Chapter Eleven: Church Planting
After I had lived in Kamansi for about two years I became quite comfortable with the feeling that I had established some healthy, mature Evangelical churches. Then one morning as I walked into the village with one of the elders he turned and asked me, “Anakon, we have been attending the meetings for a long time now. But why are you really here? What are you really going to give us and when are you going to start giving out more things? And anakon, I’ve been attending the meetings for a while now and I’ve heard everything. Do I have to keep attending?” That was deflating but very honest.
They were joining my churches because of what I represented- Western wealth and technology. That wealth and technology held great attraction for people who were poor and had no other means of ever attaining such things.
Someone, trying to illustrate our drawing power, had once said, “If aliens from another very advanced civilization with highly advanced technology were to land in the US or Europe and if they said that they came from the true God and everyone must convert; every Westerner would convert in an instant”.
Despite the less than subtle interest in our material goods, we still felt that we were establishing a more pure form of Christianity than our competitors.
For instance, there was a Baptist missionary who also worked in the same tribal area that we were involved with. He doled out money freely and in our opinion that muddied people’s motivation for converting to Christianity. His presence also stirred basely competitive juices on both sides. He resented our threat of competition for “his people” while we felt that he was doing sloppy and misleading work among “our people”. Westerners tended to feel a kind of patronizing ownership of tribal peoples. And of course every religious group wanted converts to be their people and pad their rolls with numbers that showed success and therefore God’s blessing on them.
The Baptist never actually spent time among the tribal people. He lived in the comfort of Davao City and paid a local man to do the converting work in the villages. He claimed that he had made some 800 converts in the villages where we were working. We never did come across more than one or two of those supposed 800.
A local tribal man did all of the Baptist missionary’s work for him. This native pastor would go to a village and promise people that they would receive money from the missionary. Naturally, the response would be positive to his message. He would then baptize people wholesale. B once told me about a drunk man wandering around a village waving a baptismal certificate in one hand that he had received from that paid pastor while also waving his machete in the other hand, threatening to cut people up.
So what kind of work were we missionaries actually doing among the people of Mindanao and elsewhere? And how was our wealth affecting the response of the poor people that we worked among? Let me illustrate.
Every year the Southern Baptists would send over a number of preachers from the US to hold meetings in local churches. One Filipino pastor, R A, told me that the Southern Baptist preacher who came to his church invited all the local people to come to a Sunday evening service. Those were very poor people. The American preacher told them that if they would come to his meeting then he would give them all a free chicken feast after the service. That was the same tactic that we had used to get the street people in Calgary to come into missions. We would give them free lunches only after they sat and listened to our preaching and testimonies. We made them feel indebted to our generosity.
“During the meeting”, said R, “The Southern Baptist preacher asked the people- Would everyone who wants to go to hell please stand? Of course no one stood. Then he asked them: Who would like to go to heaven? And of course, everyone stood. So he later said that he had converted all those people. But I never saw any of them again. You know, I wish the Southern Baptists would just stay home and send the money over and let us do the teaching”.
Just a side note regarding the Southern Baptists- B continued to cross the proper limits of adult play. One of the visiting Southern Baptist preachers, an African American man, stayed at the OMF mission home in Davao. One afternoon B came into the room that we shared and showed me the new running shoes that his mother had just sent from the US. He then started to loudly mimic the street slang that young African American men used in the US when talking about these running shoes. “Hey man, yo’ all gotta git yoself a pair o dees sneakers”. It was the only time B had ever done something like that in his 10 years in the Philippines. He went on in that manner for a few moments then suddenly stopped midstream. His face dropped and he turned beet red as he stared at me. Both of his hands then went up to slap the sides of his face and he turned to walk over to a wall where he pretended to bang his head. He came back over to me looking pale and said in a hushed voice, “The black preacher is in the next room”. I then blanched too. The windows between the rooms were slats of glass that did not hinder the passage of sound.
Later that afternoon we had to go down for supper with the visiting preacher. Just before going out the door of our room I told B, “He doesn’t know who was doing the mimicking. He might think it was me”. B shrugged and we went downstairs to face the music. But the man was very gracious to us and did not let on that he had heard anything or was offended by it.
Big name evangelists from the West would also visit Davao City to hold crusades. We attended the crusade of one evangelist from Canada, Barry Moore, who had a very rapid speaking style. I listened to the Cebuano translator who could not keep pace with Moore’s rapid fire delivery. Consequently, he reproduced only truncated bits of phrases in his translation. It made little sense and it appeared that people had not fully understood what the evangelist had said. But he was a loud and enthusiastic speaker and when he gave the altar call many people went forward to be converted. Months later, I read his report from Canada about the huge revival going on in the Philippines. He claimed that thousands of people had been saved.
Large numbers of converts are important to Evangelicals because they are evidence that God is working and every true believer wants to be a part of God’s work and see results. Also, financial supporters are most interested in giving to successful evangelists who make lots of converts because they want to support success stories. It’s an issue of more bang for your buck. I’m sure the evangelists could even provide exact figures for the amount of cash received from supporters per soul converted.
There is so much more behind the Christian missionary movement that is not revealed by numbers alone. An experienced missionary, Michael Griffiths (a former leader of OMF) once told us that Asians were very polite and did not want their visitors to lose face or feel bad. So when a visiting preacher gave an altar call someone had to go forward. If new people would not go forward in response to the visitor’s call for people to be saved then church members would do so in order that the visitor would not be embarrassed. Unaware of the finer points of this cultural etiquette the visiting speakers would then count those church members as new converts.
Another missionary leader (George Verwer of Operation Mobilization) said that there are people in developing countries who go to all the different Christian meetings and respond repeatedly to the altar calls given by visiting preachers. Those people have gone forward numerous times to be saved or to become more committed or whatever the call was for. That explains why evangelists returning home can report such huge numbers. They were counting the same people again and again. The pastors who live in those countries have stated that they can not find all those reported converts. Nonetheless, such reports of converting success serve to keep the money flowing from supporters.
