Weaving hope and dignity for women in the Philippines
by Denise Poon
21 February 2017
Ghie remembers feeling like something was missing.
She was doing outreach and discipleship with Muslim women at the time, and had been doing so since 1997.
"They were growing spiritually but something was missing - they didn't have a way to put food on the table for their families," Ghie says. "Just giving them food was not sustainable. I wanted them to have their dignity, and to have holistic discipleship."
And so, Ghie said what she calls "a quiet prayer" in her heart, that somehow, there would be a way to empower the women she was serving to have livelihoods - to be able to support themselves and their families with dignity.
The way forward didn't appear until 2014, and it appeared quietly as well, without fanfare or unmistakable signs. Rather, a small opportunity began to emerge and slowly unfold.
Ghie was organizing a women's retreat for cross-cultural workers who were reaching out to Muslim people at the time. Amy, an American, was at the conference too as part of the short-term team helping out at the meeting. It was there that she first noticed the wallets - handmade by Filipino women out of old plastic wrappers - being sold at the conference. It was her first time in southeast Asia; she had been on several short-term mission trips before, but this one seemed to be the tipping point for delving into something longer-term.
"God broke my heart for the spiritual and economic poverty. My heart started stirring - was there a way I could help?" Amy says. "I wanted to do something, but I didn't want to be someone who said they were going to help and then do nothing."
The women who were making wallets were dwindling in numbers; a government initiative had allowed them to learn how to make the wallets so that they could earn money, but the women didn't have a way to sell them, least of all to make a profit. Some women were even selling them for the equivalent of $2 USD - well under what they were worth, given the time and effort put into making them.
So the women had the skills, but needed support to find a market and actually earn a living. From there, Ghie’s experience working with Muslim women and Amy's years working in corporate America would mesh to provide these women with a way to earn a living and have access to a market.
Chora is bornChora*, named after the Filipina heroine who provided refuge and care for soldiers in the Philippine Revolution, was never a top-down project but a ministry that began by coming alongside the women.
"We didn’t come in and teach them these skills - this was something they already knew how to do. They had learned from the government," Ghie says.
Amy was working for a large pharmaceutical company at the time, and her company made a generous donation through SIM by purchasing one hundred of the wallets for some of its employees. The donation was enough to launch the Chora project.
Chora is now operating in three communities, two urban poor communities and a rural community in southern Philippines. There are about 30 women weaving, with hopes that Chora will expand and reach more women and communities.
"Because we are consistently helping them sell their products, we are beginning to gain the women's trust and respect, as well as building stronger relationships with them," Ghie says.
Amy, meanwhile, has left her job in corporate America to join SIM. She'll be based in the US, with trips to the Philippines to be involved with Chora's work and outreach.
"For years, I wrestled with going into ministry full time, but didn't know what that could look like," Amy says. "God's showing me that he has been using my business background, all those years in the marketplace, to prepare for this assignment."
Growing the teamThe Chora team is currently collaborating with the local cross-cultural workers and their communities to strengthen their livelihood programs, identifying supply chains for packaging materials used to weave the products and creating an apprenticeship plan.
The team is focusing on building a market for the wallets in the USA as well, and Amy's amazed at how God has provided ways for people to partner. Already, people have stepped up: a volunteer is coordinating shows and markets in the US, one woman is developing corporate partners interested in purchasing Chora products for corporate gifts and events, an Amazon business owner will help market the products on her online shop, to name a few.
"It's pretty amazing how God is using the sales to involve more people in the US in global mission work," Amy says. "We are all so sheltered in the US and product marketing gives folks an opportunity to be involved."
The marketing goal, she says, is to make sure the business is "sustainable."
More women are joining after they see that there's a steady income to be made from weaving Chora's products. Chora is also buying the women's products at a Fair Trade price, allowing them to earn more for their families. And it isn't just that learning skills and earning an income allows the women to stand on their own two feet, it allows them to do so proudly - especially in an ethnic community that doesn't place high value on women and views them as "second class," Ghie says.
"One of the women, when we were visiting them in the community, started to cry," Amy says. "She said, 'I can't believe you want to help us.' So much of this is about respecting women - having men respect them, but also helping the women respect themselves."
"For the women, it shows them they have value," Ghie says, "that someone wants to buy and values what they are making."
The women involved are being introduced to Jesus and the Gospel, and range in their interest and commitment.
"Jesus did not force himself on people, he gave them an opportunity to know him. And he said if you see someone in need, you are to do something," Amy says, noting why Chora doesn't demand conversion from the women it helps. "It's about giving the women an opportunity to meet God and learn about the Bible."
So while, absolutely, Amy and Ghie would love to see more of the women come to know Christ, who values them unconditionally no matter what they do or don't make and sell, she knows it will take time.
"I'm learning so much, especially about my Western way for results, but this work isn't quick," Amy says. "And the beauty of it is what God is doing in the process - and just getting these women together and giving them this opportunity is amazing." So they continue to hope and pray - some quiet prayers, like the one Ghie said many years ago for holistic discipleship, others uttered boldly, as Chora grows and expands into more communities.
"It was very unexpected and unplanned, but God answered that first prayer," Ghie says.
They trust he will continue to answer their prayers for each woman to come to know Christ and have their hope and dignity restored.