Philippine native Kay Robertson, 82, has experienced a lot over the years — living in the jungles as a child after the Pearl Harbor attack and continuing to serve as a missionary today to help those suffering from the November 2013 typhoon that killed more than 6,200 people in her country.
“I feel very strongly about about my faith. It's a gift from God. During life, you give back what has been given to you, but you can't out give God,” Robertson told the Herald-Press during an interview.
Robertson, a widow of a Presbyterian minister she met in Texas as a young woman, has been staying in the Palestine area for the last few weeks with family and has spoken to women's groups at a handful of local churches about ways to help the Filipinos in need of assistance since the typhoon.
Typhoon Haiyan — one of the most powerful typhoons on record — devastated the eastern Philippines on Nov. 8, 2013 — flattening homes and destroying vital infrastructure. More than 4 million were displaced and more than 1 million homes were damaged or destroyed, according to the Philippine government.
“It's going to be years and years before we will be able to recover. Even after (Hurricane) Katrina, it took a lot of time for that area to overcome the devastation,” said Robertson, who still lives in the Philippines. “There's not much building materials in the Philippines so there are a lot of tents. The hospital we have is still working out of a tent and the rainy season is coming in June. The Philippines is still considered a third-world country.”
Robertson said there is a huge need for children's clothing of all sizes right now, especially shorts and jeans, as well as toiletries like bars of soap. The clothing does not need to be new.
Since telling her testimony to local churches, the Presbyterian Women from First Presbyterian Church have collected t-shirts, clothing and household items that will be shipped directly to Robertson's church and to the Presbyterian Bethany Hospital in Los Banos, Laguna (which is currently operating out of a tent).
Buckner International Benevolence donated 450 t-shirts to the Presbyterian Women's group to send to the Philippines.
In addition, the United Methodist Women at First United Methodist Church and a group of Baptist women are collecting items such as children's clothing and quilts.
Items are still being collected locally with plans set to pack boxes the first week in March. To donate items, call Joan Rhone at 903-729-5139.
Robertson's father was a preacher and her mother was a nurse.
“They were really some of the first Protestant converts in the Philippines,” Robertson said, noting her father received his calling after hearing a preacher share the gospel on a street corner during his earlier days.
Growing up, they lived in the city with their six daughters and one son. At age 9, Robertson was going to school along with her siblings. Her father led a local church.
On Dec. 7, 1941, things changed on the day Pearl Harbor was attacked.
“Our teacher said go home now — no school. If you see airplanes, get in the ditch. We grabbed a bundle we could carry with a few quilts and hardly any food because there was no time,” Robertson recalled. “We went to the bus station. It was very chaotic. We were evacuated to the other side of the island. It is still very vivid to me.”
Eventually, the family ended up in the jungle, having to build a shelter out of bamboo and palm leaves, as natives do in the Tropics. They lived in the jungle for four years until the war ended.
“We learned how to till, but the locusts ate all our plants. It was like a cloud of locusts,” Robertson recalled.
In fact, the situation was so dire that the family had no choice but to eat locusts to survive for a period of time.
“It was real famine. There was no crops, nothing,” Robertson said, explaining how the locals eventually were able to get rid of the locusts by burying their eggs in a very time-consuming process.
“It was exhausting,” Robertson said.
During that war time, Robertson can recall watching dog fights in the sky over the city.
“It was very sad when they both went down,” Robertson said.
Christmas in the Jungle
That first year in the jungle was very rough, but Robertson's father wanted to make sure they still were able to celebrate Christmas, a very religious-oriented holiday in the Philippines.
Usually, the family planned for a huge cantata and other Christmas festivities in the church — but this year there was no church. The family already did devotionals every morning and every evening for the children.
“My father said we are family, we are a church,” Robertson said.
Word spread in the jungle for the others living there — that Robertson's father was a priest and would be hosting a Christmas celebration.
“So many people came. We all sang Christmas carols and lots of hymns. That was the first time many of them heard the Christmas story read from the Bible in their vernacular, translated from English with hymns in Philippine and English,” Robertson said. “That Christmas is so close to my heart.”
Instead of a traditional Christmas tree, her father found a native evergreen tree and their mother asked the children to gather a certain kind of mushrooms, which were dried and then hung on the tree.
“They glowed — for a long time I thought I imagined it, but I read later about luminescent mushrooms. So apparently, I didn't imagine it. I don't know how my mother knew that.”
Miracles in the Jungle
While having to live in the jungle without the resources of being near a hospital, Robertson's family almost lost one of her older sisters, who was 16 years old.
“Her hair was getting loose. She was practically dying in the jungle. My mother went down to this beautiful rock and prayed. It came to her: Go ask everyone if they had python bile,” Robertson recalled.
Strangely enough, this item — bile from a python snake — was found among those living in the jungle — and after her mother made juice from burning it — it saved her sister's life.
“God gave her the answer,” Robertson said. “There were a lot of miracles like that in the jungle.”
Going to the U.S.
During the war, four of her sisters were well known for singing as a quartet. They had sang to soldiers and officers and for funerals — so much that they had received letters from soldiers who had returned home to the United States who thanked them. In fact, they were invited to the United States to sing and attend school on scholarship in 1946 after the war had ended. Eventually, this lead to Robertson being sent to the United States to attend college. She graduated from Phillip's University in Enid, Okla. with a master's degree in music and Christian education for early childhood.
“After school, I went back to the Philippines to work in the church there,” Robertson said.
Robertson returned to the United States on a missionary visa working on a migrant ministry in Michigan, working in three counties under the auspices of different denominations.
“When I went back to the Philippines, Michigan wanted me back, but I got sent to Texas instead. I was so disappointed, but it worked out because that's where I met my husband.”
Robertson met the love of her life — John Clement Robertson — in the Corpus Christi area while working under the auspices of the Texas Concert of Churches. They married in 1960. He was the son of a Belgian missionary, born in the African congo.
“We both had degrees in music,” Robertson said. “He played the piano and the organ.”
At one point, they went to San Francisco, where her husband attended theological school. She taught special education during that time. They later moved back towards Texas, serving in White Deer near Pampa in Texas and in Oklahoma churches.
“There were a lot of international wives near the Air Force base, so I would help them transition here,” Robertson said.
In 2006, the Robertsons moved back to the Philippines due to her husband's health issues, where she has stayed since that time except when visiting family in the United States.
“He had Parkinson's. I had more help there with my family and it cost less for the medical expenses,” Robertson said. “I really felt it was the place to go.”
Her husband passed away in 2011. The Robertsons were married for 51 years and have one daughter, 6 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
She has three grandchildren who live in the Palestine/Elkhart area including Elizabeth Starr and her husband Charles, whom she is staying with right now. Other local grandchildren include Johnathan Cochran in Palestine and Timothy Cochran in Elkhart.