Let’s back up. Two years into her non-traditional life as an itinerant Catholic volunteer serving the poor in India, Annie met Ajay*, a young Catholic man from a traditional Maharashtrian family. Deeply impressed with each other’s faith, they soon started discerning marriage. Many were skeptical of their choice to trust God and put Him first in their decisions. “Can serving God fill your bellies?” they were asked. They prayed and steadfastly continued to prepare for a simple wedding.
Most brides expect to pay huge amounts for a wedding dress, but Annie wanted to spend as little as possible. She planned to borrow a friend’s dress because it would be free. But her maid of honour, Kristi, had other ideas. When they met in the Philippines for a visa run and retreat, she convinced Annie to look at wedding dresses. She skeptically agreed. Kristi made HER preparations for the shopping trip- by praying that God would guide them. They believed in a God who was involved with the little details of their lives.
The two girls walked through the shopping area of Cagayan de Oro, a busy city in Mindanao, in the south of the Philippines. There was a plethora of wedding dress shops, a big business in the Philippines. Some of the shops were a little seedy, with dressing rooms made up of a curtain drawn across a wire. There were so many ugly wedding dresses! And still so expensive! Annie was soon tired, and ready to give up.
Then Kristi saw one little boutique with just one wedding dress in the window. The store window next to it was bursting with wedding dresses, but Kristi ignored it, and purposefully walked into the little one. Something told her this was the one. As they entered, Annie was overawed by how posh it seemed- a big mirror, fluffy white couches.
“We should leave,” she thought uncomfortably. “This is going to be way too expensive.”
They sat down and talked to the proprietor, a little Filipino lady in a expensive-looking cocktail dress.
“I don’t make dresses, I design them,” the lady told them.
“Oh, great!” said Kristi, brightly. She knew Annie's modesty standards were becoming difficult to find. But Annie just wondered how soon they could leave without being rude.
“We’re Catholic volunteers,” they told her, and she seemed happy to hear that.
“I’m Catholic too! And I give discounts to Catholic volunteers. I’m grateful to God for the blessing of this store, so it’s my little way of giving back.”
Annie and Kristi shot looks at each other. This was beginning to sound more promising. But then she pulled out a piece of paper with the price ranges, and their hearts sank. The range was from 45,000 pesos to 300,000 pesos (about $950 to $6300).
“Can you manage 45,000 pesos?”she asked them kindly.
After looking at each other, they both answered, “No,” dismally.
“Never mind. Can you stand up?” Annie stood up, confused, and turned around, and the lady looked her up and down, as if she was calculating how much fabric she would need to dress her.
“What kind of dress do you want? Tell me.” She pulled out a paper and pen, and sketched as Annie described a modest, old fashioned, lacy wedding dress of her dreams. She commented several times, "You are really conservative." It's true, thought Annie. That was why none of the other dresses were what she wanted.
“Do you like this?” she showed her the finished sketch.
“Ye-ess… It’s really pretty.. But I can’t afford it. We’re volunteers.”
“Okay. What can you afford?”
“Less than 10000 pesos ($220).”
“That’s nothing! That wouldn’t even cover the cost of the material,” she responded.
“But.. I’ll do it for that.”
That was unexpectedly generous, but Annie, cautious as ever, was still worried. That was still $220 more than free. They looked at fabric, and then told the lady they needed to think about it. They left the shop, and sat together at an empty bar, eating french fries.
“I don’t think I should do it. I could still borrow a dress for free.” They stopped and prayed, and asked the Lord what she should do.
“I think the Lord wants you to have it,” said Kristi. “From 45,000 pesos to 10,000 pesos! I’ve been praying all day, and this is a gift from the Lord.”
So they went back in and said, “We want it!”
They left for the retreat, but Annie was still whispering to the Lord, “Please, Lord! Can I get it for free?” She told the other girls at the retreat the story, and they were amazed at the miracle of a wedding dress for $220, and yet she told them that she was begging the Lord to give it to her for free.
In preparation for paying for the dress, Annie emptied her bank account. She had only $6 left in her account. She had no money left for her remaining three days in the Philippines. A friend gave her money for her taxi to the airport, so she hid that away. But she had nothing else. She and Kristi lived off dry oats and chocolate bars, because that was the only thing they had with them. Annie’s stomach felt strange, and she was hungry all the time, and couldn’t stop thinking of food. Someone had even offered her food once, and she politely refused, because in India she had been trained to say no the first time, and yes when the offer was renewed, but to her disappointment, her refusal was accepted.
During the week, they returned for a few dress fittings. Each time they would talk with the owner, getting to know her better. They asked about her family members, and they found out she was a famous designer all over Mindanao. On their last visit, Annie asked her if she knew where they could get a taxi that would take them to the airport in the middle of the night.
“Oh, my personal driver can take you!” she said, nonchalantly.
“How much will that cost?” ventured Annie.
“Nothing!” she replied, laughing.
Annie was in awe at God’s providence. “This is the nicest person in the world.” As they chatted, Annie asked if they could write down the names of her family members so they could continue to pray for them. She wrote down the names, and then they prayed with her for her work, and her family. After they prayed, she asked for the paper with the names back, and made two copies of it. She began to roll the paper up, and they saw a glimpse of money being rolled in with the papers.
“That’s so generous, after everything else she has done for us” thought Annie. She thought she had seen a hundred pesos.
“This is for your volunteer work in India and Taiwan,” she told them, and they thanked her. Then she presented them with the bill for 10,000 pesos, and Annie in that moment turned to the Lord and said, “Okay, Lord. It’s fine. I prayed that you would give it for free, and even though I am paying now, I will trust you. I don’t have any money left. But it’s fine.” She pulled out the money, and handed it over.
The owner laughed as she received the money and said, “You’re giving me money and it’s like I’m giving it right back to you.” That’s true, thought Annie, since she’s given us a small donation.
They thanked her for doing it so fast- she made a wedding dress in a week! Then she handed them two boxes of Dunkin' Donuts which she had lying by her. Kristi and Annie walked out with the wedding dress, handing out doughnuts to the street children, and beggars that they saw, feeling like Santa Claus. They headed to Jollibee, the most popular fast food chain in the Philippines, and ordered fried chicken and french fries and ice cream with the taxi money.
As Annie returned to their table with the food, she saw Kristi’s face in shock.
“I think you just got a free wedding dress.”
“There’s 5000 pesos in my envelope. Look in yours.”
Annie opened her folded piece of paper, and there was 5000 pesos. She started crying, and they both started shouting ‘Praise you, Jesus! Thank you, Jesus!’ aloud, oblivious of the other Jollibee customers.
Because through this miracle of the free wedding dress, God had confirmed in her heart that this man and this wedding WAS God’s plan for her, that He COULD fill the bellies of those who served him and trusted Him, and that He loved not just her, Annie, but Kristi, and the boutique owner enough to get them all involved in and blessed by His surprises and extravagant love.
*Names have been changed.