Chapter Four: Missionary Man
I had daydreamed of Asia since childhood and Singapore did not disappoint. It was an Oriental fairyland when I arrived there in the Spring of 1975. Tropical greenery overwhelmed me visually from the moment that I first landed in the city-state. The leaves of tropical plants and trees appeared much larger than North American flora. It was particularly interesting that many Asian trees and plants grew new leaves from the center of the plant. The new leaves unfurled from a tightly coiled position in the core.
One morning just after we arrived, a British missionary excitedly called us to come into the washroom at the end of a building located on a wooded hillside. Three of us tried to balance on the toilet rim to get a look at what he was pointing to. Just outside the window a new banana leaf was unfurling from the center of a plant. Its light green color and erect position stood in fresh contrast to the darker green and frayed older leaves drooping lower on the plant. We wowed and ahhhed at the new leaf.
The entranceway to OMF headquarters (2 Cluny Drive just off Orchard Road) was a long paved driveway arching concavely downhill across a stream then uphill across the front lawn. The driveway was lined on both sides with 30-foot tall Royal coconut trees, which had distinctly smooth upper trunks colored golden yellow. Just beyond the end of the driveway stood the central mission building, an old two-story British colonial structure with upper floor windows stretching the full height of the wall. The windows were framed by shutters which were left open so warm tropical air could circulate through the building. Lazily rotating ceiling fans added to the Nineteenth Century colonial ambiance of the place.
Across the street were the botanical gardens where Asia’s finest plants and trees were concentrated in floral magnificence.
Such beauty requires a lot of moisture. Every afternoon around roughly mid-afternoon the rain would fall from the skies. It redefined for us westerners the term downpour. When it rained, many of the new candidates would go out to the balconies and stand watching and listening as the billions of extra large drops thundered down onto the tin roofs and the paved courtyard. The afternoon rain lessened somewhat the heavy moistness of the warm tropical air.
Downtown, the market smells enticed us aside into crowded little shops to inspect the salted and fresh fish, piles of multi-colored spices and curries, cured birds and dried plants. I saw fruits that I had never heard of before- lychee, rambutan, mangostine, and durian (smells like hell, tastes like heaven).
And everywhere we encountered the fascinating mix of the dominant Asian cultures- Chinese, Malays, and East Indians. Westerners were a tiny minority in an Oriental world.
But it was not all fun and Marco Polo adventure. Some experiences were more Genghis Khan. I stopped one day at an East Indian shop in the infamous Change Alley to engage in the newly discovered thrill of bargaining. I picked up an item that I had no intention of buying and started to bargain down the price. The shop owner finally agreed to a low offer I had made but instead of buying I carelessly said “No thanks” and walked away. The shop-owner exploded into a rage. He shook his fist at me and cursed me all the way to the exit at the far end of the Alley. I was grateful that he was not armed. The lesson learned- when you start bargaining for some item and the owner humbles himself to agree to your price, then you are obligated to purchase the item, or else.
I spent much of my spare time in Singapore wandering through side-street kampongs. I would step off the busy streets glutted with Mercedes (the most per capita in the world), and within meters I found myself stepping through a time warp into the old China of past millennia. Everywhere throughout the city there were little pockets of rural areas laced with narrow paths on top of foot and a half wide strips of soil separating rice paddies. Fading gray wood and tin shanty houses were stepped on the sides of hills above the paddies.
But even more than the paddied kampongs, the Chinese and Indian temples attracted my attention. They were often dark inside which added atmosphere to what I felt was the sense of spiritual menace portrayed in scowling demonic statutes. Idols. I was now seeing firsthand the enemy that I had heard about for the past 6 years since entering Fundamentalist missionary training.
Other forms of Asian spirituality were on display at the Tiger Gardens. The hilltop garden had graphic exhibitions of figurines representing some Chinese belief in the afterlife. In the displays, grotesque little demons impaled people in the bloodiest fashion and then roasted them over flames in what I took to be a portrayal of hell. It looked very Evangelical to me. Jonathan Edwards would have found it to be an excellent illustration for his sermon “Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God”.
In the huge housing estates at the outer fringes of downtown Singapore there were 20 to 30 story apartment buildings faced with balconies, many of them sprouting bamboo poles with laundry hanging from them. That was distinctly urban Asia, as was the bamboo scaffolding on rising skyscrapers.
It was in the housing estates that I met a troubled young man named Vernon. My Evangelical analysis of Vernon led me to conclude that a demon was bothering him and my response was to pray with him, read the Bible to him, and hope the demon would leave. He needed professional psychotherapy far beyond anything that I could provide, but I never thought of suggesting such help. I believed the Bible would solve any problem that I encountered in life.
During an orientation seminar at OMF headquarters, a local Christian leader told us young recruits that demons were responsible for almost all illnesses, emotional dysfunction, and physical imperfection, including warts on your neck. After the seminar one of the new recruits said that a Christian preacher in Canada had once told him that his stutter was due to a demon of stutter. I wondered about pimples.
Because of our past criminal convictions, a young American missionary, B M, and I were delayed in getting visas to the Philippines, the designated mission field where we would work together. B had a previous marijuana conviction, which had ruined his plans for a career in forestry. During the time we waited for our visas, we were sent to Kuala Lumpur for a work visit.
B had the easy grin and rapidly nodding head of someone eager to please and make a good impression. He was six feet tall with sandy hair that suited his grinning everybody’s-friend personality. It was no surprise to discover that his favorite book was Dale Carnegie’s old classic “How To Win Friends And Influence People”.
