New Lengths at New Heights

Births since last post: 12.

I also learned how to suture (repair with stitches) this month! I bought myself a whole chicken at the midwives’ urging and spent 2 hrs bent at a 90-degree angle over a table, stitching cuts of various depths and shapes back together. RN’s in the US aren’t legally allowed to perform sutures, so this was the first brand new skill I’ve learned over here, and let me tell you: my brain felt like mush afterwards. These midwives speak excellent English, but I was doing mental gymnastics trying to figure out what was meant by what was being said (just because you’re using English words doesn’t mean I understand the directions you’re giving in the way you intended them). One of the midwives recorded a video of my practice (so I could review it later on and “learn what works best for me”), and I can tell my thinking-space was at max capacity the whole time because I never once spoke in Taglish (a Tagalog/English mix that I, and everyone else, speak in everyday here). I’m still new at this skill, so I’m only repairing basic tears independently. I’ve already had the chance to apply my new knowledge, and I’m bitter-sweetly anticipating more opportunities down the road. (You kinda hate to hope a mama tears just so you can get better, but you gotta grow somehow right?)

Ran out of suture to finish. #nottoshabbyforabeginner

 

Fun Tagalog word for today: maganda (“mah-gahn-DAH”) = beautiful, etc*

*technically, just “ganda” means beautiful. “ma-“ is an emphasis prefix used for a ton of words (magaling, masakit, malamig, matamis, malayo, malapit, etc). At first I was told that “ma-“ is the Tagalog equivalent for “very”, but there’s a different word (“sobrang”) that’s use is more like “very”. So you can say “ganda” or “maganda”, and either way it means beautiful. But it gets even more complicated; tack the Tagalog word for “morning” to the end (“magandang umaga”) and you’ve got “Good Morning”, and place “more” in front of it (“mas maganda”) and you’re saying “better”, neither of which really have anything to do with “beautiful”. Moral of the story: language is rarely a straight line. It’s a whole lot of nuance.

 

 

Feb 13 was a momentous day for Jessi Leigh. Not only as the day before Valentine’s Day (major, I know), but even more because it means I am now entering new territory for “length of time spent on foreign soil” in my adult life. 2 months spent in India when I was 18, 4 months in northeastern Nicaragua at 19, and now 5 months in the Philippines at 25 (I’ll almost be 27 by the time I leave here)! It will be quite a while before I break my ultimate personal record (4 years in Indonesia as a girl), but I’ll celebrate my adult-life victory nevertheless!

It’s been almost a month since my last update, so here are a few highlights from my 5th month in Manila.

Tanay

Two weeks ago I spent 2+ hrs crammed in multiple Jeepneys (I have a love/hate relationship with public transport here) for the very worthwhile opportunity to spend just under 24 hours in natural beauty. This world-traveler is really still an Alaskan at heart, so living in the armpit-outskirts of Manila can be trying on my soul. My two friends and I watched the sunset over the Sierra Madres, spent the night with new-to-me friends at Mercy House (more on that later), and woke up at 3am to commemorate my new record with a new experience: trekking in the dark.

I didn’t have the best internal attitude about hiking 5.7 km in the dark. The Countryman family was not much of a physical exertion family (we were much more a book-reading type family), but hiking is the only exception to this anti-exertion sentiment of mine. I love to hike, but when you’re hiking in the dark you completely miss out on the spending-time-in-nature perks, and all your left with is huffing and puffing with your own self. And let’s just say it’s a good thing I’m not afraid of snakes; who wants to sign up to walk the Maysawa Circuit (literally translated “have-pythons circuit”) in the dark!? #wedidntseeanysnakes #ignoranceisbliss?

But we reached the top of the mountain just before the sun broke over the horizon, and instantly our 50 minutes hiking in the dark was forgotten. Humidity here in the tropics has fun with the cooler mountain temperatures, creating “sea clouds” in the valleys between the mountains. Thick fog banks hang low between mountain peaks, looking like a fluffy ocean below you. It’s not really a fair comparison to rival mountains, sea clouds and breath-taking sunrises with palm trees, turquoise-blue ocean water and 2 km of sandy beach (from my 4-day Christmas retreat on the island of Palawan in Christmas), but I can definitely say that this mountain-top sunrise gave me the most beautiful experience I’ve had on this island so far.

Valley leading up to the Sierra Madres

A sunny Friday afternoon spent on a rope suspension bridge in Tanay

Maysawa Circuit

J-, L- from Germany and myself after the sunrise

Kindred Spirits

Another highlight from this month were two separate conversations I’ve had with missionary friends. For the first time I’m finally starting to feel like I’ve found some kindred missionary spirits (I just introduced my best friend J- to “Anne of Green Gables”, so of course that phrase came to mind).

Convo #1 took place over the course of an afternoon spent at a lovely little garden café where I had the chance to swap life-stories with a real-life WonderWoman. This lady is old enough to be my mother, and has spent decades serving alongside Filipinos in different parts of the country, pouring herself out for the overlooked and the very People I have a personal burden to work among. Not only was I profoundly encouraged to hear the life-story of a single woman who has devoted her life to furthering Christ’s Kingdom in a foreign context, I was humbled and inspired by her heart. This was the first time I felt like someone really wanted to get to know me here; she asked me my life story, rejoiced with me and sympathized with me; I left that café feeling “stirred up to love and good deeds” and oh so inspired and refreshed.

My second beautiful conversation took place in the living room of Mercy House, a home for boys age 9+ who had been living on the streets. Run by a Filipino-American man and his American wife, Mercy House is a real home and family for boys who have been neglected (at best) and encountered the ugliest parts of life. Getting to hear N-‘s heart about “her boys”, and seeing with my own eyes how loved, safe and renewed these boys are after encountering the hands-on love of Christ was such a privilege. I am definitely planning on returning to their corner of the island, and so you can look forward to more stories about Mercy House coming down the line. (If you want to know more now, head over to their website. They could use your prayers and support).

 

First Complication

Friday brought us the biggest baby I’ve seen here at Shiphrah so far: 58 cm (22 ¾ in) long, 4.495 kg (9 lbs 14.4 oz). A 35 cm (13 ¾ in) head circumference with a 38 cm (15 in) chest meant I got to see how to handle my first dreaded birth complication: a gnarly shoulder dystocia. Baby’s head delivered, but when his body didn’t follow after 3 contractions we called the other 2 midwives in for support (making that 3 midwives and 2 interns helping with this last part of the birth). Baby required a bit of positive pressure ventilation (I was able to jump right into action here, grateful that newborn resuscitation looks the same no matter what country you’re in), but he was crying and moving his arms at 3 minutes old, and pink and screaming before 10 minutes. Every midwife prays against ever seeing a shoulder dystocias with each birth, but when I came here I knew that I would need to see how to handle these types of rare complications while I was still with experienced midwives (or else I would have to figure out how to handle them when I’m on my own somewhere else). Because baby was perfectly fine after birth, I’m really grateful to have had this experience.

The biggest baby I’ve put on this scale!

L- is 5’10”. A real life moment to demonstrate the size of this baby (only 6 hrs old here)

 

Vision Art

I’ve shared in a previous post about my theme for 2019: God as my Pillar of Fire, guiding me one step at a time.

On Jan 17 I got another vision while praying: A glass full of gravel with water pouring in. As the water comes in, it slips past the rocks with no difficulty, just slips right past and causes the whole glass of gravel to shift and resettle.

That morning I wrote in my prayer journal: “I feel as though I am in a season of shifting and resettling. I can’t really figure out where to change; I just know change is needed and change is in the air (or should I say ‘the water’?) Holy Spirit: have Your way…” I was excited and encouraged to be reminded that God is working even when I can’t see what’s going on. He will slip past anything inside or around me to accomplish His work, bringing about whatever change He sees fit.

This metaphorical vision has come back to mind so many times this past month, where internal expectations of myself and difficulties in relationships have made me feel like so much is getting mixed up. It can be easy to feel like everything is in upheaval when stuff on the inside and stuff on the outside is constantly changing, but I know from God’s character shown throughout His Word (the only way to really be discerning that the any vision is actually from God) that He knows what He’s doing and He can be trusted, even when I don’t know what’s going on.

To remind me of the truth found in these two visions, I tried my hand at turning them into art above my bed. Now I see them every time I wake up and just before I fall asleep, visual testaments to what God has shown me and how He’s promised to work in me.