An OMF missionary, Brian Gibson, told us that he had once worked for the respected American Evangelical radio broadcast Back To The Bible Hour. The broadcast producers received numerous letters from local people in the Philippines who wrote in as new converts and of course they reported their success to supporting listeners in the US and Canada. But Brian was in charge of follow-up in the Philippines. He had to visit the new converts to make sure that they joined churches. He said that he was never able to find any of those reported converts.
As Westerners from developed countries we represented wealth, education, and advanced technology. That sweeps a lot of poor people from developing countries right off their feet. Along with the high pressure of Western evangelism techniques and coercive threats of hell, well, its no wonder the responding numbers seemed impressive at times.
We needed to look a bit more closely at things we tended to ignore in our zeal to produce numbers.
A Manobo friend of mine, Dinisio, once introduced us at the start of a meeting. He told the Manobo audience, “We must listen to these Americanos and follow what they tell us to do. They are educated and we are only ignorant natives. And we must listen to them because they know how to make metal fly”. He was referring to airplanes.
Months later, we had a visit from a British man who worked as an engineer for the jet engine department of the Rolls Royce company. His particular research involved improving the flow of oil through the tiny holes in small engine bearings. But it was close enough. I introduced him to the tribal people as the real man who knew how to make metal fly.
I was just kidding.
There were other areas that we needed to pay more attention to. For instance, we heard from a variety of local people that they resented the prosperous lifestyle and privileges that missionaries maintained for themselves. Local Christian pastors in particular resented our tightfisted control of funds and other resources.
This was brought to our attention at an agricultural research center run by the Southern Baptists. They held regular seminars there to teach local people new agricultural techniques. We were visiting and touring the grounds one afternoon with one of the center’s workers, a local pastor, when he opened up and honestly shared his feelings about the missionaries running the training center. He pointed to the 8 foot high cement wall enclosing the missionary’s house and said with a tinge of bitterness in his voice, “They don’t trust us. They must think we are going to steal from them. And most of the time they just stay inside their walled compound. They drive a nice vehicle, a truck, but we have no vehicles and we do all the work, including finding rides to visit satellite project sites. They won’t even let us borrow their vehicle. They don’t treat us like equals and we resent it a lot”.
Other local pastors confided to us that they felt missionaries were lazy. They sat in air conditioned offices, occupied nice houses, and in general enjoyed a much more prosperous lifestyle than that of the people they claimed to serve. Filipino pastors, on the other hand, had to work hard to support their families and were rewarded with little income.
We heard similar complaints through a variety of venues. During our annual OMF conference in Manila one year, the leader of the national OMF church group stood and berated the missionaries present for not sharing their resources with their Filipino co-workers. The Filipinos felt like second class citizens, he said. They did most of the work but the missionaries controlled the funds. While this leader spoke, the OMF superintendent, T H, sat frowning and unresponsive. When the Filipino leader had finished Theo stood and ignoring what the man had just spoken about, he continued on with the meeting. T later told us privately that the man was a disgruntled troublemaker. It was irresponsible of T to demonize and dismiss the man rather than deal with the difficult issue he had raised.
Closer To Home
Another thing that disturbed numbers of us was the manner with which some missionaries treated local people. This problem exposed an interesting power relationship where foreigners were granted preferential status above local people.
To illustrate, one noon hour we had settled down to eat our lunch which had been prepared and served by the house-girls (an OMF term for maids). They had then returned to the back of the house to have their own lunch in the servant’s quarters. But the hostess then decided that she wanted another spoon from a drawer just a few feet away. Instead of getting up to get the spoon herself she picked up her little bell and rang it to summon the ladies all the way from the back. It was a disgusting display of laziness and I tried to prevent her disturbing the ladies by standing to get the spoon myself. The hostess told me to sit back down as it was the house-girl’s job. I let her know how displeased I was with her treatment of the ladies.
It reminded me of a scene from the movie “The Year Of Living Dangerously” where Sigourney Weaver and Mel Gibson are having afternoon tea with a British consul. The British man snaps at the Indonesian waiter who had just brought him a drink, “I ordered ice tea, not just tea”. He then rudely pushes the drink away, humiliating the waiter. It is such selfish arrogance that forgets the humanity of other people and treats them as less than equal.
Others on our team would take care to include the house-girls in meals, outings, and other team activities.
One of the ladies working at the house, L, tearfully told us one day that the hostess had mistreated her and had regularly given special favors to the other two ladies working there. The other two, T and B, had made a little prayer of accepting Jesus and subsequently attended the same Evangelical church that the hostess attended, while L remained with her family religion, Catholicism. The hostess did not like her refusal to convert and continued to pressure her to convert by making her life miserable.
No one bothered to note that T, B and L had all been ‘accepting Jesus’ ever since they were children. They were already Catholic Christians.
Just an aside: the Evangelical obsession with pressuring people to accept Jesus masks the real objective which is to pressure people to accept the excluding culture of Evangelicalism. This silly Christian emphasis on accepting Jesus or believing in him needs to be discarded entirely. Why can’t people be allowed to simply appreciate the historical person and his teaching without dividing people over the obligation to do something more formally religious about it? What is this ‘acceptance into your heart’ thing all about anyway?
The manner in which the hostess treated the house girls simply focused for us the way Westerners in general related to local people. The foreigner/local power relationship too often led to foreigners disparaging and demeaning local people. The locals might be better educated, they might know the local situation better and have far more experience but they were expected to stand aside while young, inexperienced missionaries took charge. Despite their inexperience, the missionaries were often lauded and praised generously by local people but would not as generously return the attention and approval. Instead, missionaries regularly criticized local people for not meeting Western religious standards. Some local people resented such one-sided treatment and spoke out against it, but they were usually dismissed as disgruntled converts.
