Once upon a time, in a land of rivers and mountains, I went off the grid and my family panicked. This story begins and almost ends with a cup of french vanilla coffee and a hotdog sandwich. While it was still dark, Marianne and I met up for breakfast then hailed a cab. With heavy bags, we walked from one terminal to the another. We were told it would be past my housemate’s favorite marketplace We saw a bus that confirmed we were on the right track, but got the wrong name. We thought it was DS, but it was ES for Earth Star. Death Star sounds cooler. We got there in time for sunrise. The pink and orange sky wiped away the weariness and replaced it with praise.
Then we got on the bus to Cabanatuan where they had wifi for a while and we got to watch Train to Busan. I was really saddened by how some characters were so self-centered. When they showed growth or goodness, my thoughts drifted to how humans can change their behaviors, but not their hearts, not even when they become selfless. Their thoughts were still not directed to God. We were on our way to people who did not know Him.
We reached the terminal without any sign of zombies. While we had lunch, I noticed an encouraging verse on the wall and gave the waitress a tract.
From there, we fell asleep waiting for the bus to Umiray to be filled up. The roads diverged and we took the one that didn’t lead to Baler. The mountains above and the beaches below, off to surfing, we couldn’t go. And so I prayed for a nice view of the sunset.
When we arrived at the port, the welcome party was a no-show. Without a signal, we had no way of reaching them and nowhere to go. It was raining and was getting dark soon. We considered heading to Baler for the night and returning in the morning. Marianne asked around and learned where the organization we volunteered to work with usually stayed. We took a tricycle and I prayed the driver would take us to the right place and not overcharge us. The rain stopped then a wild rainbow appeared. It stirred up hope within me. And the Lord answered that prayer by sending a tricycle driver who is related to Tatay Toti the house owner.
The house was dark and we weren’t sure if anyone was home until Nanay Cely welcomed us total strangers in. She said she just got back from another town where she was staying until recently. I asked for permission to explore the beachfront. It reminded me of Narnia and Aslan’s country. Our hearts were filled with awe at God’s majesty.
Missions exist because worship doesn’t.
~ John Piper
I was pondering how useless our trip would be if we ourselves weren’t worshipping. What message would we bring? The Sunday sermon before that was about carrying your own cross and dying to self. Just the week before that, I was battling with the impulse to go somewhere alone and momentarily disappear, not to seek God and His will but to bow to no one and wear my own crown.
My faith was so tiny that I needed that sunset at the sea to see a little bit of how wonderful and glorious my God can be. And humorous, too. It drizzled and the sudden waves soaked our booted feet so we had to get back, but a dog was guarding the backyard ala Gandalf.
You shall not pass!
We waited until she came out (to feed the geese). Tatay Toti had arrived by then and they prepared a room and food for us. We were so thankful that God provided through the Filipino version of good Samaritans.
It rained all night and until the next morning. Tatay Toti said the river that cuts through the road was knee-deep and he was much taller than me. When he left, Nanay Cely started telling her story. One of our friends that we would strengthen other believers and Nanay Cely definitely needed strengthening. We waited for the rain to stop before leaving. We asked Nanay Cely how we could pray for her and she had such a long list of concerns that when we finished praying, it was once again raining. It was tempting to consider waiting and praying as a waste of time, but God was at work. When we stepped out, Tatay Toti’s relatives passed by, and we got a free ride. It was such a blessing when we were expecting to cross a river on foot in the pouring rain.
When we arrived at the port, Tatay Noli was loading goods and about to leave for Singawan. If we had been a bit late, we would have missed the boat again. It was raining too hard, the ground was too muddy, and our bags were too heavy for us to endure getting lost. Thankfully, kids were present when we disembarked and they accompanied us to the health center. I believe our plans were delayed so we could see that we had entered into God’s work and His timing is absolutely perfect.
