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'Pillow talk ideas'

Lifestyle/Technology | Partners in life and ministry, the De Boers fight destitution in Manila

Issue: "Four horsemen of the apocalypse," Oct. 4, 2008

Corrie De Boer is both a doctor of philosophy and a doctor of ministry. Despite her credentials, she often turns the spotlight away from herself and back to her husband, Stewart De Boer, who was president of the Asian Theological Seminary (ATS) in Manila from 1980 to 1986.

He was her professor at ATS, then her boss at Mission Ministries Philippines, a ministry he founded in 1984 out of concern for Manila's urban poor. Fifteen years ago, after his first wife, Helene, died, Stewart and Corrie married, and they have been partners in life and ministry ever since.

From their dual positions at the ATS Center for Urban Transformational Leadership and at Mission Ministries, the De Boers teach pastors a theology of urban leadership and apply it practically in programs that develop church-based preschools for poor children and plant churches in slums.

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Corrie De Boer speaks fluently about the students who come from 14 countries, mostly in Southeast Asia, to study at the seminary and about their growing interest in learning how to work with the poor in their own countries. She can readily provide data about the preschool program, which has led to the establishment of more than 450 church-based preschools, mostly in and around Manila, that have graduated more than 100,000 children.

She is proud that research confirms the effectiveness of the preschool program and that parents line up to enroll their children because they see the good results. She is also proud of the reading curriculum that was developed in-house based on research contributed by Christian professors at the University of the Philippines-a curriculum so effective that sales of it contribute about 70 percent of the Mission Ministries income.

Corrie De Boer seems to be most passionate when describing the way all these projects work together and lead to new projects. "My role is to identify new projects and initiate them."

She calls the process "pillow talk ideas," where she and her husband, now 80, dream up new ventures: community pharmacies run by moms, a manpower agency to provide jobs for unemployed high-school graduates, loans of supplies-soap, oil, salt-to help budding entrepreneurs start small community stores, teacher training and seminars and support for staff to get advanced degrees so they can teach and "become communities of influence."

Several years ago one of these pillow talks resulted in the desire to "establish a farm where we could have the homeless, but we never had the opportunity because we were busy." A widow, the wife of a general, gave them a 33-year lease on land located on the fertile side of a mountain: It's now the site of a Mission Ministries agriculture project that emphasizes hydroponics and organics. The De Boers have since acquired permission to cultivate another farm outside Manila.

Much of Mission Ministries' work takes place on or near Payatas, an enormous mountain of trash on the outskirts of Manila. There scavengers labor for long hours picking through garbage to find whatever has value: tin cans, plastic, metal. Eleven hours of labor might yield three dollars. Mission Ministries has established 12 preschools near Payatas and with the help of wealthier congregations has planted churches there. Corrie De Boer says she teaches 200 to 300 seminary students each year: "Payatas is my classroom." In 2000 heavy rains caused a trash slide that buried a slum built on the base of the dump. Thousands died. Since then the government has taken steps to improve safety at Payatas, including relocating families away from the dump. Five hundred of those families have moved to Mission Ministries land.

More pillow talk: "Two years ago, we actually adopted two homeless families. One family had been on the street for 20 years. . . . How do you deal with a family that has lived on the street for 20 years? Their pushcart was one block from us. . . . We invited these two families into our home. They lived in the cellar, and for three weeks we were one big community. . . . They work so hard. They wake up very early. They work their butts off. They make two or three dollars a day. They are survivors."

The family on the street for 20 years had eight children, five still living with the parents. From the time the mother was 12 she begged in the streets. After she met her husband, who was 15, they lived together in a pushcart "and gave birth to eight kids in the street." The parents lost three children in ways hard for Americans to understand. They left one newborn in the hospital because they couldn't pay their bill. When they came back, after earning enough money, the baby was gone. They sold another baby for 1,000 Philippine pesos, about $25. The third child, a 5-year-old, got lost in the market; they're still looking for him.

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