B’s zealotry matched my own Evangelical fervor. From our earliest days together he was equally gung ho to go out witnessing or to engage in prayer meetings and Bible studies.
Like many Christians, B would initially present an evangelical holy self and would only expose his real self when he felt safe with someone. Then the stories would come out about past pranksterism and the normal humanity of a pre-Christian past.
He revealed to me that in his teens he and some friends had once placed a service station attendant’s uniform on a clothes rack and stuffed it with rags to make it look like a dummy. They then took it to a hill near their house and waited in the dark of night for cars to come up the hill. As the cars approached the crest of the hill, B and his friends pretended to wrestle with the dummy at the side of the road and then just as a car would pass, they would throw the dummy in front of the vehicle. B said that after one car ran over the dummy they heard a lady in the car scream at her husband, “Oh George, ya killed him”.
They hid in the grass at the side of the road and laughed till they could not breathe and their stomach muscles cramped in pain. I did the same as I listened to B’s retelling of the story.
At other times they would stuff paper bags with animal feces and then place the bags in front of neighbor’s doors. They would light the bags on fire, ring the doorbell, and then run and hide. People answering the door would come out, try to stomp out the fire and end up cursing the young bastards who messed up their shoes.
We had played a similar game as kids, knocking on doors and then taking off to hide. We left many people cursing thin air after they had left meals or TV watching to come and open their doors. I don’t have a clue why they called such pranks “knock down ginger”. All part of normal childhood development.
B also told stories of slowly cruising through red light districts where hookers would jump onto the hood of his car, displaying their wares. He never went into too much detail on what happened after that. Sex was bad. Politely, I did not press him for details. Anyway, I am sure that it was more talk than action.
Together we explored Kuala Lumpur and rural Malaysia for some 3 weeks. One afternoon our Western politeness got us sidelined. We were waiting at a downtown KL bus stop for a ride back to the mission home which was located in the suburbs. Every 15 minutes a bus would arrive and we would move toward it, anticipating a ride home. But people who had arrived later than us and had been standing around the periphery of the bus stop area would suddenly rush to the door of the not-yet-stopped bus and clog the stairwell. A few would climb inside the crowded bus while others would be left hanging to the side as it pulled away. Buses kept arriving and the same rush would occur and we were not getting anywhere near the entrance doors. Hours passed and it was getting late in the afternoon.
Once during the rush for the door of a bus a petite young lady in long Islamic robes was pushed back from the door. She became very upset and started pounding on the back of the man in front of her with her clenched fists. I had heard of Asian politeness and that just did not fit. Oh well, there are always exceptions to the rule.
Finally, we realized that we would never board a bus unless we made more direct effort. We would have to overcome our Western orientation to fairness, expressed in forming lines according to order of arrival. So when the next bus arrived, we joined the rush and let others push us from behind until we were in the stairwell when the bus left. In doing that, we were able to maintain our perception of ourselves as polite and still climb on board.
While in Kuala Lumpur I also had a rude introduction to cross-cultural communication problems when I visited an East Indian barber for a haircut. The non-English speaking man invested a good half-hour carefully clipping my locks with a pair of scissors. On finishing, he proudly stood aside and waited for my approval and thanks. But ungratefully I pulled at the hair on top of my head, communicating through my hand gestures that I wanted more cut off the top. That hand motion shifted the chemicals in the barber’s brain from friendly to antagonistic. Apparently, I had violated some fine point of cultural sensitivity. The barber, quite miffed at my lack of appreciation, pulled an electric clipper from his drawer and proceeded to aggressively shave my head to the skin and skull. Back at the mission home others laughed and said I looked like a sheared sheep. Oh well, as John Lennon said long ago, “Hair today, gone tomorrow”.
Another Sunday afternoon an Indian lady took us to her parent’s house on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur for dinner. There we had our first experience of eating food spread on banana leaves. The hot Indian spices caused our eyes and noses to water uncontrollably.
The family also taught us some East Indian eating etiquette. While we ate with our hands, the hosts cautioned us that locals used only one hand for eating food. The other hand was considered dirty as it was reserved for wiping bums.
After the meal, our lady friend took us for a walk through a nearby coconut grove. She told us stories of seeing wild tigers in that very area. As I walked through the grass beside her, I could feel my blood chilling with the thrill of an adrenaline rush. This was the Asia that I had long daydreamed about.
A hospitable local pastor also took us out to a rural Malaysian village for several days. During our stay there he drove us to Fraser’s Peak where I had my first glimpse of tribal people squatting beside the highway. While still in his village, early one morning before sunrise we went out to watch plantation workers drawing rubber sap from trees. They took the little tin cups of white sap to a machine where it was pressed into large slabs which would be shipped to processing factories. The pungent odor of the rubber reminded me in later years of burning copra.
Finally, the visa OK came through and in mid-1975 we were off to one of the most fascinating countries in the world.
The Philippines has an inspiring history of social firsts in Asia. It was the first Asian country to resist and throw off a colonial power- the Spanish- after three and a half centuries of subjugation. During that time the Spanish had sponsored the development of an elite landholding class. The concentration of wealth, power, and resources like land under the control of that elite has disturbed the sense of egalitarianism in traditional Philippine society and caused problems over subsequent history (it fueled the communist movement in the country). Where there is inequity, injustice, and powerlessness created by outside intervention there will never be peace.
Near the end of the nineteenth century (1898) revolting Filipinos had retaken the entire country from the Spanish except for the capital city of Manila. They established a government in waiting and then asked the Americans to help them in the final push to retake Manila. They were unaware that the Americans, in defiance of their own constitution, were looking for an Asian country to be used as a staging place from which to enter the Chinese market.
