The fun, festivities & Christmas traditions leading up to the big day always make me reminisce of years past, and I always come back to 2 years ago when I was living in Manila and spent the days leading up to Christmas there. I hadn’t read this post since then, and laughed that I’ve once again been surrounded by palm trees at Christmas in my new home in Saint Petersburg, and love how I have re-connected with my friend Bridget whom I met in Manila! Parts of this post are hard to read, but before I left Manila I saw Abigail again at the boarding school and she was happily playing with the other girls there, regaining the childhood that was taken from her. Our God is a God of hope! And that is what Christmas is all about. I am forever changed by my my experiences in the Philippines and I hope you enjoy reading or re-reading this post!
For the past few years as a catering chef, the arrival of Christmas has also meant the busiest three weeks of the year. It’s rare if I get a day off before the 24th…I don’t blame everyone for wanting to throw a holiday party! When else do you get to dress up in red, gold, and glitter, drink too much eggnog, sing Christmas carols, and be filled with good cheer? I always cram as much enjoyment into the month of December as possible…decorating my apartment, buying gifts and wrapping them with care, making candies to give away, and hosting special celebrations with family and friends. But I always wish I made more time for sharing this joy with others. I always jump at the opportunities my church has to buy gifts for children who otherwise wouldn’t have any, but always long to do more. In preparing to come to the Philippines and picturing what it might be like to spend Christmas here, I envisioned and hoped that my Christmas season would be like no other. Not because I’d be surrounded by palm trees and Jeepneys, but because I would get to focus on sharing the joy of Jesus’ birth with the precious children here. I must have been good this past year, because my Christmas wish came true! The past few weeks have been filled with Christmas parties for the kids that CCT ministers to, and I’ve jumped at every chance to help with them!
The first party was for the kids in the boarding schools, organized by Union Church of Manila. A few days before, Penny, Michelle, and I met a group of the church women at one of their homes and filled over 100 backpacks with toys, books, school supplies, t-shirts, and Bibles that the church members had given. The party took place at the school in Puypuy, and the kids spent the morning going from one station to the next – swimming, relay racing, face painting, and making crafts. I ran the relay races together with Bridget, who doesn’t attend UCM but helps with the party each year. She grew up in South Africa, has lived in Tampa on and off since the late 80’s, and will be moving back there in 2016! (I met another woman from the UK who now lives in Manila/New Zealand, and her daughter attended Mount Holyoke College! Small world!) Although the weather went back and forth from sun to sudden downpours the whole time, the kids had a blast and didn’t mind getting wet. I got to meet many of the boys who are in our sponsorship program, and I ate lunch with one of them named Jerby. Us staff all brought bag lunches, mine was kimbap, and he tried it for the first time! He told me his favorite foods are rice, apples, and bitter melon. After lunch was gift time! The kids were squealing with delight when they opened their bags filled with gifts! As the program was winding down, I went back into the kitchen to get some hot water for my coffee. The school cooks were making turon, a popular Filipino dessert of a banana half, rolled in sugar, crepe paper, and then deep fried. I started chatting with all the cooks, and they taught me their technique for making the turon! Then in the van riding home, I sat with my friend Ashee who loves to cook, and she shared her secret adobo recipe with me, and shared the technique for making puto, another popular Filipino dessert. Who needs the food network, these informal cooking classes are the best!
The next day, I joined Penny and a group of her friends from college who had joined together to throw a party for the kids in Cabrera – CCT’s half-way house for the streetdwellers. Her friends had generously provided t-shirts for all the kids and staff, materials for gospel bracelets that were pieced together from beads received at each station, and lunch from Jollybee! My first role was fitting all the kids with their t-shirts that said, “I am a child of God!” The kids ranged in age from 2 years old to early teens. Some of the young children arrived with no shirts on at all, and were so excited for a new t-shirt!
I was then assigned as a group leader of 12 kids, all whom I later learned live on the streets, and had arrived in Cabrera the night before just to attend this party. Our first job was to pick a team name, and make up a chant for our group. My group decided on “torrepinest” and I figured this was a Tagolog word I didn’t know the meaning of (which is the case for most Tagalog words.) It was our turn to chant, and I joined in yelling “torrepinest” and pumping my fist. Everyone was looking at us with questioning/blank looks on their faces, and I suddenly got worried. What were we chanting?! Penny came to my rescue and asked the kids what “torrepinest” meant. They said it was the name of their group on the streets. I suddenly feared we had been chanting a gang name! Kuya Angel who heads up the street ministry (a former street dweller himself) soon explained to me that this group of children live under a bridge, and for fun they go swimming in the filthy water and then climb up the tower (torre) that rises from the water and jump from it; thus it’s the “finest tower.” Many Filipinos pronounce “f” as “p”, thus our chant was “torrepinest!”