The favorite missionary forum for criticizing locals was the prayer meeting. Under the guise of concern for holy living, missionaries would detail the faults and failures of local people in order, they claimed, that everyone could pray for the ‘sinful’ person to become more committed to Evangelicalism.
Another forum for criticizing local people was the regular monthly prayer letter which missionaries sent home to keep their supporters informed. We were regularly warned by OMF leaders to keep our prayer letters confidential so that local people would not inadvertently see the negative things that we had written about them.
The preferential treatment of foreigners was manifest in other areas also. In line-ups at government offices, such as the post office, Asian politeness often required inviting Westerners to the front of the line even if they had arrived last. Others would politely and quietly stand aside no matter how long they had been waiting.
I am ashamed to admit that once when I was in a hurry I took advantage of local politeness and accepted an invitation to the front of a line. I felt sleazy and less human after that selfish move.
Sometimes the preferential treatment of foreigners created conflict. For instance, if a person behind a counter politely invited us forward and we refused then our refusal could cause embarrassment to that person who had simply expressed politeness toward guests as required by their culture. Nonetheless, generally we felt it was more important to respect equality. In such situations there is no rigid rule to follow but rather we should try to respect everyone involved and try not to offend anyone unnecessarily.
Conflicts also occurred in eating situations. Foreigners would often be the first ones invited to partake at banquets and were offered the best seats. Efforts to resist such special treatment sometimes caused confusion and embarrassment to hosts who were just trying to be nice according to traditional cultural patterns. It required a honed sensitivity to evaluate if it was worth making a stink in the interest of affirming equality or if it was perhaps more decent to just adapt to local customs. Rigid adherence to some ideal was not always the most humane response. As someone wisely said, “We must not become enslaved to our freedom”.
The special treatment accorded foreigners explains why some people stay on in developing countries long after they have ceased to be of any use, if they ever were. They are granted power and privilege that they might never experience back home and some learn to enjoy the preferential status very much.
But once again in the interests of fairness let me state that like all complex, multi-faceted human beings everywhere the missionaries noted above could also manifest the same genuine compassion and generosity that most other people are capable of expressing.
Several years into my second term, my parents came over from Canada for a visit. Dad provided us with more excitement than a back yard pool full of noninvited alligators. On the half-hour walk uphill to Kamansi Dad saw a snake at the side of the trail and hit it with a stick, stunning it. He then carried the snake, hanging over the stick, all the way up to my house. When he arrived he dropped the snake on my porch where it suddenly coiled up, lifted its head and then flared its neck. It was a cobra that Dad had been carrying just inches from his hand. A village man quickly pulled his machete and chopped the head off the snake against the protests of my Dad who wanted to preserve the snake skin whole as a souvenir.
Later in their visit we drove to Wood Carvers village near Bagiuo in the Northern Philippines. Dad went into one store and bought himself a small woodcarving for what he thought was a good price. He then went to the store next door where the owner told him that he would have sold the same piece of woodwork for less. Dad, upset, went back to the first store and told the shopowner that it was “dirty business” to have sold the wood piece for the amount that he had charged. The owner became enraged, feeling that Dad had publicly humiliated him. He then followed Dad onto the street shouting and waving his fists. We had to run between them to prevent a fight from breaking out. Dad had not changed at all.
A few days later while in downtown Manila I took Dad to visit a Muslim mosque. Dad, completely unaware of Islamic traditions, stepped up onto the main floor of the mosque with his shoes on. No one ever enters a mosque with their shoes on and their feet unwashed. Muslims consider that to be filthy and blasphemous. A young Iranian student who had been watching Dad from the other side of the mosque started screaming and then came running toward him, waving angrily for him to get out. That was the time of strong anti-US feeling throughout the Mid East and elsewhere.
Well, no one shouts at Dad. He stepped back off the floor, clenched his fists and growled back at the student, “You bugger”. Dad was ready to take him on right there. He had boxed as a young man and was not about to let anyone push him around. I had to pull him away. Who knew how many more wild Iranian students were in the back ready to come leaping and bounding out, scimitars flashing in the sun.
Just kidding. I’m only playing with ethnic stereotypes.
Back in the Manobo areas we were establishing more groups of converts and OMF was sending out new couples to help. One young couple, the Ls, came from South Africa. Initially, they were zealous to become involved with the Manobo but then the wife discovered that she did not like living in tribal areas so instead she spent most of her time in Davao cooking good meals and enjoying city life. The odd time that she visited Kamansi she refused to leave the house and avoided contact with villagers. The headman, Uslarin, told me, “We don’t like her, she doesn’t visit us”.
Eventually, her husband fell back into his pre-Christian habits of drinking and developed a real affinity for the local brews. He always seemed to have a silly grin on his face. However, despite their very human foibles (yes, just like all of us) they expressed genuinely inspiring compassion toward others. They took M, a severely burned Manobo girl (see the end of this chapter) into their home and looked after her as though she were their own daughter.
Another young couple that came from South Africa, C and K, gave all of us a refreshing taste of good old fun. C would have us holding our sides and gasping for air as he told us about his experiences as an intern pastor in a church back home in Capetown. For instance, one Sunday he was baptizing a very big lady who could not stand on her own. She had to sit on a chair in the baptistery. Unfortunately, the chair broke and she fell backward into the water. She was so heavy that C could not get her back up on her feet and needed help rescuing her from a dunking drowning.
Another time they were baptizing a lady and when they dunked her under water her baptismal robe billowed out on the surface from trapped pockets of air. They quickly tried to push the entire robe under water in order to make her look properly baptized. But as they did so the air bubbles kept moving away to inflate other parts of the robe above water. It was another dunking fiasco.