Unknown to Filipinos, a major debate had been raging back in America over whether the US could actually occupy another country as a colony. The pro-colony people appeared to be narrowly losing, when President Taft announced to everyone’s surprise that he had a dream which prompted him to declare with finality, “The Lord has spoken to me and he has given us the Philippines” (remember how hard it is to refute someone who says God has spoken to them). That was enough to sway the vote in the House of Representatives with the Republicans winning by one vote. The US forces then entered the country under the pretence of offering assistance, pushed the Philippine government-in-waiting aside and proceeded to subjugate the nation in a brutal campaign of suppression. The invading American forces called it ‘pacification’, but it was a genocidal holocaust no matter how you look at it.
The estimates are that one out of every six Filipinos- men, women, and children- were slaughtered in the American conquest of the country. That would be one million innocent people. US generals ordered their troops to shoot people and burn the countryside. One soldier wrote home at the time, “Mom, I’m tired of shooting brown bodies all day long”. The military tried unsuccessfully to keep such information from leaking to the American public.
According to one American historian (The Benevolent Assimilation), “It was a dark moment in our history”. Oh, really. That is all that one million lives meant- a dark moment for the US?
Later in the twentieth century, America was able to bury that dark moment and refocus attention on itself as the great benefactor of the Philippines. The American effort in liberating the country from the Japanese tends to be the lasting impression from the US occupation.
The 50 years of US domination created an ongoing love-hate relationship with the Americans. Filipinos used to say they loved the material goods the US provided but hated the demeaning American control of their country. The Spanish and American occupations have also been jokingly referred to as 350 years in a convent followed by 50 years in Hollywood.
The Americans granted the Philippines independence after the Second World War but it was conditioned on a number of advantages reserved for the US. Filipinos could never subsequently elect a president without approval by the Americans. Whoever aspired to the presidency would have to support American policies and continue to grant US companies special privileges and access to Philippine markets.
Abuse by the ruling elites and the military increased in the early 1970s under the dictatorship which emerged when Marcos disbanded the Congress after his legitimate terms ended. Marcos and his cronies forcefully confiscated whatever they wanted, including entire companies that controlled vital sectors of the economy. The resentment of the Philippine people would build over the next decade and a half to 1986.
Many Filipinos vented their disgust with Marcos by joining the communist insurgency. That movement peaked while I was there in the last half of the Seventies and the first half of the Eighties. The military arm of the Communist Party, the New People’s Army (NPA) controlled mainly rural areas and in particular the upland forest areas where we worked. The Marcos military controlled urban areas and surrounding lowland rural areas. Military checkpoints with armed soldiers delineated the boundaries of government controlled regions.
On the surface, the Philippines appears to be a westernized culture. Most public signs are in English and a majority of the population speaks English. The American-sponsored education system uses English as the medium of instruction. The country is considered the third largest English speaking country in the world after the US and Britain. But that surface appearance of Westernness has lulled visitors into thinking the country is similar to their home culture and that misperception has led to minimizing underlying differences. The result has been miscommunication with its consequent confusion and hurt feelings.
For instance, many Westerners soon run into what they inaccurately label as Asian deceptiveness or double-facedness. German and Dutch people in particular, who can be very straightforward and blunt, cannot understand why Filipinos cannot be equally ‘honest’. “Why can’t they just look me in the eye and tell the truth”, our European compatriots would often fume after some interpersonal misunderstanding.
But Asians tend to be more sensitive to other people’s feelings and prefer to avoid direct confrontation with others when there is a disagreement. In response to interpersonal problems they will often use a third party to communicate or help settle some issue. Rather than being deceptive, this is a face-saving and sensitive approach to conflict resolution. The goal is to suggest cautiously and not directly confront or hurt other’s feelings. Westerners on the other hand, with their more direct approach, appeared abrasive and offensive to Asians.
We realize these are generalities about cultures and there are many exceptions to these patterns. But when dealing cross-culturally, it is always good to remember the little maxim, “It’s not wrong. Its just different”.
Our first place of residence in the Philippines was Batangas, a coastal town just an hour south of Manila. While the downtown core of the city is centered near the ocean, its outer suburbs thin out across a flat coastal plain, which ascends into the interior mountains. Most Philippine islands have developed a similar geographic pattern- mountainous spines rising through the central island with alluvial plains along the coastal areas. Some of the mountains still have a remnant cover of rainforest while the plains are shaded with coconut trees, rice paddies, sugar cane or cornfields. Population centers tend to locate on the coastal plains beside rivers that drain into the surrounding ocean.
OMF had rented a number of houses in a walled subdivision of Batangas. The houses were cement structures with small windows and tin roofs- ovens designed to make people sweat. Traditional Philippine houses had large windows that ran from about a foot above the floor all the way to the top of the wall. They opened like sliding closet doors and allowed large amounts of air to move through the houses.
The plan to locate in the walled subdivision was based on a concern to give new missionaries some privacy. Asian societies do not value personal privacy or sense of personal space as westerners do. And in many Philippine houses there are no rooms where you can retreat to and people will politely knock and wait before entering. So to make adjustment easier, living in a walled off area would allow new people to maintain some sense of home-country privacy.
Foreigners in the Philippines tended to cluster in protected compounds, usually occupying the very best land and resorts in the country. For example, the Americans had leased most of the prime real estate in the northern resort town of Bagiuo for their military recreation center. Many of the country’s best beaches were also walled off for the exclusive use of foreigners or wealthy locals. From those protected enclaves, Westerners would make little forays out into public before quickly returning to tell each other stories about the ‘weird’ things they had seen or experienced.
