It’s midnight on my 23rd birthday. I’m standing exactly 8,345 miles away from home in a Filipino town outside Manila and ugly-crying over a chocolate bundt cake as friends sing “happy birthday”. It’s one of those weird moments that while it’s happening, I’m hyper-aware, knowing I’ll remember it vividly for years to come, because it’s so quintessential of my time here. I feel both impossibly removed from everyone and everything that’s familiar to me and yet, impossibly at home.
What led to this moment, this perfect snapshot of my life in the Philippines in which I’m somehow crying over food, surrounded by beautiful, lovely people?
My journey with UpperRoom started in August 2017. A fellow intern had seen that a someone she knew from church was in a worship event. The group is a non-denominational gathering of musicians who seek to worship God, grow in community, and reach out to those who have never encountered the Holy Spirit. As the event was held in Makati, the swanky part of Manila, we wrote it off but when our day took us out there anyway, we decided to go. I don’t remember much except that it felt like a home-y, trendy Hillsong concert and I loved it. I followed their Instagram account and promptly forgot about the group, figuring that they met in Makati and ain’t no way I’m braving the traffic more than necessary.
In the following weeks, I took part in my first rescue operations with International Justice Mission. To advocate for justice system reform so that those committing cybersex trafficking of children are accountable for their crimes is one thing, but to sit next to a victim so immediately after their rescue, in those first tentative steps of a lifelong journey to heal from their trauma, is another. This little girl the same age as my sister, with a beautiful smile and innocent spirit- there is no preparation for that.
I had just finished up with a very long night shift on one of them and it was particularly affecting. I left broken and burning with anger.
Why did this happen to this little girl and countless other innocent children? Where were you, God?
I didn’t know what to do but I knew that I didn’t want to be alone with my thoughts. I saw that UpperRoom was having a worship event, this time a ten minute walk from my home. I begged everyone I knew to come along with me, because at that point, I was still too afraid to go anywhere by myself ((if you’re seeing the gross irony that I managed to move over 8,000 miles away from home by myself but wouldn’t walk a couple blocks away alone, I sure as heck didn’t)). I decided there and then that this would be the time I would just suck it up and go.
I walked into the room, hilariously standing out as I do most places, and was pointed in the direction of the food table. As I started to think of all the excuses as to why I was just not gonna eat pancit, an UpperRoom welcomer mercifully intercepted me and introduced herself. Within two minutes, we found out that we actually knew someone in common: one of our shelter partners who I had just sat next to in a week-long training. Jam, the UR volunteer, sent a rush of peace over me when she said “I know exactly the work that you do and can imagine the pain that is there”. Over the course of the night, she prayed over me with an intensity and specificity that was from God. As the lights went dark and I was alone His presence, I began to cry out. I asked my questions to Him and I voiced every angry thought I had. I pled as I wept, for understanding, and peace, and at the end, just joy. Somehow, my evening had turned into praise.
One particular song that I had never heard before seared over my heart.
I came to realize that God was with that rescued child always. In the hours of investigation, the delicate details of the rescue, the prayers of the law enforcement, the compassion of the social workers, God had orchestrated it all for her, perfectly in His time. ((I didn’t know then but her perpetrator would be given a lifetime conviction, his network would lead to the arrest of countless others across the world, and I would see her again at a client Christmas party where she happily introduced me to all of her friends at the shelter and played games for hours)).
But that night at UpperRoom, I happened upon the only answer to my deep troubles that would be the theme of my entire year: to respond in worship.
Over the next few months, I kept going back just to slip in quietly, say hello to Jam, and worship God as though I was alone in front of my Maker. Whenever I was overwhelmed with living abroad, being a foreigner in a foreign land, frustrated with the work, heartbroken, lonely, or celebrating and rejoicing that I even had the privilege of those hardships, I turned back in worship.
Finally around January 2018, I asked if they ever needed prayer I’d love to pray for them. UpperRoom blessed me and I wanted to bless them back in any kind of small way. But before I knew it, I was swept up into the team, joining the thirty-some bright, young Christians who so fervently live out their faith, and was suddenly a part of UpperRoom.
The team is full of the kindest, most faithful people I’ve ever had the pleasure being friends with. From Juan who I can only describe as my giant Filipino big brother, Alexis the bubbly teacher who I spent work holidays with, Mandy who introduced me to K-Pop, Jek my personal photographer, Shar and Bea who volunteered their talents to IJM, Franc whose presence always gave me peace, to Pae and Paowee who are always listening ears…honestly I would go on and on. I’m actively obsessed with them all.
((Also a weird fact about UpperRoom that pertains to nothing is that they’re all gorgeous. Everyone is a model/entrepreneur/photographer/single. It’s baffling. And wholly unjust.))
I had never been in community like that before. They aren’t doing it for money, or fame, or recognition. They genuinely love each other. When they say “anything you need”, I truly believe them. I kept attending each team event, kind of shocked to continuously find myself there, like one day they’d look at me and be like “ew you’re not one of us, leave”.
Instead they called me family. They spoke truth over me. They encouraged me and banished the lies that the enemy put over me to make me isolated and lonely.
My work with International Justice Mission was the given of my year and the community there is amazing. But UpperRoom was a completely surprising bonus blessing I would’ve never guessed. Who would’ve ever thought I’d be on the welcoming team, greeting people, learning their stories, and getting to pray over their night that they’d experience God in such a personal way, the way I did that first night? Me who dodged the church welcoming team my entire life, pushing my brothers in front of me like human shields was now one of them?
I’ve come back to the United States and have been here one long, hard month. As I process and try to give honor to my life in the Philippines, I keep coming back to UpperRoom. It had nothing to do with my work, nothing to do with me being an expat, and all to do with everything God had to teach me about trusting people and trusting Him.
At this point, I’m kind of miffed at it all though. Where else am I gonna find a group of young people who are so dedicated to God and love each other and are crazy talented and somehow also like me?? THEY SET THE BAR TOO HIGH!!!
God provided me a family so unique to my time there, so weaved into why I love Manila. I have to trust that He continues blooms opportunities for love and fellowship like that around all of us, wherever we go. As my friend Paowee once said, it is rather like Ruth. “Let your people be my people”.
These are my people. And while I don’t know when I’ll see them again, I do know that (to quote Chance the Rapper), I’ll be seeing them again in the Up- in the UpperRoom.