When I was four-years-old, my family moved to a large house on a dirt road in a small province in the Philippines.
The leaves of mango trees were glossy green, and coconut trees reached their branches for the clouds. On the hot days of the dry season, we felt the sweat trickle down our necks as we sat in front of electric fans. Wet season brought with it daily rain and regular typhoons, the kind that blew trees and electric lines down. Our basement would flood, and we had an assembly line passing buckets along until we emptied it.
We told the tricycle drivers to take us to Guadalupe, and directed them after a fork in the road to go right, down a slight hill, and stop at the rusted brown gate on the right. Like most houses in the Philippines, there was a tall wall all around the property. At the top of the wall, broken glass pieces had been embedded into the cement when the wall was built, a supposed deterrent to robbers and drug addicts scaling it at night.
To the left was our neighbour Ka Loreng who had a sari-sari store (literal translation, “variety of things” store) where people bought shampoo in sachets, candy, corn bits in little orange bags and on the hottest day of the year my mother would take us there to buy soda, which Ka Loreng poured into plastic bags. We sipped it out of straws while we walked down the road.
Across the street was Evie and her three kids, a bit further down the road was her sister-in-law Jubi and her kids. There was a large field next to Evie’s house with corn crops and sometimes, sugar cane.
To the right of our our house was a plot of land, and three families lived there in several ramshackle huts, in the Philippines they were called squatters. I remember the women, Nanay Ange and Teri, and a girl a little older than me, Leah. The walls were flimsy pieces of cardboard-like wood nailed together, the roofs, corrugated metal. There were no ceilings, some of the floors were long pieces of bamboo patched together, some of the floors were the earth of the ground, flattened slightly. Each hut was one room, mothers, fathers, children all lived together. There was no electricity and no running water.
Now I know that they were the poorest of the poor, but in 1986 to my four-year-old brain, they were our neighbors, the children, my playmates and friends. We were in and out of each others houses. We used to sit on the dirt floor and watch cartoons, and during basketball season, my dad went to their house to watch the national basketball league games. Our differences were evident to me but I could not make sense of it. I could see what they did not have, like toys and lots of food, but they ate more candy than we did. They had a TV, and we did not.
In my mind, we were equal.
My parents tell me now the sufferings I did not see then. The food they did not have, the medical treatment they needed and could not afford, the swollen glands of my friends, the tuberculosis that was so evident, my mother diagnosed it before they even saw a doctor. The drunken rages at night.
Our gate was always open. There was a tap near the gate, and our neighbors would come in from early morning and get their water that way. Their supply of electricity also came from us, from a wire plugged into my parents’ bedroom that went over the roof of our garage and into their compound. We paid for medical needs (like treatment for tuberculosis), loaned them money for every day needs, and helped pay for education. We also went to their houses for handas (feasts) when our town celebrated its patron saint for the local fiesta, for birthday parties and anniversaries. These were some of the rare occasions when I got to drink Coke with a meal, something that never happened in our home.
This was the 80s, and my parents were new Sri Lankan missionaries in the Philippines, learning a language and and working with people in a new-to-them culture. On paper their mission was to lead people away from a works-based, idol-oriented salvation and toward the grace-alone good news of Jesus, and they did this through Bible studies, camps, open air meetings, and Bible clubs for kids on the weekends, at least those were the stories that made it into the newsletters we sent to financial supporters in Arkansas.
This was before Christians talked about incarnational ministry and missional living, before books like Toxic Charity, before Shane Claiborne and sponsored children. I think now that my parents simply did what was right in front of them or literally, what was right next to them. Being a personal savior to anyone wasn’t on their minds, they knew they had no ticket to lift anyone out of poverty. But they were good neighbors by simply being part of the lives of the people who lived on our street.
I wonder if the greatest thing they did in that small town was create a home that was a haven for people, a place where it was safe to wait.
One year during typhoon season a particularly rough one hit our town. Typhoons hit different regions of the Philippines during the wet season. The rain could fall for hours in sheets, powerful winds ripping through the air, levelling coconut trees. Flooding was common, power outages almost a guarantee. For this particular storm, the electricity was out, strong winds lashed our houses and rain pounded on the roofs. My mother says our master bedroom was mostly wet because the rain blew through our windows. Most of our neighbours’ homes were totally secure in a storm like this, but the shanty huts right next door were not. Roofs blew off. Rain seeped inside.
I don’t remember how it happened. Did they knock on our door, did we ask them to come over, either way, they were there. Fifteen adults and kids, huddled on our red couches, the grey-black light from the storm around us. I remember the splotches of mud on our white floors, and the children in adults’ laps, all of us there together, waiting safely until the storm’s end.