Dunking people all the way under water was an important ritual for Protestants. How else could you be fully saved? And remember, people like Calvin had others burned at the stake for not following these things properly.
C also sensitized us more to racial issues. There was a growing reaction on the team to the secrecy that our leadership employed in regard to most of their decision-making and record keeping. In protest, one evening when the superintendent was out, a number of us went into the main office to take a look at our files and see what the bosses had recorded there. C became somewhat agitated and angered when he read an evaluation from a superintendent in Singapore. The man had written, “They (coloreds) seem to pick up other languages easily”. In using the excluding “they” and referring to his racial difference, C felt that the man had described some different species of human. He was offended and asked, “Why can’t people just refer to us as persons. I am a South African”.
Another South African team member, J, dreaded visits from senior OMF leaders. They would come to Mindanao to inquire as to how local people were responding to her as a colored person. She said that they made her feel very uncomfortable with their obsessive emphasis on her ethnicity.
Years later a friend of mine asked why people continued to refer to her ethnicity. She said, “Why do people refer to me as Indo-Canadian (East Indian)? I was born here. I am as Canadian as anyone else. They don’t refer to whites as German Canadians or British Canadians or whatever”.
Another young couple from Holland, T and R, provided some interesting moments for us all. I don’t want to generalize about any culture, but a variety of Dutch, Swiss, and German missionaries left us with the impression that those cultures tended to be very blunt in speech, almost harsh and offensive. As my mother often said exasperatedly about my German father, “He’s such a stubborn old German”. “She’s a stingy Scot”, Dad would fire right back. And their love for each other continued into their old age.
One evening during a Bible study meeting for missionaries T, who was leading the group, asked those present for any ideas they might have on the meaning of a verse that he was reading. B started to reply with his personal views on the verse, but after only a few sentences T cut him off bluntly, saying, “No, no. That is wrong. I will correct you later, but here is what it means”. B reddened noticeably but bit his tongue. He was too nice to argue so instead he turned the other cheek which was just as red as the other.
B had once said that the nicest people he knew were non-Christians or the nonreligious. Christians could often be so nasty.
B’s comment about the nicest people reminded me years later of a friend, Tracy Wildman, whom I worked with in group homes for the mentally handicapped. Tracey belonged to the Wicca movement. She was a witch. And she was one of the nicest persons that I have ever met; one of those beautiful spirits who are consistently generous, tolerant, and kind to others. Her life philosophy was “random acts of kindness”.
She also had an interesting take on the afterlife. Tracey said that she felt everyone would get what they wanted. If you wanted eternal life, you would get that. If you did not want it then you would not have to take it. Maybe you could sleep forever. I suspect she was reacting to the dehumanizing views of the afterlife propagated by religious people. I wouldn’t want to sing hymns in an eternal church service either. That is my vision of hell.
Tracey expressed her natural decency when conversing with others about spiritual things. She would listen tolerantly to other’s views without any condemnation of difference and then freely share her own views. She accepted others with a generosity that was admirable and inspiring. She was much more “Christlike” than many Christians.
But let me return to the new missionaries.
Another time in Davao a Swiss missionary named D A, after listening to another person share their views on some topic, replied bluntly, “No, no. That is a shtupid idea…”. I was never sure if these Europeans were just from exceptionally rude cultures or if they were just exceptionally rude people or perhaps they had a poor grasp of English and that led to them use excessively harsh words. A generous explanation may have been that it was a poor grasp of English.
But let me be fair again. Not all Swiss, Dutch, or Germans were as blunt or harsh.
The Js located in a village about a day’s walk away from Kamansi and started language study. From the beginning of their stay they took a strong stance against lending things to villagers and, in particular, they refused to give free medicine. But in a noncash society with frequent medical emergencies and no hospitals nearby, you simply can not refuse to help people in trouble. That is common sense. However, the Js were rigid. They would not compromise their principles. It was the same old Fundamentalist emphasis on loyalty to law before showing compassion and mercy toward human beings.
One morning a young Manobo lady from the J’s village showed up at my door with her baby. She was sweating and exhausted because she had walked most of the day in order to reach Kamansi. In tears she told me, “My baby is sick and I asked the Js for help and they would not give me medicine because I had no money to pay. Why won’t they help me? My baby could die”.
While I agreed with the basic idea of inculcating the practice of paying for things, I also realized that we lived in a very different situation where flexibility, compassion, and common sense were needed in large doses. If people were going to die, then to hell with principles. People and their well being must come first. Most of us using common sense could figure that out.
Loyalty to something other than people often overrides common sense and common compassion. Remember chapter 9.
I asked T J to speak at a Manobo meeting one weekend. He started to teach a lesson on the Trinity. Not even Westerners know what that gobbledygook from the fourth century is all about. Three in one, same substance but separate persons. Yadda, yadda, yadda. From the very beginning of his lesson T lost his audience. People started looking around and talking to each other. T ended up looking at me and in halting Cebuano he lectured me on the Trinity. I listened politely but I was bored to death as he tried to explain the union of substance but separation of persons. It sounded like some hydra-headed monstrosity.
Awareness Of Poverty
I never grew accustomed to the continuing death of people that I had come to know as friends. It never became easier to take. It was especially enraging when children died for lack of basic medicines that cost pennies anywhere else. Far too often, tribal people simply could not find adequate resources for their basic needs, such as medicine. It was discouraging.
In the more isolated rainforest areas we had not heard Manobo regularly refer to themselves as poor or ignorant. They were the reigning experts on forest life and they were lords of their own kingdom. But those living on the fringes of lowland areas had more contact with lowland culture and could not avoid the disparaging contrasts in standards of living. They were becoming more aware of their poverty and how the outside world viewed them as poor, ignorant natibos (natives). They were discovering their new status at the bottom of the social hierarchy and they were using more frequently the terms pobre (poor) and ignoranti (ignorant) to describe themselves.