Pillar of Fire

Water poured into my gravel

Fabric “frame” woven by a tribe in Mindanao

 

Lastly, my best friend (aka, my sister) sent me a link introducing me to an artist neither of us hard heard of before, saying the message reminded her of my Pillar of Fire idea for this year. Listening to the song for the first time brought me to my knees in my room, crying as the chorus repeated the song of my own heart over and over. I encourage you to take a listen (and if you like it, check out ‘Son of God’, ‘Fountain’ and ‘How to be Yours’ from this same album. Good stuff yo!)

https://open.spotify.com/embed/track/16ZFNBzIsiN9b2pQRjSHwV

Praises over my 5th month:

-I changed the shower-drain covers in my dark little bathroom this month. The old covers had holes big enough to let cockroaches crawl up from the drain pipes below; it’s really nice to no longer wonder if I’m going to have a “friend” greeting me in there at 2am. #happy5monthstoJessiLeigh

-My Filipino home church is amazing. Many of you have been praying for a good fit for me here, and each time I get together with these people it’s confirmed all over again that this is where I belong. I’ve attended services at the church for 2 weeks consecutively now (lots of interesting out-of-our-control circumstances have prevented consistent attendance up to this point), and both times I’ve been brought to tears with encouraging worship and sermons that were exactly what I needed to hear. The congregation really has welcomed me with open arms; I can’t wait to really dig deep with these people over the next 13 months!

-After 6 weeks of being the only intern here at Shiphrah, I was happy to receive L- from Germany. She’s been with me for the past 3 weeks, and it’s been fun to see how well adjusted I’ve become to life here (sometimes you don’t realize how you’ve changed until you see culture shock in someone else’s eyes). I’ll be sad to see her go; she has a sweet spirit, and I wish her the best as she finishes up her last semester of midwifery studies in Germany this year.

-My friends the C- family are really becoming my favorite people here. The live with honest hospitality, and they’ve really been sharing their lives with me. This is the stuff that keeps me going, and I’m grateful to have it with them!

 

Pray for me:

-I’m once again considering finding a language tutor to meet with once or twice a week; I’ve got about 5 months before my online school starts, and this would be the perfect time to strengthen my Tagalog muscles. Pray that I would find someone who will be a good fit; I’ve never had to find my own language tutor before, so I don’t really know how this works.

-My sister is a superhero, and even though she’s working more-than-full-time while in grad-school, she found the time to edit the video I made to send out to my various home churches (curse you developing-world internet!) This video will hopefully be shown Sunday morning within the next few weeks wherever you are (and if you’re not at The Branch Church or Peninsula Grace Church, just send me a message and I’ll send you the video directly). I need 45 people to donate $100 towards my schooling tuition so I can stay here my full 18 months. Pray that people would be motivated to pray for me, keep in touch and give through this video.

-Two weeks ago there was a fire in a squatter community (slum) close to here. The fire burned for about 3 hours, destroying 300 homes, displacing 800 families (you read that right, 300 homes for 800 families). Some friends who work in a different area of the city responded to the needs for basic first aid a few times throughout the week, including rushing a three-year old boy to the hospital (he had stepped on a nail during the fire, the wound was untreated for 6 days and the boy had gone septic with a high fever due to the inevitable infection). I was able to go visit the area with them this past Saturday and two weeks after the fire it was good to see a decent amount of rebuilding already in progress. The three year old boy was walking around, bright-eyed and chatty, and his wound is healing perfectly. The local government is supplying building materials and paying the residents a small wage to rebuild their own homes, so they’re hoping to have everything rebuilt within the month. But there is so much need for prayer still. While the adults are busy rebuilding their homes, the children in this community are left to wander, neglected and suffering various forms of trauma. Pray for the community of San Buena, that the church next to this neighborhood would overcome their stereotypical understanding of what “ministry” looks like and instead respond with the generous, sacrificial heart of Christ. Pray that these families would be protected from infection and lung damage as they live along a very busy, polluted highway, breathing in smoke fumes and powdered cement floating in the air during the repair process. And pray that Jesus would bring healing in every way to this area that is full to the brim with people who desperately need His Love, Provision and Comfort.

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New Lengths at New Heights

Burdened to pray close to home

Births since last post: 6

Fun Tagalog word for today: malamig (mah-lah-MEEG) = cold. We’re experiencing winter here in the Philippines, which means its “cold”. And I know I’m growing more and more acclimated by little lifestyle changes; I broke out my jeans for the first time in 4 months last Sunday (when it was all of 85 degrees out), and I’m sleeping with a blanket at night. I’m enjoying the tropical coolness all-the-while knowing I’m going to freeze when I finally return home. (You better greet me at the airport with 3 winter coats).

 

I’ve got a short update for you today, since I’m concentrating my efforts on a video update I’m sending out to be shown in my home churches State-side #youvebeenwarned.

 

One of my most recent births left a lasting, heavy impression on me. This mama was 20 years old, pregnant with her first child, with no dad in the picture (whether by her choice or his was left undisclosed). She had no permanent home, but was currently staying with some friends in the Creekside slum behind Shiphrah at the bottom of our hill. She had a difficult (long and slow-to-progress) labor, not uncommon for first-timers, but it became clear as the day grew longer that there was something else stalling her progress. Mama shared with us that she had no support from her family, and with no connection with the baby’s Father, she told us, “I just can’t do this”. Her body was mirroring her mind: heels dug in, afraid of what lay ahead, unable to go back and not wanting to go forward. Ate D-, the midwife on duty that night, spoke powerful words to give this mama back her strength: “Sometimes we don’t get the support from family that we need, I have seen that. But your friends are here for you. Babies are a blessing, and you CAN do this. You are not alone!”. For the first time in hours, our mom was able to calm her breathing and get some rest. A few hours later, her beautiful boy was born!

The friends this mama was currently staying with came by to see the baby for a few minutes, and it was when they all went home that I was struck with this heavy impression. Still basking in the afterglow of her baby’s birth, this mama looked like she was in heaven; and yet I saw almost painted on the walls of the room a pretty clear sign: these two are utterly alone. She has no consistent support; indeed, only 1 hour after she gave birth she was already given sole responsibility for the welfare of herself and her child. Where I usually see the spouse/boyfriend, the grandmother or another relative coaching a mom through her labor and staying by her side to help her in the first few hours after her birth, this brand new young mom had no one.

Tears were coming to my eyes as I finished up the charting after her birth; what could I possibly do here? I barely know this woman, I don’t speak much of her language, and I cannot give her everything she needs. As I left the Birthing Home that night, I peeked into her room and saw Ate D- had pulled up a chair next to her bed. Nevermind that it was well past midnight and the birth was over and settled; this strong midwife recognized that her role in this mama’s life went past the birth of her baby. Mama needed support, and Ate D- was going to give her whatever she had.

Strong single mama

 

Earlier that week I witnessed an older couple walk up to the Birthing Home and hesitantly ask if they could speak to a midwife. They had questions about a birth certificate. The whole conversation took place in Tagalog, and I could tell both by the hushed tones and the body language of the three people conversing that they were discussing something sensitive. After about 20 minutes, the couple stepped away from the table and walked home. It was only after they left that the midwife they’d spoken to shared a summary of their conversation with a visibly heavy heart.

This couple were newly grandparents and were asking questions about the best way to proceed regarding their 3-week old grandbaby. 10 months prior, their daughter, 18 years old and still in high school, had been invited by a friend to come to a party hosted by a few school acquaintances just a 10-minute jeepney ride away from where she grew up. Accompanied by her friend, the girl came to the party and was immediately greeted with a plate of food. As the girl ate, she noted how her friend was strangely keeping her separate from the rest of the party’s activities; “maybe she realizes I don’t really know these people and doesn’t want to pressure me to join in too soon”, she thought. The next thing she remembers from that night is waking up in a bedroom somewhere with the door wide open. She didn’t know where she was, how much time had passed or what had happened. 15 weeks later she went to the doctor complaining of consistent abdominal discomfort, only to be told that she was pregnant. That was how this 18 year old girl found out she had been drugged and raped at her friend’s party, and was now carrying a child from that night.

Incredibly, the now-mother decided to stay in school and have her baby. The parents were fully supportive (and came to the Birthing Home to ask questions about legally adopting their grandchild). It was a best-case scenario; indeed, even better than many of our mothers at Shiphrah had going for them. But the injustice of it burned in the air.

This couple lives less than 10 minutes away from us at Shiphrah and the single mom from the first story lives even closer. There is just so much brokenness in this world, and today my heart weeps for the brokenness in my world.

Pray for the Philippines:

Pray that the Church will rise up to meet the needs that are so prevalent here. The Philippines is a “Christian nation”; pray that the Body of Christ here will move past the traditions and buildings we are all used to and follow after Christ’s heart to care for the least of these.

Pray for change. I am just one person, and it is far too easy for me to grow intimidated and want to give up when I think about how anyone could begin to change the tide of injustice that grips every corner of this world. But God sees what is happening, and I know His heart breaks and burns over the pain and injustice taking place. Pray that God will raise up leaders that will make the changes, leaders in families, in baranguays (neighborhoods), and in this nation.

