Monday, October 15, 2012

Greetings from Mindoro!

I was wiped out. After almost a month of traveling for visas, church
meetings, and a last minute testimony at ASI South East Asia, I was ready to
get back to my mountains and stay put. God rarely asks my opinion on these
things, however.

Three days after arriving back in Balangabong, the captain of the village
called an assembly meeting. I hadn't yet had an opportunity to attend one,
so I was eager to see how the lowland Batangan conduct their business. Out
of a village of nearly 300, 7 people showed up including me and my partner,
Delpin. We had plenty of time to talk since almost no one showed up, and
one of the items on the agenda, that everyone was talking about, was the
upcoming survey of the Taubuid Ancestral Domain (equivalent to the American
Indian reservations).

I had no idea that such a survey was to take place, but as I listened to the
conversation I gathered that two lowland engineers were being brought in by
the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP). They and a group of
Taubuid would circumnavigate the tribe, surveying the Taubuid territory's
boundaries. The survey was scheduled to start in three days, and would go
for at least a month.

As I listened, an idea slowly formed in my head. Nearly the entire tribe
had gotten together and had agreed to let this outsider engineer come in to
the very heart of the highlands, let alone travel the length of the
lowlands. If they would let him in, was there a chance that they might let
me tag along under his permission? It was very slim chance, very unlikely,
but as I continued to think about it, God seemed to say, "It can't hurt to
ask, can it?"

I was blown away. When I broached the idea everyone immediately accepted
it. They had been looking for someone to provide medical care as in the
pre-survey several years ago there were a number of serious illnesses and
injuries. They were delighted that I volunteered and took it upon
themselves to formally request to the higher officials of the tribe that I
be brought along for medical care.

In the next three days, God opened every door which had been keeping me out
of the interior for the last year. Because of the last minute testimony at
ASI, I had missed the big meeting that planned this expedition, and I
thought that I had missed out. However now I realized that God planned it
that way. If I had approached them all up front I almost certainly would
have been turned down. God orchestrated it so that I slipped in the back
door, and so, on Monday, September 25, we began surveying. God opened the
doors so suddenly that I didn't have a chance to write you before I left,
and I apologize for that.

As I write we have finished surveying the boundary between the lowland
Batangan and the Filipinos. The ten day estimate turned into two and a half
weeks of bush whacking through jungle and over mountain after mountain. In
that time we had two hurricanes blow through, killed two snakes, found the
skin of a Philippine Cobra 21 inches in diameter, got swarmed by angry wild
bees twice, and treated approximately two hundred patients. I've met every
chief from along the lower boundary of the territory, and by God's grace, I
hope that much of the distrust that these villages had of me has been
dispelled. I have official permission now to freely visit almost all of

I have found it extraordinarily hard to convince the Batangan to tell me
their stories, legends, myths, and spiritual beliefs. Similar to the
Alangan whom I grew up working with, alongside my parents, the Taubuid do
not tell these things to outsiders. I have been able to extract bits and
pieces, enough to build a skeletal understanding of their beliefs, by saying
things like, "Now in the Alangan culture, the shaman uses such-and-such a
spirit to so so-and-so. Do the Batangan do that too?" Often I would only
get a grunted, "Yes," or, "No." Occasionally someone would elaborate
briefly, but never offer any information. And stories were nearly
impossible. In six months I had gotten one story.

One night on the survey expedition, however, while the second hurricane beat
on the tiny charcoal shelter that 35 people had crammed into, God gave me a
new idea. Here I had a house crammed full of elders from all across the
territory. Most of them were experts in the culture and lore of the
Batangan, and many of them had egos that wanted expression. I had gleaned a
name of one of their ancestors a while back, but no one would tell me about
him, so after supper, while everyone was lying around, I started up a
conversation with one elder. "Will you tell me a story?" I said. "I'd
really like to hear about this fellow I've heard mentioned, Ak-tat, no,
Ak-at, no that's not right . . . ."

"Ak-tab!" the man corrected. "His name was Ak-tab."


"Oh, that's right," I started again. "Now I remember the name. But tell
me, what did Ak-tab do?"

By this time all ears were on us. There was a tension in the air, and I was
just waiting for one of the elders to shut us down.

"Ok," the man replied after a pause. "It happened like this. Back before
the great flood . . ."

No sooner had he stared when an elder from across the room broke in, "No, no
, no, no. That's not how it starts." Then he offered his version of the
story. Others chipped in and offered their versions. Several other names
and stories were mentioned and using these I was able to keep the elders
competing in their story telling for almost two hours. In those two hours I
learned more of the Batangan's oral history than in the last six months of
digging. It was just a scratch on the surface of their culture, but I hope
it is the foot-in-the-door that I need to get going.

On another evening I started talking to another elder who took such a liking
to me, and trusted me so much, that when the conversation shifted around to
spiritual beliefs he began talking and talking and talking. He told me all
the major framework elements of the spiritual system that I had been looking
for these last six months, and he probably would have been willing to tell
me just about everything he knew. Unfortunately these kinds of
conversations require incredibly deep language that is beyond my present
ability. I was able to follow along, but missed a lot of important
information. He promised that I could come visit him in his village any
time, though, and I plan to take him up on that.

