Alayra is a name from the Philippines--Ron's dad was named Bayani (passed away over 30 years ago now). People in the Philippines recognize the name Bayani, but "Alayra" ---not so much. But there is a little town on a little island over there where I found family...forever family.
It all started one day when Ron and I were in a jet lag haze after returning from Indonesia and I saw a message in my email from Pastor David Hinchey of Calvary Chapel Bible Fellowship in Temecula, CA. We had been to that church several times, and David had told us many times about the kids in Himamaylan who really did know ALL of our songs, were the sweetest kids on the planet, and how they had been praying I could someday visit them. It seemed sooooo far away, but with each passing year God makes the world seem smaller to me. I clicked on the attached video and saw a group of beautiful Filipino kids joyfully chanting, "JAAA-NAAAA! PLEEEES COME TO THE PHILIPPINES! YAAYYYYY!" I watched this quick clip probably 5 times, my heart melting, and I thought, "I've got to get over there." So about 9 months later I found myself in the middle of these beautiful kids who changed my life forever.
Ron wasn't able to go on this trip, so I invited my bestie, Jill, who "for some odd reason" earlier in the year had felt God prompting her to get a passport. And what an adventure it was.
I think this photo was taken about 20 hours into the trip, after we had missed a connecting flight in Manila, waited 8 hours for the next flight and were finally on our way to Bacolod on the Island of Negros. And what a reception it was! After we had made our way to the church property (Simbahan sa Bukid), the constant flow of delicious food and fellowship began. They treated us to a performance of beautiful dances, an awesome traditional drum squad, and flowers. I reached way back to childhood memories of doing the Tinikling dance and gave it a shot, to the giggles of all the kids and locals.
The team from CCBF had already been there a week, doing construction projects and running Bible camp for the kids. I'm going to call these kids "Shine kids" because they made t-shirts at camp that said "Shine," and they truly shine the love and joy of Jesus in a way that's hard to put into words. I'm pretty certain it was the highlight of their year to have Pastor David, his wife Jen come back in town with their team from CCBF. Jen is from Himamaylan, her brother Bem is now pastor at the church, and their family members are beloved in Himamaylan. The kids chose to stay on the premises all week, sleeping on the floor of the kids church (a large bamboo structure), waking early, playing and learning all day and devouring every minute of time together. We fell in love with the open air church, the simple joys of climbing aboard a rusted Jeepney or sugar cane truck to whatever activity was planned, laughing, playing, singing, and praising our Lord together. We didn't speak the same language (although the older kids spoke good English), but we were instantly a family.
Jill and I were pretty blown away by how David and his team pulled all of this off. I mean, they somehow brought over a trampoline, giant beach balls, parachutes, a bounce house (!) gift boxes and crafts for hundreds of kids. They were a well-oiled machine because David has done trips like this countless times. It was a delight to step in and add a special element to this already very special week they had planned.
Jill and I arrived to catch the tail end of the Camp, and watching them play was something else. I've never seen such happy kids. When they brought out the huge parachutes and giant beach balls, the kids gathered around and counted, "One, two, three, GO!" then launched the ball in the air, followed by howls of laughter. Then they would do it again...more laughter...and again. They never seemed to tire of it. Every game was a blast to them, every snack a treat, every hug a treasure.
Then came the weekdays of VBS for local public elementary schools. We loaded up every working vehicle, and the team would literally cram an entire week Vacation Bible School into a day for these schools. They did crafts, jumped the bounce house, heard messages, and (here's where I came in)...we sang. The kids at the schools weren't that familiar with our music, but the "Shine" kids who came with me...well, they shone! I don't honestly don't know what I would have done without them. They knew the motions to EVERY song of mine, and did those motions with such joy and enthusiasm, I wish I could have them everywhere I go. Mind you, I was so often in the thick of things, I didn't catch any photos of myself singing at these schools, just quick shots where I wasn't. We visited Calasa Elementary, Antonio elementary, did an outdoor evening event in a parking lot somewhere I can't recall where. It was a miracle those guys got that sound system and my headset working. And with the "Shine" kids jumping up to help VBS activities as well as on stage with me, THEY were truly shining the light of Jesus in their own town.
I'll admit, it was HOT there--hence the pony tail almost everywhere we went. I was also struggling with a shoulder problem that was killing me and keeping me up many a night. That's what serving the Lord is all about..enduring "light and momentary affliction" for a greater cause. One morning we did a concert at Himamaylan elementary school, and I really wish I had a photo of it. The stage was out in the open, blazing hot sun. Everyone was frying, sweating, but singing! The kids were jazzed to meet all of the members of the team--Jill even did her fair share of signing stuff.