I Need 45

Births since last post: 10

Fun Tagalog word for today: natututo (nah-too-TOO-toh) “learning”. Up to this point, I’ve only included basic Tagalog words for you to learn with me, simple one-to-two syllable words that are easy to pronounce (and Tagalog is FULL of one syllable words, like pa, po, ba, na, mo, ko, ka and siya, which looks like 2 syllables, but is pronounced “shya”). But I thought I’d give you something more challenging; it’s a new year, so it’s time for a new level. And this word has recently become part of my vocabulary in an effort to change my own self-talk. Up to this point, when a local hears me speaking and compliments me on my Tagalog, I have always replied “kaunti lang” (KOHN-tee  LAHNG), meaning “only a little”. In my efforts to communicate my conversational and comprehension limits, I just realized I have been cutting myself short. So, I’ve decided to change the response to “I’m still learning”: natututo pa ako. (Dare you to say that clearly even once! For whatever reason, the order of vowels in “natututo pa” is ridiculously difficult for me to pronounce any quicker than a snail’s pace, which really makes me sound like I’m just starting out in this language. Which, I guess I am!)

 

I arrived on September 13, so regardless of whether you count your months by the date or by the week, I have been here in the Philippines for 4 months/18 weeks now! I have now crossed the threshold; December was an odd half-way mark for me. December 2018 marked three months already in this country, and if I stay exactly 18 months over here, December 2019 will mark three months left! Well the days keep coming and there’s no looking back. It already feels like March 13th is around the corner, where I’ll have been here for 1/3 of my total time. I’m not going to say it… #timeflieswhenyoureamidwifeapprentice

As I shared in a previous post, I quickly realized that my learning here at Shiphrah, while invaluable, will require supplementation in the form of schooling. I have been trained as a Registered Nurse, which has certainly had its benefits (I felt like I was caught onto the rhythm of natural birth far more quickly than the rhythm of the Tagalog language). But it also has its limitations; an American RN is trained to work under a doctor’s orders, often in the hospital setting. I have been programmed to respond to a doctor’s diagnosis; but as a midwife, I need to be the one calling the shots (an ugly over-simplification when it comes to the birth process, but the principle still applies.) I need to be the one to not only recognize the symptoms and variables at work in a given situation (an RN’s greatest skill set is her ability to assess) but also to diagnose the situation and formulate a plan from there. Here at Shiphrah I’m learning SO much of what do to; school will help me learning the physiology and rationale that shows why we do it.

All that to say, I have found the midwifery school that looks like the perfect supplement for my time here. Indie Birth Midwifery School is a 2 year program, with the courses all online (knowing the practicals will be learned through an apprenticeship). One of the things that drew me to this school specifically was the very way in which they teach, training young midwives to develop and trust their intuition (something I will greatly need further down the road when I might be the only birth provider in an area). Classes start in July, so I will nearly finish my first year here in the Philippines and continue my courses as I return to the States in the Spring of 2020.

If I am to remain here at Shiphrah for 18 months AND go to school online, I need 45 people to give a one-time gift of $100 to cover my tuition and textbooks. I am receiving monthly support from my church in Alaska (love you PGC!!), and that support combined with your $100 gift means that schooling will only supplement my experience here, instead of reducing my time at Shiphrah due to the added expense. If you choose to give, you can do so on my donate page above. (Because PayPal takes a percentage of each donation, if you give $104, I will get the $100 I need.) I ask you to consider giving, and I trust God to provide what is needed. Thank you so much!

 

Why don’t we finish off this post with a few birth stories? January and February are usually slower months here at Shiphrah, so we rang in the new year expecting to have just a few births. But only 4 days into the new year, we already had 7 babies born.

January 4, 12:15am, ring ring. “Ate Jessi, we have labor. Fully! Come now!” Bleary-eyed, I pull on yesterday’s clothes (no need for fresh clothes when there’s a good chance you’ll end up covered in something during the birth), put on my glasses, gathered up my bag and walked as quickly as you can in the dark to the Birthing Home. Mama was feeling pushy, so we guided her as she began the final stage of labor and soon realized this was going to take a while. The poor thing, over the course of the next 3 ½ hours we tried four different positions, even resorting to using a catheter (sometimes a full bladder is preventing baby from descending) and breaking the water artificially (instead of waiting for it to break on its own, sometimes breaking the water can also help baby descend. There are pros and cons to AROM, and our judgement determined it was worth the risk at this point after multiple hours of pushing). Still nothing. Baby would come down to a certain point and just stop. She wasn’t budging.

Just minutes before 4 am everyone in the room was starting to get discouraged (if I’m honest, I had been thinking “transfer to the hospital” for the past 40 minutes, but baby was still tolerating labor well, so I deferred my opinion to the seasoned midwife’s decision). All of the sudden, the second midwife working that night pops her head into our room, sees that we haven’t progressed despite the hour and says, “Jessi, want to catch a baby?” I released a mixed-bag sigh of relief, happy to finally get to catch a baby but sorry for the poor mama I was leaving who didn’t get the privilege of just leaving her situation too, and followed Ate G- into the second room. This mom had arrived, fully dilated, while we were all still pushing in the first room. A beautiful delivery, her birth took a total of 5 minutes (and I had to tear the amniotic sac away from the baby’s face after birth to allow him to take his first breath unimpeded). Once the afterbirth was delivered, Ate G- told me, “Go, Jessi. I can take care of things here”, encouraging me to go back to the first room. Resolved that we WERE going to have a birth and determined to bring as much encouragement I could to this long-laboring mama, I walked back to the first room. Just outside the door was a third woman I hadn’t noticed before, looking very much like she was about to have a baby, so after making sure Ate G- knew we needed to get a third bed ready, I stepped back into the first room just as the midwife was placing the baby on our mama’s chest. 95% amazed at this mama’s resilience and determination, and 5% bummed that I missed the baby’s birth by a mere minute, I stepped in to take over for the afterbirth and assessment. Just as we were finishing clean-up, Ate G- pops her head back in like a real Déjà vu moment, saying, “You want another one, Jessi?” Yep, mama #3 was ready, so she laid down in the bed next to our first delivery and gave birth. New record for Jessi Leigh: 3 births in 29 minutes!!

Birth #1, born 4:05am

Birth #2, born 4:10 am (after 3 1/2 hours of pushing. What a champ!)

Birth #3, born 4:34 am

But I had another eventful set of births since my last post, and this pair of births left me with quite an interesting observation. On January 10, two babies were born. Both boys, both first babies, one mom 20 years old, the other 21, both delivered lying down. Both babies were acynclitic (fancy medical word meaning “baby didn’t want to come out straight”) with compound right arms (picture the right arm wrapped around the neck like a scarf, elbow under the chin. Even just a hand stuck up by baby’s face can make labor longer and more difficult due to the added circumference around the widest part of the baby during birth, so you can imagine how much more difficulty a whole arm can bring with it!) These two mamas had me amazed at the sheer number of striking similarities between their births, making me think the one glaring distinction made all the difference.

My 49th catch was born that morning, accompanied only by her mother who was so nervous during the birth she finally said, “I just can’t take this” and walked out of the room, leaving this poor mama feeling alone until the minute before her baby was born (yes, the midwife and I were there, but the bond is different). Grandma came back in the room just as the child was being born, and she was thrilled. Mama and Grandma had some beautiful first moments with their new baby, but I couldn’t help wondering whether this first-time-mom’s birth might have had fewer moments of panic and self-doubt during the final stages if she hadn’t have been left alone.

One strong mama, doing it all on her own with her 2.5 kg baby! #jessithegiant

 

Fast-forward to the second birth of that day; despite all of the striking similarities to the day’s previous birth, this room felt like a completely different planet. Mama came with her boyfriend, his mother and her sister. Dad was right at mom’s side the whole time, rubbing her belly, wiping her brow, giving sips of water between contractions, whispering encouragement in her ear and giving kisses. Mom-in-law and sister were ever-at-the-ready too, and the midwife and I were left in awe at how relaxed this first-time-mom appeared. Fully dilated, this mom remained on her right side, eyes closed and her body relaxed until her baby just started to crown. Even as she pushed, she was able to maintain such a beautiful level of calm and control; baby came out slowly and mama didn’t require any stitches (impressive with an acynclitic and compound delivery)!

Yes, of course, every birth is different because every baby and every woman is different. But my 50th catch here in the Philippines showed me that a mom who feels safe, secure and supported will have such a different birth than one who feels like she has to do it all on her own. So you daddies, grandmas and other family members out there privileged enough to be asked into the room when your mama is preparing for her birth: know your role isn’t just a token title. Your position has weight to it and can really make all the difference!