OMF missionaries would regularly gather around the meal table to gossip about a Christian family just outside the Batangas compound who, they said, were always trying to get things from the missionaries. It fostered an ‘us versus them’ antagonism.
As we compared cultural differences such as walled privacy, we realized that most people on earth do not follow Western cultural customs and we began to understand that a variety of Western values and practices were actually quite odd from the viewpoint of the wider human race.
Language And Culture
Weather wise, the days at Batangas divided pretty much into hot, hotter, and hottest. I perspired more than I had ever done before in my life. Baths or showers provided little relief, as immediately on leaving the shower we would break into sweat again. The stickiness continued for most of the day and nightfall provided only a few degrees of relief if we slept under a fan.
During our first years in the country we spent much of our time in language study. Moving to a new culture requires in effect becoming like a little child and relearning the basic elements of life (language and culture) all over again. It is an often frustrating and humiliating experience. Other factors can compound the sense of frustration. One of our instructors came to work very tired from an overnight job. She would read a sentence for us to repeat and by the time we had finished halting through the sentence, her head would drop on the table fast asleep. Some mornings we had to wake her after each sentence. It became quite a joke among the missionaries but it added to the sense of imperceptible progress in language study.
Cultural adjustments could be equally frustrating. We responded to Asian situations as we responded back home but in a new culture such responses sometimes led to entirely new and unpredictable consequences. I remember one of the other recruits, D G, trying to be helpful to the language instructors by providing each with a separate sleeping room for their noon siesta. He had seen two ladies sleeping together and felt that was unacceptably crowded.
But in placing the ladies in separate sleeping rooms he had violated a local custom. In response one of the separated instructors cried all the way through the noon hour break and threatened to never come back.
Senior missionaries took us new recruits aside and explained that local people were afraid to sleep alone because of their belief that they might stop breathing during sleep and could possibly die if there was no companion present to wake them up. The crying lady also thought D was punishing her for talking with another lady during the naptime. Further, she suspected that he had put her in a separate room so he could peep at her.
It was a jolting introduction to some of the differences between Asian and Western thinking.
There were other interesting experiences, like the time I visited a local family and was presented with a specially prepared treat- a cup of dark chunky goo that appeared to be like a thick and salty beef stew. I drank it all and asked for its name. “Its diniguan”, replied the hostess. On arriving back at the language center, I asked someone what diniguan was. “Oh, that’s cooked pig’s blood with the chopped intestines in it”, they said. Yummy.
Sometimes its better not to know ahead of time what you are eating. It is then easier to be polite and accepting of strange delicacies. Too often we Westerners insensitively violate common decency with too bluntly expressed dislikes and preferences. Politely accepting and showing gratefulness for food is very important to people of most cultures. Acceptance of food expresses a more profound acceptance of other people’s culture and more importantly, acceptance of the people themselves.
Soon after arriving in Batangas I began to sink into the darkest and most confusing time in my life. Perhaps it was my growing confusion about possibly missing the will of God when I had left WEC the previous year. Batangas became a very dark experience.
Other recruits faced similar confusion. A number of new people from a variety of countries had come to Asia convinced that God was leading them specifically to Malaysia. They even had verses which they claimed that God had given them. Don’t ask me where the Bible talks about Westerners going to a particular country in Asia. People find anything they want in the Bible. But just as they arrived in Southeast Asia, Malaysia introduced a new policy denying Western missionaries residence. That threw some of the recruits into distressed confusion and even despair. They had been certain of God’s leading and now what? Most were sent to the Philippines in the interim until they could sort out the next step.
My sinking was also due to growing confusion over the 4 years of intense Fundamentalist indoctrination that I had just emerged from at Prairie. And maybe it was influenced by the realization that I had cut off all home ties and gone overseas for life, like a long prison sentence. Maybe it was also due to loneliness and the sense of being swamped in a strange place and culture.
Cross-cultural isolation and confusion can often become a wrenching and traumatic experience. It is not so much what is called culture shock- strange things that shock you, like people offering sacrifices, pissing against the wheel of an airplane or eating strange foods. It is more of what is known as culture stress- things like missing communication cues in both spoken language and body language, or not picking up on the meaning of facial expressions and other responses. You begin to feel so out of place as people laugh and chatter incomprehensibly around you and you have no idea what is going on or if they are perhaps laughing at you.
It leads to a buildup of disorienting stress over time- confusion, a sense of isolation, strangeness, and aloneness.
In addition to the above, I was still trying to live by LE’s simple dictum that overflowing joy should be the natural and constant state of the good Christian. If we were right with God, then we should be happy all the time. I was confused. Why did I not have the promised joy and peace? I never questioned the fact that LE’s formula might be an overly simplistic approach to the complexities of life.
Lou Sutera, the high-decibel Italian evangelist, had summarized life in a similar manner, preaching that, “Sin makes the cup of joy to spring a leak”. If all of our sin were confessed, then we would be full of the Spirit and joy.
Souls (the Evangelical label for lost people), on seeing our joy, would “come to the Lord” (believe and accept our religion) thereby reaffirming our being right with God. Christians who were right with God would automatically win souls to Jesus. That was called “bearing fruit”. If that was not happening, then it confirmed that something was wrong with the true believer. There must be some hidden, harbored sin in our lives that was blocking the working of the Spirit. It was that simple and automatic, according to Sutera.
I knew one elderly man, a Mr. Sidney Pugh, who used to ask me why he was no longer winning souls for Jesus. He was as nice a human being as any person alive on the globe, but he felt that something terrible must be wrong with him. He labored under the same horrific load of guilt that many Christians suffered under.