I felt their poverty most intensely when reflecting on little details. I remember, for instance, attending a village wedding and while standing outside the house where the couple was preparing I noticed the back of the dress worn by a little girl standing in front of me. It was her best dress. The torn hem was hanging down and old safety pins held the dress together where buttons were missing. Most Westerners would not have kept such a piece of clothing for use as a rag. The little girl who appeared quite oblivious to the real nature of her condition. She would become more aware of her demeaning status as she became older.
I once watched a friend, Manggimindo, get off a truck just outside of a lowland town in order to change into his good clothes before entering the town. He pulled a wrinkled shirt out of his traveling bag. It was off-white from too much washing in dirty river water and it smelled of smoke from too many cooking fires. It was all he had. I felt disgust as I watched this fine human being endure such humiliating poverty.
Manobo could carry all their possessions in a single basket which they balanced on their heads- a few pots, a blanket and a mat, and a change of clothes.
Relating To The Dominant Culture
It was also disturbing to see the dehumanizing manner in which Manobo expressed themselves when around lowlanders. People who were relaxed, confident and outgoing in their own territory would become shy and awkward- overly polite and anxious to please- when in the presence of lowlanders. It was painful to watch people act so powerless and conscious of their low status in the presence of the dominant culture.
Meemai, a young neighbor lady, once provided a revealing illustration of Manobo humiliation in the presence of lowland culture. She returned late one afternoon from a visit to the lowland town of Tagum and stopped by Uslarin’s house where a number of us were sitting and having a chin wag.
Meemai was an attractive and intelligent young lady with an emotional demeanor that kept her at the forefront of village life. Where Meemai went the mood was never morose or quiet. When Meemai arrived it was always time to laugh because life was funny.
She had one of the most contagious laughs that I have ever heard. Her face had developed the sunny look of those people with permanent smiles. All her facial lines curved upward. Laughter was always playing just beneath her skin, pulling at the corners of her mouth, tickling her stomach and ready to bend her over double.
When she laughed at her house we heard it all across the village and many of us automatically smiled. It was a light, high pitched cackle emoted from deep within her gut and it left her gasping for air. “Aha, ha, ha, ha, aiyhhh, aaahhhahaha…ooohh, myyyyy”.
Meemai told our gathering a story that gave me more insight into the discomfort that Manobo felt when in lowland areas. She said that when she was in Tagum earlier in the day she had decided to cross a street. It was full of jockeying motorcycles with sidecars and smoke-bellowing jeepneys, many blaring horn warnings. She recalled, “I started to walk across the street but when I saw all the vehicles I panicked and ran as fast as I could to the other side. On reaching the sidewalk I suddenly felt so stupid for running like a natibo who has never been in the city before. Everyone else was just walking calmly through the traffic. I knew the lowlanders were looking at me. Oh, us Manobo are so ignorant”. Then she laughed her village-famous laugh.
But she was painfully aware of the depreciating way that lowlanders viewed tribal peoples. I also realized that she, as a Manobo, could tell such a self-mocking story about herself whereas if any outsider had tried to point out something similarly depreciating about Manobo the machetes would likely have come out.
Just as an aside, when Meemai told us the story I noticed that even while she looked at me she continued to use the term “Kanta” which is the inclusive term for all of us. Even while talking to me she did not use “Kanami” which means us Manobo, but not including you, the Westerner.
Manobo often told lowlanders that I was one of them, a Manobo. It made me feel very much like an accepted insider. But just as I was starting to enjoy warm feelings of being an adopted son among “my people”, one evening I overheard some neighbors talking in a house down the hill from mine. One of the ladies used the term “the Americano” when referring to me. It sounded so cold and alienating and it cooled my guts instantly. It made me realize that in the minds of some villagers I was still just a foreign outsider.
Inoy, one of the village leaders, told me about another incident with a lowlander which occurred one day while he was working in his rice paddy that bordered the paddy of the lowland man. He said, “The lowlander started to plow over into my paddy. I told him to stop doing that. He turned to me and said scornfully, ‘You are just a natibo. You don’t matter’. I put my hand on my bolo but then thought it better that I restrain myself. But he left my paddy alone after that. Why do they have to treat us like that?”
Even village children were aware of the way that lowlanders viewed them. The kids used to call teasingly to each other, “Masamok kaniu mga Manobo (Oh, you Manobo are so wild and noisy)”. They were playing with the depreciating lowland stereotypes of Manobo that they were all familiar with.
I noticed the tribal discomfort with the dominant culture most graphically one time when I accompanied two young tribal ladies to their jobs as housegirls in Davao. While still in their village of Upper Florida they laughed and talked excitedly to friends and family members as they prepared to go. The talking and laughing continued as we walked to Florida to catch the first jeep of the day leaving for Tagum.
The young ladies quieted down noticeably as we boarded the jeep going to Tagum. Florida is half Manobo/half lowland population and there were mainly Cebuano lowlanders on the jeepney. By the time we arrived at Tagum they had ceased talking altogether and sat quietly, even shyly. We boarded another jeep to Davao but had to wait till it filled with passengers. While waiting, a couple of young lowland men approached our jeep to stand and stare at the girls. One of them, looking directly at the girls and speaking loud enough for them to hear, sneeringly said to his friend, “Natibos (natives)”. The girls winced and tensed embarrassedly but continued to sit silently. I had been sitting inside unnoticed by the young men. But when I heard what the one man had said, I leaned over toward the door opening so he could see my face and I glared at him like a ready-to-kick-butt father until he turned embarrassed and walked away. Asshole.
It was difficult at times to maintain a balanced view of lowlanders, especially after incidents like that. But I realized that not all lowlanders held the same dehumanizing view of those below them in social status.