My 50th catch!! 

 

Pray for me:

-Pray that my friends and Family would be motivated to give, and pray for faith as I trust God’s provision and timing. If He provides the full amount I need for my tuition and I get to stay the full 18 months I’ve been planning on, praise God. If I don’t get the full amount I need and I have to cut my trip short, I pray for the faith to trust that His plan is best.

Pray for clarity and healing. I have been struggling with headaches and dizziness for the past three/four days. These are two incredibly vague symptoms that can have countless causes from exhaustion, tropical diseases and even the air around me (Manila knows how to make pollution!) I struggle knowing whether this is something I need to fix or simply my body telling me to take a break. Pray that I will know what to do and respond accordingly.

 

Praises for the past month:

-My mini-retreat to Palawan was refreshing and beautiful; exactly what I needed.

-I think I have found a church (FINALLY!) After months of searching and praying, I have found a Filipino church that is in love with Jesus and His Gospel, attended by friends who speak my language and understand my culture. It’s the perfect situation, and I couldn’t be more pleased.

-I was able to repeat what is now my favorite New Years Eve tradition. I spent the day in fasting and prayer, reviewing my prayer journal from 2018, writing down the direct Words and Visions God had given me, recording every blessing I could think of from the past year, and writing out some of the urgent prayers weighing on my mind, War-Room style. It was a powerful day, full of God’s presence; even after 9 hours I wasn’t able to get through everything I had hoped for (so I spent the next week coming back to my prayer room for hour-long segments). I ended the day by breaking my fast with Communion and went over to Shiphrah’s founder’s house for some incredible fireworks. What a wonderful finish to 2018!

New Years Eve prayer room wall

Jumping through fireworks to celebrate the New Year like a local. #start2019withabang

Deuteronomy 1 in 2019

Births since last post: 6 (It was 5 earlier today. This post was intended to be published hours earlier, but a mom came into the Birthing Home ready to have a baby just as I was hitting submit, causing me to run through the neighborhood from my-friend-with-faster-internet’s house to the Home in time to catch a baby. #livingthemidwifelife)

Fun Tagalog word for today: merienda (meh- rolled r- ee-EHN-dah). Clearly a Spanish word (doesn’t sound Tagalog at all), but used every day over here around 3 pm when everyone pulls out some snacks from who-knows-where, and we all sit down to drink our instant coffee and refuel. I’m an always-hungry person, so a special word that denotes the necessity of a daily afternoon snack… I’m a fan.

 

Lately I’ve found it a bit hard to muster up the effort and creativity to find something to write about. I know there are many factors involved:

  1. I live a fairly routine life here: catch babies, wait for mamas to come to have their babies, do prenatal appointments, run basic errands to keep my life going, repeat. Not super flashy.
  2. Some of the initial “this-is-all-new” is wearing off, meaning it has grown more difficult to figure out what to share as a peak into my life as I’m growing more and more accustomed to my new normal
  3. The nasty underside: Jessi has been wrestling with depression on and off this past month.

And at this point, I think it’s Reason #3 that’s kept me mystified as to what to share. There’s this little voice at the back of my head that tells me, “All you’ve been posting about is how your life is so hard. Do you really want to be that negative? Is that really all you have to say?” But I’m learning a few things.

  1. I’m not just sharing the negative things.
  2. I am struggling, and struggling in a way that won’t “just pass” in a few days.
  3. It’s ok to be monotonous, especially when the monotony is asking for prayer and support in the midst of a struggle that’s looking like it wants to stay for a while.

I know I don’t have to share my difficulties only on the other side of them, when they can be wrapped up in a pretty little victorious package and presented succinctly with some clever prose. I certainly don’t expect anyone else to limit their authenticity in such ways, but I’m coming to see that this voice in my head is trying to make me do just that. So here I am, kicking against the lies, choosing to write what my mind is telling me is going to be “just another complaining update”. I pray that you are able to discern the way(s) God is working in my heart through what I share below, in both the happy and the hard.

A few weeks ago I posted a request for some real prayer support. The darkness crept in pretty subtly, leaving me mystified as to what was going on and where I needed to fight back. Before I knew it, in less than 24 hours I was at my breaking point, fighting off tears at every turn, in bed with the curtains drawn in the middle of the day, hiding from my life. Warning signals were flashing in my mind like road signs stating: You are now entering Depression and Exhaustion National Park, 2 miles until Total Burnout Point. The next day I told the midwives I was taking the day off, but simple rest wasn’t helping. I was still restless, hopeless, weepy and despairing. I wrote in my prayer journal that day “I’m feeling like I just can’t see which way is up. I don’t really know why or what’s going on… When I first came here, spiritual attack was so obvious. Now I’m not so sure, but I do know I’m being burdened with exhausting, mysteriously vague discouragement. No specific words like last time, just a general sense of resignation. And I know that’s not from You… I know Satan wants me to keep pushing through in my own effort, hoping tomorrow won’t be like this (that’s what the past three days have been). Well, my strength is clearly up, but Yours isn’t.”

I have been clinging to Jesus as my Strong Tower, my Hiding Place, fighting to choose faith and resist my enemy by taking my Father at His Word. I have been holding on to His promises with two hands, specifically the following

“And Moses said to the people, ‘Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which He will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you only have to be silent.’”

Exodus 14.13-14

 “Then [Moses] said to [the Israelites], ‘Do not be in dread or afraid of them. The Lord your God who goes before you will Himself fight for you, just as He did for you in Egypt before your eyes, and in the wilderness, where you have seen how the Lord your God carried you, as a man carries his son, all the way that you went until you came to this place.’”

Deuteronomy 1.29-31

Slowly, God showed me I wasn’t “just” feeling mysteriously discouraged and defeated seemingly out of the blue. THIS IS CULTURE SHOCK. And at first, I dismissed the thought, thinking: “I haven’t even encountered enough of this culture to have anything to be shocked over!” and instead decided I was just exhausted from spending 13+ weeks in an environment where I only understand 15-20% of what’s being said and going on around me, not knowing anyone, not knowing how to act, etc. Feeling like I had been turned inside out, like I no home (sound like culture shock to anyone?!?) I felt defeated, discouraged, deflated.

But then I started to see that not only was I actually experiencing culture shock, I was making it worse by responding in such a way that was telling myself I wasn’t allowed to feel this way. All that does is suppress what I’m feeling while also making me scared of the hypothetical “hard-enough-to-actually-cause-culture-shock” point still to come somewhere down the road. How could anyone not help but just cringe waiting for that shoe to drop?!

And this is where I am right now: learning that I’m combatting outside and inside forces at work here, forces that are difficult/not-helpful at best, self-defeating at worst. So much of the war here is in the realm of the expectations I hold of myself (and expectations I assume people around me hold of me). Expectations to perform above and beyond, to prove that I’m devoted to learning, that I’m responsible, that I’m reliable, that I’m flexible and adaptable to my new surroundings. Good things, true things, but also crippling things when my flesh gets ahold of them. I’m learning that beautiful-and-right goals can be merciless task-masters wielded as a knife against my throat. I’m learning that there is just no way that I can muscle through every day to measure up to these always-out-of-reach yardsticks in my own strength. I’m learning that my mind is never satisfied with what it sees in the mirror; somehow having caught 40 babies, having helped with over 50 births, having helped with countless hundreds of prenatal appointments over the past 15 weeks isn’t enough in my mind to establish a reputation of willingness to learn, devotion to this work, or a teachable spirit to the midwives I’m working alongside. It’s never enough in my mind, and that’s a big reason why I feel so defeated and discouraged. There’s no way I can live up to my own (unreasonable) expectations. My dead-but-still-so-loud flesh is a cruel slave-driver, and my enemy is only all-too-willing to crack the whip and watch me grit my teeth and strive until I drop dead of sheer exhaustion.

But my God loves me too much to let that happen. He cares for me too much to let me take the reins of my life and drive myself into the ground. His Shepherd-heart for me does not burden me with unattainably high expectations to perform, where my best hope is only to finally meet the standard. No!

One of my pastors in my home-church in Ohio has developed the discipline of praying for one word as a theme for the coming year each December, asking God how He wants to grow their relationship and transform him into a more complete disciple. I’ve adopted this practice over the past few years, starting in 2017 with “Manna” and “2018” with “Come Wait”. In the midst of all this difficulty I have been praying for God to show me what He would have for me as a theme for 2019 and I found His answer in the same way I found the others from years past: an image that kept repeating itself in my prayers over the course of many days. I spoke earlier about the passage in Deuteronomy that was brought to mind as a promise to cling to as I fight off this elusive enemy, the promise that God will fight this battle for me, that He will prove Himself to be just as faithful here and now as He has in every other battle I’ve been through in my life, that he will “carry me as a Father carries His son”, that He has been carrying me all this time and will continue to do so.

