Saturday, December 27, 2014

For Rachel

Tonight I had a plan. Tonight I was going to start working on the last two of my seminary application essays. Tonight my computer was about to die. Tonight I went back to my room from the main house to get my computer charger. That's when my plans changed.

I saw Francis, my brilliant fifth grade neighbor, sitting on our balcony. He and his mom rent a room from my host family. We live in two rooms that are on the second floor of what used to be Mana Sally's house. Her house and bakery were destroyed in Super Typhoon Yolanda, and they decided not to rebuild. So now Ate Judy, Francis, and I live in the two upstairs rooms with a wonderful little balcony that overlooks the street and the yard.

I started talking to Francis, as I normally do when he is sitting on the porch. Ate Judy came outside and joined us. We started talking about fruits and vegetables in the Philippines and in the US. We went into their room to see some camotes (sweet potatoes, but not the orange ones) that Ate Judy had recently bought. Our conversation turned to storms, as normally happens when talking to just about anyone in Leyte. They told me about how they survived Super Typhoon Yolanda last year and compared that to Typhoon Ruby earlier this month. This conversation was not much different than so many I have had with members of my host family, church members, students, teachers, and other people I randomly run into.

I felt anxious to get my charger and go back to working on essays. That was my plan after all. But I stayed. I continued talking to Francis and Judy. I knew the conversation about surviving storms was just as important for them to tell as it was for me to hear. I stayed because I knew it was better for me to be there fully present with my neighbors than for me to try to think of a way to write an analytical essay on climate change and the church.

At some point, Ate Judy left the room to take a phone call, leaving Francis and me sitting on the floor, still talking about storms. Then Francis asked me about my family, particularly about my siblings. This led to an incredibly rich conversation with one of the smartest and sweetest eleven-year-old boys I know about Rachel and cerebral palsy.

I have told this story many times in my life. My older sister experienced brain damage at birth and lives with cerebral palsy. When I lived at home, it was simply a part of my life. Most people in my various communities of Rock Hill, SC, and surrounding areas knew that Rachel was my sister. They knew that Rachel lived in a wheelchair, ate through a feeding tube, and still wore diapers at 25. Since I moved away for college and the various adventures over the past four and a half years, those conversations became fewer and farther between. People didn't know my entire family, and it was easier not to bring it up unless someone asked, which no one did.

I distanced myself from my sister.

This is terrifying to me now. I know that one day I will be responsible for her, for her well-being, for her life, for her medical care, for her finances, yet I am so far away from all of that. I have no idea what normally happens or how to do it.

This has been an issue that God has brought to my attention multiple times over the years at times when I least expect it. This has been an issue that I have mostly ignored.

But tonight, at a time when I am truly beginning to value and invest in my relationships with the children and youth in my life in the Philippines, is when God brought this issue back and just threw it in my face. God used dear Francis, who understood and grasped complicated explanations given in a language other than his native tongue, to bring me back to this issue that I have ignored and pushed away for oh so long. Oh buddy, God, did it work.

Tonight I am on the verge of tears. Real, big tears. Tears that I have not really allowed myself to cry more than once or twice in the four months I've been on this journey. Tonight I think I will let the rains go, let the healing river flow, let justice roll like water; let the day begin when new life enters in and let Your Empire come. Thank you, Francis. Thank you, God. Thank you, Rachel. I love you.

Rachel on her latest adventure, flying to Wisconsin for Christmas
Photo Credit: My Dear Mom, Sue Williams

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Grinch's Heart Grew Three Sizes That Day

“Well in Whoville they say that the Grinch’s heart grew three sizes that day. And then, the true meaning of Christmas came through, and the Grinch found the strength of ten Grinches, plus two!” -How the Grinch Stole Christmas! 
It is officially Christmas Day in the Philippines. Today marks the first Christmas that I have not physically been with at least some members of my biological family. I had been doing pretty well with the whole “being a world away from my family on Christmas” thing until Christmas Eve.

For some reason, I became a Grinch. I woke up and checked social media because my mornings are good times to catch family and friends. This day I just saw too much holiday cheer. I resented everyone who was able to go home to be with family and friends, everyone who was able to do what I have done every year of my life, especially YAVs serving at national sites (sorry y’all!). I felt incredibly alone. Emily was in Dumaguete with her host family visiting her host siblings. Simon was in Cebu visiting Nils, another intern from Germany. The teachers who live in the dorm have traveled home for the holiday break. I was the only one of my international friends on the island of Leyte. To top off this feeling of gloom, it has been raining on and off for days in Kananga.

