Three-year-old Joanie* spends her afternoons watching TV, pretending to shop, playing beauty parlor, and caring for her doll. When she comes to my plastic supermarket, she brings a backpack full of pera (money) so she can afford everything she wants. Sometimes she’ll ask me to reattach her Barbie’s head so it can enjoy the supper she’s preparing. One afternoon, we watched one of Joanie’s favorite YouTubers play a lot of the same games that she enjoyed. I’d seen similar things before: a little blonde girl in an expensive dress playing with new toys, clean white tiles beneath pristine furniture, and parents in jewelry catering to the girl’s every whim. Despite the familiarity of this picture, I felt sick to my stomach. I’m still not sure exactly what felt wrong.
I was unsettled because the girl’s playroom was larger than Joanie’s entire house, or because the girl’s pearly teeth and pink lips were very different from the teeth that smiled at me, showing the beginning signs of rot. Is it wrong to have nice things? And if I merely wanted nice things for Joanie, why was I unsettled instead of angry? Neither girl had a say in how wealthy their family was, but both were happy. Should that be enough? Perhaps I was upset because what I saw on the screen reminded me of the life I envision for my children someday. I want them to wear pretty clothes and have large spaces to play. Sitting in Joanie’s house on the uneven floor with the blankets that double as a bed made those dreams feel shallow. Maybe the source of my discomfort was my knowing that someday Joanie would understand her lack that she was too young to understand now.
I’ve found myself trying to shield Joanie and her sister from feeling that lack by downplaying the privilege I come from. Like them, I didn’t get to choose the situation I was born into. By no merit of mine was I born into a family that always has enough to eat, and this has shaped the course of my life. This part of privilege is fairly intuitive. During my time in the Philippines, I’ve realized that the blessings I’ve known all my life are also a burden that I don’t get to lay down. In this way (as well as many others) our ministry falls short of Jesus’ incarnational ministry on earth. When he became fully man, Jesus wholly entered into first century Palestine and loved the people there as only he can. I’ll never know what it’s like to have no voice in a corrupt government. I can’t understand how it feels to grow up without a parent or to lack an education. Even my role as a guest in my host family’s home provides me with extra comforts at a cost to them for the sake of hospitality. Sometimes I feel that this uneven playing field can hinder relationships between them and me. How can I get to know my host family when I’m given a place at the table, and everyone else eats on the floor? My duty as a guest is to accept what is given to me.
After talking to my teammates about the matter, I realized that my responsibility as a seeker of Christ is to own my privilege. When I accept that I enjoy wealth I didn’t earn and that my host family is stuck in the cycle of generational poverty, I’m admitting to the brokenness in this world that makes it so. As for my relationships with my host family, I’m trusting that God will move and help us to learn to love one another well. Choosing to see my host family in light of their circumstances will hopefully help me see what God is doing on this side of the world.
I’m very grateful for the ways I’ve seen the image of God in people and His work in their lives. Their stories are full of heartbreak and as a result have pointed me back to God’s faithfulness and encouraged me in my walk with Him. I met Nanay Beth* today at Bible study. She was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver in 1995 and given two years to live. God has blessed her with a long life (she is 73 now), but those years have been hard. Her frequent commutes to and stays in the hospital have come at a great cost to her family. She is in constant pain despite her medications and is unable to leave her bed at times. I was surprised when she told me that she is an active elder in the church and attends Bible studies when she can. The way she interacted with her daughters told me that she was and is a devoted mother. Her unwavering faithfulness makes me reconsider my excuses for failing to love others and opting out of moments with God.
My stomach is still adjusting to the food here, and when it hurts it’s easy to just sit back as those around me engage with each other. It’s just as easy to not bring the hard things I face to God or to pray for Him to work in my heart when I’m focused on my stomach. But my time here is short, and the purpose of our team coming to the Philippines is to build relationships, tayo (us) with Christ as the center. Nanay Beth’s intentionality and joy in all that she does makes me want to push past the discomfort and press into all that God has prepared for me in community.
*Names changed for privacy.