Aaron and Ema Smith chronicle the 20-year past, present, and future of their journey of hope on Manila
As Servant Partners celebrates 30 years and looks toward Vision 2030, we are highlighting longtime staff members whose years of faithfulness pave the way for the next decade of transformation. Read Aaron and Ema Smith’s story—how returning to the slums of Ema’s childhood created ripples of hope, empowerment, and change in the lives of their neighbors.
“The home I grew up in is normal for most people in the world,” Ema Smith writes in Voices Rising. This home was a one-room shack with a small creek for a bathroom, jammed into a dense squatter settlement in the heart of Manila, the Philippines. Facing a daily reality of poverty, Ema endured chronic hunger, toxic family dynamics, and an eventual fire that ravaged her community and home.
“There were times that I wanted to die because of all the hardships I faced in life,” she said. “Words cannot describe what it’s like to always be hungry and not know when you will eat next, not to mention not having enough money to go to school. It is even worse if your parents are always quarreling. ”
Amidst one of her parents’ quarrels, however, she found a seed of hope. When her parents abruptly left Ema and her siblings alone for a full week, local missionaries cared for them. “I think my calling to serve God among the poor started during that difficult week when the missionaries took care of us,” she reflected. “They were not even our relatives, but they loved us and they took care of us. I knew in my heart that this kind of love only comes from Jesus.”
Today, Ema lives with the scars of poverty. Malnutrition stunted her growth at four feet, seven inches; her lungs were permanently damaged from local pollution. But within her lives an unwavering hope, which has only grown brighter with the passage of time.
“Because I had Jesus, I had hope,” she said. “Being poor is hard—but being poor without Jesus is unbearable. In the Old Testament, I saw how God had been faithful again and again to His people. I regularly preach this hope to myself, that no matter how bleak the situation is, God is faithful to help me.”
After the fire, Ema’s community moved to Balic-Balic, another squatter settlement across the railroad tracks. While attending a church there, she met Aaron Smith. “People often ask me how I, a middle-class American, ended up living in a squatter community in Manila,” Aaron writes in Thriving in the City. “Simply put, I was called to it.”
Hearing his parents tell stories of compassion for those suffering racism and poverty, Aaron developed a passion for justice. When he went to college and joined InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, God transformed his passion into meaningful action. He went to Manila on a short-term missions trip, read every book about urban ministry he could find, and resolved to study at Asia Theological Seminary (ATS) in Manila. He ministered at Balic-Balic Christian Church, where he met Ema. They were married and lived in America for two years, before being called back to Balic-Balic—this time, with Servant Partners. “We returned to Manila with the goal to bring hope in Jesus to the urban poor,” Ema said.
Their life was suddenly uprooted when the government demolished Balic-Balic, along with all the squatter communities along the railroads. They cited a series of upgrades to the train system, but few changes were made. In the process, armed police officers stood guard as tens of thousands of homes were destroyed—including the Smiths’.
“The first squatter home I had ever slept in was destroyed,” Aaron said. “The church where I had delivered my first sermon and led countless Bible studies was turned into a pile of broken cinder blocks. Every home and building in the community was turned to rubble.”
Trusting in God’s call on their lives after this traumatic event, the Smiths moved to Botocan, a sprawling squatter community in metropolitan Manila. There, they started Botocan Bible Christian Fellowship (BBCF), a thriving community of Jesus-followers.
“When we started the church, we strived to involve as many people as possible,” Aaron said. This meant doing individual discipleship, hosting children’s programs and youth camps, teaching high school equivalency classes, and counseling families in need. Even in organic ways, the Smiths saw people empowered. By teaching nail art, for instance, Ema bonded with young women, helped them feel confident, and met many new people who later visited their church. One young woman even went on to be employed as a nail artist.
In sharing life together, studying the Bible, and enjoying hobbies together, Ema was helping her neighbors follow Jesus. “I did not have to think of new ways to call people back to the slums; I was already doing that kind of work by living in the slums and discipling girls in my community,” Ema reflected.
After 20 years of ministry, Aaron and Ema have seen transformation over the course of peoples’ lives. Early on, they ministered to a Banoy*, a young teenager who was involved in drug trafficking and went to jail. “Visiting him in jail was terrifying,” Aaron explained, “because at that time, prisons didn’t separate kids from adults.” They remained in Banoy’s life, regularly gathering and studying the Bible together. He went on to Bible college and now pastors a church in the countryside of Manila.
Similarly, the Smiths ministered to a Reyna*, a young woman who endured homelessness, sexual harassment, and came from a family that stole to survive. Through discipleship, she came to know Jesus, finish college, and inspire her relatives to pursue careers instead of stealing. “She messaged us recently to express her gratitude, and it reminded us of how instrumental those early interactions were in shaping her life in a positive direction,” Aaron said. “The contrast between where people used to be and where they are now is truly striking.”
The Smiths continue to lead BBCF today, training up local leaders in church-planting and pastoring, and are heavily engaged in education. Aaron teaches in the Master of Arts in Transformational Urban Leadership (MATUL) program at ATS to equip urban leaders, and Ema teaches a GED-equivalent class. Through Vision 2030, they are also seeking to partner with God beyond the borders of Manila.
“The focus of the church needs to be outward,” Aaron said. “Our eventual goal is to have more local staff or even send Filipinos overseas, to other Asian countries.” The Smiths are also involved in a Global Visioning Group with Vision 2030, where leaders are covenanting together to discern how God is working across urban marginalized communities around the world.
“Even in communities that are utterly hopeless, God continues to work,” Aaron said. “His work may not always align with our expectations, but hope found in God significantly impacts people’s lives.”
“I have returned to the poverty of my childhood in order to proclaim the hope I have in Jesus because I know how it is to be poor and not have Jesus,” Ema said. “And now my hope is to also encourage and inspire others to live in the slums and help the community transform by the love and hope of Jesus.” From choosing humbly to return to Manila, to empowering leaders in their community, to now training up leaders for lives of urban ministry in Manila and beyond, the Smiths’ commitment remains the same: to proclaim the hope of Jesus. Join their current efforts in global visioning and partnerships through Vision 2030 at www.servantpartners.org/vision2030.