It had been almost five months since we’d moved into the small mountain village of Hinugasan (meaning: “washed”) in the highlands of Paluan, Occidental Mindoro, Philippines. We were there among 40-plus families to start some mission projects for Laymen Ministries. We began with a series of meetings with village elders that resulted in a mutual agreement to work together.
Shortly after our arrival from the United States we lived in a mission house in the village of Gayamat, not far from the base of the mountain. It was supposed to be our “permanent” home during our mission term, which delighted me because it had running water and a real shower room. But we realized we would be more effective if we lived among the people we hoped to reach, so we moved. A missionary wife has to be both flexible and practical, so off went my ethnic doll collection, knickknacks, wall hangings, and more delicate earthly possessions to storage. (Three years later we discovered cat-sized rats had completely devoured my Lithuanian and Polish dolls from previous mission assignments.)
With this flurry of changes we set to work to get to know our neighbors better. The goal was to become culturally sensitive, and thus better able to address their needs.
Time for a Break
Since to this point we had been involved in intensive physical labor on several community development projects, I decided it was time for a break and to get into a festive mood. As my birthday approached, I thought of having a small party in our new neighborhood among the ethnic Filipinos called Iraya Mangyans. I mentally made up my guest list: four neighboring families bordering our bamboo house. If each family sent three or four representatives, I would have 12 Mangyan guests, about 20 people total, including our missionary helpers and a couple of lowlanders who were coming to help with the cooking.
The party was scheduled for 3:00 p.m., and my lowlander friends came around noon to help with food preparation and cooking. Veggies were cut and sliced diagonally for the rice noodles. Root crops and exotic fruits were peeled and chopped for the sweet, soupy dessert.
As the aromatic smell of sautéed garlic and onion wafted through the air, teenage girls in the village started showing up, some with baby brothers or sisters in tow. Some watched the cooking done in our outdoor kitchen, a campfire-style stove in a wooden structure covered by corrugated metal roof. Others stood outside the windows or sat on benches on our porch, while the rest came inside the house and made themselves comfortable on long wooden benches. The villagers had always been curious about the new and different things we did, so they got a friendly welcome from us. It was OK for them to watch and hang around. Maybe, we thought, they would “disappear” after a while.
However, when parents and more children started to appear left and right, at the front and back doors, I began to get suspicious and a little nervous. Nobody seemed to have any intention of leaving. Then the grandparents came. They arrived in groups, while those I had invited hadn’t arrived yet. Before I knew it, it was standing room only inside and outside our home.
Like a thunderbolt it finally hit me: they’re all coming to my birthday party; these are all my guests.
I realized this was one big clan, related in one way or the other. Everybody shares their joys and sorrows, even their clothes and transistor radios. No public announcement or personal invitation was needed. It took just one or two people to know of a special occasion, and the news spread like a kaingin (slash and burn) fire.
I’d thought I understood their culture, since we spoke the same dialect. But in reality I still had a long way to go to learn their lifestyle and mentality, the nuances of their subculture. It was a humbling but eye-opening experience.
Back to Work
Frantically I dashed to the kitchen. “What shall we do?” I asked. “How can we feed them all?”
Letty, who’d brought her largest pot for the fruit soup, suggested adding more water. As for the noodles, there was nothing more we could add except an urgent prayer that God would multiply our scanty meal to feed the whole village. I found a pot of cooked pinto beans I was reserving for later. I spiced it up, and that comprised our five loaves and two fish.
Recovering from my initial shock, I invited everybody for a prayer, which my equally astounded husband, Allen, led. Since we didn’t have enough plates and cups for 60 or 70 people, I asked everybody to please bring their own plates and cups, which they did in a rush. To make sure everyone got a bite, we served the food meticulously, one by one, as people waited their turn. I kept scooping and dishing out the soup, beans, and noodles until everyone had taken their share.
Amazingly, we even got to enjoy the delicious coconut-cream-flavored dessert and savory rice noodles our friends had prepared. There were even some leftovers, so I was able to set aside a plate for one hardworking family I had invited but were unable to make it that afternoon.
Everyone seemed satisfied, happy to share in the seemingly instant birthday blessings our heavenly Father bountifully provided. Praise God, who always listens to our prayers wherever we are! I may have felt isolated from the rest of the world during that time of my life, but I never felt far from Him.
Although “Happy Birthday” wasn’t sung and no presents were given during my birthday-party-turned-soup-kitchen in the highlands of Paluan, that was the best and most unforgettable birthday I’d ever had!
Maritess Robles-Branson is a homeschool mom and freelance writer who lives with her husband, Allen, and daughter, Alyssa, in Ferndale, Washington.
What Do You Think?
1. When have you experienced a misunderstanding that led to too many guests and not enough food, drink, or space to entertain them? Describe it briefly.
2. Why are the stories of Jesus feeding thousands with a few loaves and fish, and turning water into wine, significant? Are they “just miracles”? Or do they tell us something about God?
3. How often were food and drink part of Jesus’ ministry to those He tried to reach?
4. What, exactly, takes place when we share a meal or some food with someone? Why is it important in our outreach efforts?
Maritess Robles-Branson is a homeschool mom and freelance writer who lives with her husband, Allen, and daughter, Alyssa, in Ferndale, Washington. This article was published January 20, 2011.