Last December, after Fausto, the head of the tribe, kicked us out of Tamisan
and restricted us to Balangabong, Ramon had a dream that he refused to tell
or explain to me. All that he would tell me was that this wasn't the end of
Fausto's role in this project. He said whatever would happen would have to
do with Fausto's wife being sick and asking for help. I had hardly thought
of the dream since, but as the expedition neared Tamisan, I suddenly
remembered it again. I was waiting, and sure enough, just a few minutes
before we left she came asking for medicine. She wasn't gravely ill, and
there was no spectacular recovery, so I'm not sure what it means, but we'll
see in God's time.

All this God has done, but we haven't even left the lowland Batangan yet.
After the lowland boundary was finished, everyone agreed that we needed to
take a few days' break before heading into the interior. The boundary
between Occidental Mindoro and Oriental Mindoro, which marks the upper
bounds of our territory, is nearly impassible. Several years back, when the
government did a conservation project in this area, in an attempt to save
the endangered Tamaraw buffalo, native to Mindoro, they had to drop men in
by helicopter, and then airlift the Tamaraw out. But this is where my
people live, and this survey is vital to protecting them, so that's where
we're going.

If all goes according to plan we will leave Monday, October 22 (a
particularly fitting day for Adventists). The more difficult and dangerous
half is yet ahead, and I greatly appreciate your continued prayers, also for
my own walk with God. By God's grace, in the next few weeks, I will for the
first time enter my target people's territory. I know that the enemy is not
and will not be happy, but he cannot touch me without God's permission.

To God Be The Glory

John H

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Greetings from Mindoro!

I'm very sorry, it's been a long time since I've written! Rainy season is
in full swing, and a weak hurricane is drowning the world outside my little
house as I write. The NOAA predicted about 30 typhoons for our region this
season. As it is we're already on E for Ellen on our second time through
the alphabet and we're only half way through the season.

There's something about my visa renewal that particularly seems to attract
the typhoons. Last year I spent a week trying to travel about 76 miles as
the crow flies, sleeping in the back of busses and in port terminal
buildings. I had waited until a week from my visa's expiration to renew, so
I had no choice but to push on through one of the worst hurricanes of the
season. Afterward I promised myself that I would not make that mistake

And so, with more than a month left before my visa expired, I texted my
agent at immigration and asked when would be a good time for me to come.
Within minutes the reply came back, "If at all possible, be here tomorrow."

"Wait," I thought. "We're in the middle of a hurricane, I was just trying
to think ahead so as to not rush so much."

"I don't know if I can get out, " I wrote back. "Can I come later in the

"If you can't get out, you can't," the reply came back. "But if there is
any way to make it here by tomorrow, do so. And come early."

I was sorely tempted to ignore the whole thing and go on about my business
until the weather cleared. I kept remembering, though, that this man held
my ability to stay in the Philippines in his hands, so I'd better do what I
could to comply.

Delpin, my Alangan partner, and I left early Tuesday morning, and arrived
back in Balangabong Thursday morning. I'll spare you the boring details,
but we had traveled for 48 hours straight without a chance to stop or sleep.
It was the longest non-stop trip I can remember ever making, and I promised
myself again, that as far as I was able I'd never do it again.

I arrived back to several minor emergencies that kept me hopping despite the
rain that had been falling for15 or more hours a day now for over a month.
It is amazing how cold you can get in the tropics in these conditions. In
the middle of the week my agent in immigration texted me that the prices had
gone up since last year and he had just found out. I needed to send him
money right away. After getting dunked up to my neck in the river on the
way out, besides the steady rain, while wearing all cotton clothes, and then
riding my motorcycle into town, I was shivering and chattering
uncontrollably. Of all the non-air conditioned offices in town, Western
Union had to be the one upscale enough to have a tiny split-style air
conditioner that blasted my already frozen body with icy air while I waited
45 minutes to send the necessary funds. Boy was I glad to get back out into
the wet warmth outside.

In the late afternoon, after taking care of all of the business that I could
for one day, I got on my bike and started home. An hour later I came into
the little town of Calintaan just a few miles south of my turn to head up
into the mountains. I was being particularly careful that day as I had been
thinking about the responsibility I have to be as safe as is reasonably
possible to be. I had slowed to well below the city speed limit of 40
kilometers per hour (speed limits are a new idea here, and NOBODY pays any
attention to them) and was carefully picking my way through town. Just as I
came to the main crossing, a portly gentleman on another motorcycle cut
across the intersection without even glancing at the traffic on the main
highway. I immediately braked as hard as I safely could on the wet road,
honked, and steered as wide as I could. There was no way for me to stop
fast enough, though, and even with my honking the man didn't notice me until
just before he T-boned me. A split second before the impact I have a
distinct memory of knowing that I had done everything that I could, he was
going to hit me anyway, and there was nothing that I could do about it. And
so I just sat unmoving and peaceful for the fraction of a second that

The impact, when it came, was definite but not nearly what I had expected.
The rear wheel broke loose for an instant, fish-tailing a little, and then I
was past it and still upright. As soon as the bike stopped I came back.
The man who had hit me had been knocked over, and the 4 or 5 men who stand
on the corner all day every day were helping him up. There were shouts of,
"Americano" and comments about how fast I had been going, and they only
increased when I pulled my helmet off and they saw that I was for sure an

I quickly assessed that there was no major injury to the man and no major
damage to his motorcycle. Then calmly and quietly I stated the facts of the
case and the applicable laws. Without listening at all, they kept repeating
how fast I'd been going and asking the man if he wanted to press charges.
"No," he finally said. "That would just take up a bunch of time. Just let
him pay me for medicines and the repair of my bike and we'll be done with

I knew that I was in the right, and that the man was almost certainly trying
to avoid the police because he had no driver's license. But I also knew
that in a system dominated by corruption, with white skin against me, and
with a street full of witnesses lying about me, I was safer to take a verbal
beating and pay a little than to stand up for my rights. After a trip to
the local health center and another half hour of my comrade telling the
world what I had done to him, we parted ways and I headed home.