I am fully aware that I am more than partially responsible for this mood shift. I haven’t really had a normal workday since I returned from Manila, due to the town festival and Christmas celebrations. Basically, I will go six weeks without work for various valid reasons. I don’t know what to do with myself with so much unstructured time. I have felt so busy throughout my first two months in Kananga. I feel like I travel every weekend, which has led to wonderful experiences but sparse Sabbath time. This week, I have had nothing but Sabbath time. I have slept as late as I wanted. I have been able to do yoga again. I have reverted back to my holiday break habits from when I came home from college. I spend way too much time staring at my computer watching social media feeds, catching up on tv shows, and watching movies just to pass the time. All of this combined with the fact that people started celebrating Christmas in September has made it difficult for this “Christmas doesn’t start until Advent” believer to get into the Christmas spirit.

We have lots of children in the house due to the break from classes. Mana* Sally’s grandchildren, Wayne and Ram, are visiting for Christmas. They have had plenty of company from my students Kent, Kate, and Francis. I love each of these children deeply and enjoy building relationships with them. Unfortunately, even their presence couldn’t pull me out of this withdrawn funk.

I spent too much money in Manila, so I have stayed close to the house in order to prevent myself from spending money on things around town that I don’t need. This means that I have not walked outside of our gate, except to go to church, since Saturday. Does this Grinch-like state sound self-induced? I agree.

I was not hopeful about finding the Christmas spirit by going to church for the Christmas Eve service tonight. The entire service is in Visaya, the local language, which I do not understand. This has made it quite difficult for me to try to find spiritual fulfillment, as my normal methods are not quite accessible in this new space.

I vented my frustrations and struggles through various outlets. Then I actually decided to actively do something about them. I put on my Pandora Christmas radio station for the first time all season and got to work editing my personal statement for a seminary application. While I was editing, my next-door neighbor, Francis came and sat on the porch with me. I taught my fifth-grade friend about Pandora, he read over my shoulder as I read and reread my personal statement, and we sang Christmas songs together. This was the beginning of the Christmas spirit.

After I submitted my application to Union Theological Seminary in New York, I went to the kitchen to learn how to make salad, which is a fruit cocktail with cream and possibly macaroni noodles that is a popular Filipin@ dessert. Ate* Dobert, my supervisor, second host mom, and the sister of Mana Sally, taught me which ingredients to add and what size the fruit pieces should be. I was actually able to contribute something to our Christmas Eve meal!

UCCP-Kananga sanctuary for the Christmas Eve service

The Christmas Eve service at UCCP-Kananga was in two parts. At 6:30 (really more like 7:30), the different fellowship groups gave a Christmas Eve program of carols, dances, and games. As is typical for Christmas Eve, the church was packed. I saw so many people from my church and school communities. The children were absolutely adorable, as always, and I was so proud of them! The youth sang and played with such energy that the whole congregation could feel it, especially when they threw candy into the crowd.

During (dis)Orientation in August, YAV director, Richard Williams said, “You will go there and your heart will be broken. God will be there to fill it again.” His words particularly spoke to me because he served as a YAV in the Philippines a few years ago. They have rung true on so many occasions, with Christmas Eve as the most recent one. What is life-giving about this year? It is the children. The children I see at school. The children I see at church. The children who sing carols outside of our gate every single night. The children I see when I walk to the market who remember my name months later. The children who timidly tell me good morning as we pass on our way to different schools. The youth I recognize from rice harvesting, from choir practice, from a Christian Youth Fellowship performance.
“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given” -Isaiah 9:6a
As I was singing carols next to Ate Dobert, watching the young ones run all over the sanctuary when someone was speaking, fearing the risks of elementary school children dancing with lit candles in their hands, and reading words of the Christmas story with my Filipin@ faith community, my heart grew three sizes larger. My heart was overflowing with peace, hope, love, and joy for where I am in life right now, for those around me, and for this experience of a lifetime. The true meaning of Christmas came through to me, that Jesus came to be Emmanuel, God with us, to show us how to be in right relationship with each other, to bring God’s empire to earth as it is in heaven.

It doesn’t take away the yearning that I have for my family in the US, but it does remind me that there is a season for everything and a time for every matter under heaven. God has a plan and a purpose for this.
“Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here I am; send me!’” -Isaiah 6:8
“And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.’” -Luke 2:10
This Christmas, I pray that you may feel your heart grow three sizes, as you hear the old, old story told once more. I pray that you feel peace, hope, joy, and love in areas of life where you need it the most. I pray that you remember that these good tidings of great joy came for all people, with no exceptions. I pray that you feel the presence of Emmanuel. I pray for you to feel meaning, purpose, and life-giving this holiday season and into the New Year.

