“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!
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!”
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.