Most central to my confusion was the fact that I had left WEC and I had been warned by WEC leaders that if I were running from the will of God then I would never know the blessing of God on my life. God would abandon me. But it was too late to change that decision.
The mission was not much help because, in their view, if something was wrong then it was due to spiritual warfare- an attack from the Devil. They had little real understanding of the complexities of cultures and the psychological stresses involved in changing cultures. They were also Fundamentalist in worldview. Therefore, they viewed personal problems as being due to spiritual warfare, and all we needed to do was pray our way through to victory and joy. Little consideration was given to social or psychological change, nutritional or chemical imbalances from a new diet, and other medical or mental factors.
It was a very black and white approach to life. If we were good Christians- faithful, pure, obedient- then God would give us joy and make us happy. God would give us the victory over all problems we encountered. If we did not have joy, then there must be some sin or disobedience in our lives. We simply needed to get right with God. It was our fault.
I sank further and further. I was becoming like the shell-shocked young lady that I had once read about. She had been a vibrant outgoing young person when she left England for the mission field. But after several years overseas, she unexpectedly returned home. She arrived back in England stunned, quiet, and morose. Her personality had been completely altered and she was strangely withdrawn. “A casualty”, they said, “of spiritual warfare”.
In an effort to alleviate my own distress, I tried the old techniques that I had been taught of looking for sin, confessing it, and hoping God would fill me, if not with joy, then at least with some relief from my confusion and loneliness. Confessing sin had always seemed somewhat cathartic in the past, but now it only annoyed my colleagues to have someone confessing all sorts of silly little things and dumping on them. And it no longer worked. I felt just the same after confessing- miserable. I had no idea that what was happening to me might be related to being swamped and isolated in a very different culture.
There was also the debilitating heat and a whole new array of viruses, bacteria, worms and other bugs invading our systems with all sorts of unforeseen effects on our bodies, minds, and emotions.
I retreated inward and read my books on the Christian life in a futile effort to find some help. I naturally assumed that I had probably missed the will of God when I left WEC and God was upset with me and punishing me now by abandoning me. Maybe the WEC leader, who had warned me that I would never know God’s power or blessing, was right. Maybe God had rejected me.
In my confusion I would often plead with God for help, for some relief from the painful loneliness and emotional turmoil. But nothing ever changed; there was no relief. And maybe that was the best answer. I would have to grow up and learn to find my own way to relief from whatever ailed me. I simply had no idea what was wrong.
Not everyone retreated inward as I did. Some took the explosive route and blew up at others. There was a young Peace Corps volunteer living near us who had discovered that unique cultural practice of Filipino children calling “Hi Joe” to all foreigners. Every time an Americano (the label for any Westerner) went out in public, kids would crowd around and incessantly shout “Hi Joe” or “Americano”, often annoyingly in the westerner’s face. The practice apparently originated with US soldiers calling “Hi Joe” to local kids during the Second World War.
The endless Hi Joes eventually pushed the Peace Corps guy too far and after blowing up a few times at the kids, he left to return to the US. The Hi Joe call was not likely the real reason he gave up. It was more likely a complex set of things in which the ‘Hi Joe’ was the easiest thing to blame.
Years later, a Filipino man watching me frown in response to some ‘Hi Joes’, leaned over and explained to me, “Don’t mind that. They’re just being friendly”. They were not trying to be maliciously rude.
One white South African missionary in a fit of pissed off frustration had a T-shirt printed with the blunt statement, “I am not an Americano and my name is not Joe”. He wore that on the streets of Batangas but it did little to slow the incessant Hi Joes. Other missionaries, when greeted with a Hi Joe, would scornfully fire back, “Hi Pedro”. But all were missing the point that it was just a friendly greeting. Another missionary- to protect his privacy his initials are B G- snapped one day on the streets of Batangas and in a rage grabbed a Hi Joer by the neck and started shaking him. So much for being Christ-like, eh.
The attention from local people was sometimes overwhelming. Crowds of people would gather around us when we stopped at a stall or in a store. They would stare and make comments, even embarrassing ones about our appearance, habits or poor pronunciation. Sometimes they would mimic our western nasalizing of words. Filipinos speak clearly through their throats and Ts and Ks are crisply cut off, with no puffs of air following them in the manner that we use Ts and Ks in English.
Local kids once mimicked the sloppy nasalizing of one missionary lady and she refused to speak in public following that embarrassing incident. Consequently, she had a difficult time learning the language.
Local people told another missionary that with her long blond hair and pointed nose she reminded them of a frightening witch from their local mythology. That did not help reinforce her self-image in a positive manner. Local women would sometimes even ask the missionary men how big their penises were. Conventional logic suggested that taller bodies meant bigger dicks. Such questions appeared intrusive and even rude to touchy Westerners who valued privacy and propriety. A brief visit to the market could be stressful and sometimes exhausting. We started to appreciate the walled compound as an escape.
Under the mounting culture stress, one young missionary couple ‘cracked up’ and retreated into their house. They staged a lock-down. After residing only a few months in the country they locked their doors and refused to see anyone, including their own supervisor.
At a mechanics shop one day the husband lost it. He started throwing tools at the stunned mechanic. Soon after that untoward incident they returned surreptitiously home. Their supervisor explained that they were another casualty of spiritual warfare.
That couple- young, inexperienced, and having only Bible school education- were suddenly thrust unprepared into an entirely different culture and expected to become leaders and teachers. It was simply too much for them to handle.
