Common Ground

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It’s 7 p.m. as I huddle under the canopy of thin mesh that constitutes a (semi-permeable) barrier between me and the rest of the night. I am filled with gratitude for things like mosquito nets and machetes—things that serve as invaluable weapons to keep at bay the ecosystem that lives inside my hut. Even as I write, I train my headlamp beam on a pancake-sized spider that is resting mere inches from my face on the other side of the net. It is magnificent, but unfortunately my intense fear of spiders is something I did not leave in the States.

America feels like a past life. Although my body arrived in Palawan on September 7, my brain and heart lagged behind. I felt intense frustration because I wanted to completely arrive, but it was hard to leave the U.S. behind. I prayed that God would fill my heart with His love for the Palawanos. But I didn’t admit that, before He could do this, He would first have to empty my heart of things that were suddenly irrelevant in this new culture. It hurt to go from feeling like I generally had my life together to feeling hopelessly inept at important skills like wielding a machete safely, opening coconuts or taking bucket showers.

Coming to grips with this new state of infancy, I recognized that I was a mere tool in God’s hand, incapable of self-operation. This was good. However, I felt like everything in my life (minus my fear of spiders) had been stripped away, and there was absolutely nothing left to give to my community. This was discouraging! “God, isn’t there any basis for me to build relationships on here?” I would muse at night when I heard laughter in my neighbor’s house and felt lonely.

Then one afternoon, I had an epiphany. I love to hike. Around the village of Kensuli, foot travel is the only way to get around. Most Fridays, many of the women from Kensuli hike down to the lowland market in Bingbilang. So, as soon as I knew enough Palawano to ask, “Hey, can I walk with you on Fridays?” I had an appointment with Ruwina, a young Palawano mother, and her extended family. I was super excited to join them!

….Super excited, that is, until we started up the muddy trail—straight up. Although they are short, Palawanos have a nearly supernatural ability to cover what seems like 30 vertical inches with each step. This renders trail niceties like switchbacks completely unnecessary. My quads burned as I willed them to match Ruwina’s ruthless stride, and the reasonable part of my brain chided, This was a horribly horrible idea. I could feel every calorie in my body going up in flames. But when Ruwina would look back and grin at my predicament, I would keep going.

When we returned to Kensuli that evening, I was drenched in sweat and coated in mud, but my smile mirrored hers. The whole day had been a mosaic of special moments: a simple meal shared in the middle of a stream; the hilarity of her aunt desperately grabbing me to (successfully) thwart an intimate encounter with gravity; the invigorating bath in the Tamlang River.

Later that night, I was reading a journal entry from my first week here. The joy from my experience that day starkly contrasted with the discouragement I had written about.

Joy is a very simple concept. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that joy multiplies as life simplifies. Psalm 94:17, 18 says, “Unless the Lord had been my help, my soul soon would have settled in silence. If I say, ‘My foot slips,’ Your mercy, O Lord, will hold me up.” When God reminded me that I love to hike, and that Palawanos have to hike, I rejoiced to find this common ground that helped me bond with my community. And, although my feet slip regularly, injuring both my pride AND my body, His mercy continues to hold me up. Please pray that God’s joy will inspire the Palawanos so that they, too, will rely on the strength of His mercy.

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