As I drove, even more slowly and carefully, I continued thinking about what
had happened. A man at the health center had asked me what damage there was
to my bike. I replied that my gear shifter was bent, but that was it. He
kept repeating, "It's a good thing it didn't hit your foot, it's a good
thing it didn't hit your foot."

I agreed, but then didn't pay too much attention to it. Now I began to
realize what he had meant. From the way the bike had stayed up despite
being rammed from the side at a decent speed, I had assumed that he had hit
my rear tire or fork. The bent gear shifter, though, was proof that he had
indeed hit me right in the center of my bike. Not only that, I always drive
with my toes under the shifter as it is comfortable and I'm always ready to
shift. Occasionally I'll rest the ball of my foot on the peg, but every
other time I've had to do an emergency stop my foot has automatically jammed
back down on the peg for balance and to be ready to shift. I have every
reason to believe that my toes WERE under the shifter when it hit.

The full picture of what had happened that day didn't become clear, though
until next week when I borrowed a friend's tools to bend the shifter back.
After laying the bike over on the way back from Tamisan last year, the left
peg was slightly bent. When I had glanced down to assess the damage after
being rammed, I had again noticed that the peg was bent but had assumed that
it was the old bend that I hadn't gotten completely straight. When I
actually sat down to work on it, though, I realized that the peg was bent
way out of shape, far beyond what it had been after the spill on the way
back from Tamisan. My comrade hadn't just hit my gear shifter, and my foot
hadn't just been missed by millimeters. He had hit squarely on my foot, and
I distinctly remember NOT moving at all in that split second before he hit.
I hadn't pulled my foot up. He had hit my foot hard enough to bend the ¼
inch steel shifter and ½ inch steel peg as if they were a paper clip while
my foot was untouched.

I still haven't the foggiest idea how God did it, but I know that He is good
to me. Thank you so much for your prayers for the salvation of the
Batangan, for the success of the project, and for my safety. I'm sorry that
it has taken me a while to update you on what God is doing in response to
those prayers. I assure you, though, that I rely on your support, and that
I think of and pray for you daily. Thank you so much and may God richly
bless you for your service to Him!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Greetings from Mindoro!

Though the highland Batangan have officially declared themselves to be
closed to further evangelism, I have been promised by the tribal and
national governments that if I receive an invitation, I am free to accept
it. To that end, while learning the language here in Balangabong, I take
every opportunity to develop any relationship that I can with highlanders
who pass through.

I was washing a pot inside my house that hot, dry season day a couple of
months ago, when I heard a voice outside asking in Taubuid (which is what
the Batangan call themselves), "Who lives in this house?"

"A siganon lives there," answered my next door neighbor, using the local
word for outsider.

"Yes," I replied teasingly in Taubuid as I walked toward the door. "A white

What I saw when I stepped down onto the porch made me sit down in a hurry.
There, peering through the railing, stood a highland woman! If a highlander
ever comes down, it is only the men and teenage boys. The women and
children are terrified of outsiders, and in my entire contact with the
Taubuid, I've only seen three highland women. The lady seemed a little
surprised to see me, and I could tell that she was ready to run, but she
stayed put. I began speaking to her in Taubuid, and she answered me. I
don't remember much of what we said, except that she exclaimed how clean my
porch was, and I replied that it made for good sleeping. After a few
minutes she wandered off upriver, and I continued sitting on the porch
praising God. I had just had my first conversation with a highland woman,
and my first conversation entirely in Taubuid! I was elated!

That was a couple of months ago, and my language ability has increased quite
a bit since then, but the encounter still stands out in my mind as one of
the highlights of my time with the Taubuid.

Another morning I walked out onto my front porch to see a highlander
sitting under the eaves of my neighbor's house watching me. "Good morning!"
I said cheerily in Taubuid.

"Good morning also," he answered in Alangan.

"Hmm," I thought. "He must be one of the highlanders who has spent some
time on the border and can understand a few words of Alangan. Nevertheless,
I'll humor him and answer back in Alangan."

"Where are you from?" I asked in Alangan.

To my surprise he continued to speak fairly understandable Alangan. He
explained that his name was Marcos, and that though he lived near the center
of their territory, he had worked for a few years in an Alangan border
village and had thus learned Alangan. Now that his wife had been killed
through witchcraft by a jealous relative, he frequently came to the lowlands
to work for lowland Taubuid or lowlanders.
Marcos has been a frequent visitor since that day, often bringing his
brother along to ask for medicine or just to sit and chat for a while. The
first time that he returned to the mountains, as we parted ways I spoke to
him. "Friend, I want to tell you something before you leave. Please
remember wherever you are, that when the time comes and you need it, I have
the medicine to cure fear."

I doubt that he understood, and he probably doesn't even remember, but I
hope and pray that someday God can use that seed. Because it's true, I
carry the only cure to the disease that is killing the highland Taubuid and
slowly bringing their tribe to extinction.