I would be remiss not to include acknowledgement to my wonderful support network who have prayed for, thought about, written to, and donated valuable resources for me to make this year a reality. Thanks to all of you, I have far surpassed my fundraising goal of $4,000 with a total of $8,392.84!! I am beyond grateful to have such a cloud of witnesses behind me and beside me on this journey. As the carolers say, “Thank you, Thank you, Ang babait ninyo!

Merry Christmas!
Maayong Pasko!
Happy Holidays!

Happy New Year!

*Mana is Visaya for older sister. Ate (AH-tey) is Tagalog for older sister. Both are used as titles of respect before the first name or nickname of a person.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

I See It in the Trees

I see it in the trees.

The way they move,
A Storm.


How much more can they withstand?
How many more storms can they weather?



How much longer must we wait?
When will change come?

Not the strengthening of storms into super typhoons,
But serious change to curb our impacts on the environment.

Climate Marches
Climate Talks

But are these enough?

The Philippines

How long can this country endure?
How much can my new home face?
Why must it bear the brunt of the effects of climate change?


Only to have it all happen

And again
And again.


How much longer?


For supplies

An end.

Lord, have Mercy.
Christ, have Mercy.
Lord, have Mercy.

Hear Our Prayer, O Lord.
Hear Our Prayer, O Lord.
Incline Your ear to us,
And grant us Your Peace.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Advent of the Storm

As you may know, Typhoon Hagupit/Ruby has been growing and weakening, threatening to wreak havoc on my new home in the Philippines. I left my home in Kananga, Leyte, Wednesday, November 26, and traveled to Tacloban, Leyte, where I stayed with my fellow YAV and awesome partner in this journey, Emily. On the morning of Thursday, November 27, we boarded a plane for Manila to celebrate Thanksgiving as a YAV community and to have our first retreat after two months at our site placements. Unfortunately, the weather had other plans for half of our group. Typhoon Queenie was coming through, causing choppy seas and heavy rains, which prevented our YAVs, Kendall and Tyler, and site coordinator, Cobbie, in Dumaguete from leaving on Thursday. Friday, November 28, we were all finally reunited for a time of relaxation and reflection.

Emily and I were supposed to fly back to Tacloban Wednesday, December 3. When we got to the airport around noon, our flight had been delayed about half an hour. No big deal. Then we got to the gate. The number of people at our gate was surprisingly high for over an hour before our flight was set to take off. Our departure time came and went. Our waiting game began. We learned that the 10:00 and 1:00 flight never left, and we could not get any information on our 3:00 flight. Emily and I knew that there is a typhoon brewing in the Pacific Ocean. At this point, we were unsure whether the storm would come to the Philippines, particularly the Visayas, where we live and hoped to return to, or if it would head north to Japan. We have seen evidence of the damage caused by Typhoon Yolanda just over a year ago on November 8, 2013. We have heard survivors share their stories of the trauma of living through the strongest storm to make landfall. As I heard a woman say in the airport, "I don't want to be a victim again."

We were scared. We did not know what to do. Why weren't flights leaving for Tacloban? Why wouldn't the airline give us any information? Was it safe to go back to Tacloban now? Would the evacuation centers be safe? What would happen? If we didn't go back now, what would we return to whenever we finally arrived in Leyte? How would this affect our jobs? Would we have to go home to the US? Was this God telling us not to go? We had so many unanswered questions.

By about 5:00, we were told that our flight was cancelled. We could retrieve our checked baggage and meet with a customer service representative to discuss our options. Emily and I agreed that we would reschedule our flight later when we knew more about the storm's trajectory. After walking all over the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, we had rebooked our flight for Friday, retrieved our baggage, and received a travel stipend. Our thought process was that we would know more about the storm by Friday and could return to Leyte if it was heading north. If it remained a threat, our flight would be cancelled, and we would rebook again.

It was a difficult decision. Before I came to the Philippines, I had resolved to stay with my community if something like this ever happened. I wanted to stay on the ground and be with my host family. I did not want to use my privilege to be evacuated or somehow remove myself from danger that my family could face. That decision is different when it's a choice not to return somewhere rather than a choice to leave. We were in Manila. We had options of places to stay. We felt more secure in the infrastructure in Manila than we did in Leyte. We would be better used in relief after the storm if we were healthy, rather than risk being injured in the storm. After many conversations with site coordinators and host families, we decided to wait out the storm in Manila.