After that assembly I met with some of the moms who were watching through the bars out front. Such dear ladies! Now THAT was a moment I really wished I spoke Illongo. But even when you can't share a word, its amazing what a hug and smile can communicate.
We immediately got in the cars/jeepneys/whatever to Himamaylan high school to celebrate their last day of school for the year. I kept wondering why on earth they would want to hear ME at their closing assembly. The CCBF team and Pastor Bem did a skit and gospel message that was super funny and engaging...but this was public high school! I was amazed at their openness. One of the students picked as a "volunteer" in the skit reminded me so much of Chandy (see below). I got up to do a few songs, and again (thankfully!) the Shine kids were beside and behind and all around me. Once again, many eyes were on me, but more were on THEM. They were shining the light of Jesus in their community!
On the way home from that amazing adventure, Dan-Dan (Bem's brother), who takes care of the church property showed us the local rice fields, and we stumbled upon some caribou cooling off in the muddy water. That night we loaded up again for the "big" concert back in the city of Himamaylan. Thankfully that was a big stage because virtually all the kids from the church camp wore their Shine shirts and helped me on stage. I met people who came from pretty far away to attend the concert. It just blew my mind that people this far away in this remote place knew our music. We had such a blast that night! We were beat when we hit the sack. You'd think I would sleep well, but that shoulder kept me up...all....night. My voice felt it in the morning.
After another delish breakfast prepared by the ladies at the church, we actually had to say our goodbyes to them. There were lots of tears. Amazing how God brings people together to taste real connection and friendship and fellowship, then we say goodbye...but in Him its not forever. What a comfort...but we still cried.
All the CCBF teams divided up and did different projects all week (I forgot to mention that)...I was SO happy to go with the half who experienced the wonderful children's home run by Joe and Billy Rosemarino. Words cannot describe this place and what that darling couple has done for the hundreds of kids who are raised there. The education they get, the crafts they learn (soap making, silk screening, sewing), the healthy food they eat (they grow their own veggies and have their own cows for milk!). There were a good number of special needs children there, all cared for and loved on by the others. The bedrooms were bright and beautiful and homey. No way could you call this and orphanage, even though all of these kids could not be cared for by their parents or didn't have any. This was a home of LOVE.
I had the thrill of leading these kids in praise and worship. For security, I can only show the backs of them, but trust me, they were beautiful and so full of joy!
Last stop on the island of Negros was to do a concert that we were very late for at Networks church in Silay. When we pulled in, people had been waiting over an hour, and I looked like a wreck. We pulled in with kids surrounding the car, Jill shielding me for a brief moment to put on a bit of eye liner. My voice was starting to feel really shot by now, but the Shine kids once again SHONE! We had to say goodbye to most of them after this which broke my heart. But I'm already trying to figure out how to get back there with the CCBF team in 2019.
We flew into Manila the next morning, and I had to decline going out on an adventure that afternoon--my voice was really thrashed. So Jill and I rested at the Wycliffe training center while the rest of the team went out to do some outreach to the homeless, I believe. I slept like a rock that night..and woke up...with a voice! Very much a miracle I thanked God for as we headed out for our last wonderful event...a chapel service at Tabernacle of Faith Christian Academy. I was just following David's direction going to all of these places--and I didn't think these kids would know our music much either. But when we entered the school, I rounded a corner to bump into some squealing kids and teachers who started to sing...watch this 20 second clip of adorableness:
I got to hug hundreds of kids there, but one of the last groups I took photos with was a high school bunch with tons of joy. Look what they did with their fingers in the photo! I told them I'm going to copy that!
There was more eating, more fellowship and laughter on this trip, so much I can't recall to share with you. One thing that was NOT fun was saying goodbye to Pastor Bem. What a godly guy...always smiling, laughing, serving, never ever complaining, such a gentle and honest preacher of the Good News and lover of Jesus and His kids. We HATED saying goodbye (we all took turns hugging him and cried), but I'm SO glad those kids, that church, that town, get to keep him (and the rest of his amazing family).
It makes me so happy thinking of those kids back in Himamaylan at Simbahan Sa Bukid in their bamboo buildings or out on the grass learning about Jesus, growing in grace, and maybe singing one or two of our songs and recalling those moments where they jumped in and served with me...blessing so many, surely blessing the Lord...and maybe starting something right there in that little village that ignites their generation's passion for Jesus. I'm so proud of them. I miss them. But I know I'll see them again...Because we are family.