There have been many more similar little encounters with the highlanders,
more than I have time to share here. As I had hoped and prayed, the
medicine that I carry has been the key to contacting them. News of my
medicine has reached beyond the middle line of their territory, and a number
have come for treatment. When they come, they are blown away that an
outsider, let alone a white man, can speak their language, even if it is
limited and halting. No one has yet accepted my gentle offer to come and
treat their relatives, but I know that it isn't yet time to push.

I pray that these little encounters will continue to spread the word, and
build a desire for what I have to offer. I know that it is not yet time.
God has very clearly put me here and told me to learn what I can while I
wait. Yet the time will come, the time will come. May God prepare me for
that day.

Thank you again for making this ministry possible through your prayerful
support! Already many have been blessed, and this is just the beginning!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Greetings from Mindoro!

Thank you so much for all of your prayers in regard to the expedition to the
highland Batangan! The short and simple is that the expedition didn't go

I'm certain that this was actually an answer to your and my prayers. I had
privately worried that it was not the right time for this expedition.
Since it was their own initiative, however, and was proposed by a very Godly
man whom I highly respect, I went along with it not wanting to quench the
Spirit if it was Him. I prayed, though, that God would prevent any harm
from being done. The expedition was postponed because of a simple
misunderstanding, and I think Gods had was in it.

Thank you for your prayers in this, and in all aspects of this project. I
want you to know that I pray daily for you also.

Sabbath our first hurricane of the season hit. I was supposed to travel up
to the Conference office for Workers' Meetings Sabbath night, but I couldn't
safely get out. The rivers between us and the nearest road were so high
that anything but emergency travel was too dangerous. This area is known
for bad flash floods and just Friday evening one of the church elders nearly
died crossing the river on the way home. It's an interesting place I live
in at the moment, usually not all that isolated, but in minutes I can be
completely cut off from the world.

Most of the force of the hurricane has passed now, but it has left its
signature. Though I usually don't notice the humidity anymore, almost
everything in my house is covered in several millimeters of mold and the
rechargeable silica packs I use to keep my laptop and satellite phone dry go
bad in a single day. And this is just the beginning! I look forward to the
peculiar mold that grows on the type of bamboo used for walls. By the end
of rainy season my walls should be glowing a beautiful bio-luminescent green
at night!

Thank you again for your continued support of the Batangan project! May God
richly bless you!

John Holbrook

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Greetings from Mindoro!

During the meeting in which we were asked to leave Tamisan, back in
December, Fausto, the Batangan "Mayor," mentioned a meeting scheduled for
March. This meeting was called for by the highland Batangan, and it was to
address once-and-for-all the "problem" of religions.

Though I was not invited to attend, I heard rumors that the meeting occurred
and the outcome wasn't favorable. I didn't hear anything official, though,
so I continued on as per my agreement with Fausto.

That was until two weeks ago. I had a meeting with the head of the local
branch of the National Commission on Indigenous People (NCIP) in Sablayan.
During the meeting, I was officially informed of the decision at the
meeting. After two days and nights of non-stop meetings, the tribe agreed
to close the interior to missions. I was restricted to Bangalabong, and the
highland Batangan officially became a closed people group.
I told the director of my previous agreement with Fausto, that if I was
invited/a village agreed to let me come, that I was free to go into the
interior, and by God's grace he agreed. This is only an oral agreement for
the moment, but I'm working to get it in writing.

Partly in response to this development, the church at Bangalabong met last
Sabbath, and one of the items on the agenda was my mission. I was asked if
I were willing to move into the interior now if it were to work out. Of
course I heartily assured them that I would love to. They then picked four
men, men of respect and wisdom, and set a date to send an expedition into
the interior. Included among the four men is Lito, our one member who is a
first generation highlander. He got fed up with the witchcraft in the
interior and came down with the intention of becoming a Christian. He is
our key to the highlands. Sandy, Abel, and Jun are the other three, all
church leaders and good friends of mine.

The group will leave Sunday, May 20, and will be come back no later than
Friday, May 25. Their primary purpose will not be to evangelize a
particular village, but simply to seek out open minded people and villages,
warming them up to the idea of a foreigner coming to visit, and letting them
know that I have medicine.

This expedition, and the others that are sure to follow, will likely be a
deciding factor in my getting into the interior, where I end up in the
interior, and how long it will take to get in. Much good can be done, and
many barriers broken down. Many barriers could also be raised and the work
delayed if things go wrong.

May I please ask for your special prayers during this coming week, from May
20-25. Please pray that the Holy Spirit will go before the expedition,
softening the right hearts. Pray that the Spirit will fill these men,
leading them to the right place and speaking the right words through them.
Pray that God will send His angels to bind and push back Satan's forces, and
to protect the men as they travel. Above all, may God's will be
accomplished and His work forwarded in His good time and way.

Thank you so much! I really appreciate your being a part of this team, and
helping to advance God's kingdom among the Batangan. May God richly bless

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Greetings from Mindoro!

Incarnational ministry. It is the example that Jesus left for us. In order
to reveal God to us, He became a human, and specifically a Hebrew. He
learned the language of the Jews, the culture of the Jews, and the legends
of the Jews. He learned a trade and worked to support His earthly family.
He became one of them.

And so I strive to become a Batangan. To that end I go with them wherever
they go, and work with them wherever they work (as far as I am able),
learning language all the time. Now that my house is built and I have moved
in, I've had more time to wander in the mountains with my people.

