McMinister: Playing the 'White' Card

Davao City - When Pentecostal missionary Darrell Blatchey brings dying kids to the public hospital here, local Filipino doctors immediately move him to the front of the line -- not because the children he brings are near death, but because Darrell is a white American.

This missionary tells me this over a 'Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese' at the local McDonald’s. He loves this American chain and eats at least six meals a week here. "Ah, McDonald’s," he sighs. For him it represents "consistent excellence, cleanliness, quality service, and kid-centered-fun."

These qualities are American, he says, and they inspire his missionary work. Twelve years ago Darrell founded "Family Circus" with his wife Sandy out of the back of a bright yellow truck in Davao City. The husband-and-wife team decided the best way to lure kids to the gospel was to reenact its dramatic scenes with clown costumes, live snakes, and music.

Darrell says his American looks made it easier for him to attract his initial audience. "When I enter a room, kids think Hollywood star -- the tall, white American -- and they pay attention right away." This extra attention has given him a leg up spreading the gospel here.

Despite this preferential treatment, the local parishioners I spoke to insist his skin color and nationality are irrelevant to them. Ruby and Grace, two members of Darrell's church, tell me: "We do not think of [Darrell] as American. He lives here and is one of us….We are thankful for him, for the good he does, for doing God's work."

But Darrell does stick out. Every Sunday, towering Darrell runs across stage smiling and waving his hands in front of 4000 kids crammed in underneath a blue and white circus tent that sits just twenty feet from a mosque in the predominately Islamic "Muslim Friendship Village," as the community has dubbed itself. Since Family Circus’s humble beginnings on a street corner of the impoverished Acacia Neighborhood, named after an old tree, Darrell has worked with locals and with U.S. funders from a network of Pentecostal churches to create a permanent structure for his work.

His first space was an old warehouse. Then the tent. Next, he's hoping to build a "Disney-Land-style castle" to house more performance space, a place to hang out, and a media center through which he can broadcast "Family Circus" performances around town. He's seeking an additional $225,000 from U.S. donors for a three-story building, replete with a donut shop for the regulars and a bookshelf that rotates to reveal a hidden passageway for the more adventurous.

American faithful have already helped him raise two-thirds of the money he needs. He recently returned from the U.S., where one collection service in Idaho brought in $150,000 for the project.

It's not all fun, games, and God, however. Darrell also has set up a medical clinic to treat youth who die of basic diseases and provides nourishment to those in dire need. He's also a lender of last resort for families on the brink.

The people Darrell helps know that this American supports them. They like Americans, Darrell says, "because missionaries here are known as giving people, and strangers are called 'Hey Joe' because the Filipinos thank us for our role protecting them. But there are some radicals." Several missionaries living on the other side of Mindanao island were abducted by Islamic rebels a few years back. And Darrell's eldest son -- who tames alligators for a living -- was nearly taken hostage at gunpoint before a Muslim friend shooed the attackers away.

So when advantages come Darrell’s way that help him do good for others -- from perks in restaurants to express placement in lines -- he feels no guilt using his American-ness for the kids' benefit. I ask him if he thinks his willingness to leverage an American identity for special treatment perpetuates the problem of race here, and I wonder: What about the 'other dying kid' you might be pushing back in line?

Darrell gestures to the Filipina mom sitting beside us. "When her son was dying..." he begins before turning to the abstract, "When someone is dying, he's just grateful for help. It doesn't matter how it arrives," Darrell says. “The kids don’t think about me being American until being American helps me help them. Then they just say, 'Oh, Thank God!' And then they thank America.”

I ask the Filipino lady beside Darrell to comment. She nods and speaks softly, munching on fries. “Yes, I'm thankful.”

PhilippinesAmar Bakshi