Immersion in Manila
An Interview with the Servant Partners International Internship
Aaron (AS) and Emma (ES) Smith lead the Servant Partners Manila
Internship. Aaron, originally from Manassas, Virginia, holds degrees in
Social Science from James Madison University, and in Missions from
Asian Theological Seminary. Much to the concern of Filipino friends,
Aaron lived in a Manila slum as a college student. He now serves as
the Director of Manila Internships. Emma earned a degree in computer
science from Central College of the Philippines. She makes a mean
adobo (Filipino meat dish) and is originally from Manila. Emma serves
as the Associate Director of Internships. Aaron and Emma married in
October of 2001.
Mark Kramer (MK), based in Madison, Wisconsin, is a writer for Servant Partners.
MK: So what is the purpose of the Manila Internship?
AS: We’re here to challenge people with various aspects of ministry among the urban poor. We
guide them in site visits to ministries in Manila, and encourage them to be involved in the church
here in this railway community, Balic-balic Christian Church. We want them to see ministry to
squatters within the local church context. Our hope is that God will challenge them to consider
serving in a specific facet of urban poor ministry.
ES: We hope the experience will affect their lives deeply even as they
return home, and that if they feel called to serve, that they would go.
And if not, that the experience will still affect how they live.
MK: And what exactly do interns do?
AS: Well, this last session site visits have included Welfareville, a huge
slum community in south Manila, and a ministry there. Samaritana
Ministries helps women get out of prostitution. We spent an evening at
their offices and then shadowed their staff in outreach to prostitutes.
These are just examples. Mostly we try to match visits with interns’
interests, though we also try to provide them with a broad spectrum of
ministries all over the city. At the local church they help with vacation
Bible school, prayer times and with whatever else the church is already
Balic-balic doing. But the top priority is for them to build relationships with church
Christian Church members.
From what I’ve seen, the most challenging part of the
internships is actually just adjusting to the slower pace of
life and not having to have something done and
accomplished. This is a much different view of ministry for
many people. We’re not here to lead all these different
programs and Bible studies, to teach local community
members. Instead we’re walking alongside them, the urban
poor, in their walk with God. We’re just sitting down on the
train tracks and sharing our lives with them and they share
their lives with us. Through that we challenge them in their
faith in God and they challenge us. Lots of one-on-one,
informal discipleship. A lot of relationship building.
We also take prayer walks in different parts of the city, strategic prayer for Manila and to see how
the city is inter-connected, that various areas of the city affect the squatters. As a group, we take
turns leading devotionals. And then we discuss readings. For example, this month we’re reading
Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster, as well as Servants Among the Poor, by Jenni Craig.
We’ll read and discuss these.
MK: Who participates in the program?
AS: Most people hear of the program by word of mouth or through the website. So far we’ve had
undergraduate students. And they usually come for six weeks. I’d like to see youth pastors,
assistant pastors or professionals coming for a couple of weeks as well. For example, instead of
going on vacation, they can come here for a two-week exposure among squatters.
MK: Where do interns live? Where do they eat?
AS: Originally, we considered having interns live directly in the railway community. But the
problem with renting right within the squatter community is availability. It’s often hard to find
houses open for rent that work well for an internship, where there’s at least a bathroom or at least
running water. We did find one apartment open, but after prayer we decided against it because it
was surrounded by drug dealers and fights often break out in that area. It would be a much
harder situation, so we opted for the middle-class community just a few homes away. The ideal is
to live within walking distance to the community. But we’re actually in their backyard still, so to
speak. The interns’ rooms share a wall with the squatter community.
ES: I help coordinate most of their meals and work on building relationships between them and
community members, through the home stays and other ways. I also deal with travel concerns
such as visas. Home stays are particularly helpful for the interns. They basically get to know a
family in their everyday life as they work and cook and clean and go to church. So it’s about
learning from the community by learning about how they live day to day. I also do the language
learning drills with the interns, help them learn phrases or sentences they can use for their stay in
MK: What does Servant Partners look for in an intern?
ES: Individuals or groups of people over 18 years old who are interested in learning more about
holistic urban ministry. But like Aaron has alluded to in terms of site visits and planning, it can be
highly individualized. For example, if someone has a particular area of study that they want to
research, we can help them do that. Or it can be a general introduction to urban ministry.
MK: When do you offer the program?
AS: At this point dates are set for each program session, but in the future we hope to have rolling
enrollment so people can come year round. The internship is approximately six weeks depending
upon the needs of the person or group. They may stay even up to 12 weeks if need be. The
Servant Partners Los Angeles internship is two years, and that group spends two weeks in Manila
as a kind of orientation, an introduction for them. This year we’ll have about 15 interns total, the
LA internship will send more.
MK: So what is “success” for an internship?
AS: That’s a good question. Mostly, when interns
leave, we want them to be walking in a deeper
relationship with God personally, to know Him more.