This time of year is honey season. All of the mountain farms have been
cleared and burned off, but not enough rain has fallen yet to start
planting. While the people have been clearing their mountain farms, they
have kept their eyes peeled for wild bees' nests in the nearby trees, and
now they go back to collect the honey.
This is no jaunt in the park, though. Wild bees are a bit different than
their domestic relatives. In the States, harvesting their honey would be
classified as an extreme sport, reserved for adrenaline junkies. Here it is
part of life.

Occasionally the bees make the mistake of building nests on a tree branch
fairly close to the ground. In that case the procedure is to gather a huge
pile of wood and green leafy branches. When the fire is burning hot, the
leafy branches are put on the fire and pumped up and down to create huge
billows of smoke. When the smoke hits the bees, they angrily swarm seeking
the creatures that have done this to them. Those tending the fire try to
get in the smoke as much as possible, while continuing to keep the smoke
billowing up. If all goes well, in about ten minutes most of the bees clear
out and it is relatively safe to cut down the nest while nursing three or
four stings.

Last Sunday was different. A group of us had spotted a giant nest while
scouting out where Delpin (my Alangan partner) and I will be making our
mountain farm. Sunday we had a little free time in the evening, so we went
back to get the honey. The nest was about fifty feet up on a branch that
overhung a mountain farm which had just been burned off. If the intense
smoke and heat from burning off the field hadn't succeeded in driving off
the bees, then we were going to have to go to plan B.

Plan B is to make a "toldang." We gathered sections of dry bamboo about
three feet long, smashed them so that they would burn hot and fast, and then
tied green buri palm fronds around them to make a bundle, called a toldang,
that would generate lots of smoke when lit. The whole bundle was then tied
to the end of the longest section of bamboo we could find.

My friend Sandy had spotted the nest. He was the most experienced at
harvesting honey and he went up the tree first to set the toldang. The pole
was long and heavy, though, and he had to have someone else to help him.
The whole time that we were making the toldang, the group debated who would
go up with him. Delpin was the most experienced next to Sandy, but he was
sick and couldn't climb. The other two were too scared. I thought to
myself, "Well, you say that you want to become one of them, and do what they
do. Why don't you give it a try?"

I walked over to the tree. The only way up was to climb a vine, through a
thicket of bamboo, up to where the roots of a parasitic banyan formed a
criss-crossing braid that could be climbed like a ladder right to the first
branch. I grabbed the vine and started up. I didn't make it very far,
though. As I clambered back down to the ground, Sandy laughed, "At that
rate we'll take thirty years to get to the bees!"
Laughing, I called back, "I suppose I could do it if my life depended on

When the toldang was done, Sandy climbed up, and we finally coerced one of
the others to go up. He climbed half way up, passed the pole up to Sandy,
and then chickened out. Climbing down as fast as he could, he took off into
the jungle with the rest of the people, scared of the bees.

Delpin and I looked at each other. Sandy HAD to have someone to help him.
He couldn't leverage the heavy pole out to the nest by himself, and if he
couldn't get it in the right position fast enough the bees would get mad and
swarm him. Delpin simply couldn't make it up. I was the only one left.

Grabbing the vine I swallowed my fear and started climbing. I climbed, and
climbed, and climbed, and climbed. I climbed through the incredibly itchy
bamboo, but was so focused and full of adrenaline that I didn't notice. I
reached the banyan roots and meticulously made my way up the last twenty
feet to the lowest branch. I knew that I couldn't make it back down that at
any decent rate of speed when the bees started to swarm. I was going to get
stung, and stung badly.

I arrived ready to take a break and get my wits about me, but Sandy already
had lit the toldang. He was fighting the pole with all his might, but
couldn't get it into position. If he couldn't get it in quickly, we were
gonners. I climbed up to him, grabbed the end of the pole, and together we
torqued it into place. Unbeknownst to us, however, during the maneuvering,
the toldang had snagged a hanging vine. The vine in turn whacked the giant
hive, sending the bees into a frenzy before the smoke hit them.

I set the base of the pole and Sandy started to holler, "Go down! Go down!
Don't hurry, but go down!"

"You go first!" I shouted as we both started down. I knew that he could
climb down twice as fast as I could, and there was no sense in him hanging
around just to get stung more.
Sandy refused to leave me, though. The bees were all around us by now,
stinging and crawling, crawling and stinging. "Be deliberate but make your
steps faster!" Sandy continued shouting as we both climbed down the banyan
roots side by side.

I don't remember much of what I did, just Sandy's words that cut clearly
through the confusion. On the climb up, I had programmed myself that on the
way down, I must ignore the stings, not get frantic, and be deliberate in my
climbing. Now in the frenzy, my body did what I had told it to do without
any conscious thought.

We reached the vines, about thirty feet from the ground. Sandy had mapped
out an alternate route down so that we wouldn't be on top of each other on
the vine. He said, "I'm going this way! Just hold on with your hands and
slide down, don't try to use your feet!"

I've heard all the advice about staying calm around bees and not running.
I'm not sure that it applies, though, when you have smashed their house and
they have started swarming you angrily. I think that it is a little too
late at that point. The local lore is that once a couple have stung you,
the bees know who their target is and they will all try to attack you.
Whatever the case may be, we hit the ground running.

Taking off through the jungle, my hands now free, I started removing bees
from my body as fast as I could. A number were crawling under my shirt so I
ripped it off and left it somewhere out in the jungle while I continued to
run barefoot through the brush. Each of my ears had a bee in it, wiggling
and buzzing. I tried and tried to get them out, but all I succeeded in
doing was pushing them farther in. I desperately didn't want them to sting
my ear canal, but there was nothing I could do but pray, "Lord, please don't
let them sting me in there!" After about five minutes of running they
managed to wiggle out and flew off without stinging my ear canal. Praise

As I continued to run, I ran into Sandy, still running too. He saw that I
was running in a straight line and hollered, "Run in circles! Run back and
forth so they can't follow you!" Of course! I had heard that before but
had completely forgotten.