Another time a British man visited our area to gather information on missionary work. To visit the village of Upper Florida we had to cross the Libuganon River on old logging cables that were tied to trees on both sides of the river. It required cautious balancing to successfully make the two hundred-foot long high-wire crossing. The bottom cable was for walking on while the top cable acted as a handrail.
Sometimes, however, the cables would suddenly flip, leaving people desperately hanging on upside down with their hands grasping the now bottom cable and their feet still on the other cable, which would then be on top. While it scared the hangers silly, it looked hilarious if you were watching from the shore. Would they be able to hang on and right themselves or would they fall into the river? Any bets?
We had just climbed down off the suspended cables when the visitor noticed a Manobo lady coming across behind us. “I have to get a picture of this cable bridge with someone walking on it. It is so unique”, he said excitedly.
The lady following us had been working in her field and was wearing the old ragged clothes that villagers used for work. She saw the man’s camera and tried to turn her face away, pleading, “Please don’t take my picture. I’m embarrassed wearing these old clothes”. She knew the picture would be shown to foreigners and she knew that outsiders viewed Manobo as poor, ignorant natibos. I told the man not to take the picture but he ignored me. She complained afterward that she felt humiliated, but he had his photo to show supporters.
In another village I saw a lady pounding rice and prepared my camera to get a photo of her. She did not have a blouse on and asked me to wait until she got properly dressed. She was an intelligent, comprehending woman. The growing sense of how lowlanders and other outsiders viewed them negatively made Manobo more sensitive to such things as pictures. We tried to respect requests not to have pictures taken. Well, most of the time.
Some things were just too precious to ignore. One day an older lady, who never wore a top, came over wearing only a bright white bra. She had just bought it in a lowland town and proudly asked us to take her picture. She must have thought that it was some kind of mini blouse. We took her picture. It was great fun to show it to other missionaries and enjoy a good laugh.
Oh well, as LE Maxwell used to say, “Consistency, thou art a jewel”.
While the poverty and low status of Manobo was at times a depressing thing to contemplate, overall I enjoyed the absence of expressed status and prestige among a people who existed at the bottom of national social scales. They were much easier to get along with as they exhibited little of the chest puffing and status games played by people higher up in the strata of that society. In tribal areas everyone was poor and powerless and most were able to joke or at least laugh about it.
As Canadians we could identify somewhat with such powerlessness. We lived next door to the American giant and had grown up feeling very much second class to the Americans who were always boasting that they were the best, number one. “Mess with the best, die like the rest. God bless America”. Consequently, we Canadians had a palpable inferiority complex. Our only boast of distinction was that we were not American and did not arrogantly boast about ourselves, if I may boast a little.
Once in a dispute between US and Canadian fishermen over Pacific fishing boundaries a US fishermen told his Canadian counterparts, “Back off or we’ll call in the jets and nuke ya”. We were used to that kind of demeaning treatment from the US.
During the first Gulf War a Canadian diplomat shared the story of a US State Department official who bluntly told Canadian diplomats how he wanted them to vote on a UN resolution. The Canadians replied, “But that is not our position”. The angered US official snapped back, “We don’t give a shit about your position. We are telling you how we expect Canada to vote”. Such incidents received wide play to Canadian audiences.
In fairness, let me say that there is much to admire about US society and most of the American people. As someone said, it is a fascinating ongoing experiment in democracy. And not every American acts like a cowboy.
As the months and years passed I felt that I was fitting into the rhythms of village life and I felt at home in Kamansi. I even contemplated the idea of retiring there. According to sociologists, people who have been away from their home culture for a long time often find it easier to stay in another culture rather than return home again. With lengthening absence it becomes more difficult to readjust once again to the home culture.
We regularly heard older missionaries boast of how many years they had spent in a foreign country. It was as if length of time in itself eventually became a life goal. The longer you stayed the higher status you achieved, regardless of usefulness.
Back in Kamansi the dying never stopped. Let me explain that these stories are only a small sample of those who were dying. Many others died from a full range of diseases- TB, malaria, measles, cholera, gastrointeringitis or amoebic dysentery, pneumonia, infections, shistosomiasis, and a variety of other things, including accidents.
Many of the people who died were hardly noticed or missed outside of their immediate families. No one celebrated their lives to the wider public. That added to the sense of tragedy in tribal death.
My neighbor Joning was a vulnerable lady who had drawn out special feelings of empathy and protectiveness. She was tall, beautiful, and very shy. She would often come over to quietly talk and ask questions about life in the West. Her soft speech reflected a gentle spirit but with little self-confidence. Over the months that I had known her I had noticed that she never talked about her husband Berting. He was, pardon me, a first class jerk; a good-looking spoiled brat who walked around in a man’s body giving the misleading appearance of having reached adulthood. I had often heard him ordering Joning about with a nasty, disgusted tone of impatient self-centeredness. “Come on, hurry up and go get that for me”. Joning never complained and she never told me that he also beat her.
About 2 years after I took up residence in Kamansi, Berting raped Joning’s younger sister Meemai in an effort to coerce her into becoming his second wife. Meemai rejected the coercion and adamantly stated that she would never marry him.
After the rape Meemai stopped laughing and Kamansi became unusually quiet. Time healed but not entirely. Meemai never quite recovered her free-spirited and spontaneous demeanor. Her laugh became more hesitant, restrained, and mistrustful. Life for everyone became sadder because of that brutal act of selfishness on Berting’s part. He had destroyed something beautiful in Meemai- her child-like spirit of fun and play.
Early one afternoon several months after the rape I heard cries coming from the other end of the village. I looked out my window to see a carabao pulling a cart along the road that wound down through the village center. There was someone lying on the cart. As it came closer, I saw that it was Joning. Immediately panicked, I ran down to join the others and find out what was wrong.