Kuya Angel also explained to me the lives of the kids on the streets. They’re so hungry, and for P10 they can’t even buy rice, but can buy a piece of bread that won’t fill them up, or solvent to sniff that will make them high, forget about their hunger, and then when it wears off they’re tired and can sleep. The kids start this sometimes as early as 6 or 7 years old. They become addicted, and then start stealing to support their habit. The children witness the adults sleeping together, and girls need protection, so as early as 12 years old they find boys to protect them, and in turn start sleeping with them. Another devastating reality is that most people who live in the provinces view Manila as the big city of dreams, and desperately want their children to have better lives there. Men come to the provinces, offering jobs for young women and all the parents have to do is pay the transport fees. The young women arrive in Manila and are forced into sex trafficking. This was Abigail’s story, a 16 year old who was in my group. She arrived in Manila at age 14, and her parents thought she was happily employed here. She had just been rescued from this life and had arrived in Cabrera a few days before, and would be heading to the girls boarding school in Puypuy soon. She is a beautiful young woman, but her eyes were empty – devoid of life, and her dark brown hair was streaked with gray. I can’t imagine the fear and suffering she has endured.
Another young woman in my group, Russel, had a hard edge, but I could tell she was compassionate. At the station representing sacrifice, she was the only one to sacrifice her chocolate for my raisins. She also acted as the mother for the boys, and sitting there with her bare feet, she picked the lice out of the hair of one of the boys (something I see the street kids doing often.) In a bit of downtime before the food arrived, I feared that the “torrepinest” would get restless, and then I thought of a Tagalog song that Michelle had taught me! I only knew the chorus and the hand gestures; translated it means, “I love Jesus, I loves Jesus so much” and when it came time for the chorus, Russel sang the whole thing! It was finally time for Jollybee and the kids were again so excited! The cooks in Cabrera had cooked extra rice – it never ceases to amaze me how much rice Filipinos can eat! So many of the kids saved some of their meager amount of chicken to bring back to their families on the streets.
At the end of the party, the kids got up and sang a popular Filipino Christmas song from a TV commercial. I think I’ve now heard it at every other Christmas party, and it’s pretty much been stuck in my head ever since! But I will never forget how these children sang this song. The words are “thank you, thank you, you are such a blessing, I’m so thankful for you this Christmas” and the children meant it with every fiber of their being. They closed their eyes and stretched out their hands to us, as we stood their with tears in our eyes, bursting with the conflicting emotions of joy for their joy and sadness for their circumstances.
The following week, high school students from Makati Christian School had arranged a Christmas party for the VOHCS students in nearby Malubay, and I joined Penny to help. They rented a gym on busy EDSA street to hold the party. When we arrived, many students, their mothers, and some siblings were already there. Three girls who were older siblings/friends of one of the students flocked to me and didn’t leave my side the entire time. I managed to have small conversations with them. They wanted continuous pictures with me, kept touching my “white” skin and my “big nose” and asking me questions about myself and my family. The rest of the kids arrived for the party, but the high school leaders still hadn’t shown up! An hour after the party was supposed to start, Penny finally got a text from them saying they were just leaving their school. It was going to be at least another hour before they arrived and Penny and I had a gym full of 50+ six year olds that we had to entertain! We started leading sing alongs, but quickly ran out of songs we all knew. Next we tried to play stop dance with Christmas music that one of the mothers had on a CD, but the Christmas music was a mash-up of Christmas carols and pop songs that were inappropriate for kids. I tried to get them to sit in a circle to play duck-duck-goose, but as I joined hands with them and tried to have them move into a circle, it instead resulted in them swarming me – a sea of kids pushing me in all directions, and then playing tug of war with each other’s arms. Fail! Next, Penny tried a relay race with them. She got them into two lines, and explained the rules. When she said “one, two, three, GO!” Half the kids all ran at once! After explaining the rules again and saying “Go” only a few kids ran ahead (it was progress!) and then as each child would touch the finish line and head back to tag their teammate, the opponent would run back as soon as the opponent did, rather than going all the way to the finish line! I don’t know who was laughing harder – me and Penny or the kids! Next I tried “Simon Says” with them. I really couldn’t think of how to explain it in Tagalog other than saying “Hindi Simon says, Hindi” (insert action), as Hindi means “no” in Tagalog. I went through as many motions as I could think of, the kids following along, half of them repeating “hindi” the whole game!