It was starting to get dark, and I couldn't keep up the pace much longer,
but just about then I broke out of the jungle into the clearing of an old
mountain farm. The bees that were on me followed while the rest stayed back
in the jungle. After a few minutes of zig-zagging through the field, I
managed to get all of the angry little creatures off of me and started
pulling out dozens and dozens of stingers.

When I thought the bees had given up, I started back to the jungle. They
were there waiting for me, though, and started to attack again. Three times
I tried to get through, and was forced back to the clearing before the bees
gave up and I was able to start home.

That night was spent in a stupor. By the time the severe itching from
allergenic plants I had crawled and ran through in the brush had subsided,
the pain set it. Between Delpin and I, we pulled out approximately 140
stingers. The next day I was racked with fever and aching bones. I thought
surely that I had malaria, but everyone told me that this was the reaction
you get the first time you get stung that badly. They told stories of
children who had gotten swarmed and hadn't been able to run, and had ended
up completely white, head to toe, from stingers. I was blessed.

Today, a week later, I'm still counting my blessings. First and foremost I
praise God that I made it up and down that tree without falling and breaking
my spine. I am also immensely grateful that I didn't go into anaphylactic
shock, there wouldn't have been a whole lot that I could have done if it had
turned bad. I praise God that we are all safe and well, now.

I especially am thankful for the chance to share this experience with my
people and earn my place in their hearts. Incarnational ministry. It can
be interesting at times!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Greetings from Mindoro!
Thank you so much for your prayers!  By God’s grace I am writing this from the Batangan village of Balangabong!
God is able to work more powerfully in response to His children’s prayers, and I could tell that there were many prayers going up for the Batangan as I began my move, Thursday, March 1.  Previously, every time that there has been a big development with the project, there has been some sort of attack.  As I packed, said goodbye to my family in Pandarukan, and started South, I was braced for something to happen.  Nothing did.
I arrived at the trail head late in the evening with Delpin and Soosing, the two Alangan who had volunteered to go down with me and help me move.  I found that no one seemed to know that I was coming.  Delpin went ahead to see if there was anyone who could help carry some of my junk up the mountain, but he arrived back reporting that there was no one who could help.
“Oh boy, here we go again,” I thought to myself.  “Here I’ve packed up my house in Pandarukan and traveled halfway across the island, and now we’re going to have a repeat of Tamisan.  We’ll finally get my stuff up there only to find that they’ve called an impromptu meeting to tell us that they’ve changed their minds and we’ll have to go.”
As we started up the mountain, though, in the falling dusk, we heard whooping off in the distance, and a few minutes later the leaders of the church appeared, panting from running all the way from their mountain farm.  “We’re so sorry!” they said.  “We knew you were coming, but we were delayed upriver.  Don’t worry, everything is fine and we’re thrilled that you are here.”
Praise God, and thank you for your prayers!
Friday night, after vespers, and after everyone went home, I went back to the church and spent quite a while worshiping and praying for these people and my ministry.  I found out later that at that very time, back in Pandarukan, Ramon’s son Dipi became so sick that Ramon and several others took him to the district hospital.  Several other children in the village became sick at the same time, including two of Standing's children.  It seems that if he couldn’t get at me, the Devil was going to get at whoever he could.
Despite the commotion in Pandarukan, several Alangan showed up Sunday morning to help build my new house and get to know their Batangan brothers.  I took a quick break this morning to write this, and as I type one team of people is thatching the roof while another is splitting bamboo for the floor.  Within a week or two I should be able to move in!
As soon as the house is done I will be able to give myself wholeheartedly to language learning.  It is such a blessing already knowing Tagalog.  Because of this I have been able to immediately communicate at about a 3 on a scale of 1-5.  Tagalog is not their heart language, however, and we both struggle to express ourselves sometimes.  I long to speak Batangan proficiently.  As we walk upriver to cut posts, or sit on my rafters thatching the roof, I collect words, phrases, and sentences, and am working on making a Batangan-Alangan-Tagalog-English dictionary.  I already have half a notebook worth of words and phrases waiting to be entered into my Excel template.
God is very good!  I am finally among my people.  The language and culture in this lowland Batangan village has become quite mixed with the lowland Filipinos, but it is my start (there are several elders who know the true Batangan ways, and I intend to tap them heavily).  Thank you so much for your prayers and support!  The work has finally begun!  Please continue to pray, though, remembering the Alangan as well.  Also please pray that God will give me wisdom and will guide my tongue.  I keenly feel my lack of wisdom.  Thank you!
In His Service,

