Coming Home to the River

On Baptism, Displacement, and the Filipina/o Migrant Experience

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By Yanan Melo
May 27, 2021 | 10 min read
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The River at the Heart

I grew up near a river called the Cagayan River, which was located at the heart of my hometown, Cagayan de Oro. I remember passing the river on our mundane drives to church; I always noticed how the waters moved and beckoned to be touched. I never once thought the river was special until one Sunday morning when I noticed people gathering around the basin. The unusual sight of a baptism was occurring as the pastor immersed a congregant into the waters. The river rippled and opened up as it received the body of a young woman and enveloped her. For a moment, I thought she was never going to return. But with a blessing, the pastor consecrated the waters with God’s Triune name. And as our car turned a corner, I caught a glimpse of new birth as the woman arose from the waters with a smile. I had never seen anyone so happy.

The river gave the people of Cagayan de Oro a name: “Kagay-anon”. Just as it was geographically situated in the middle of the city’s life, the river was at the core of local identity. Even before Spanish missionaries arrived in 1622, the people had already oriented their identity around the Cagayan River. Indeed, many indigenous Filipino cultures identify themselves with rivers and local waterbodies. My mother, who is Tagalog, comes from a “people along the river”. Likewise, my father’s tribe — the Ilocano — are a “people of the bay”. This shows how deeply tied and connected to locality and place the Filipino people are, especially as identity relates to bodies of water.

Water is the lifeblood of human existence. 60% of the adult human body is composed of water just as 71% of the Earth’s surface is covered with water. It is scientifically proven that our bodies need water more than they need food. It makes sense why my mother would reprimand me for not drinking enough water, saying, “Anak, kapag ‘di ka uminom ng maraming tubig, maaga kang mamamatay!” (“Son, if you don’t drink a lot of water, you will die early!”). Water fuels the flourishing of human life, and three days without it results in death.

Abstract photo of water with two blurry hands underwater.

My people, the Kagay-anons, know how much water matters to our culture. I remember visiting an impoverished family who had no access to purified water and relied on the rawness of river water for sustenance. Whether rich or poor, water comes from the same source in Cagayan de Oro: the River. Mother Nature provides for all her inhabitants, despite economic status, whether enclosed in plastic bottles or gathered manually from streams. And water finds its way into the life of the church, as the river not only determines social and ethnic identity, but even religious identity. Local churches gather their congregants around rivers, lakes, and seas to be baptized and reborn. Even the water that fills the baptismal font must come from a local waterbody. Water is God’s gift through nature, and it is this very liquid that receives a people and rebirths them through the Spirit’s womb. Indeed, baptism is new life.

But what about baptism when it has been used not to give life, but to destroy it instead? In 1622, Spanish missionaries arrived on the coasts of Cagayan de Oro and met a people group whose women were covered with golden jewelry. The gold must have come from somewhere — the River. Hence, the place then called “Cagayan” received a new modifier: “de Oro”, which means “of gold” in Spanish. The colonizers plundered and stole, excavating the river of its riches. They baptized the Kagay-anons and established a church and fortress using native materials and resources, eventually paving the path to Cagayan de Oro’s central role in the colonization of southern Philippines and the eradication of indigeneity.

It is taught that baptism begins the Christian life, and in doing so, forms an embodied communion of sisters and brothers. We all rise from the waters as disciples — as followers of Jesus unified in diversity. But this unifying sacrament has been misused and abused throughout church history to do the very opposite. Theologian Lauren Winner laments that the baptismal pool has, at times, been used to “obscure the bonds of Christian kinship”. (1) Instead of cultivating communities united in their diversity, baptism has been used to enforce schism, especially through racial segregation. Thus, an embodied imagination must return to the core of ecclesial teaching on baptism, which is continually being abstracted into the disembodiment of whiteness. For baptism does not erase the particular, but reorients the baptizand’s locality around the organizing center of Jesus’ Jewish flesh.

The Nazarene in the Jordan

Life begins with Jesus’ body. He was a common carpenter who called the lowly town Nazareth his home. For years he had been silent, but one day he arose and spoke. Suddenly, this nobody preached and gathered crowds around his body. When Nathanael heard about Jesus, he pondered, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (2) It was unbelievable that some lowlife from destitute Nazareth would claim the title of God’s promised Messiah. But here he was, preaching, proclaiming, and bringing a people together — uniting outcasts with God’s love.