Aside from the overwhelming demands placed on unprepared young foreign missionaries, there is the issue of arrogant intolerance inherent to the Christian worldview and the Christian missionary movement. Young people with no appreciable experience, little applicable training, often no understanding of the complex dynamics of other cultures, and an overly simplistic worldview are sent overseas to start telling citizens of another country that they are sinful and bad people, their ideas and cultural practices are satanic and wrong and therefore they must all be discarded. Following that repentance the converts must then take up the entirely foreign and new culture of Western Evangelicalism. While I now see the arrogance of such an approach to others, it is the inescapable outcome of the Evangelical worldview. Evangelicals believe that they alone hold the truth which can save all people from hell and they are obligated by God to get that truth out to all people. So there we were in a Christian country trying to convert fellow Christians to our version of true Christianity.
LE had often warned us that we should never weaken in any way the truth that Jesus was the only Savior of the world and all people were damned to hell if they did not hear about him and believe in him. If we undermined the Fundamentalist Christian system of truth on any vital point, then we would undermine the basic reason for the Christian missionary movement. He wanted that converting movement to be supported by a tightly irrefutable logic. All of us true believers were responsible to go and warn lost sinners or else God would punish us along with them.
One of our instructors, a well-educated linguist, had the sense to warn a group of us young candidates that before we started teaching anything to others we should first listen to local people and learn from them for at least the initial 10 years of our stay in the country. But immediately after he left, B scoffed, “Wait 10 years? Never. I’m going to spread the gospel from the start”. His zeal would not tolerate such caution and humility.
By any common sense standard, we were simply unprepared to be in another culture, certainly not as teachers and leaders advocating fundamental changes to the views and lifestyles of others. The demeaning element in our approach was that respected and more experienced local leaders often deferred to us Westerners because we were supposedly better educated and, of course, we were in charge of the money.
In later years I often wished that I had first done university (anthropology, sociology, economics, political science, geography and other subjects) before going overseas. I would then have understood and learned much more from the cross-cultural experiences that I had. Many things were going on around me that I had no way of appreciating or properly understanding due to my ignorance of the basic processes of human society. Most importantly, with further training I would have been more cautious and sensitive in my approach to another culture.
Sparks Of Freedom
In my ongoing struggle to find help for my own inner turmoil I read an old British preacher, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones who was a former royal physician. Though he was Evangelical, he employed more common sense and a much less harsh view of God than most Fundamentalists. He consistently focused on the grace, love, and mercy of God. It was a refreshing view of God for any person battered by the tough demands, impossible standards of sinless behavior, threats of damnation, and punishment for any failure that characterized Evangelical Christianity.
Lloyd-Jones stated quite frankly that the Fundamentalism I had been raised in was heresy. That was an entirely new and scandalous thought to me. But what should have been disturbing to a zealous Fundamentalist, actually sparked within me a sense of liberation as for the first time I began to realize that LE and other Evangelicals could perhaps be wrong. For the first time in my life, a highly respected Evangelical authority was challenging the stern tyranny of the God that I had been raised to believe in.
Both LE Maxwell and Ted Rendall had always spoken highly, almost reverently, of Lloyd-Jones, referring to him as the greatest preacher in the world. They had recommended every book he put out. But when the volume arrived that criticized the Evangelical and deeper life beliefs of LE, then quite abruptly, Rendall and LE stopped recommending Lloyd-Jones.
The blunt criticism by Lloyd-Jones was the initial step for me in the new process of questioning the belief system that I held. It was the first weakening of that system’s tight grip on my mind and emotions. Could it be possible that Evangelicalism was a fallible system and possibly defective? An electrifying and liberating sensation was starting to emerge in the depths of my consciousness.
Was it possible that Evangelicalism was not the perfect truth of God, the one true religion of God? This initial questioning would eventually lead to my abandoning Christianity and the Christian God.
I also read books such as Garry Friesen’s “Decision Making and the Will of God”. He argued that God simply wanted people to be loving and decently human. God had no particular will for individual people, in the sense of a predetermined and detailed plan to follow. God only wanted people to be loving, generous, and decent. That was his will. There was no specific work that he foreordained us to do, no specific organization he wanted us to join, and no specific country to go to. All such decisions were a matter of free choice.
These ideas were quite revolutionary to my Evangelically-indoctrinated mind. I had always been taught that there was a highly detailed plan for each person’s life and we had to find and slavishly obey that predetermined plan dictated by God or suffer his punishing anger.
The endeavor to obey some invisible Dictator always leads to silly assumptions about how to live. For instance, I recently met a Christian lady at a downtown mission in Vancouver. Just to make conversation, I asked her how often she came down to that area. Beaming with Evangelical joy she replied, “Only as the Lord leads me”. I felt like mischievously responding, “Oh really. Me, I’m a big boy now. I came here all on my own, without any guidance from God”. It would have been fun to get a rise out of her, but I guess I’m just too nice.
Despite the helpful input from Lloyd-Jones (and many others), it would still be a long hard road to freedom from the harsh, threatening Fundamentalist God, the shaming God. I had no idea yet how complex a web Fundamentalism had woven in my consciousness.
After some 6 months studying Tagalog in Batangas, we moved 800 kilometers south to the center of the island of Mindanao where we would begin the study of Cebuano which was the most commonly used language of the southern Philippines. We landed first in the northern Mindanao port city of Cagayan de Oro, and then traveled south through the extensive Del Monte pineapple plantations and the corn growing areas of MalayBalay, to the rice and sugar growing regions of Bukidnon province located in the center of the island.
We rented a home in Valencia, a small rural town of several thousand people that was elevated around 1500 feet above sea level. Where Batangas had been suffocatingly hot, Valencia actually became cool at night. The village was situated on rolling cogon grass covered hills overlooking a wide flat valley of rice fields. The rain-forested mountains of the central spine of Mindanao were some 10 kilometers distant at the opposite side of the valley.