The lady leading the cart panted as she explained, “Joning was climbing a notched pole up the side of a short cliff to a spring on top in order to do her wash. Just as she got to the top she startled a black snake sitting there and it bit her on top of her head”. The black snakes were the most poisonous variety.
I asked when she had been bitten. They said it was around noon. It was now about 3 PM.
“Why didn’t you bring her right back to the village?” I questioned. “I don’t know,” replied the lady. “Berting kept her there”. Berting was no where in sight. The jerk.
The lady continued, “On the way back, Joning said she could feel numbness spreading down from the top of her head. She cried repeatedly, ‘I don’t want to die’”.
I felt her forehead and it was still warm. I thought it might be body heat, but she had been lying in the sun. Her mouth was partly open and a bubble of saliva had inflated out about an inch. I thought that was a sign of breath. Maybe she was just in a coma.
I urged her mother and sisters to take her inside and lay her on the floor. They refused and instead tried to sit her upright on a rice pestle in the front yard. I argued that she needed to lie down but they were insistent that she should be placed on the pestle. Later, people would explain to me that in cases of snake bite it was local custom to sit the bitten person outside in such a manner.
While her family wailed and people shouted and screamed at each other about what needed to be done, I ran to get my bike, telling people that I would try to find some anti-venom serum. I had to cross the river and get to the clinic at Kapalong about 30 minutes one way. I took some dangerous chances racing frantically along the country roads at high speed, pressing my horn every time I saw a person or animal. People tend to step absentmindedly onto the road even when vehicles are passing. And I had hit my share of pigs, dogs, and chickens.
As soon as I arrived at the clinic I rushed inside and pleaded for help. The doctor on duty said they had no antisnake serum and if it were a truly poisonous snake then she would die anyway. But in response to my desperation he gave me something for allergic reactions. I took it and raced back, praying all the way, “God don’t let her die, please don’t let her die”.
It was dishearteningly quiet when I arrived back at the village and stopped in front of her house. I shut my motorcycle off. There were no people outside. The neighbors had returned to their houses and the family members were inside the house quietly wailing in grief. Joning’s body had already been placed on the floor in position for the wake. Berting was sitting on the floor red-eyed but I did not want to talk to him. He was probably just pretending to be sorrowful. I left, completely deflated. If he had brought her back to the village immediately after the bite then I could have taken her out to the hospital and maybe saved her life.
Damn It All
Often when people died so needlessly I would vent my rage at the skies or the greater universe. “Why, why, why?” I would even sometimes start to express my rage at God but would pull back in fear of crossing some unpardonable line. It was so fu… frigging unfair. Why did so many beautiful people suffer and die so needlessly while others enjoy so much more than they need? What a damn sick, selfish world.
In earlier years I would take my anger out on the wealthier members of the human family. I would read that there are more than enough resources on our planet for everyone to enjoy a comfortable life (the Economist noted years ago that there was some $80 trillion of investable wealth in the world. Divide that by the 1.5 billion families on earth). We could immediately solve the misery that most people endure if the few would not hoard so much. That made sense years ago.
Someone estimated that if the world’s 500 plus billionaires (1980s figures) gave just 2-3% of their wealth (pocket change to them) they could immediately solve the extreme poverty of the 1.3 billion people who exist at the bottom of the world’s societies. The UN has estimated that merely $40 billion a year (2% of the billionaire’s wealth) would provide for all the basic needs of the poorest people.
However, while this advocacy of the wealthy giving to the poor seems to be an intuitive solution to poverty, it does not deal with issues of personal empowerment and control over one’s own livelihood or destiny that are so important to human well being and development. Also, it does not deal with the larger forces and institutions that needed to be overhauled or established in order to solve poverty over the long term (see, for instance, William Bernstein’s ‘The Birth of Plenty’). I no longer believe that it is up to the wealthy to solve the problem of poverty. Remember also, that over the past 50 years over $1 trillion was given to Africa by wealthy Western countries and no noticeable improvement came of that. There are other root issues that need addressing (e.g. good democratic governance, proper legal protection for contracts and investments, secure property rights, good transportation and communication infrastructure, and so on) and then the ordinary citizens of any country (all being natural entrepreneurs) will solve their own poverty issues.
Ultimately, the only way I could make any sense of the needless death of people was to relate it to the truth of resurrection and to view death as a passage or birth into something infinitely better. A deep sense of violated justice demanded a far better existence for these people than what they had endured here. Anything less would only make a mockery of their suffering lives and it would make human consciousness a curse.
Joning’s older sister, Awining, also added her own unique flavor to village life. She was the village singer or hummer. As she worked on clothing or prepared food she would sing lullabies or other soft and easy favorites. She sang continually and her singing soothed the ragged edges of village life. Every time I walked by her porch she would cheerfully call out, “Anakon, where are you going?” or “What are you going to do?” She was another bright influence in the village and made life there seem a little sunnier.
I was preparing to leave for Davao one afternoon when someone told me that Awining was sick. I stopped by her house and saw that she was lying on the floor semiconscious. People were gathered around her mother who was holding Awining’s head in her lap. I asked what was wrong and they said that she had taken a drink of water at the river earlier in the day or the day before and it must have been dirty. She had been vomiting and defecating steadily all day.
I told them that I would take her to the hospital on my bike but they refused my offer, arguing that it would be impossible to carry her on the bike in her condition. I had no medicine and there was nothing else I could do, so I left for Davao hoping she would recover. Awining died just after I left. It was most likely cholera.
Sometime later that year a close friend, Pasita, became sick with cerebral malaria. She was a small, thin lady, almost anorexic-like with her protruding cheekbones and unkempt hair. But her thin face expressed a gentle look of built-in serenity. Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna as Manobo. Pasita was one of those people that had a more than average capability to express forgiveness, love, and general decency toward others. People like her don’t appear to have a single nasty bone in their bodies.
