I was seated on a motorcycle behind the driver. No helmets. As he slowly weaved around parked pedicabs and crowds of people heading towards the market, a helmet would have been overkill. Dad was seated in the sidecar, rather calmly taking in the surrounds: a market with the accompanying crowds and the smell of fresh fish for sale, crowded jeepneys politely sounding their horns as they weaved in and out of traffic, local kids kicking a ball and chasing it down a side alley . . .
Down one narrow street, squeezing past a jeepney packed with workers on their way home. Sharp right, uphill a few metres then a sharp left, down an even narrower alley. Bumping over cracks in the road, another few unusual turns into crowded lanes. We finally stop.
We follow one of the local pastors down an alley bordered by concrete houses with rusted tin roofs, some with small dirt yards full of chickens, dogs, and clothes hanging out to dry. Not much light.
We’re walking downhill. Groves have been molded into the rough-laid walkway to help drainage in the wet season. This is the dry season, so it’s hot and the air is heavy with humidity. We continue walking, more carefully now, turning a corner as the alley narrows and we enter an area where there are no lights.
“We’re here,” Manuel says.
A tin door opens in the darkness and we enter what seems to be an entry way, down a steep concrete step and into another open door, Five more high steps down and we’re in a living room. In the middle of the floor a mother cat is nursing her three kittens, a dog barks from behind a low concrete enclosure in the corner. In the dim light we see the room contains a sofa and chairs which had seen better days, a dining table, old refrigerator and a computer.
And lots of chairs, stools and other seating arrangements.
Over the course of the next 10 minutes, 30 or more people arrive, and cram into this small room. The neighbourhood children sense this is unusual–maybe it’s the “Americanos” that spark their curiosity. They find seats on the alley side of the unscreened windows and take in what is happening below.
Everyone is here. One young man pulls out a guitar and starts strumming and a girl starts a rhythm going on a “beat box”–a unique instrument that contains strings inside to reverberate different sounds depending on where the box is struck. People start singing:
This is the night,
This is the night that The Lord has made . . .
I look around and amazed by how many are here, and how many generations. Sunny, an 84-year-old from Davao is sitting next to me (four of us squeezed into a three-seat sofa) and claps along. Across from her is beautiful little Jewel, the grand-daughter of the local pastor. There are teens, twenty-somethings, mothers and fathers. All are joyously join in the song:
This is the time,
This is the time that The Lord has made . . .
The second light bulb in the room won’t work and they can’t fix it, so one of the young men runs off and returns with a more powerful light bulb, climbs up on the table and replaces its dimmer counterpart. The room erupts in bright white light.
This is the place,
This is the place that the Lord has made.
We will rejoice,
We will rejoice and be glad in it . . .
We pray together. Some in English. Some in Tagalog. Some in Cebuano.
At one point a fight breaks out in the alley. Children and adults are shouting at each other. As our host moves to put up the makeshift boards that close the windows, the woman across from me, a leader in a local church youth group, turns to me and says, “They are our mission.” I sense that she will not stop until she has been able to impact each one of these young people and all of this neighbourhood with her simple yet deep faith in Jesus.
We finish as the pastor leads us in prayer. A very loud “Amen” rises from those assembled and food is brought out. The guitarist plays and we all join in:
Give thanks with a grateful heart . . .
From out of nowhere, it seems, A feast is spread before us: rice (it is the Philippines after all), a pork and green bean soup, whole dried fish, and a case of ice cold RC Cola with the tops popped and straws in place.
We eagerly grab plates and fill them with food, being careful not to tread on the kittens which, by now, have started wandering about the room, exploring.
We are soon once again seated, eating, laughing, talking, singing. The guitarist is still strumming and a few of the young people are singing:
Glory to his name, glory to his name . . .
Sweets are served: A coconut and jelly treat which, as I find out, is easier to drink than to eat with a spoon. Homemade coconut sugar candy follows and then one final prayer before we head into the darkness.
We walk up the hill by the strange light of glowing cellphones. We pass families sitting in front of their homes in the relative coolness of the outdoors. Children are playing. Adults talking, smoking, laughing. We follow the alley back to the road and make our way to our respective homes . . .
It’s 10 o’clock. I should be tired by now. But I’m not. I feel a buzz of excitement. On my last night in the Philippines, I have experienced something I had only read about in missionary stories or heard about from those working in far-flung places. I have seen real joy, genuine community, a deeply-held faith and a love that is generous and fully without either pretense or boundaries.
I will fly out tomorrow from Manila and back across the ocean to Australia, to my normal life, my family, my work. I will leave a part of my heart in this land where I was born, with its wonderful people, on its beautiful hills and plains, and submerged in its colourful culture.
Yet I’m sure this night will stay with me and I will be hearing these heartfelt songs of praise and songs of blessing wherever I am. And every time when I hear these songs, I will hear them in a Filipino accent, accompanied by a guitar and a beatbox, truly amazing voices that expectantly and joyfully lifts towards heaven, singing with open hearts:
I love you with the love of the Lord,
Yes, I love you with the love of the Lord.
I can see in you the glory of my king
And I love you with the love of the Lord.