In the middle of all this murkiness and confusion, I’ve been praying that God would clearly guide me in what to do (practically) and where to go (emotionally), referencing the image of God leading the Israelites through the wilderness as a Pillar of Cloud by day and Fire by night. That image has been coming to mind over and over these past few weeks, and it’s my lifeline right now: God guiding every single step, one step at a time. I have no idea where to go, what to do, my heart has shown that it cannot be trusted. So God leads right in front of me in plain view.

From my prayer journal last week:

I need Your fire to blaze through all the murky inside me and around me. I don’t even know where to resist lies, to rebuke Satan’s attack, to give myself grace, to stand on your Promises. I’m just in the wilderness, completed disoriented, and my well is empty. I am utterly spent; I don’t want to hide every day. You’ve called me to more than that, but I can’t do anything right now except hide from my life under whatever scrap of shade I can find/fabricate in this wasteland. O Pillar of Fire, lead me. Lead me on in this wilderness where it seems all too soon for me to even imagine a way out. Just one step forward, and another. At some point we can get to the place where I’m excited for Your Promised Land for me here in the Philippines (the ministry heart and actions of my dreams) but right now I just need to see Your Fire in the middle of this sandstorm. Something unmistakably clear in the middle of all the murky. To get my eyes up from staring at my frozen feet. Burn bright! Fill my dreams. Burn into my mind so I see You everywhere I look, just as if I’d been staring into the sun. Burn in my ears, so all my thoughts sound like You and nothing else. Burn in my heart, to keep my faith ever-warm.”

So here I am, struggling every day, some days darker than others. And walking into 2019 lifting my eyes every hour of every day, on the lookout for my Pillar of Fire. q

“the Lord your God… who went before you in the way to seek you out a place to pitch your tents, in fire by night and cloud by day, to show you by what way you should go.”

Deut 1. 32-33

Pray for Me:

– Pray for patience with myself, something I’m terrible at. I want my struggles to be hard and then over, but sometimes God lets His people wander in the wilderness for 40 years, teaching them to trust Him and His timing, over and over and over. Pray that I will be patient with myself as this war within my mind and culture shock around me will mean good days and bad days for more days than I would like.

-Pray for discernment for boundaries within my apprenticeship. The nature of apprenticing at a birth center means women come in at all hours of the day and night, some just in time to lay down and have a baby (I kid you not, I’ve seen multiple births where the mom never has to push, she just lays down and lets go and you have to scramble to get your gloves on in time. #mamamadethatlookeasy). Pray that I will learn how to be available and also care for myself, because I’m learning that while those two things are equally important, they can’t always happen in the same space.

Jessi’s First Missionary Christmas

Feliz Navidad! Let’s start off this post with a “Merry Christmas” in a language that isn’t from any of my “homes” (where I’ve come from or where I live). Christmas season starts Sept 1 here in the Philippines, so I have only encountered Taytay in ever-increasing Christmas spirit, and here’s a photo as an example. This is the nearest mall to me, home to a bazillion stores (#youknowyourefromsmalltownAlaskawhen) among which are the local-equivalent to Walmart and a movie theater. The first time I came here was about four hours after I landed in-country, where the massive Christmas banner advertised it was only 75 days until Christmas! #nevertooearlyforchristmasspirit

SM stands for “Shoe Mart”, as the very first SM was a simple shoe store. #ialwayslooklikeagianthere

So right then I decided to combine my inherent love for all things DIY with the local passion for all things Christmas and settle into my new home by making Christmas decorations for the apartment. The end result was charming and homey, but honestly, even with my famous Christmas playlist playing in the background every moment after Thanksgiving, it still didn’t feel like Christmas for me. So I tried to figure out what I could do to overcome the following obstacles:

  1. This was my first Christmas without any semblance of snow in 15 years (and 25 year old Jessi doesn’t feel as festive at 85 degrees as 10-year-old Jessi did).
  2. This was my very first Christmas without any family and anyone I knew deeper than the acquaintance level.

It was a bit surprising for me to recognize that though I have been quite the world-traveler thus far in my adult life, I have always been “home for Christmas” as the song says. So I had some hurdles to overcome. But I also knew that if I did this Missionary Christmas-thing right, I could create a fantastic tradition; I’ve got 2 Christmases allotted for myself during my 18 months here, so I’ve got the chance to repeat whatever I start this year as a tried and true Christmas tradition. But what to do???

The solution came to me one Tuesday morning the exact instant my eyes opened: the beach. I’m going to the beach. I live on stickin tropical island, for goodness sake! I was not content with my only viewing of the ocean being from the back seat of a taxi while fighting off Manila-traffic-carsickness. I wanted the kind of ocean I’d feel safe to swim in (#manilaisgross), I wanted palm trees, sand and space. So I set off to the Birthing Home (where the internet is) with my dream in hand, eager to find a place to spend my own little mini-Christmas vacation. And one round-trip plane ticket and 4-day/3-night hostel booking later, I had it. p

Because I love a good life-in-a-different-world story, allow me to share with you the journey I took to get to my much-needed retreat.

Thursday, Dec 20: The last of the week’s prenatal days found me down-and-out with a horrid migraine, the kind that left me nauseous, restless and still hurting after medication. I took the day off from the Birthing Home, unable to function, and tried to sleep off the migraine in anticipation of the red-eye flight waiting for me. No such luck, I just couldn’t sleep. So I journeyed over to the Birthing Home at 11pm to catch the pre-arranged taxi I’d scheduled to take me to the airport. My flight didn’t leave till 4:20 am, but 11pm was the time that worked for the taxi, and I figured it was better to give myself plenty of time with Manila traffic (It has taken me 2.5 hrs to go 9.32 miles here, #trafficisnojoke). I went into the car already feeling nauseous from my migraine, but the stop-and-go traffic only made it worse. Carsickness plus the powerful second-hand smoke coming off the taxi driver had me at a 6/10 on the nausea scale.

Friday, Dec 21: Just after midnight, I arrive at the airport, surprised at how big it is. The Manila airport really is its own animal, with three terminals that are in no way connected to each other. They are stationed around the airstrip in such a way that if you have a connecting flight (or accidentally go to the wrong terminal for your departure), you have to get back on the highway and fight through Manila traffic to get to the right place #travelersbewarned #doublecheckyourtickets. I arrived at Terminal 3 as I should have, but quickly realized I underestimated this airport. When I heard Terminal 3 was mainly for domestic flights, I had pictured a tiny little airport like the one in my hometown: two “gates”, no security, just friendly flight attendants and a bunch of locals waiting to go see their family. Of course I forgot this is the CAPITAL CITY, home to 1.78 million people, so even a “domestic” airport would be massive (picture an airport bigger than the entirety of the Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage.) So I was forced to throw away my too-big sunscreen and bug spray while fruitlessly trying to find a bathroom where I could dump out my water. At home I had foolishly filled my 1-liter Nalgene with water for the drive (wouldn’t want to get dehydrated, amiright?) forgetting that I always get carsick here and wouldn’t be drinking any of it in the car. Three “closed for maintenance”  bathroom signs later, I looked at my ominously full water bottle with determined resignation and will-powered 800 mL’s down my unwilling throat. My stomach felt like an ocean in a storm, 8/10 on the nausea scale. I just couldn’t get that last 200 milliliters down for the life of me, and I managed to find a hidden bathroom upstairs only to kick myself for needlessly making myself more sick. Once I boarded the plane, I slept through the 1 hour and 20 minute flight sitting straight up, exhausted from my migraine day and miserable night.

I landed in Puerto Princessa, Palawan at 7am as the sun was just beginning to rise. A tiny little airport (like the one I thought I was going to in Manila), and the other side of the street where arrivals/departures were dropped off was already the most beautiful scenery I’d seen in the Philippines, so I knew this was a good idea. An hour-and-a-half later, I was in a van with 2 other western tourists for the 6 hour drive from the airport to El Nido. I felt almost fully myself at this point (3/10), so I ate the apple I’d packed for breakfast and enjoyed conversation with a bartender from Canada here on a scuba-diving trip across Asia and a Turkish woman living in Singapore working for a French business corporation (#worldtravelersarefriendlypeople). I don’t know if our driver thought he could get extra points or something, but this man was driving so fast through these twisty mountain roads. I quickly felt myself return to the same queasiness I’d left behind me in Manila, and all of the sudden the words from a dear missionary friend working in a remote village came to mind. We had Face-Timed a few days earlier where she shared with me that even after 4 years of living in her village, the 4-hr jeep ride up the mountains still made her throw up every time she had to travel away for a VISA trip. “And they won’t stop for you, so you have to position yourself just so to make sure your head is far enough out the window to clear the van”. I took my glasses off, gathered up my friend’s words like battle-armor and began to crank down the old-fashioned manual car window. Heave once, twice, three times. The first time in 6 years I’ve thrown up. #christmasjoys

Needless to say, when I arrived at the beach and quickly deduced that the hostel I’d booked was clearly a designed as the place for westerners to get drunk and party, I was pretty low. I had taken a taxi, an airplane, a vomit-inducing-6-hr-van-ride AND a tricycle to get here; it had better be worth it.

