A letter from Mary Nebelsick in the Philippines
Hope by the Side of the Road — New Year’s letter
Dear Friends in Mission,
I wanted to send you all Christmas and New Year’s greetings by telling you about a chance encounter that I had during this Christmas season. I wrote about it in this letter in deep appreciation for the Filipinos and their ability to find happiness in the midst of the impossible. I have already sent another Christmas letter to most of the people on my email list and to Mission Connections but this one is a bit different. It is more bittersweet. I hope my experience touches your heart as it touched mine.
In fact it seems almost impossible that it is now the New Year. Christmas day came and went here in the Philippines so fast that I am startled that it is 2011. I’m sure that you feel the same way. The Filipinos enjoy the Christmas season tremendously. The streets are lit up with lights, and it is finally just a little bit cool since the Christmas season falls in a burr month, as in Decem-burr. This “burr” continues on for a few weeks into January. The storms have ceased and everyone is a bit more generous than usual.
This season is usually a time of plenty when the farmers gather the ripe sheaves of rice, shuck them and lay the grains of rice in golden patches along the busy roads. In the north, where agriculture still forms the basis of the economy, cars swerve precariously around swaths of golden grain as they hasten from one town to another. Here, in Cavite, it is a different story. The seminary where we live is situated along a busy thoroughfare that stretches from polluted, congested Manila to the green highlands of Tagaytay. Few rice paddies remain along this busy highway. Those that remain only seem to highlight the messy urban, shack-ridden sprawl that has grown up around them. Urban sprawl and with it, poverty, has come to Cavite. Filipinos are fleeing the war-torn islands and the provinces where natural disasters dictate the seasons of their lives. They are fleeing to Cavite and Manila only to find that abandonment awaits them instead of plenty.
I was reminded of this clearly during the last Bible Study I held for the faculty of Philippine Christian University. We had an animated discussion about the degree of abandonment that Mary and Joseph felt when they went to Bethlehem and found there was no room in the inn. Could it be that Joseph was rejected in his hometown? Could it be that even a son of David, the famous king and composer of the Psalms, could not find a comfortable place for his first-born child to be born? I was skeptical, but my audience was not! This happens all the time in the Philippines, my friend, Portia Salva exclaimed. Just look around. She was right! Here in the Philippines babies are born under tables, in abandoned cardboard containers and along busy highways. Their mothers and fathers have fled to the Manila area desperate for work, hungry for jobs and searching for some security. Yet, often, they find only sadness and hopelessness.
In the midst of this insecurity, somehow, the kingdom of God has begun its descent in the Philippines. Whether it is due to the deep religiosity of Filipinos, their patience or their ability to grasp happiness with both hands, I cannot tell. Perhaps it is a combination of all three as well as a great deal more. I saw a picture of this the other day. I had just completed the Bible Study and was returning home. I was thinking about the words of my friend Portia and how she insisted that one of the reasons that Jesus Christ could be considered the Savior of the Filipino poor was because he had been born to parents who were as alone and as desperate as most Filipinos are. I walked the two blocks toward the bus stop and passed the usual abandoned lot. It has been cordoned off with barbed wire and fronted by cement shards and garbage. Yet as if in a vision, in the midst of the rubble and garbage, I saw a happy family. A mother, garbed in faded clothing, was holding her teenage daughter on her lap. The girl was dressed in grimy brown shorts and a faded tee shirt. Their feet were black with dirt and hardened with use. But, they were happy. They were laughing at a book that the teenager was holding in her hands. The mother had her arms around her daughter. For a moment I caught a vision of God’s incarnation. I bent down to give a gift to the mother and child — a bag of mango slices I had just purchased — and received their surprised thanks. At that moment I felt as if I had been one of the shepherds at Bethlehem: a shepherd who had received a vision of God with Us, and could do nothing but return proclaiming the glory of God to all who would hear.
Dear friends, it was in giving my gift that I felt that God’s message of hope became real to me. I was humbled by it. Like the shepherds of old I want to make known all I have seen and heard in the fervent hope that you may catch a vision of what God has done for all of us. I further pray that you will be inspired by God’s message in Jesus Christ this New Year and will join us in mission by telling what you have seen and heard to everyone you meet.
The 2011 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 151