Fathering Children in the Dumps

Go To Nations missionary couple Nate and Abegail Shuck came from two entirely opposite worlds, but their heart for the fatherless leads them to some of the most inconvenient ways of reaching the urban poor in the Philippines.

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Part I: Faith Trumps Fear

If you were to ask Nate Shuck twenty years ago who would be a good person to serve the children in the city dump site in Calajunan, Iloilo City, a city in the central region of the Philippines, he would have vehemently said, “Definitely not me!” But here he is now, leading a team that fathers the fatherless in one of the most unsanitary locations in the country and across the city.

Having grown up in a family with a nominal Christian background, it still took a friend offering to sponsor him before Nate agreed to join a youth camp when he was in his teens. During that time, he was dabbling in drugs and alcohol, and on the verge of suicide while failing miserably at navigating his parents’ divorce.

God Calls the Brokenhearted and Unwilling

“I resisted the altar calls on the first two nights,” Nate describes. “And I was still resisting on the third night. But the preacher stopped the entire service and said, ‘There’s a young man here tonight who hates his father, he’s been into drugs and alcohol, and on the verge of suicide for months.” He could hardly believe it, but the words broke through his defenses. “If that is you, come down to the front.” He finally responded, and spent the next two hours under the presence of God.

“I came out of the experience completely changed,” Nate recounts. “I told the Lord, ‘Lord, I’ll do whatever You tell me to do.’”

But it hasn’t been a seamless road of serving the Lord. He shakes his head as he remembers how he fell back into an ungodly lifestyle. Nate shares how he smoked his last cigarette on the way to the first day of school at Christ for the Nations Institute, where he thought he was on his way to becoming a worship pastor.

Strangely, the Lord impressed upon him, “Nate, that’s not all that I’ve called you to do.”

So he started looking around for other things that he might be good at. He was involved in youth ministry at that time, so he thought, Maybe I can be a good youth pastor.

Again, the Lord gently told him, “Nate, that’s not all that I’ve called you to do.”

Racking his brains for other expressions of ministry, he also knew what he did not want to do: children’s ministry and missions. He had seen several missionaries visiting his home church over the years, and they always seemed weird and so ‘out of touch with reality.’ Being called to missions to minister to children was what Nate described as his “greatest fear.”

The Enemy Works to Divert You from Your Destiny

But in 2002, in his last semester with CFNI, he recalls an experience that rocked him: when a group came during missions emphasis week, showing videos of North Korea. He sensed the Lord asking him, “Are you willing to go even if it means dying for me?

“I remember laying on the floor of the auditorium, just weeping under the conviction of the Holy Spirit,” he describes with an intense expression. “It was, ‘Would you give this up?’ ‘Would you give this up?’ And each time my answer was a resounding ‘Yes.’”

Nate Shucks ministering to youths at Sharown Christian Fellowship, Philippines, 2018

Nate Shucks ministering to youths at Sharown Christian Fellowship, Philippines, 2018

This led him to sign up—finally—to a short-term missions trip to the Philippines to do children’s ministry—where everything was unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and dirty. That trip was his first exposure to the city trash dump. In the Philippines, the way of disposing trash still continues to be dumping garbage into open landfills. Families living around the landfill work on the dump site all day to sort through the trash for recyclable plastic, tin, and glass, and sell it to meet their daily needs. It is an example of the Filipino idiom “isang kahig isang tuka,” to describe the hand-to-mouth poverty of earning income for one’s daily food. The average income that a person can earn, as of 2018, is about USD1.00 to USD2.00 per day.

Having worked in a shelter for homeless teens during his last year in CFNI, Nate had grown extra careful about germs and keeping infections to a minimum, and it added to his apprehension for that first missions trip—from which he came back with an infected, ingrown toenail that required six weeks of medication to clear up!

“I brought bottles of hand sanitiser with me everywhere,” Nate recalls with a chuckle. “When my foot got infected, I squirted hand sanitiser all over it too!”

Looking back, Nate believes it was all part of the enemy’s ploy to divert him from his destiny. He laughs as he remembers how Jessie Landis, the missionary who hosted the mission trip and the founder of Sonshine Center, a ministry to street children, in Iloilo City, asked him during the trip, “Nate, do you see yourself here in the future?” And he answered, “Nope, absolutely not, never ever!”

He Protects and Rewards His Children

So how did the change come about, from never wanting to work in remotely unsanitary conditions to becoming a team leader in one of the most unsanitary places in the country?

“I realised, if God called me here to be a father to the fatherless, He can protect me from all this.” Nate talks about the verse in Luke 10:19 that says, “Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. (ESV)”

“I really stood on that verse and overcame my fear of germs.”

Nate and Abegail, Philippines, November 2005

Nate and Abegail, Philippines, June 2002

And it appears that it paid off: not only did Nate’s heart change towards the thought of becoming a missionary in a third-world country, he also met his wife-to-be while working with the street children. Abegail Gregorio came to the Lord at nine years old, when her older brother brought her to Sunday school. She remembers volunteering in church as young as 13, serving those younger than she was, in children’s church.

Five years into serving together alongside Sonshine Center, Nate and Abegail got married. As a newly married couple, they began feeling a pull to partner with Pastor Pilar, who was leading the small church near the dump site, that was hosting home-based Bible studies. In 2010 they started hosting weekly Kids’ Clubs to bring in larger numbers of children they could no longer transport to the Sonshine Center. These Kids’ Clubs included a lot of games, a time of worship through songs,  Bible stories, and small group discussions led by facilitators. The children then brought home a packed meal which they shared with their families.

“It took awhile for the families to trust us,” Nate shares. “First we would play with the children right at the dump. We would take this large sheet of plastic and slide down the mountain of trash with them.” He motions to what appears to be a ramp off to the side of the landfill. Even at the time of one of our visits to the site, there were still children doing the same downhill slide on the ramp.

This was clearly a huge leap for someone who used to spray hand sanitiser simply from walking around the trash dump.

Thankfully, when God calls someone, He also equips him to do the work He has for him to do. For the next sixteen years, Nate and Abegail have been faithfully ministering to the children and the families at Calajunan dump site, and they have since grown to a family of five, with 9-year-old Alyssandra, 6-year-old Samuel, and 1-year-old Caleb.

But it wasn’t as though they always had all the answers.

Read Part II of this series to find out how Nate and Abegail’s work in the community have helped expand their perspective of the gospel.