And oh it was!! The water was so clear, a beautiful pale turquoise fading into a deep azure blue. Coconut palm trees lining the 2-miles of beach with sand so soft and golden it looked like it had been imported from the Arabian desert. I spent all three days on the beach, got a wonderful sunburn and left refreshed.

Breakfast view

My Christmas Tree on Christmas Eve

The best of my three beach-side sunsets

There’s a reason all of my happiest photos are from the beach

I didn’t eat any breakfast on Christmas Eve (just in case), but the van driver taking us to the airport was much more considerate than his predecessor, so I kept my proverbial cookies. My flight returned me to Manila at 6pm, and the Christmas-madness began then and there. I took a Grab (south-east Asia’s Uber equivalent) straight to a place where I’d never been to celebrate my first-of-four Christmases.

Some dear friends, the C- family, had invited me to spend Noche Buena with them, and this was the first stop. Filipino tradition celebrates Christmas at midnight on December 24th (Spanish name for a Catholic tradition introduced by Spanish colonizers), and as this family is half-Filipino, half-Australian, we were celebrating a Filipino Christmas with all of the wife’s extended family at her brother’s house. We had Leche Flan, Buko Pandan and a ton of Videoke (karaoke set up with TV lyrics and random K-Pop music videos playing silently in the background). Lots of games, gifts exchanged… it was a fun, if not overwhelming, introduction to this festive holiday as celebrated in the Philippines.

Around 10 pm we went back to the C-‘s house for their nuclear family Noche Buena, with all of us gathered around the coffee table at 11:45pm, lighting the 5 Advent candles, setting up a Nativity Scene and signing Joy to the World and Silent Night as the clock struck midnight. More food, and the kids opened up their gifts as Christmas #2 came to a close.

Christmas #3 was the following day, December 25, where the Aussie husband prepped a western traditional Christmas dinner: turkey, mashed potatoes, roasted vegetables, etc, and the return of extended family to the house for a midday feast. My best friend here (the social worker from TLC) J- and I left the C-‘s house around 4:30pm and headed off to our last Christmas of the day at Shiphrah’s founder’s house for a quiet meal with her two daughters, son-in-law and 3 grandkids. We returned home around 8pm feeling thoroughly Christmas-ed. J- is Muslim (doesn’t celebrate Christmas) and I’m a single foreigner; both of us had no reason to have been so  comprehensively included in the traditions and celebrations of those around us, but we left feeling loved and happy.

Merry Christmas to all and to all a Magandang Gabi!

Pray for Me:

-I had a bit of a shock my first “real” day back to my life after such a beautiful retreat. Dec 26 hit me hard, and I spent of lot of the day in tears as I struggled to readjust and re-immerse. I had gone to Nacpan hoping for a refreshed spirit and clear instructions for how to conquer the difficulty I’d left back home, but it was all still waiting for me. I learned at the beach that the real rest I needed (and continue to need every day) is the daily utter rest in God’s presence, the kind where I let go and trust Him. Any attempt to muscle through this difficulty with new battle plans and “better” approaches will only drive me to my next retreat, just as exhausted as I was before. Pray for a renewed heart day by day, full of the joy of the Lord that is my strength.

Pray for me and my family. We are all travelers, we’ve all been missionaries together before, so we’re no stranger to holidays away, but being separated like this at this time of year is still difficult. Praise God for the internet, and pray for God’s blessing to fill in the holes that hurt a little bit extra right now.

 

Extra for reading all the way to the end:

Every time I move to a different country, I give myself little goals that, once reached, help me feel a bit more like a “local”. It’s a silly practice, but I’ve kept it up over the years. When in Nicaragua for 4 months, my goal was to successfully wear my hair down for a full day without ever putting it up. It took me 4 months, but I did it! I was able to cross that milestone within the first week here in the Philippines, so I knew I needed a more challenging goal (perhaps to reflect a longer period spent here). As I shared in a previous post, I quickly discovered that my apartment could’ve been part of the Animal Kingdom in my first month here (gotta love the rainy season in the tropics!), so I decided to kill two birds with one stone. My Filipino goal: find a cockroach in my bathroom and go about my business with it in there. No freak outs, no killing the nasty thing. If I succeeded with this goal I would prove to myself that 1) I had conquered my life-long fear of cockroaches, and 2) I considered the little pests as a harmless nuisance, just like the locals do.

Fast-forward to my third day on the beach last week. I walk into one of the 6 hostel showers eager to rinse off the salt from my sunburnt skin and realize I forgot my tsinelas (“t-s” is pronounced like “ch” here in the Philippines. “chee-NEH-las” are slippers or flip flops). No big deal, I thought. Strengthens the immune system, right? And then I see him, a 3-inch cockroach, crawling up the wall, only a yard away from me. Sure, I kept my eyes on him (mostly to make sure he didn’t fly at me, because yes, some cockroaches FLY. #dontthinkyouresafe) But I showered like I planned and left the washroom feeling victorious! Just 3 months in and I’ve already met my goal! Merry Christmas to me!

Normal days and lots of Fiestas

Three months of births: (16 observations, 37 catches/primary assists = 53 births under my belt so far!!!)

Fun Tagalog Word for today: pasok (PAH-sohk). This word can be used as a verb or a noun (which isn’t super unusual in any language). As a verb, pasok means “come inside!”. I say this whenever I see a mom/family lingering in the doorway of the birthing home, wondering if this is a good time, and I hear this every time I get into a Jeepney (the BEST form of transit around over here. IF you can find the seemingly-random spot where the right jeepney’s station is, you can go just about anywhere for 20 cents. Just be prepared to cram in; the most I’ve seen pack into a Jeepney so far is 29 people and I’ve only been here for three months!) But as a noun, pasok can mean anything from “work” to “school” to whatever else fills your average day. I just find it interesting that one word can both mean “come inside” and can also cover whatever keeps you inside on most days.

Black Friday looked a little different over here. Firstly, Thanksgiving really isn’t a thing in the Philippines, so the day after Thanksgiving is even less consequential. Add on top of that the knowledge that Christmas “season” begins September 1 here, and you would’ve expected the day to pass uneventfully. But oh no, we certainly had an event! November 23rd was Shiphrah Birthing Home’s final graduation for the year. And what a time we had!!!

As I briefly explained in a previous post, the midwives at Shiphrah provide free seminars for pregnant women and their families to attend over a 9-week period. Every mom who plans to deliver here is required to attend at least three (unless the mom is a working mother and her days off don’t align with the days the seminars are held), though the seminars are open to women who can’t actually give birth here (Filipino law prevents anyone under 20 years old from delivering anywhere but a hospital). Most of our moms come to many of the seminars, but attendance to all 9 is difficult. Coming to the birthing home every week requires the expense for transport to and from, and a time commitment to attend a 90-minute seminar in the midst of the multitude of time-demands women living in poverty have in their day-to-day lives just to keep things going for their families. And then we have women who deliver before the 9-week course finishes; some women come post-partum, but many finish the course by attending any missed seminars during their next pregnancy. For the remarkable few who have completed all ofShiphrah’s seminars the midwives put together a fabulous graduation Fiesta to honor their commitment.

It’s important to see why this commitment is so huge. Yes, a commitment to completing something is worth celebrating, but the commitment seen here isn’t really about that at all. These women are showing a commitment to themselves, to their babies about to be born. They’re showing with their own lives that they want to know what’s best and wise and important in a pregnancy, both for themselves and their children. They’re showing that, though it takes effort, it is possible to make informed decisions for themselves. That they have a voice and they are prepared and eager to use it. And that’s why we celebrate.

The poor have always been overlooked and exploited. That’s really just how the world works; we can see that all throughout the Christmas story that many of us are reading during Advent. People without financial means are seen as expendable space-fillers; the powers-that-be can move them around(or forget about them entirely) with little push-back because those in poverty don’t usually have the means to advocate for themselves. What this looks like practically for the mamas I serve here is a culture in which women (the bottom of the totem pole in an already undervalued group of people) must be shown and reminded that they have a right to advocate for themselves and their children. Where a public hospital (the only option for most of my mamas, which is still painfully expensive) would tell a mother she isn’t allowed to have anyone with her during her labor and delivery, we want to empower a woman by reminding her she gets to pick who she wants to support her. Where a public hospital will overrule a woman’s choice (if they ask or listen at all in the first place) to“necessary” procedures like routine episiotomies because “they know best” and this is just a poor woman who doesn’t know what’s best for her, we want to empower each mama with accurate information, allowing her to make the choice for what she wants (in every area possible).

