“International travel will be suspended from Friday onward. Do you think it’s still good you’re here in the country or should you consider returning to Singapore?”
COVID-19 was growing worldwide, and President Duterte had announced a lockdown on Luzon, the Philippines’ main island. Kelvin and I, together with Theo (2), were in the province of Marilao, 45 minutes out of Metro Manila. We were on a year-long mission placement serving with the Bukang Liwayway (BL) project, partnering them in outreach to urban slums through church-planting, scholarships, healthcare, and livelihood. The coronavirus felt far from our sleepy subdivision of shuttered houses. We knew we could survive this lockdown by walking out to 7-11 and the vegetable stalls. Our data was freshly reloaded, ready for the slow download of Netflix shows. So when our OMF coordinator asked us to consider returning to Singapore, we were shaken.
How could we say goodbye to our Marilao life in 72 hours? It had taken 10 months to finally reach our level of adjustment. Surely this COVID lockdown was exactly what God had prepared us for. After all, he had put us under lockdown before.
We had arrived in Marilao in June 2019 ready for action. By the first night, we were brought to our knees. Running water had stopped, and whatever trickled out of the taps from 1-5 am was yellow. Trucks delivered water every few days, and we learned, by trial and error, which truck sold dirty water. We had already been on five short-term mission trips with BL and had visited areas where cardboard shelters were packed in together housing families of six. But nothing could bring us closer to the people we served until we had struggled through their water shortage. We found motivation in that.
The bigger challenge would turn out to be internal. We loved the Filipino team and church, but continuous culture and language barriers made deep connections harder. Our inner circle had shrunk to our little family, and we were growing resentful of each other. Having a toddler with us meant we could not repeat the adventures that had spurred us to sign on for a year— midnight kerbside devotions with skater boys, long sharing sessions with the youths, rugged home visitations. We clung to ministry busyness to justify our being in Marilao. Even so, taking turns to parent in the background frustrated us. We were used to the validation that nonstop ministry gave us, and this slower rhythm made us feel invisible. At my lowest point, I only had to think of the word “lonely” to cry.
That was when God put us under our first lockdown. In our third month, our son Theo became very ill and was hospitalized for nine days. The three of us were confined in a hospital room with nowhere to run from each other, no way to hurry on with our work, and nothing we could do but wait for the medicine to work. Looking back, it was a little like it must have been for Jonah in the whale. In our helplessness, God sent colleagues and even strangers to bring us food, accompany us overnight, do our laundry, and pray for us. In that room, we learned that our mission was not to be busy with ministry but to humbly allow God to remake us. In the stillness of our confinement, we saw God at work.
It was uphill for us after that. By the time COVID hit the Philippines, we were a transformed family. We spent days at home as a loving trio, contented to worship God in rest. Kelvin developed a system of heating and filtering our water. Our home was filled with DIY improvements, warm lighting, and wall art. We frequently had people over for dinner and video games. We could converse in just enough Tagalog to delight Filipinos. All the tricycle riders in Marilao now knew where we lived and worked. Kelvin had completed two basketball ministry training camps and was gearing up to run a sports league for 200 youths. I had launched a t-shirt collection for the ministry’s livelihood business and even made Coronavirus-inspired t-shirts for myself as a light-hearted response when the virus first spread.
“Should you consider returning to Singapore?” No, we had not come this far to stop two months shy of our term’s end! Surely we could survive this lockdown to finish our projects, or at least say goodbye. One more basketball game, one more church service, one farewell photograph—that was all we wanted.
There was also survivor’s guilt in leaving our friends behind. While we could leave and head back to Singapore, our friends cloistered in makeshift spaces couldn’t go anywhere, not having an income or any chance of getting healthcare. Our director was raising funds to distribute relief to 800 poor families in our program.
“Do you think it’s still good that you’re here in the country?” Yes, for couldn’t we do more for them here?
We said we would pray about it overnight. Every time we looked at each other, we found each other crying.
“We’ll wait and see,” was our eventual reply.
One week later, international travel remained open, but Singapore Airlines cancelled 96% of their flights. The last foreseeable flight out of Manila was five days later. As the cases in Luzon exploded, a lockdown extension seemed inevitable. At midnight, we were staring at flight bookings and praying for God’s guidance.
And it came to us. God is the one who takes care of his people. Not us. He was there when their homes burned down again and again, and he was there when they were evicted from one slum to another. He had lifted them up from family crises with scholarships, giving them faith to serve fulltime in the ministry after graduation. As for us, who were we in comparison to him? There was no shame in retreating home early, and nothing to prove by staying.
With a promise to return, we booked our flight and broke the news in tears to our team over a video call.
The next two weeks, we saw God come through. We received reports of families praying and having devotions together, their faith strengthened in calamity. Our friends joyfully praised God for every meal on the table. A bag of rice, some canned fish, crackers—every provision bolstered their hope in God. My coronavirus t-shirts sold out in a mini fundraising effort, just a drop in the international donations that enabled BL to distribute the first wave of relief to the slums. And against all odds, even one month later, everyone was still clear of COVID symptoms. 800 families in the slums. God was protecting the most unprotected of his creation.
It was back to the same lesson for us. The lockdown tied our busy hands. The early departure threw us back into the belly of the whale. All we could do was watch—and admire our Father God as he saved his people.
How long will the earth be stilled? Perhaps as long as it takes for him to finish remaking us.
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