“And I will make them and the places round about my hill a blessing; and I will cause the shower to come down in his season; there shall be showers of blessing.” Ezekiel 34:26
For those of you that don’t know, August is the tail end of monsoon season in the Philippines, a three-month period during which the weather map lights up like a Christmas tree decorated with red, orange, and yellow spiral ornaments. The clouds move in and the heavens open up and pour out rain, rain, and (you guessed it) more rain. Gusty winds carry the precipitation invasion throughout the islands feeding the tropical vegetation, watering the fields and the population, and providing little humans from Luzon to Mindanao with an opportunity to run, bathe and dance naked in the streets.
But all of this rain paired with 90°F temperatures, 100% humidity, and city streets resembling parking lots, the torrential August rains seem anything but a blessing. But for the last six years, this has been my summer home.
In August, I visited the Sparrow Music Learning Center in Payatas with my good friend and partner in ministry, Sarah Balilo. We were blessed with the privilege of co-founding this wonderful ministry over three years ago. I was excited as ever to get to Payatas, my last visit was back in August 2015. My palms were sweating from anticipation, the rest of my body sweating from the warm humid air surrounding the islands. Even though the distance from Ninoy Aquino International Airport to Payatas is less than 20 miles, it will take us no less than one or two hours to reach Payatas due to severe traffic congestion. The entrance to Payatas isn’t hard to find, however, as the massive outdoor Litex marketplace signals our exit from the busy Commonwealth Avenue.
Upon entering Payatas, a windy road takes us through the barangay and eventually down a steep hill; the landfill looms in the distance. Through the heat waves radiating off the dump, I can make out the figures of hundreds of people walking on it , balancing full bags of who knows what on their heads.
My palms begin to sweat again in anticipation of the joy that awaits me just a few meters from that very dumpsite.
I cherish my time in the Philippines for three reasons, among others. One: God has given me the once-in-a-
lifetime, unbelievable privilege and opportunity to serve Him alongside such amazing people halfway across the world. Two: regardless of my clear and sometimes all-too-apparent shortcomings in conversational Tagalog, music allows me to communicate with just about anybody, regardless of age or dialect. Three: I just love being around the kids. Plus this means I can jam and hang out with kids in a different area code. So there.
Side note: Filipino food is awesome and can easily be found, sometimes in the most unlikely places.
But my time there is brief, usually two weeks. That may seem like a lengthy visit, but trust me, it’s not. Two days are lost traveling from San Francisco to Manila, and two more are spent catching up to the +15 hour time difference. Not to mention, one could easily spend four to six hours each day in transit to wherever one might be going, regardless of proximity to the destination, due to the horrendous traffic jams throughout Metro Manila. You do all that math.
So how was I going to make the best of my time out there? Rather than taking my instinctive approach of spreading myself as thin as possible in order to be in as many places at once as possible, I took a simpler approach. A more quality approach. I made up my mind before even getting on the plane that I wanted to be around the kids as much as possible. Just be.
Yeah, there were days where everything got rained out so being productive is almost impossible. But even so, I was able to talk at length with our teachers and volunteers, which gave me a feel for the pulse of program as of late. But the highlight of my trip this past August was just being around the Sparrow kids in Payatas.
“Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands. Serve the Lord with gladness: come before his presence with singing.” Psalm 100:1-2
After a warm welcome upon arrival (and a brief Dunkin Donuts fiesta), it was business as usual in Payatas: hot and humid weather paired with the rancid perfume of the nearby landfill. But all that disappears within a few hours of being there as music filled the halls of the learning center, smiles and laughs echoing throughout. The kids find joy within their situation, not despite it. How could something as beautiful as that exist in the midst of something as ugly as poverty? If that’s not God then I don’t know what is.
As in trips past, my presence at the learning center proved to be a distraction to the daily comings and goings at the center. The students knew I was around so they would behave and act differently. Sometimes I found it nearly impossible to observe students because they’re so shy. It’s like, as soon as I would walk into a practice room, the music would stop…the talking would stop (as if I could understand what they were saying). Everybody turns around and all of a sudden I’m in a staring contest with eight sets of eyes, all smiling back at me. After a few moments and some encouragement (thumbs up seems to be a favorite, and is usually reciprocated), they start to relax and go back to their practicing.
I will never grow tired of hearing little fingers play music. I just wish I could enjoy it without having to have my back turned to them, without making them feel embarrassed or as if they weren't good enough to play for me. If only they could see how happy their music makes me. I wish they could see the smile on my face while I quietly listen to them.
As minutes became hours, and hours became days and days became a week, something happened. My prayers were answered. Don’t take this the wrong way (because I certainly didn’t). In the best way, it was like the kids stopped caring that I was there. I became something of a fixture at the center, a fly on the wall (no pun intended). They would greet me with a quick “Good morning, po” or “Hi Kuya Tim” and be on their merry way, skipping down the hall. I came and went as I pleased with no special attention.
I felt so privileged to have gained this insight—their trust. I was in.
I watched curiously as they talked amongst themselves about the wrinkled sheets of music in front of them, pointing, clapping, and singing. Trying to pronounce the odd names of the foreign composers, trying to put together short passages from the manuscript. Then came the moment of clarity—the “Aha!” moment—and the celebration of that discovery.
Hearing these kids in Payatas rattle off note names and clap rhythms with the same accuracy as some of my students back home almost 7,000 miles away was so exciting for me! Mary Anne, one of the voice students, was so competitive that she would stomp her feet in anguish when she would answer a question incorrectly.
The concentration in their eyes was plain to see. In the heat of the day, there they sat in the practice rooms with wrinkled foreheads and scrunched noses, sweat beading up on their cheeks. The focus was unreal. Being able to watch the musical process happen up close with these kids was something I’ll never forget. And to truly be a part of that was priceless.
Once again, I leave the Philippines behind me. I can only imagine what other wonders I would’ve witnessed had I stayed longer. But I will gladly take what was given to me. I was blessed to be welcomed into their world. And as cliché as it sounds, a part of me will always remain there.
God is working in that place. And I can’t wait to be back. Back to my summer home.