We both reached the pristine health center in one piece with our muddy booted feet. Once again, strangers took us in, or in Marianne’s case, a stranger and an acquaintance. Marianne signed up to be a MAP (Medical Ambassadors Philippines, Inc.) volunteer there, but I was clueless about my role. Nevertheless, the nurses, Cris and Angie, received us warmly with both bad news and good news. The bad news was that they had no tap water whenever it rained. The leaves blocked their source. I was glad we had already bathed. The good news was that they were about to have lunch.
One thing I am thankful for about belonging to Christ is belonging to other believers, too. Strangers become instant family because we’re both adopted and spiritually born into God’s own. We introduced ourselves over lunch. Cris is the team leader. Cris and Marianne had met each other in Mindoro, but she was a different Cris then. She was quiet and shy about speaking in public, but God gave her boldness and warmth. People were drawn to her like a moth to a flame.
Angie shared her story. She was providing for her family and was looking to leave the call center industry. She waited on the Lord for opportunities to both resign without dishonoring her parent and to serve the community as a nurse. Amazingly, that go signal came from her mom and the suggestion to join MAP came from her Kairos course leader and former MAP staff member. She earned less, but learned of faithfulness. The Lord still provided and taught Angie and her family stewardship of finances. She also speaks our love language — food. Her cooking skills are magical.
Marianne desires to be a full-time missionary doctor. She passed the board exam this year and is considering spending a year serving in tribal communities. She has the gift of making people laugh, tearing off masks and breaking down walls.
My background is in Computer Science and not in medicine. They had no cellular towers and relied on limited solar power. There was no use for my technical skills there. But I had been on various short-term mission trips since 2006. They said that I was on my way to becoming a missionary. I replied that I was waiting for someone to come with me. That they labeled as the bargaining stage. I still need to render 2 years of return service to my country for my masters scholarship. After that, anything goes. But before I set off to plant (more) churches, I am learning what it means to build up the local church I’m in.
When the children came, the nurses introduced to us a really cool idea: BALARO. Biblia at Laro. Bible and Play. The kids had to memorize a verse before gaining access to the toys and books. They started practicing a dance and I joined in. That made it easier to break the ice since small talk isn’t my thing. Angie asked us to think of a song about creation since that was the day’s lesson. I remembered this:
Who made the flowers that bloom
Flowers that bloom, flowers that bloom
Who made the flowers that bloom
None but God alone
Who made the fish that swim
Fish that swim, fish that swim
Who made the fish that swim
None but God alone
Who made the birds that fly
Birds that fly, birds that fly
Who made the birds that fly
None but God alone
They persuaded me to teach the kids the song, complete with made-up actions. I have the Bible for Kids app, which is interactive, on my phone and it served as an introduction to their lesson. Marianne and I are both observing the First Fruits ministry of our church and we had the privilege of teaching the songs there to these children to ease their memorization of Bible verses.
They had a ukulele and a guitar there, along with a song book. We picked them up from time to time. It’s too bad that I was only familiar with a few songs. We were living among the Taga-alog. Marianne’s burden was really for the physical and spiritual health of the tribes, particularly the Dumagat for this trip. We repacked for an overnight stay for the next day. We unpacked and repacked multiple times during the trip. We slept like caterpillars in cocoons in our sleeping bags on hammocks.
The relativity of time was so tangible there. Plans moved so fluidly, they constantly challenged my idol of control. We had a plan A and a plan B. We scrapped plan A because the destination was said to be empty that day. We were to hitch a boat ride to plan B’s location instead. We set our alarms, but fell asleep waiting for the neighbors to knock and tell us that it’s time to leave. We all slept through the two waves of knocks, so we had to wait in hope on the shore. Our tour guides brought us across rivers and from house to house where the doctor and the nurses did their jobs. We had to hold hands whenever we crossed a river due to the strong current and we would sing part of Wag Ka Nang Umiyak. You should invite your crush there.
