GIBITNGIL, The Philippines – When Barbara Studt bends down and hugs each child at the small school on Gibitngil island – and not one child escapes her – she whispers in each ear, “Jesus loves you.”
They grin, wiggle free and run away.
Studt stands up, grins and makes her way to the teacher’s office to change from her water shoes to her work boots. She’s here to help rebuild the school destroyed in November 2013 by Typhoon Haiyan, known locally as Typhoon Yolanda.
The children are used to having foreigners on their island. Since the typhoon, a series of teams have come to work with local Baptist Global Relief workers. The children are used to burly men carrying tools to help rebuild the school. They’re used to mustaches and overalls. However, this team brings something new to the island.
This team, from the Missouri Baptist Convention, is the first team to bring women to help with the rebuilding process.
Gibitngil is approximately four kilometers (2.5 miles) long by one kilometer (.6 miles) wide. The school is near the center of the island, on a hill. As the typhoon battered the island, most of the people there braved the storm at the school. They ran from building to building as the winds knocked down brick walls as if they were made of cardboard.
Today, the walls of the last high school classroom where they took refuge are rebuilt waist high with cinder blocks. A wall divides the classroom in half. It’s all that was left of that classroom after Typhoon Haiyan ravaged the school. The volunteers’ goal for the week is to finish the walls so the next team can work on adding the roof.
Debra Maier, Terry Hensley, and Studt don gloves, nimbly climb the scaffolding, and begin spreading the mortar and carefully placing cinder blocks on the wall, slowly building it higher.
Daisy, wife of one of the Filipino pastors who works with the team, stands about 10 feet away, watching.
“I feel speechless watching them,” she says. “Here, a woman wouldn’t do this. I’ve never tried doing this before.” But she confesses “I’ve always wanted to try.”
While taking respite in the shade, the ladies drink water and talk to Daisy. “You can do it,” they encourage her. “Come help us out.” She hesitates, then agrees. After their break, they help her climb onto the scaffolding.
She giggles, dipping a trowel into the mortar, carefully spreading the gray, sticky mess over the wall.
“Is this good?” she asks.
“Looks great,” Maier encourages her.
The four work on the wall for hours. Daisy can’t stop giggling as the wall grows higher and higher.
After long days of construction, the women’s muscles ached. A sign at the small hotel had caught their attention the very first day: massages.
Exhausted from working in the hot sun all day, the ladies settled in for a massage. As Gemville, their masseuse, worked on the knotted muscles of Maier’s back, she began to talk about her life. Sound asleep, Hensley jolted awake. She felt God prompting: pray. Now.
As Maier talked to Gemville, the other women in the small hotel room prayed for the young woman. As she talked about her life, the women saw a hunger in her heart.
“She was so ready for Christ,” Maier says. “She is looking for answers.”
The massage forgotten, Maier shared the gospel with Gemville. They sat on the edge of the bed for hours, talking. She wept as she shared stories of her family’s rejection and her search for hope. The Missouri ladies were ready with the truth of the gospel, and Hensley was prepared with an extra copy of the Bible to give her.
That night, at midnight, a new believer entered the kingdom.
The team isn’t there to simply rebuild the school. Construction can be done anytime, by anyone. This team seeks to touch the hearts of the children and teachers they encounter during their week in the Philippines.
Hensley, a clown by trade, is a master of improvising. She finds small pieces of cloth: a yellow shirtsleeve, a blue bandana, a black piece of trash bag. She uses them to make a small strand, and creates a routine based on a simple gospel presentation. The children crowd closer to her, eyes wide with wonder, as they listen.
Then the team plays with the children, teaching them games like “duck, duck, goose” and hopscotch. The schoolyard rings with laughter as the children forget their shyness and play. Each day, anytime the disaster relief workers aren’t rebuilding, they are playing with the children, sitting with them in the shade of the trees in the schoolyard or chasing them around. The team can’t go anywhere without a small crowd following them.
It’s been a long week. The last classroom is nearly finished, the walls completely built. The next team will put the roof on the building so the high school students can move from a tent into a permanent classroom.
On Friday before the team leaves the tiny island, the children gather under the tree. A banner is tacked onto one of the classrooms. Each class gives members of the team hand-written cards thanking them for their time spent rebuilding the school.
The long walk back to the boats is punctuated with sniffles as the team thinks about leaving the children behind. They may never see them again, but their lives have been forever impacted.
“We’re not completely leaving,” Maier says, looking back as they walk away. “We’re leaving pieces of our heart.”
As she walks to the boat, Studt grabs children, hugging them close. This time, they don’t resist, but return her affectionate hugs. Before she releases them, she whispers this into their ear:
“Jesus loves you, and so do I.”