Just outside of town there was a 500 foot high hill shaped roughly like a woman’s breast with the nipple on top and that is just what the locals called it- susu (breast). It was volcanic and would sometimes rumble violently enough to shake lanterns right off our tables. Not a nice lady but the idea of a boob was titillating to us single men (Get it? Tit…illating).
While in Valencia we also experienced the severe 1976 earthquake in the Cotabato Gulf where some 8000 coastal dwellers were drowned in a tsunami. I woke one night to find my bed shaking violently back and forth, banging against a wall. My first thought on waking was that it was a dumb trick for B to be playing in the middle of the night. I rolled over to tell him to stop. But no one was there. Outside the open windows the coconut trees were silently waving back and forth. There was no wind and all the animals were silent. What was happening?
I stumbled downstairs and outside and stood disoriented as the ground heaved and rolled in every direction under my feet. It took a while to groggily emerge into full consciousness and realize that it was an earthquake. The next day we heard of the devastation some 200 kilometers away in Cotabato.
In rural Valencia we also began to experience much closer relationships with the wonderful world of living creatures. The house that we rented had a tin roof and at night the rats would drop from the palm fronds onto the roof and noisily clitter clatter across the metal. They would then climb down into our rooms and chew the bars of soap on our shelves before knocking them on the floor and waking us up.
Late at night after the town had quieted down we would also sometimes hear roosters crow in the distance. It seemed that they regularly started just as I was trying to fall asleep- a kind of tropical curse. I would brace myself for the inevitable domino effect as each rooster woke its nearby neighbor. One by one, the arrogant males tried to out-cockadoodledo each other until a string of roosters had crowed in succession all the way across town, ending with several screetching right outside our open windows. I started using earplugs and I started to intensely dislike roosters. Maybe it was the devil using them in spiritual warfare against me?
From Valencia we made our initial visits to nearby Manobo tribal areas. Manobo were the people we ultimately aimed to convert. We were now moving closer to the time when we would begin church planting among them which is the establishing of churches or groups of believers in new areas.
The first Manobo people we contacted were located at the edge of the rainforest covered mountains across the valley from Valencia. They lived in several small clusters of 3 or 4 huts on the periphery of lowland villages.
We usually visited the Manobo on Sundays and stayed briefly to haltingly read our little Cebuano sermons only several sentences long but carefully crafted and checked by language instructors. We met with the Manobo residents under one elevated house where we sat on logs laying around the perimeter. Inevitably, while we were reading our sermons a huge black pig would drag its belly into our midst and then suddenly flop over on its side, sometimes in a mud puddle, sending mucky water splashing over those of us sitting nearby. People would quickly pull their feet out of the way then start laughing and talking. Once the pig was down on its side, several audience member’s feet would return to scratch the pig’s back, which was what it was looking for.
It was discouraging to try and communicate our important Evangelical truths while no one was listening. But I can’t blame them. A religious monologue is the most wearying thing ever invented to torture people with. A haltingly read religious monologue is even worse.
The months passed in language study. It would be two full years of lowland dialects- Tagalog and then Cebuano- before we would start the Manobo dialects. As difficult and slow as it was, I came to see the wisdom of first gaining experience living in lowland culture.
Foreigners who move directly to upland tribal situations tend to bond with the tribal groups and take on tribal antagonisms toward lowland peoples. Lowlanders are then viewed much as tribal people see them- abusive, aggressive, dominating, the enemy. Skipping lowland cultural experience only makes it more difficult to view lowlanders as fellow human beings.
If foreigners first experience lowland culture and develop relationships with lowland people, then it is easier to feel empathy for them, their viewpoints and the issues they face. It is not as likely that foreigners will then fall into the ‘us versus them’ syndrome.
Also, lowland friends and acquaintances would provide invaluable help to tribal people in future years.
Lowland culture in Valencia provided us with some unique learning experiences. Asians in general and Filipinos in particular are not hung up on touching. Whether between women or between men, there is far more same-sex friendship touching (nonsexual) than in Western cultures. Women holding hands in public is quite common, and it is frequently done by men as well. It is simply a friendship gesture.
One evening I met a man and his wife downtown in the market square. I had met and conversed with him before. After a few minutes of chatting we started walking home, he in the center with me on one side and his wife on the other.
Then unexpectedly, as we were walking along the street, he took hold of my hand. I shriveled inside. I had enough cultural sensitivity to not pull my hand away and cause offense so I let him hold my limp hand as we walked along the street. Inwardly, I desperately tried to disassociate my arm from my body- kind of like an out-of-body experience. The fact that it was dark and his wife was present alleviated the intense embarrassment somewhat. For a North American male raised in a very anti-gay culture and belonging to the most intolerant segment of that society- Fundamentalism- it was excruciatingly painful to walk hand in hand with that man. But I was probably the only one who noticed it.
Another time while I was walking across the center of a university campus with a row of young men, they suddenly joined hands with me in the center. I once again felt that my limp arms were not connected to my body. Fortunately, that was also a nighttime show of friendship.
We had often been cautioned regarding such cultural differences, “It’s not wrong. Its just different”.
In Valencia, I also experienced the relaxed Filipino approach to sexual attraction and expression. Once, while visiting a house on the mountainside behind Valencia, a young lady laughingly said to me in accented English, “Hey Joe, I will go with you”. I did not quite know what she meant and as a holy Evangelical I could not respond affirmatively, but something in me certainly did want to go with her, whatever she meant and wherever she wanted to go.
