You know that feeling when you try to wake up from a self-induced NyQuil coma and you’re kinda awake and moving, but also like, are you even?
Living in Southeast Asia for nearly six months now has been like experiencing that transcendent, hazy dream-like state constantly interspersed with acute moments of the deepest, sharpest realities I’ve ever known.
Maybe it’s the pervasive pollution finally seeping its way into my brain (haha, no, but also, maybe), but I’ve been surprisingly content and happy here. Even though working in the field of anti-sex trafficking invites a certain darkness into my life that was not there before, when I look back on these six months, all I see is joy.
One of my most cherished parts of living here is going to a nondenominational worship group (think Filipino Hillsong); it’s just an intimate group of people who worship together in a coffee shop but it’s one of the most peaceful times I get to regularly commune with God.
Last night was their Christmas celebration so naturally some well-loved holiday songs were thrown in like “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Joy to the World”. Even though I’ve known all these songs my whole life, I had never actually thought of them as worship, praise that can be sung at anytime because it’s still as true in March and January as it is in December.
Stripped down to just the lyrics, I was blown away by verses in “Oh Holy Night” that I had always sung without a second thought:
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appear’d and the soul felt His worth
Chains shall He break
For the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
In our world of sin, this is the only hope we can trust in.
I’ve met women and children whose lives were given prices, whose very innocence was sold. Money was ascribed over their actual personhood. They were seen not as human beings but as flesh.
But God gave the gift of Jesus Christ for them as much as you and me. And in Christ, they can truly know the worth of their soul as more precious than any jewel or treasure. I got to see that firsthand at the many Christmas parties held for them (y’all, no one goes all out for Christmas like the Philippines, lemme tell ya). It was a hard tension to understand that all these beautiful people were only gathered together because of the evil committed against them but in those moments between silly Christmas dances and emotional reunions, all we saw was joy, unspeakable joy.
I’ve come to understand that I’ve been marvelously and undeservedly protected by God during my time here.
I come from a background of privilege and ignorance, and as an American, I have the added burden of carrying the shame of my country as one of the largest source of consumers of the online sexual exploitation of children in the world. I know that I’m here because of an evil that is perpetuated and demanded by my countrymen and the only reason I’m able to be on this side of the issue is because I was fortunate to be born where I was.
When you fight for justice, in any capacity, you live with constant impossible questions with impossible answers. My heart should be ripped out every day. I should be filled with apathy or hopelessness or willful ignorance or anger that steals my ability to see beauty and innocence. But instead, I have been prospering here, emotionally and spiritually (and physically, ya girl boxes now!).
How, you may ask?
By doing the only thing I can: looking for the miracles, the fighters, the empowered survivors, the ones restoring innocence, and the ones risking it all who ask for nothing in return.
My cup runs over here.
From my colleagues who bear all the traffic and the heartache, who work cases over years and years; who are so humble, I think they’d be embarrassed that I’m actually writing this, I find vision.
From the women I get to join in fellowship, who are writing a new future for themselves and their families, who have left a life of bondage and choose to empower those who are just now beginning their journey to restoration, I find courage.
From the clients who we get to honor, and show love to, and protect, and fight for, and comfort during moments of terrifying transition, I find resilience, the likes of which I will never be able to fathom.
From the people who serve alongside me, and the ones back home who support me in prayer and livelihood, to the people who tithe to IJM at my church here in the Philippines, and the friends I’ve met here who truly care about this work, I find righteousness, the ability to act when they see evil, a willingness to serve passionately.
As I near being halfway done with my time and season of life here, everyone asks “how do you think you’ve changed the most?” and my answer has been consistent.
I no longer operate under fear.
I don’t fear the second half of my internship because I know God will provide. I don’t fear not knowing where I’m going next or what career this is launching me into because my time here is so clearly steeped with meaning and capacity-building. I don’t fear walking away with sorrow or paranoia or darkness, because my God has given me a community here who I get to bear it all with.
I only have joy now.
And a nose ring. I guess that changed too.