John Holbrook
Greetings from Mindoro!
Good news!  By God’s grace, I’ll be moving into the Batangan territory this Thursday, March 1!  The Batangan project is about to get a new birthday!
As you may recall, I mentioned that there is one lowland Batangan village, named Balangabong, that has a Seventh-day Adventist church.  This is the village that Dong came from.  It was planted 30-40 years ago, and has never really matured or grown.  After the church was planted initially, it was abandoned.  About 15 years ago, the Balangabong church sent a delegation to the local Adventist church, asking for help, but because of a lack of personnel, cultural issues, and politics, the church has received almost no help except for development projects.
As you remember, in the meeting in which Fausto kicked us out, he told us that if we wanted to live in Batangan territory, to go to Balangabong where we already have brothers.  Because of all of the politics involved with the Balangabong church, as well as our desire to start fresh, putting “new wine in new wineskins,” we decided to explore our other options first (Matt 9:17).
Since that time God has systematically closed all the other doors, and seems to have flung the doors into Balangabong wide open.  During the Conference Workers’ Meetings that I mentioned in the last update, I met with the man who is responsible for the Balangabong church and the development projects that have been done there.  He was glad to have me live and work in Balangabong.  When I got back to Mindoro, some of the other political sticky points were cleared up as well.  Then when I went down to visit the village again, they asked me on their own initiative to come live with them while I learned the language and continued to work to find an open village in the interior.  They promised whatever help they could offer to get into the interior in exchange for my helping their church while I lived there.
It sounded like a good deal to me!  After prayer and consultation, I let Balangabong know that I would be moving in.  While I’ve been wrapping up the last few loose ends up here in Alangan territory they have been gathering materials, and Thursday we’ll start building my house.  Praise God!
It has been my plan from the beginning to involve the Alangan in this project as much as possible.  The Alangan and Batangan are both tribes native to this island, their languages are somewhat related, and their culture and spiritism are almost identical.  Hopefully the Alangan will hopefully be able to relate and bridge the gap more quickly than I would be able to do alone.  In return, the experience will hopefully provide good training for the Alangan in cross-cultural missions, and help to fan the flame of evangelism.
The Alangan have long been deliberating on who, then, would go with me.  As with any church anywhere in the world, it is easy to get in a rut and just keep on going with life as usual.  It is also difficult for anyone to move to a distant and unknown place, but this is especially true if no one in your entire extended family has ever made such a move.  It was finally decided, though, that Delpin, my best friend since I arrived here as a child, will go with me on a part time basis and see how it goes.
The Devil is not happy.  Just like Ramon when he was on the initial expeditions, Delpin has noticed that whenever things start heating up with the Batangan, his family starts to get all kinds of sicknesses.  Since we have finalized plans with Balangabong, Satan has tried to frighten us again in the form of strange sounds, things moving around, dreams, etc.    He does not seem to have as much strength against us as he used to, though, and we know that he cannot harm God’s work unless we give in to him.
Please pray for us!  The last time we, “got in,” we were immediately kicked out again.  I know that Satan is fighting our arrival down in Balangabong as well as up here in Pandarukan.  Please pray that God will bind his power and not allow our move to fall through again.  Please pray that God will strengthen us and give us personal victory in our fight against the powers of darkness and against our own sinfulness.  Please pray that God will be glorified and His cause moved forward in all that happens.
Thank you so much!  I don’t just believe in the power of prayer, I depend on it, and I thank you so much for your faithfulness to the Batangan.  According to God’s will, the next time I write to you will be from a Batangan village!
In His Service,