Getting Used To It
You can either resist differences in another culture and become a cranky, contrary foreigner or realizing that difference is the norm, just make the effort to adjust to it.
One afternoon after visiting a neighboring town, we were sitting and waiting for our jeepney to fill with passengers before returning to Valencia. The jeep driver had already placed squirming pigs and chickens under the seats by our feet and he continued to throw sacks of rice and flour in by our legs. I was becoming dusty white from the flour powder. A lady sitting across from me, seeing my displeased expression, smiled and explained, “That’s life in the Philippines”. I relaxed a little. But it was disconcerting to have squirming pigs with their toothy mouths placed right by my feet. In later years I would come to accept such things as the norm and actually learn to enjoy them.
Another time during a visit to an outlying village, a pastor took me to a local stream for a bath. When we arrived at the bathing spot, we found a lady washing her clothes by the pipe which poured water from a nearby spring into the stream. Several girls washing clothes further up stream turned to stare and young boys squatting on rocks nearby also stared. The lady kindly left her washing and stood back so I could use the water outlet. She waited a few yards up the stream bank.
We all stood there looking at each other while I uncomfortably looked around for another place to bathe. I was hoping the washers would soon finish and leave so I could bathe in privacy. Surely the pastor was not expecting me to bathe here in front of all these people? As I paused, the pastor looked at me quizzically and asked, “Maybe you are ashamed?”
I replied, “Yes, I am embarrassed”.
After a few moments of further hesitation the pastor said, “You just start now”. I looked at the washing lady who looked politely away. The ladies were in no rush to leave. “Pastor”, I asked, “How do I bathe here?”
“Put your towel around your waist”, he replied.
“But it will get wet”, I said. He replied that it would dry later. Still hesitating, I asked him what I would dry myself with after bathing. Now frustrated with me, the pastor said, “You just start”.
Reluctantly, I wrapped my towel around my waist and undressed beneath the towel. I looked up at the lady. Again, she turned away. I looked up at the girls. They also turned away. I looked at the boys. They continued to stare at me. Even the pastor stared. The trees seemed to be staring.
I poured water over my head and started to soap my hair. The pastor, now exasperated said, “Put water all over yourself”. I explained that in Canada we did it this way- hair first.
After a few moments he commented, “You sure take long”. I agreed. The lady was waiting to finish her laundry. I looked up at her. She looked away.
I finished bathing and redressed all under the wet towel. Privacy, I reminded myself, was a Western value.
That kind pastor who introduced me to local bathing customs also had some very interesting ideas on evangelizing the lost. He told us one morning that he wanted to train parrots to quote John 3:16 and then send them flying over rainforest villages to squawk the word of God at unbelievers. And he was serious.
My lowland experiences generally confirmed the common stories that I had heard about the Philippines. Filipinos in general are a very friendly, welcoming, helpful, and generous people. It is hard to imagine a people who could be more generally pleasant human beings than they are. They would often welcome complete strangers into their homes and freely share whatever they had. For visitors, it created a sense of feeling accepted and very much at home.
If we happened to arrive at a house unexpectedly around mealtime, people would offer us the meals they had prepared for themselves and then wait till more could be cooked. Often on our arrival the host would do something very costly and special such as kill a chicken. That is a significant expense for many rural people who have very few possessions. Such generosity often made me feel that we were imposing a burden on a very polite and generous people who could not afford it. We tried to reciprocate by bringing along prized lowland items to leave with people such as canned fish or bags of salt.
We had arrived in the Philippines in 1975 just a few years after Marcos had declared Marshal Law and cracked down on his political opponents. I remember once asking a Filipino friend in Valencia what he thought of Marcos. He reacted by nervously darting his head around to see if anyone was near. He then hushed me up with the warning, “We don’t talk about Marcos or we might be arrested”.
I thought that he was excessively fearful but I dropped my little exploration of Philippine politics. I was completely unaware of the wider political and economic environment in the country and not too interested. My Evangelical education had isolated me completely from the “evil world”. I had been taught to focus on the Lord’s work and stay away from such things as politics. “Don’t get sidetracked into less important things”, LE had often solemnly warned us, “Or you will end up backslidden in the chicken pen”.
With a strong suspicion of secular education and life as faith-destroying I had little understanding of politics, economics, or areas such as anthropology/sociology.
As missionaries we were not only ill-prepared to understand the complex dynamics of another country and culture, but we were also very unprepared to be making radical interventions and changes to other people’s belief systems, ideologies and cultural practices.
The Philippines in 1975 was a country at war. Armed soldiers and military camps and checkpoints were everywhere.
One Sunday B and I were sitting around the house reading and relaxing when automatic weapons fire exploded all around us. “Bam, bam, bam, bam”. It was the harsh close-up bang of an M16. Instinctively, we crouched close to the ground and scrambled inside, flushed with adrenaline panic. B sprawled on his stomach on the floor behind a low hollow block wall and I ran to crouch behind the cement block wall of the toilet.
The bam, bam, bam moved closer then passed and continued in the direction of the downtown market. It became more of a “Pop, pop, pop” with increasing distance. The gunfire stopped within a minute or so.
We were told the next day that it was a drunken soldier.
In the downtown area, a young girl and her little brother had rushed forward to watch the shooting from an upper floor window. One of the randomly shot bullets pierced the girl’s shoulder and killed her little brother who was standing behind her. It was a traumatizing experience for everyone. It was our first experience, however minimal, of the trauma of war and killing.
Several days later, the guilty soldier was marched through the town in a public shaming. A sign hanging from his neck proclaimed, “I am a murderer”.