An hour and a half late, the high school students finally strolled in! It took them another half an hour to bring in their carload of gifts and snacks they had brought. They didn’t have much of a program planned, and one of their games was also stop dance, which the kids were already tired of. The girls who were not part of the school hadn’t left my side the whole time, and since they couldn’t participate in the party, I shifted my focus to entertaining them. We played English and Filipino variations of “I went to a Chinese Restaurant…” and they wanted numerous piggy back rides and me spinning them around. If I stopped for a minute I was pulled in all directions! I felt like raggedy Anne by the end of the afternoon, and in desperate need of a shower, but they were precious! After handing out consolation prizes to all the kids, plus a Christmas gift to each, there were still a ton of extra gifts. The students asked if we could use them somewhere else, and Penny and I excitedly said we could bring them with us the next day to the Christmas party in Payatas. Our budget for that party was the small amount of leftover funds from other parties, and was only for the pre-K class there. The community center had asked if we could include the 150 kids who are part of the savings circle, and we had regretfully said no. So our plan was to give these gifts to the savers, only we didn’t think there would be enough for all of them.
Our next challenge was how to get the gifts back to the office (as Penny and I had taken the train there). One of the mothers had a Jeepney, and volunteered to take the gifts from the gym to the VOHCS office! We loaded all the gifts inside, and it really looked like Santa had arrived in the Philippines driving a Jeepney! Although annoyed with the irresponsibility of the high school students (who didn’t even apologize for being late!) Penny and I couldn’t be upset with them because they had given so much to the kids, both in Malubay and for the next day in Payatas!
When we returned to the office, I went back to brainstorming a slogan for our child sponsorship program. As I was seeking inspiration from quotes about the importance of children, I was so struck by my interactions with the girls. In the words of Princess Diana, “Hugs can do great amounts of good, especially for children.” Any thought of feeling like a dirty, rag doll melted away.
The last party was in Payatas, home to the Manila dump. A few days before, Michelle, Penny, Gieza and I had gone to Divisoria, the huge warehouse shopping district, and haggled our way through stalls to find the best deals on school bags, water bottles, coloring books, and school supplies for the 40 kids at the school. We were so excited for the kids to receive their colorful new bags! Michelle had arranged a fun program inclufing action songs, games, a Christmas story, and a Jollybee lunch! During the story, the teacher was talking about the star of Bethlehem, and asked the kids if they had ever seen a really bright star. They all answered, “NO!” Of course not…you can’t see starts in Manila!! During the party, one of the teachers counted all of the extra gifts that were to go to the savings group. There are 150 savers in Payatas, and there were 151 gifts!! Penny and I were speechless in amazement and God’s provision for these children! The Christmas music was again a mash-up of hip-hop and carols. The kids had dressed in their best clothes for the party, and when “boots with the fur” started playing, I noticed that one of the girls was literally wearing boots with fur!
That afternoon I attended a praise service hosted in Cabrera by all the former street dwellers whose lives have been transformed. It was a mix of all ages, songs and testimonies. Some of the children from the boarding schools were there, reunited with their parents who are now CCT employees. A 13 year old named Sheila befriended me right away, and was delighted that she was able to practice her English with me! We sang “Father Abraham” and played a whole bunch of games I haven’t thought of since Sunday School (here’s the church, here’s the steeple!) And I saw Abigail again…that evening she was leaving for her new home in Puypuy. Penny told her to be strong, to be brave, and we said we’d be praying for her.
To cap off this most wonderful time of year, my amazing family joined together to make Christmas cards for the children in CCT’s boarding school in Malungon. This school is in the southern Philippines, and doesn’t get any of the attention at Christmas that the schools here near Manila do. The children are from the B’laan tribe, an indigenous people group who are extremely poor, remote, simple, and often victim to child trafficking and exploitation. My family sent close to 200 cards, as well as a generous sum. The teachers were able to purchase a backpack and imitation crocs for every one of the 100 children at the school! The kids didn’t have backpacks, and the teachers said now they will feel like they’re really in school! And many kids walk over an hour each day to and from school, and most wearing only flip flops. From the mouths of babes…the hand-made cards sent from children in the US all the way to children in the Philippines, so vividly express God’s love for these precious children.
I can’t count the number of times this past month that I have been overcome by the outpouring of God’s blessings on the children here. That he would use me as an instrument of his love is the greatest Christmas gift I could have ever received.
This Christmas, I wish all of you…
immense JOY that comes from experiencing God’s presence
immense LOVE that only He can pour into you and through you
immense PEACE that comes from resting in His sovereignty
and the immense BLESSINGS of his glorious riches
And all of this, we can experience because of the baby born in Bethlehem.
It truly is the most wonderful time of year! Merry Christmas!!