That journey-into-my-developing-soap-box all to say, Graduation Day is no small thing. The midwives throw a Graduation four times a year, planning for a party that lasts from 9am-3pm. And I’m coming to learn that every Filipino fiesta requires three things: food, laughter and karaoke.The midwives spent all Thursday night prepping vegetables for enough pancit  to feed the 85+ women we were expecting the next day; “pancit” is a delicious rice-noodle dish (the local equivalent to your standard Chow Mein), and we were cooking up 7 kilos of rice noodles. That’s 15.4 POUNDS of dried rice noodles (which weigh almost nothing. Ate G- spent hours boiling up batch after batch of noodles in the largest wok I’ve ever seen). We played some amazing games, spent hours taking turns singing karaoke for the crowd and at the end each mama was given gifts for her coming arrival.

Just one batch of rice noodles for our Graduation Day pancit
One of our Mama’s mothers took the mic, and she was a crowd favorite.
85+ Graduated Mamas and our Midwives on the last Graduation Day of 2018

And just in case my first Graduation Day wasn’t already memorable enough, I got a good story out of it, too. Around 1pm I was sitting on the sidelines of the party, watching these 8/9month pregnant women dancing with more fervor than I would’ve thought possible with such a shift in center-of-gravity. I stepped inside Bahay Paanakan (“birthing home”) for a drink and saw one of our mamas sitting down, looking very much in labor (it has taken me a while to learn how to read non-verbal cues here, where mamas tend to handle labor very internally with little outside signals that anything is going on). She had been at theGraduation from the start and told a midwife she’d felt a little “crampy” since this morning. “Should I go to graduation?” she’d asked, and was encouraged to have fun at the party. If she went into labor, she was already where she needed to be with a whole horde of midwives ready for anything. So she enjoyed the party, dancing and singing and playing games until I saw her sitting down.“They’re getting a bit more painful now”, she told me. And had a baby 28 minutes later! #partylikeyoumeanit

Our strong Mama just as she was starting to feel “crampy”

This past month I’ve been part of no less than 6 fiestas:

  1. Celebrating Ate H- passing her national licensure exam to become a Registered Midwife
  2. Graduation Day
  3. A feast and karaoke celebrating the day Ate H-got her diploma
  4. Ate D-‘s birthday
  5. The Despedida (goodbye party) for my fellow intern L-
  6. An party with 5 other classmates of Ate H- on an island in Laguna Lake to celebrate their graduation from midwifery school (more on this later)

But I have also had a horde of very normal days. Going to the market, waiting at the Birthing Home for someone to come in labor or for a postpartum check-up.Going to bed wondering if I’ll end up being wakened by a midnight labor call or my alarm set for 5am. 3 months in and I’m starting to feel like I’m getting a sense of “normal” here, which has its benefits and struggles.

And now a bit of housekeeping. Three months, ¼ of a year or1/6 of my time here. Whichever way you choose to see it, this seems like a good time to do a bit of reflection.

This past month especially I have been praying for God to show me what ministry looks like for me over here. Obviously I know that my whole life is ministry (that’s just the case for every believer, no matter where you live or what you “do”.) But I’ve been on the lookout for opportunities to purposefully love people with Christ’s love, to talk to them about who He is to me and who He is for them. I really think that I’ve been given the spiritual gifts of Faith and Encouragement, andI’m hungry for chances to encourage and testify.

It has been hard for me to figure out how to use my gifts in this context (new culture, new language, no specific/singular church family) but praise God, He has shown me I can use my gifts here, and each time He has opened the door, it’s been in an unexpected way. Whether that means listening to a friend who has a heavy heart and praying, or encouraging a brand-new friend who was making some hard-but-necessary life choices in obedience to Christ to stay strong and trust that God will protect her as she walks forward in obedient faith, or (incredibly) just living my life every day, God is using me to encourage people around me, often when I’m not even on the lookout for it. My Bible school professor once shared this insight with my class (twelve 18-22 year olds hungry to know the specific plan God had for their lives). He said so often we want to know God’s leading in the major moments in our lives: where to go to school, what to do professionally, who to marry, what life-long calling we need to pursue in ministry, etc. But the tricky truth is it’s usually the “little” decisions along the way that, if prayerfully and obediently handled as they come, get us to the place where we are able to say yes to God’s “big”callings (Matt 25.21).  I say all this to share what this past month has looked like for me. I have been living my life here for 3 months, most of which were full of very normal days with lots of little decisions. And yet God has shepherded me along in those little decisions and has been using the written messages from people I never would’ve thought would message me to show me that all these little decisions are part of a “big calling”. I don’t want to blow things out of proportion, but it’s important for me to take a step back once and a while and see that I am living out a “big calling” on my life, even on my normal days.

I also want to take a moment to honor the end of a really special season. Saturday was the day a dear friend left, my fellow intern L-.As soon as we met each other, L- and I both knew that God had planned ahead for us by giving us each a good gift in the other person. How ironic to meet another Alaskan (grew up in Eagle River Grace Church!), who was also a missionary kid in a south-east Asian country for four years as a girl, a TCK (third culture kid), passionate about foreign missions, with the very same name as my own little sister. L- was not only an invaluable guide for me as I began my dive into the local culture and language, she was a sympathizer with culture shock and the frustrations that come with the sudden lack of comforts seen as“standard” in the western world. We had a lot of fun (meaning many nights watching Gilmore Girls on my laptop #happy25thbirthdaytome) and had some life-changing adventures together.

 L- lived here in Taytay for 6 months as part of a social-justice/complete-immersion missions program from Wheaton College, where she shadowed our newest midwife here at theBirthing Home. L- really sought to understand life from the local perspective, living in in the slum on the other side of our hill with the midwife’s family.L- was really honest about the struggles she faced (externally and internally),and I admire how she has fought to love a people so different than her own while living with the daily realities of a life in poverty and struggling to know what her role as Christian really is to make a difference in the majority world.I will miss this girl, and I praise God that He decided to make my first 3 months here coincide with her last 3!

Bittersweet to see L- go

Pray for Me:

-I’m still working on a long-term church plan. As I’ve shared in the past, I have found an incredible church in the next town over, one which passionately empowers its community to live in accountability and discipleship. I love it and am starting to feel more and more welcomed there. But I have also come to see that I need additional community (without a language and culture barrier) for my own health and joy here, and that’s where I’ve really been struggling. Pray that God would provide me with a culturally/linguistically-similar Family here, one in love with Jesus and His life-changing Gospel. And pray for perseverance as I have full-faith in God’s provision all the while knowing His timing is best (and also different than mine).

-I have started the application process towards both of the“big decisions” that lay ahead of me: online midwifery school and the missionsOrganization I have been praying over joining up with since 18 years old. Pray for clear guidance and financial provision within the school realm, and pray for a sincere connection despite the limits of digital correspondence as I begin my season of important conversations with this organization.

Praise Reports!

I’m starting to feel my own rhythm with my births here. This past month I have seen my first two emergencies handled expertly the midwives apprenticing me here (a postpartum hemorrhage and the resuscitation of a newborn without any respirations or heartbeat), both confirming just how vital my time here is. My most recent birth went off without a hitch; I found myself in a position where I led as the woman’s primary supporter while the midwife  trusted each step I took. Three months in we are really starting to learn how we all do this birth thing together, and it’s really something beautiful to watch.

I got a guitar on Saturday (thanks Mom)! Maybe a small victory to some, but these three months have been the longest I’ve lived without an instrument in my hands in my adult life. I’m sad to see how my piano fluency will diminish here due to absence, but I so look forward to the opportunity to grow as a guitar player (funny how you start to appreciate something once it’s your only option). The few timesI’ve played it thus far have already proved so enriching in my daily mornings with the Lord.

-While I have so far to go with my language learning, I have received feedback from the midwives and my mamas that my accent is spot onat times. Hooray!!

-After three months I have overcome my life-long fear of cockroaches. Now I just think they’re annoying. #asgoodasitsgonnaget

– This is my first Christmas ever away from family, and my first Christmas in 15 years without snow, but I know that God’s calling on my life will make Christmases like these more normal than those I’ve known up until this point. So I’ve decided it’s time to make my own Christmas traditions, and I came up with THE BEST IDEA (you’ll hear all about it next post). Suffice it to say, I am now super-excited about this Christmas (and next year’s too, since it will also happen over here).