Jesus eventually found himself at the basin of the Jordan River, a local waterbody where people gathered to be baptized by his cousin John. “The kingdom of God is at hand,” John proclaimed with a loud voice as the waters parted to receive the body of Jesus. As Jesus disappeared into the depths under John’s outstretched arm, the Spirit descended upon the waters with a mother’s touch, in the same way she hovered over the watery surfaces of earth’s deformation in Genesis. This was a holy moment, a formation of a new place where God’s love could be known, where locality itself has been transfigured into the face of Christ. And, just as land and herb sprouted from the chaos of creation, Jesus the carpenter arose from the Jordan and enacted the era of new creation, of new life, of eternal life and immortality.

The baptismal waters are holy because they consecrate the particular into the divine. The priest approaches the waters, and with a blessing, the Spirit descends like a dove on the font, opened to receive a new member into the body of Christ. Because Jesus is the fullest expression of human identity, participation in his flesh realizes the fullness of the baptizand’s locality. All sacraments, our Christian practices, are constituted by the particular and situated in the local. In this manner, the waters of baptism are local. They are taken from nearby rivers, lakes, or seas to be consecrated in God’s Triune name for a sacramental purpose: to receive the baptized and unite them with the Messiah. The work of new creation is quite literally the giving of place and locality a new, consecrated identity — a redemption from past traumas such as colonialism and racialization. Today, Jesus is decolonizing our places as he invites the indigene and outcast into God’s embrace. For, according to Willie Jennings, Christ’s body is God’s taking on “the life of the creature, a life of joining, belonging, connection, and intimacy.” (3)

Jesus’ baptism affirms his own particularity as a carpenter from Nazareth. The dove hovering over the Jordan River did not erase the Brownness of Jesus, but affirmed his particularity and made it holy. But colonized peoples know that the church, throughout history, has participated in the western imperial decimation of local contexts. We see this through the stories of my people, the Kagay-anons, who were forced into displacement by Spanish missionaries who planted the Christian symbol of the crucifix alongside the Spanish flag. Claiming the land for themselves, they proclaimed the gospel of European achievement, which married Christianity with whiteness and catalyzed the enslavement of other peoples — Black people, especially — during the age of discovery. They spread out and baptized local communities into a new way of life, extracting them from their particularity and declaring a new racial identity.

Whiteness is Christianity’s deformation as it destroyed homes and erased cultures, replacing local customs with Europeanism and local dialects with Spanish or English. But I understand the church’s mission is not to erase ethnocultural markers but to consecrate them, to honor them, to love them just as Christ loves.. The Christian’s local context matters when it is reoriented around the person of Christ and his flesh and blood, which are gifted sacramentally to the church through holy water and wine. But whiteness did the very opposite during the colonial moment. Instead of consecrating, it desecrated locality and erased indigenous identities. For Kagay-anons, there was now a new force that dictated what it meant to be human, and such an imperialism declared whiteness to be the essence of humanity. Replacing the Jewish Messiah with their own craftiness, the European colonial project took the form of a false god, a deceiving serpent, and left homes in flames as they ravaged the lands they supposedly discovered. Suddenly, half the world was left homeless as a result of the European dream.

Coming Home to the River

I left home during a summer’s end. Receiving admission to a rural seminary in the Chicagoland area, my father took our family to the United States. It was the last time I spoke my local dialect, Cebuano, before moving to Chicago where life was inscribed around two new waterbodies, the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. Just like the Cagayan River, both were places where people gathered and enjoyed the flourishing of communities. Even the infamous climate of the “Windy City” is influenced by a “lake effect”. But the river and lake only made me homesick as my heart yearned for home, for my people, for my dialect ... for my River.

God created places that we might have somewhere to call home, that human beings might belong to places. Place is not just the ground or the sidewalks we walk on, but it is at the very heart of God’s creative endeavor. In Eden, God walked through trees, rivers, and the cool breeze to meet Adam and Eve. God spoke to them, conversed with them, and shaped their identities around a tree — the Tree of Life — from which life flowed into four rivers that embraced the first humans. Eden, with all its particularities, became the consecrated theatre of God’s relational outpouring for humanity. Thus, just as Adam and Eve were shaped by their geographic situation, we are shaped by living in places. Human identity and the places we live in are inseparable because they complete and create each other. If we are to be fully and truly human, we need to root ourselves in the dirt and reckon with the stories around us, with the narratives that give meaning to our homes.

However, despite the reality that human beings are essentially a placed people, many suffer displacement. The events of 2020 certainly revealed the schismatic nature of the societies and structures built upon U.S. soil. Humans are divided, broken, separated, and disjointed from each other, our lands, and our places. This is certainly true when we look at the migrant crisis, which speaks of the deeply human desire to belong and be home. Many, as a result of western imperialism, are fleeing their ravaged homes and seeking refuge elsewhere. But arriving at our borders, they are not met with open arms but a brick wall and barbed wire. There, children are separated from their parents and locked in cages. Worse, they are left to thirst and perish in dry heat. This context of forced migration is precisely the place where God calls the church to the task of placemaking, and one that welcomes the marginalized into our homes.