I stayed with the tour guides and whatever animals each house had, from birds to cats and dogs. It seemed like everyone had a dog and knew all the dogs and their masters. It was fascinating how they could tell if someone is at home based on the presence and demeanor of the dog. Some houses had traps for catching birds and they used bananas as bait.
The Dumagat are nomads and we’re grateful that they hadn’t moved yet and were home when we visited. A black dog accompanied us and we stayed at his owner’s house for lunch. Angie prepared a boodle fight. The salted fish with burst tomatoes was awesome. The men also served fresh buko. The challenge was where to pee. Two options were behind an umbrella and beside a sliced open sack. I think dying of humiliation is a subset of dying to self.
We finished earlier than expected, but we still needed a boat. We asked for permission to borrow Rod’s sister’s boat and she surprisingly agreed. We still had time to visit plan A’s location and their big family was home. Then we had to buy gasoline (or was it diesel) to replace what we used. We just had to wait for the seller to arrive from Umiray.
We got invited to have coffee while waiting. They accepted while I declined because I needed to recharge my social energy. Rod thought I looked sad and joined me. I asked how he became a Christian. He answered that he attended a Korean-planted church. He told me of the great tragedy that struck their people, of the storm and the surge that wiped out their once prosperous community and the Korean-planted church. He said they resolved to get back on their feet and start over. Now they’re working on improving tourism and are looking forward to having a cellular tower. Having a signal would have dramatically altered our adventure. We wouldn’t have been forced to walk by faith then amazed at His providence. And my family wouldn’t have started a missing person thread, stalked me online, and called up my friends.
Soon after we got back, a patient showed up with a bolo wound. I heard his family came, but I’m not sure if it was the same family that I encountered. I prayed for God to enable Marianne since she was the one to build relationships with the patients and their kin, then I went to bring her tracts. The answer to my prayer was hilarious. She introduced me to them and said I had something to share. I read the Mario Marunong tract out loud, pausing once in a while to hear the children’s responses. They said they wanted to be friends with God and now they know how.
Our tour guides, Jonathan and Rod, showed up while we were having dinner. It turns out Marianne invited them for a Bible study, but it wasn’t in the regular schedule. I’m not sure how I ended up leading it. I presented the gospel using the bridge illustration of the Navigators and a Philippines Beach Mission Team bookmark, which had colors based on the wordless book. Then we read through John 1. We used simple questions like who, what, where, why, and how to help them read and understand the Bible by themselves. We got to pass on a bit of what we learned from our Christology and soteriology classes. Tagalog isn’t my first language and I praise God for enabling me to teach His Word in that tongue and sustaining us for hours.
We do not advocate women teaching men, but this is a special case. Our prayer is that these men would someday lead other men. Later on, we learned that prior to the Bible study, they nearly lost their fingers from a drunken bolo attack. It must have been God’s way of preparing their hearts to follow Him. The week after, they were still grateful for that time of Bible study and asked the nurses for a follow-up.
Afterwards, we spent time in praise, thanksgiving, and prayer. It was a time of encouragement and edification. I love their holistic approach to healthcare. I pray that the nurses would commit to a local church since discipleship involves the church, that there would be a doctrinally sound church with integrity for them to commit to, and that they would be accountable to their sending churches.
The next day, we were homebound. We slept through the knocks again and had to wait for another boat. We traveled with bananas. When we arrived, the bus had just left. We missed a boat ride and a bus ride. It was a practice in patience. While waiting for the next bus, we met a kid who turned 2 and we threw him and the other kids a jellyace party. We reached the Cabanatuan bus terminal in time for an early dinner (a hotdog sandwich and a french vanilla coffee for me) and the sunset. When we alighted the bus home, by the time we agreed to take a cab or a jeepney, neither choice was feasible. We had done so much walking during the trip that my idea of walking distance evolved. We ended up walking in the middle of the night before taking a trike.
by Jhoanna Isla (Volunteer)