To conclude, I wanted to share this picture. Sunday I had the privilege of traveling with our newest midwife to visit an also-newly-licensed classmate of hers; this friend lives on an island in Laguna Lake (enjoy the irony of that name, Spanish-speaking friends), and I so enjoyed the evening. In classic life-in-a-developing-country style, the trip had its own unforeseen twists that made it so we arrived home at 4:15 am the next day(instead of the Sunday night at 9pm that we had planned on), but this picture alone made it worth it. The most open space I’ve seen in over three months living here. Yes, you can see the lights of the Manila-monster at every edge of this lake, and yes, the light-pollution blocked out most of the stars, but here I can see a beautiful sunset from horizon to horizon, with the tiny-sliver-of-a-moon looking down on this little fish-farm bamboo shack. Beauty isn’t impossible in over-crowded Asian cities; you just have to be ok with riding on an impossibly loud ferryboat for over an hour to find it. 😉

Sunset over Laguna Lake from Talim Island

Tiny Neighbors across the Wall

Births since last post: 7 (current count is 32-baby-catches under my belt!! Not to shabby for 10 weeks!)

Fun Tagalog word for the day: anak (AH-nahk). When I moved here, I expected to encounter a significant overlap in vocabulary between the Indonesian and Filipino languages. Geographically, these two archipelago nations are really only separated by the equator. And as I’m learning more and more Tagalog (at a rate which seems painfully slow to me), I have seen a number of cross-over words, but often the connection only makes me confused. In Tagalog and Indonesian both we see the phrase “anak nya”, but here the phrase means “his/her child”, whereas among our neighbors-to-the-south it would be “your child”. Situations like these make me second-guess myself…

I used to be a light sleeper. I’ve always been a morning person, it’s pretty easy for me to wake up fully alert. When I used my iPhone as an alarm in the past, I had to turn off the “vibrate with sound on” setting to keep the vibrations from startling me awake each morning. Eventually, I bought a little bird-house shaped alarm clock that used birdsong as the morning wake-up call. And it worked like a charm!

I brought my pleasant wake-up contraption with me in my suitcase with every intention to keep the happy-morning routine going, but it only took one night here in Taytay to realize: I’m never going to hear that clock going off in the morning. Life in this corner of the Philippines is always noisy; roosters do not feel constrained to sunrise (somehow there is always a rooster crowing, even though I haven’t seen one in my 2+ months here). Motorcycles driving down our road and hawkers selling their wares show up as soon as the sun is up (5:30 am), which is just another incentive to embrace my natural morning-person disposition and wake up before the sun is up.

And then there’s my neighbors. 16 littles with all their noises live just next door. Sometimes it can seem like someone is wailing from sunup to sundown.  But then we get happy sounds too. Older kids singing and playing. Laughing. My next door neighbors are the kids living in The Little Children’s Home (TLC). My window looks out to a wall separating my apartment from TLC’s nursery, where babies under 1 live.

Started by the husband of Shiphrah’s founder, TLC is a home for babies and children who were either abandoned or cannot live at home.Despite their physical proximity and the connection between their respective founders, TLC and Shiphrah Birthing Home have no actual relationship. It would be easy to think that a birthing Home providing excellent care to women in poverty would help a woman unable to care for her child by placing them in a wonderful situation like TLC, and indeed, that is exactly what I thought the set-up here was. But TLC is legally unable to receive any baby born at Shiphrah, and is very upfront about that. I was told this in my first conversation with the social worker for TLC; she bluntly stated, “If we were to directly receive any child born at Shiphrah, we would be suspect for child trafficking”. The PediatricsPublication has found that the child-sex trafficking in Philippine Islands is ranked among the highest in the world (6), with UNICEF estimating as many as60,000-100,000 Filipino children trapped in child prostitution (7). When you realize that the term “child trafficking” encompasses so much more than “just” the sexual exploitation of children… a sobering reality for even more children living here. What a clear sign of the safety I grew up with, the “normal” that has been shaped by my life experience and socio-economic status, that I never even considered the possible connotation of child trafficking through such a link.

Each TLC child has a different story. Sometimes families surrender their children because they cannot afford to care for them.Overpopulation and poverty are a nasty combination, and an ever-present reality for many Filipinos. The Philippines is home to over 107 million people (1), and my province of Rizal is growing by a 3.8% population increase each year (2). Children from TLC don’t just come from Rizal, they are brought to the Home from all over the Philippines. In 2015, studies showed 21.5% ofFilipinos across the country were living beneath the poverty line (3) and there are 16 regions in this country (most of them in the southern regions of Visayas and Mindanao) where over 40% of the population live below the poverty line (4). And in areas like Taytay, where population density is 21,000people per square mile (I can’t even get my head around that number), that can be an overwhelming combination (5).

Occasionally a child is found abandoned (in the market, in a jeepney, in a public restroom) and some of these kids have been rescued from child trafficking. It can be hard, especially coming from a midwife’s perspective, not to condemn the mother who sells her own newborn to alleged traffickers for money (to sell a newborn baby is just a mystifying and horrendous thought!), but, then again, I’m not 25 with 8+ kids, no/no-consistent income, addicted to drugs. That reality is the reality for far too many women here in the Philippines (and in so many other areas in the developing world), and that is why the midwives at Shiphrah PUSH family planning so firmly.

Some of the children at TLC will only live there until their families are able to take them back, and some are put up for adoption (domestic and international. Domestic adoptions were pretty rare in the Philippines due to cultural stigma, but that is slowly reversing. This is great news, because research has shown that a child adopted within his/her home country has the best chance at a good transition). No matter the situation, when a child leaves the Home, the caregivers and volunteers throw a Despedida, a Spanish term that denotes a goodbye party (I actually had my own Despedida when I left Nicaragua after living there for 4 months in 2012). Lots of food, lots of laughs and lots of songs take place at these parties. They sing in English and in Tagalog, celebrating the new life this child is about to receive. Despedida’s are beautiful things.

A few weeks ago I laid down in my bed, singing my own incoherentsong of gratitude for 5 inches of foam that is the exact length of one specificnon-Filipina, exhausted from catching 2 babies in less than 4 hours on a totalof 5 hours of sleep. I heard a handful of kiddos from next door singing. Intiny little toddler voices, a squeaky melody rang out in my room, where onedog-tired midwife apprentice was hoping to get a longer-than-10-minute power-napin before beginning the discharge exams and newborn baths for that morning’sbirths. Generally I try to dismiss the kid-sounds as I hear them; they’reusually either wordless tunes from little ones loving life, or they’re Tagalognursery rhymes that I’m completely unfamiliar with.

But that morning the kids were singing with exceptional fervor. I began to recognize the words to an English song as they drifted into my room, loud and clear (or at least as “clear” as a bunch of toddlers singing in a second language can be): “Oh no, You never let go, through the calm and through the storm. Oh no, You never let go, in every high and every low…” Over and over, with the enthusiasm so effervescent in this age group. Over and over, these kids sang a song talking about the Never-Letting-Go Love of God, a song sung in faith and joy over each child from TLC at their Despedida.

And suddenly, I was moved to tears. These kids, each with their own broken story, shouting about how God will never let go of them. These children singing a song they have learned from watching someone else go back home or to a new forever-home while they are still waiting, singing about how God has always been there with them. Kids so young some people might argue how much they understand the lyrics they are singing, nevertheless proclaiming the beauty of the Gospel as loud as they physically can. Babies, ministering to the heart of one American who was privileged enough to get a peek into a beautifully innocent moment.

(If you want a taste of my everyday background music, jump over here). 

Pray for (them):

Pray for the children living at TLC. Pray that the love of this God who will never let go of them would be known, felt and experienced by each one. Pray for discernment and a clear path to the bestHome they can have for each specific kid’s needs, be that returning to their family of birth or being welcomed into a new one. If you want more information about TLC, here is their website.

-Pray for TLC’s social worker who has become one of my best friends here. She is a superhero in every way; she pours herself out for these kids, fighting for their healing in the midst of brokenness, really working to restore broken families and, when that isn’t possible, to create beautiful new lives through adoptions. This wonderful woman has a heart of near-unending compassion; pray for strength, renewed vigor, and a connection to this Love that won’t let her go.

TLC’s superhero social worker and myself

-And finally, a challenge: God commands us to take care of the widow and orphan in their distress (James 1.27). There is, arguably, no better lifestyle example of the wonder of the Gospel than adoption. If you are a Christian, God adopted you, rescued you from death and brokenness, and welcomed you into a Family and Life that made you brand new again. I challenge you to pray with an honest heart before God: Is God calling you to foster or adopt? There are SO many children in the US and around the world that desperately need to have someone show them the Love that won’t let them go. Would you be willing?