Home is at the heart of what it means to be human, where lives intermingle and experiences interpenetrate. Home is where stories are made and histories are written. Filipinos have a robust cultural understanding of what a home is as the fundamental tenet of Filipino identity, and Filipinos in the U.S. certainly feel an irresistible desire for home. It was reported that at least 400,000 heavy balikbayan boxes (large boxes of gifts) are sent every month by Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) to their families in the Philippines. (4) These boxes reveal more than just a show of generosity, they are an entrenched yearning to be home. Because for the Filipino, home is where the heart is.

We all want to belong somewhere. Home is deeply ingrained at the heart of the human condition, and any sense of displacement is uncomfortable, especially when it is forced upon us. Indeed, I yearn for home. I have been yearning for the refreshing coolness of the Cagayan River since I moved to Chicagoland in 2016, since I encountered the face of a new river. But I realized that the Chicago River was man-made, controlled and manipulated by levers, unlike the Cagayan River, which was cradled and guided by the earth’s gravitational pull. As a result of Chicago’s historic industrialization, nature now submitted to the will of machinery and pollution. This is what Paul means when he recognizes the groaning of creation, of plants, herbs, and trees, as they eagerly await their final restoration in Christ. Even the Chicago River, subjected to mechanical controls, seeks for her waters to be made holy again.

What Makes Water Holy

But what makes water holy? The Sunday School answer simply states, “Jesus”. But there is a real weight to the claim. Jesus’ particularity makes human particularity deeply meaningful when it is united to him. Just as Jesus dined with tax collectors and prostitutes, just as he healed lepers and uplifted women, Christ liberated the marginalized and united them with God’s love. No longer were they the wandering and faceless outcasts of a Rome-occupied society, but children baptized with God’s embrace. The church today faces a similar task as God brings the lonely, the homeless, and the immigrant to our doorsteps. But are our homes truly welcoming as the welcome mat on our porches signify? Are our churches truly a place where Christ’s peace can be touched amid the colonizing powers and principalities of western imperialism? Indeed, are we remembering our baptism into Christ through which he has tabernacled among us and consummated his kin-dom, where God will be home?

For there is no such thing as a theology that is far from home because home is where the heart is. Many peoples across the world, such as my own Filipino context, have been uprooted from their homes due to colonialism. Modernism birthed the colonization of supposed primitive peoples across the world that were being reoriented around western civilization. Consequently, westerners destroyed the localities of indigenous peoples through the church’s participation in it. For the colonizers, Jesus had become an idealistic affirmation of the white masculine body instead of the Jewish Messiah who consecrates indigenous identities. As whiteness replaced Jesus and became colonization’s new organizing center, this racial imagination destroyed non-western homes through a deformed baptism.

However, becoming a new creation is participation through an embodied baptism, which flows from the side of Christ to garden the earth with water and blood. There certainly have been times when the church has terribly failed to do so, but God is prepared to dismantle the Christian deformation of colonialism by humbling the proud and exalting the lowly and oppressed. Today, we are living in the postcolonial moment when sisters and brothers in the Majority World are rediscovering what it means to be baptized into Christ’s body. The lands of the earth are now crying out to God for healing after centuries of colonialism, and God has given the church a new possibility to garden their lands well and cultivate indigenous cultures in a way that worships God liturgically and eschatologically through tribe and tongue. This is the sacramental task of the church, and it begins with loving our lands, our places, and our homes well. Indeed, it begins with finding ourselves clinging to the foot of the cross, where a river of water and blood flows to garden the earth that new creation might spring forth — that the very dirt under our feet might be baptized with God’s presence, where home truly is.

We just need to return to the river.

(1) Lauren F. Winner, The Dangers of Christian Practice, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), 116.

(2) John 1:46 (CSB)

(3) Jennings, The Christian Imagination, New Haven: Yale University Press (2010), 7.

(4) Frank Shyong, “These boxes are a billion-dollar industry of homesickness for Filipinos overseas”, LA Times, April 28, 2013, https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-balikbayan-boxes-20180428-htmlstory.html

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Yanan Melo

Yanan Melo (he/him) is a writer, poet, and independent musician from the city of Cagayan de Oro, Philippines. He is currently pursuing a BA in Theology from Moody Bible Institute with an emphasis on postcolonial theology and the Filipina/o context. Currently working on an album and storybook about the Asian American migrant experience, Yanan seeks to bridge the gap between theological research and social action through word and music. www.yananmelo.com

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