing about panganganak (giving birth) in the Philippines, as I have tried to describe the scene, is that a woman who gives birth is never alone. When I say she is never alone, it is not just her husband, but often her mother, siblings, cousins, and many more are also present. Giving birth is a family and community event, where family accompanies the woman to the hospital. This is even more so in remote villages where there are no hospitals. The husband, mother, and siblings assist the hilot in screaming iri to assist the woman in giving birth.
In the Philippines, it is a common scenario to involve the whole community during a woman’s recovery from childbirth. While I was healing from my caesarian section, I was not able to carry out many of the day-to-day tasks of motherhood. I received a great deal of assistance from not only from my family but also many others in the community.
There is a saying in my province that giving birth is considered “kalakbangan kamatayan,” literally, “one step to death.” That is why it is important for the Filipino family to be with the woman giving birth in the midst of this “kalakbangan kamatayan.” There is an unwritten covenant that a person is forever indebted for his or her life to his or her mother. This is why Filipinos are big on respecting parents and elderly. We take care of our parents, our elderly. It is considered ungrateful if grown-up children do not take care of their elderly, because it is our way of paying back parents—especially our mothers, for risking their lives to give birth. Despite the risk and realities of giving birth that entail lifelong indebtedness to parents, women, when they get married in the Philippines, prefer to give birth and have children.
In a global world where medical experts and facilities have been advanced in different cities, would you trust a hilot in childbirth?
Reflecting on the metaphor of childbirth in the Philippines, our theme Birthing a Worldwide Church is an invitation for us United Methodist people to fully trust God in moments where our expertise is not sufficient to make decisions, much like trusting the hilot fully in childbirth. We have been experts in Methodist tradition and polity, but have we trusted God fully beyond our traditions and polity in advancing God’s reign? Or are we still holding on to our expertise, which stops us from the unpredictable experience of both a painful and joyful experience—like that of childbirth—in Birthing a Worldwide Church?
In our 2016 Central Conference in the Philippines, I hope the Philippine United Methodist Church will open itself to electing a female bishop. The realization of the vision of having a female UM bishop is long overdue. It is time for the female bishop’s birth! The male episcopal leadership of our Philippine UMC should assist in the fulfillment of this vision, and give a voice to women for episcopacy. Women’s gifts are essential to the episcopal leadership of our church, and yet no female bishop has been elected. Our Philippine Central Conference should fully trust God, and welcome a female voice in the episcopacy. It will be a surprise what gifts a female bishop can offer.
Would you trust medical people to cut your belly and to undergo the long process of physical healing and recovery from childbirth?
The pain, difficulty, excitement, and unpredictable moments of giving birth are all in God’s hands. I was never the same again after I gave birth. My body changed as well as my roles and responsibilities. My priorities and perspectives are changed. My giving birth has had a great impact on me as a person of faith, as a pastor, and as a professor. It’s risky to give birth! I am glad I took the risk, for in that risk, I was able to experience the depth and meaning of the cycle of life from conception, to birth, to participation in nurturing our child’s growth in faith in Christ, with the help of my husband, family, and our church community. It is a sacred experience.
Our theme, Birthing a Worldwide Church, like childbirth, will entail a lot of changes, transformation, and redefinition of policies and roles that will not be easy and will be painful. Like a caesarian section, there will be marks of painful changes, healing, and recovery; but the outcome will be celebrated with joy—like seeing the newborn baby for the first time. Tears of pain and joy will meet, but joy will overcome the pain. Like a woman who experiences tremendous pain with the first breastfeeding of her baby, the established church should be more than happy to nurse our newborn baby, the Worldwide Church. Like our scripture text: “When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world” (John 16:21).
With the communal concept of childbirth and eternal indebtedness to parents, would you still choose to give birth?
Like the childbirth experience in the Philippines—where a pregnant woman is never alone— assisted by members of family and community, our church, is the same. Our church is like a family and community of God who will stick through thick and thin. Like a family, a Church is a safe place where we can be vulnerable and safe, where we fail and forgive each other. Our presence and readiness to listen is important in conversation. God has entrusted to us our dear UMC and expects us gestures of support, respect in the midst of similarities and differences.
We are a church bound by a sacred relationship with God. Our UMC is God’s. God is leading us to global birth, changes, and transformation, both painful and joyful. We are a church meant to embrace and embody our call of open hearts, open minds and open doors on the basis of the Living Gospel, Jesus Christ. It is my hope for the coming General Conference 2016 that, as agreements and disagreements happen, we will welcome the painful decisions and transformation, and receive them with hope, faith, and full trust in God—just as we receive with joy and celebration a newborn child and move on to our journey like a family and community of faith that brings love, hope, peace, equality and justice for all of God’s creation.