She was known through the immediate area as someone who interacted generously with others. She was not the life of the party type- loud and outgoing as Meemai had been. In fact, Pasita was quiet to the point of shy. She would not push to the center of a group and control the conversation but would more often be found at the periphery listening to someone else talk.
Her three smiling daughters- Mardilisa, Inday, and Gamay- appeared to have inherited something of her generous and positive spirit.
Several months earlier she had stopped by my house to visit. As we sat and talked outside on my split bamboo porch she had said to me, “You know Wendell, since you came into this area to teach, our family has been completely changed. My husband used to get drunk all the time and beat our kids. The kids would jump out the window to run and hide when he came home. Now he has stopped drinking and gambling and we are all so happy”. I had never heard that before. It made me feel that I had accomplished something useful in bettering someone’s life.
But now something malignant was plaguing Pasita. I brought her to the small clinic at nearby Kapalong where she could be diagnosed and treated. A few days later I returned to see how she was doing. The doctor said that she seemed to be improving. As I was leaving, her daughter Mardilisa told me that they needed some more money for medicine.
We received about $100 every three months for spending on personal toiletries, clothing, writing materials, stamps, and other necessities. We also received some personal gifts once in a while. Our food and housing were paid for out of a general fund.
And it seemed that I was often broke.
Taking the doctor’s word that she appeared to be improving, I told Mardilisa that I had no more money. But I lied. I did have a little bit left in my account. However, I suspected that Mardilisa might use the money for things other than medicine. Or maybe I was just looking to excuse my own selfishness.
A day later I returned to take Pasita back to her village of Upper Florida. She looked terrible. But the doctor had said that she was improving so we took her home.
She died the next day.
At the wake the following day her sister sobbed and wailed as though her heart would break. Her despairing cries froze the village atmosphere, chilling people into silence where they sat or stood. We could feel the intense pain ourselves. Then unexpectedly the sister screamed in anger, “You devils. Why didn’t you help save her?” I thought that she was screaming at relatives who had not helped with her medical expenses. Maybe she meant me. One of the village leaders told the sister to be quiet and show some respect. She groaned and continued crying.
Had my selfishness and refusal to give more money deprived Pasita of her life? I don’t know, but getting the other medicines may have helped. I will never know. I could have done more. I still second-guess myself about my selfish response during her sickness. After all, Jesus would have given everything. I am haunted by such decisions even today, only too aware of my less-than-human motivations at the time.
Another woman brought her husband from a distant mountain village to stay in Upper Florida. She had heard that I was helping people and wanted me to do something for her husband. But he was already in the late stages of TB and barely conscious. I had seen healthier TB patients than him die. Anyway, I did not have any money at the time and I told her so. He died after a few weeks of lying on the floor of a house.
Sometimes I felt justified in resenting the numerous people who asked me for help when I did not have the resources or time to help all of them. Or was I just selfishly making excuses? In some situations it may have cost people their lives. I could have done more.
I also resented the way relatives of sick people refused to help their kin. They would just let people die when they could have given something to help. There appeared to be a frustrating sense of fatalism regarding sick people or was it just selfishness? Or maybe they refused to get involved because they thought that I had the resources to take care of every need in the region.
I found the struggle to love often conflicted with selfishness. I wanted to succeed at love with the same free and generous spirit that the historical Jesus had manifested. And I like to think that at times I was able to express something of that spirit, but at other times I was intensely aware of abject failure and the consequences for others.
In the darkness of an early village morning, Mardilisa, the oldest daughter of Pasita, woke to get ready for school. She lit a small lamp, which was just a tin can with a rolled cloth wick. Mistakenly, instead of the usual slower burning kerosene, someone had put gasoline into the can. It exploded and ignited her cheap plastic dress. The dress burst into flame and melted onto her skin where it continued to burn. In a screaming panic she ran into another room and became entangled in a plastic mosquito net which also ignited and melted onto her body.
She was severely burned over the entire front part of her body from her crotch up to her chin, including her arms. Local people took her to the hospital at Tagum, which did not have a burn unit.
About a week later, when I returned from vacation and was informed of Mardilisa’s accident I went immediately to the Tagum hospital to see her. She looked terrible. She was lying on her back naked except for a small cloth across her crotch. The entire trunk of her body was covered with puss and black with burnt skin and plastic. She was shaking from sepsis (blood infection). The doctors did not think she would survive much longer.
As I stood beside her bed she looked up at me with scared eyes and said, “Uncle, I don’t want to die”. I squeezed her hand and said I would do what I could to help her but I had no money left.
L G, a fellow missionary and nurse from Australia, drove out to Tagum to see Mardilisa and we decided to move her immediately to Davao. A large hospital there had just set up the first burn unit in the city. There she would eventually begin the long, painful process of skin grafting and rehabilitation.
Fortunately, other team members chipped in to help with medical costs. Some were mad at me for putting them in the position to help. One lady, L H, asked angrily, “Why did you get us all into this so we have to use our personal money?” Annoyed, I replied, “Well, the other choice was to just leave her to die”. L harrumphed and slouched in her chair scowling. Yes Mark, missionaries were the stingiest people on earth.
Another time in Kamansi I was called to go look at a little girl named Maria. She was lying in a child’s hammock of cloth hung from a ceiling beam. She looked weak but not terribly sick. I told the mother that if she got worse then she should come and tell me and I would take her to the hospital. I knew the widowed mother and her 5 daughters well. They often came over to visit and help clean my house.
Normally, I may have taken the child directly to the hospital to have her examined. But I was busy preparing for a seminar, which was to start the next day.
Early the next morning a man walking by my house called out, “The little girl died”. His words knocked the wind out of me. What had I done? Had I been so busy that I had underestimated the seriousness of her illness?