We arrived in the Philippines during a time of great political tension and unrest soon after the fall of a long dictatorship. How excited and thankful we felt, when we walked off the plane from Sydney onto Philippine soil, that the country had remained open and that we had made it there! Our hearts were expanding with strength and the assurance that God had opened the way.
An hour or so later though, as we were barely making headway through the evening traffic jams in Manila and as we were slowly getting covered in a faint black scum from the air pollution that clouded thickly around us, our excitement was getting taken down a notch or two by the gloomy reports from the senior missionaries who had picked us up that we would all be kicked out of the country within days and that everything was looking terrible—we might as well not even unpack.
Obviously, it never came to pass as 33 years later we’re still here, but this is one of the examples of ‘missionary shock’ that we can pull out of our cache, and quite a peculiar one as it happened almost the minute we arrived on the field. We had been pre-warned about culture shock, but not about ‘missionary shock’. It is one of the very disheartening experiences when you’re new on the mission field and you feel pushed down, pulled back, disheartened and constrained by those to whom we were looking the most for encouragement and like-mindedness. Is it any wonder though when the missionary community you go to serve alongside are a broken group of weak humans like yourself, from a great variety of countries and backgrounds and maturities in Christ, and many are going through loneliness, culture shock and multiplied struggles.
Now when we were first asked to write this article about how we faced and adapted to living in a world different to what we were accustomed to back home, the topic sort of drew a blank in our minds. This ‘world’ we live in here in the Philippines has become so normal to us that it is hard to remember what we struggled with back in the beginning.
Those initial struggles, which were once so huge and hard to deal with, have faded over the years to such an extent that they seem a bit foolish now. In fact, many of the things we hated in the beginning, including certain foods like canned fish, dried fish, fermented fish and many other delicacies, we now love and cannot imagine why we ever had such a disliking to them.
Adjustment and enculturation creeps up on you to the point where you can’t even remember the initial things that bothered you so much. Fluency in language, development of relationships, lots of time and, most of all, Christ Jesus’ transforming power and work — not only in the people you came to reach with the gospel, but most of all in your own self — smooth out those initial mountains.
We still struggle though. My biggest struggle was my desire to be accepted as a true friend amongst the women in the village where we started our missionary journey when I was 22. I remember one lady with whom I’d been spending the most time during our initial year there and how I had come to think of her as a true friend. Imagine my hurt as I was walking on the pathway going past the back of her house one day and clearly heard her talking to someone about me referring to me as ‘the Americana’ (American lady). It was the last straw that I needed in an already very difficult day and I went home, threw myself down and sobbed into my pillow. I remember thinking, “This is hopeless, I will never be their friend. I will always be just some foreign outsider whom they hold at arm’s length and talk about behind my back. What is the point of even being here?” But I knew the reason I was there; I knew it very clearly to the depths of my heart. And His love was the only thing that constrained us and kept us going. A couple of years later, I spent several nights sleeping on a mat on the cement floor beside her hospital bed in a provincial hospital while she was fighting for her life, and a genuine friendship was very much cemented between us through Jesus’ love. By this time, she was already my true eternal sister, and this made all the difference!
As I look back, it was very naïve to expect to be accepted as a friend within a few short months, just based on knowing a few sentences in their language, visiting their homes, playing with the children and being myself. From their perspective, I was clumsy, missed most of their non-verbal communication, was from a foreign country that could not be trusted, and they felt they needed to be careful around me in case I had ulterior motives.
One thing we soon discovered is that the added stresses on our lives of not being able to communicate effectively, of living amongst sickness and death and poverty every moment, of having dysentery for six months, of not having any familiar food, of not having a bathroom and no running water, with rats chewing our clothes and anything else not sealed in tin cans, of living with nine people of a totally different culture and language in a small house, of hearing the eerie chants of spirit-worship almost nightly — these added stresses stir up our sin natures and bring close to the surface issues like frustration, lack of trust, racist attitudes, a complaining spirit and many more. It was a frightening and close look at the ‘old’ me, seen more intensely and clearly than I’d seen under ‘normal’ and ‘more comfortable’ circumstances, and a reminder of how much I didn’t like that person and needed continual transformation into the image of Jesus. Thankfully, He keeps working on me!
So, in adapting to living in a world different to what we were accustomed to,it didn’t end up being the culture and language acquisition that was the hardest —although it did take a lot of commitment and hard work. It wasn’t our fellow-missionaries who ended up being the most difficult thing to deal with — although relationships on this level have brought a certain amount of grief. It wasn’t building relationships with the lost and preaching the gospel in a foreign language that was the hardest — our Lord empowered us for this. It wasn’t translating the New Testament into the Talaandig language that was the hardest — although it took 20 years of our lives. The hardest thing was ME! Dying to self and not allowing myself to be deceived and not hindering the Lord’s work within me has been the most needed thing and I am still on this journey, thanks to His grace and love — and it will one day be completed!
We’ve gone from being new rookies loose on the field to old missionaries with creaky bones and greying hair, and God keeps using us and He keeps pulling down all obstacles before us!
By Paul & Debbie Howells