We want them to have been challenged by some of the
things they saw and experienced. Perhaps they’re still struggling with the issues when they leave
and they’ll have to work that out when they return home. And whether they’re on the mission field
or in business or law or pastoring or whatever they’re doing, that they have in mind issues related
to the urban poor and that they seek to advance ministries and social justice among the urban
poor. In whatever field they’re in, that they have a greater concern for the urban poor around the
MK: Now tell me a bit about your own spiritual journeys. I’m sure they’re integral to your
ministry here. How have your own experiences and faith led you to Manila, to Balic-balic in
ES: Well, I grew up in Balic-balic.
MK: What was that like?
ES: It was hard. Everyone lives day by day. They
don’t know what might happen to them because the
train company constantly threatens to move or
demolish houses which are just a few meters from the
tracks. Food is hard also. We didn’t get enough
nutrition because sometimes it would just be rice and
soy sauce or rice and salt or sugar. We trusted God
for our every meal when I became a Christian. And
God was always faithful to provide for us. Going to school was hard also because sometimes we
didn’t have money for food and transportation. We simply walk to school and didn’t eat during
I have one sister, Marie and one brother, Paploi. They’re both younger than me. I went to grade
school nearby and then got a scholarship to go college at the Central College of the Philippines. I
was so happy to get that. I studied computer science, which was hard of course because I didn’t
have a computer. I had to borrow one and I never imagined I’d finish college. I liked school
though and I did well. I think my Mom and Dad are proud of me and my younger sister, Marie. We
were always in the top sections of our class. But my Mom worked a lot. She was a house girl in a
guest house for a language school. She’d clean the house, assist families, cook, do laundry. So
she kept busy. Then she worked for a community drugstore and would have to go to the
provinces to teach people how to use the drugs. So she had to be gone a lot, for weeks or even a
MK: How did you become a Christian, Emma?
ES: I became a Christian when I was eleven years-old. I’m now twenty-three, turning twenty-four.
It was through missionaries that planted this church, Balic-balic Christian Church. A Japanese-
American shared the Gospel with me. They did a puppet show. And my Mom became a Christian
and her and Marie and I were all baptized.
MK: And then Aaron, how did you come to Balic-balic?
AS: While I was an undergraduate God challenged me, through my own reading of the Bible and
just through my own observations, to care for the poor and the oppressed. Then working on a
project I stumbled upon a video on squatters in Brazil and God really spoke to me through that.
Eventually I went on a short-term trip to Manila, not unlike the interns that we host. Then I
attended Asian Theological Seminary here in Manila and was able to observe ministry here in
Balic-balic and then I met Emma here at church.
ES: Yeah, and then Pastor and others were teasing us about liking each other. Eventually, we
dated for a while and then married in the United States.
MK: So why do you do what you do?
ES: I do what I do because I delight in doing what God wants me to do, to be used by God in His
work in the urban poor of the Philippines. I enjoy helping and encouraging the local people in the
community in their walk with God. I also enjoy helping Aaron in whatever ways I can be of help in
AS: Ultimately it’s the joy that God gives you when you know you’re walking where he wants you
to be. I know personally that God has called me here and that this is the place that I feel content,
even with the struggles, even with the hardships of life here, even while knowing that life is much
more comfortable elsewhere. God is the only one that gives true joy. And it’s the excitement of
seeing lives changed and transformed and even seeing communities transformed. And seeing
interns respond to challenges, seeing them arrive in Manila, unsure of themselves or even why
they came. They’re just seeking God and his work in their lives during this short time. It’s very
exciting to see what will happen.
MK: Emma, is it awkward for you when American and other interns come and struggle
culturally or with the poverty as they try to live in your neighborhood? Do people ever
criticize these things openly with you?
ES: Yes, of course. It used to bother me, but now I’m more open to it. I think that much of what
they say is right about the poverty, but when I think it is wrong, I’ll say so. But I’m glad when
visitors, when interns, feel burdened by developing a love for the poor. I’m glad I can help in this
way and be from this culture.
MK: But you did live in the United States for a time, correct?
ES: Yes, two years. After we got married. I worked in a department store, in a mall, then in a
bank before we came on staff with Servant Partners. It seems like in the States, you don’t need
anything. Everything is right there in front of you. But honestly it made me forget to pray, for this
or that, in thanks to God. You forget to ask God for something because so much is already there.
I think that’s why the poor are really blessed because they always have a sense of need and of
needing God. And God has provided so much, everything, for me. I find joy when I pray to God
and he provides what we need. I feel close to him.
MK: Do the two of you mind living so simply? Is it difficult because people know you’ve
been in the United States?
ES: Yeah, I think so. I think sometimes people see me or Aaron and they think we have lots of
money. Some people will ask if they can borrow money. But we live as simple as possible so they
wont think that of us. And it’s just not that way, we’re not wealthy like they think. Sometimes,
honestly it would be easier not to live simply. But we keep each other going.
Generally, when I see a need, I always want to provide for that need and I really give myself to it.
And we try to be free with our possessions. If we have something and someone needs it, we give
MK: Thanks, Aaron and Emma, for taking the time to speak with me.