After 8 hours in the airport, we made our way back to the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP) building in Quezon City, a city of Metro Manila, where we had spent our first few nights.

We woke up Thursday to the news that Typhoon Hagupit/Ruby had been upgraded to super typhoon status. We knew that we were not leaving Manila until the storm passed. Our waiting continued. We thought about our surroundings, checked to see if we were in a flood zone (we aren't), bought three days worth of food and water, called family and friends, and prayed. We checked for updates constantly. We talked way too much about potential scenarios and our reactions to those situations.

This was potentially the most terrifying situation of our lives. Realistically, I know we have probably been in more riskier places, but in all of those, we had some sort of control. We have no control over the weather or the buildings where we stay. We cannot just prepare and know it will be enough. Emily and I are both people who like control and need answers in our lives. This is definitely a time when we didn't have many answers or any control.

We watched the storm weaken down to a typhoon, only to strengthen back to a super typhoon right before it approached the East Visayas islands. This storm has moved agonizingly slow across the country. We waited and waited to hear of it making landfall in Samar, the island just north of Leyte. We heard of preventative power outages in Leyte and Samar and rain that lasted over 10 hours in my town of Kananga. Finally Friday night, Typhoon Hagupit/Ruby made landfall in Dolores, Samar, where, reportedly, 21 people have died. Power is still out in much of Leyte and Samar. There have been no reported casualties in Leyte. Some structures, including a room off of Emily's office, where her supervisor lives, are gone. My house and host family is fine. There has been little damage at my school, but nothing that would prevent us from having classes later this week.

We have tried to keep ourselves occupied by going to the malls nearby, which make Macy's in New York look like the Rock Hill Galleria mall. Every time we walk in, I feel completely overwhelmed as I try to process all the sights, sounds, lights, displays, and products, the epitome of materialism and consumerism. It feels like a totally different world compared to my home in Kananga.

Thankfully, Kelsey, our fellow YAV in Manila, lives close so we can share meals together to get out of our room a bit. We are trying not to get cabin fever, but it is difficult. Fortunately, we haven't completely tired of each other's company yet, after almost two full weeks of 24/7 companionship.

The storm is moving literally 10 mph across the Philippines, which also means it is weakening. Hagupit/Ruby is now only a tropical storm. We have been waiting for her to arrive in Manila for days. We thought rain would start Saturday night. We thought rain and wind would start Sunday evening or Monday early morning. Sunday was eerily calm with cooler temperatures and a pleasant breeze. Monday we awoke to no rain or wind still. A little bit of rain and wind has been on and off today, but nothing even remotely close to the flooding or 60 mph wind we've been preparing for and expecting. We are still waiting.

I guess it's rather appropriate that Emily and I would have this experience during the liturgical season of Advent. The literal meaning of the word advent is coming. We are waiting, preparing, expecting the birth of Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior. In the Philippines, we have been waiting, preparing, and expecting Typhoon Hagupit/Ruby. Jesus doesn't come to this world as a majestic king adorned in all vestments of royalty ready to take his place as ruler of the world. Jesus comes as a son to a carpenter and his wife, born in a lowly trough because there was no room for him in the inn. Jesus, the unexpected Messiah. Jesus, whose Gospel is so different from what it's listeners expect. Jesus, who calls us to do difficult things. Jesus, over whom we have no control. Jesus, whose coming we anxiously await and prepare for every single year.

This whole experience has been God teaching me a lesson on patience, trust, and prayer. My life is dependent upon God and God's Will. The lives of those I love are dependent upon God and God's Will. I am not in control. God is. It's way passed time for me to Let Go and Let God.

We truly appreciate all of the prayers and concern and support we have felt in the past week. In the aftermath of a similar storm, a wise woman once told me, "When you get to where God is all you have, you find that God is all you need."

Emily and I have a flight back to Tacloban on Wednesday afternoon, which we should be able to make with no weather obstacles.

I ask for continued prayers for me, my community, and everyone affected by Typhoon Hagupit/Ruby. Please give us the strength to provide relief, to continue to rebuild from both storms, to heal from trauma. For those whose lives and/or livelihoods are lost, we pray for assistance and guidance. We pray for all those providing relief, whether it comes from the government, non-government organizations, families, friends, entities overseas, churches, or communities. May the Grace and Peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.