John Holbrook
Greetings from Mindoro!
I left you, over a month ago, with us having just been kicked out of Tamisan and the Batangan territory as a whole.  I apologize that it has taken me so long to get back to you.  For a whole month, God seemed to be silent regarding the Batangan.  Our plans to try to enter the territory again from the north fell through, we couldn’t find anyone who would take us.  Our plans to court any Batangan from the mountains that we might meet in our travels fell through simply because none came down this season, at least none that we could find.  Idea after idea failed, and all I could do was say, “Those who wait on the LORD Shall renew their strength . . . “ Is. 40:31.
I have tried to improve the time as best I could, working on my Batangan/Alangan/Tagalog/English dictionary, entering the words and phrases that I was able to glean on the trips that I made into the territory before we were asked to leave.  I’ve made a couple of trips for AFM business.  And I’ve sat in innumerable meetings.  I have to say, when I left the States I thought I’d be done sitting in meetings for a while.  I forgot that this culture operates by meeting, even more than Americans do!  I started out attending all of the political meetings when I got here to glean as many cultural insights as I could.  As we started having more and more meetings regarding the Batangan and other church work, though, I’ve become “meetinged out!”
Speaking of meetings, in mid January, I was invited to attend the Workers’ Meetings for the conference that covers our territory.  Eager to make a good relationship better, I gladly accepted.  Most of the content of the lectures was not directly applicable to my project, but I was able to meet all of the pastors in the conference, as well as make friends with the conference officials.  I found that the Batangan territory spans an area covered by three district pastors (each of which have 18-26 churches), and I was able to meet with these three pastors.  I was given two opportunities to speak, and the messages were well accepted.  Towards the end of the week, the Conference President took me aside and thanked me for my efforts to coordinate with and work alongside the organized work.  “You are the only supporting ministry in our area to do this,” he said.
Back home again, after a few too many all-nighters on the road, I found that yet another of our plans had fallen through.  Lunito, who is the Alangan, “Mayor,” their equivalent of Fausto, had not been happy at all at the outcome of the meeting in Tamisan.  As an Adventist, he had a vested interest in the Batangan work, but aside from that, simply as a civil leader, he felt that Fausto’s decision was very unfair.  Lowland Batangan have sent Evangelical missionaries into Alangan territory for the last 5 years or so.  They have never spoken to Lunito or asked permission of the local villages, and have simply moved in.  Often times their work has been less than beneficial, and in a few cases it has split the village.  Yet the Alangan have been extremely patient with them, and have not hindered them, preferring to give each person the freedom to choose.
On a side not, I find it fascinating that the lowland Batangan Evangelical Christians can’t get into their own relatives in the highlands, and prefer to send their missionaries to other tribes on the island.  Those highlanders are tough!
When Lunito heard that despite our doing our best to go through proper channels and respect the authority of the Batangan leaders, we had been almost unconditionally shut out of the territory, he was livid.  The Batangan team (me and the Alangan church leaders involved with the project) calmed him down and convinced him to wait a week or so before going to meet Fausto, but he was determined to ask for a redress.  At the beginning of January there was to be a meeting of the leaders of all seven tribes native to the island, and Lunito determined to present his case there.
The date came and went, but so few representatives showed up that the meeting was called off.  Lunito tried again to reach Fausto in his own village, but failed to reach him.  The original meeting was rescheduled, but again fell through.  After three failed attempts, I had pretty much chalked up the whole idea as another failure.  But that brings me to yesterday.
Yesterday morning I came home from my bath to find a handsome adolescent Philippine Cobra waiting to greet me on my front steps.  As you may know, Philippine Cobras are the world's most deadly species of cobra.  Unfortunately both of my machetes were inside my house, on the other side of the friendly snake.  I hollered for my faithful friend Delpin (we’ve been like brothers since I was eight years old) to bring a machete while I kept my eyes on the snake.
My first strike missed, and the snake took off with Delpin and I in cautious pursuit.  We spent the next five minutes searching until we found him trying to climb up a post into my house (the last place I wanted him).  Delpin gave him a mighty whack with a long piece of bamboo and I cut him in half.  Poor little cobra, he just wanted to say, "Good morning!"
I happened to be completely out of money (literally down to about 10 Pesos in coins) and almost out of food.  I don't normally let that happen, but my reserve money got stolen, and nobody can figure out how.  Oh well, water under the bridge.  Since Delpin didn't have anywhere that he needed to be that day, he decided to come along with me to Mamburao, the nearest town with an ATM.
When it rains it pours, and yesterday was my day for a downpour.  Time after time on the way up to Mamburao, dogs ran out in front of me, children crossed just as I'd come up beside them, and the wind nearly blew me off the road at one point.  Coming into the little town of Santa Cruz I was following a huge delivery truck.  Without any signal he suddenly swerved into the left lane, then cut across both lanes to make a sharp right turn.  Both tires were on the verge of locking up and I still barely stopped in time.  A few minutes later in down town Santa Cruz the same thing happened with another truck.
Then about two miles north of Santa Cruz my engine suddenly made a horrible noise and started to lug.    Looking down at the engine my heart sank.  Oil was dripping off the block.  "Oh Lord," I prayed.  "Please don't let my engine be fried!"

Examining the engine we found that the oil drain plug was nowhere to be found.  "Oh great!" I groaned.  "How could the drain plug have possibly come loose?  I changed the oil a week ago, and I distinctly remember being very careful to tighten the plug well and check for leaks.  And I just checked the oil level  a few minutes ago."

Nonetheless the drain plug was nowhere to be found.  "Come on," the restaurant owner said.  "Let's head into town and see if we can find a new drain plug for you."

I didn't tell the man that I didn’t have a red cent to my name until I could get to Mamburao, but I gave one despairing look at Delpin and he read my mind.  Reaching into his pocket he pulled out three tightly folded hundred Peso bills.  "Praise God, and thank you!" I said.

I am eternally grateful to that old man.  He is a faithful Catholic, and was glad to hear of my work with the native tribes.  We stopped at the main parts store in town and asked for a drain plug.  "Oh," they said.  "They haven't come in from our supplier yet."

"Hmm," I thought.  "That's a funny response.  How many drain plugs do they sell in a year anyway?"  But I didn't think too much about it as I was busy begging God that the only other parts store in town would have the plug.  I also said a few prayers reminding God that this was His project motorcycle, that I had done my best to take care of it, and that I really needed a few more years out of it.  But ultimately, as always, I left the situation in His hands.

Praise God, the other parts store had a drain plug.  I was kind of in a hurry to get back and get some oil in the crank case, but the proprietor was more interested in talking to this white kid who could speak Tagalog.  The restaurant owner was related to the parts store owner (he seemed to be related to just about everyone we met), and he was doing me a huge favor, so I let them take their time and pepper me with questions.  On the way into town I had thought to myself, "Wouldn't this just be ironic if his motorcycle breaks down while he is helping me.  I don't have a penny on me except for what was left of the P300 that I borrowed from Delpin, we’d both be stuck.  Wouldn't you know it, just on the outskirts of Santa Cruz there was a loud, "Pop!" and then a terrible grating noise as we came to a stop.  "Chain's off!" the man called out cheerfully.  "I'll have to tighten that up a bit when we get back."

Again praising God that it was only his chain, I helped him pop it back on and we headed back to his house.  The drain plug fit perfectly, and after filling the crank case with oil I turned the engine over 10-20 times with the key off.  It didn't seem frozen at all.  After I was sure that it was as lubed as it could get with the engine off, I stopped, we all said a prayer, and I started her up.  She started with the first kick!

Praise God!  That's the good news.  The bad news is that after she started, there was a nice little knock, which means that I’ll have to rebuild the engine.  Praise God that it’s only a little 125 cc motorcycle engine and not a full sized, multi-cylinder truck engine!

Anyway, there wasn't much else to do but to limp on into Mamburao, so after thanking the man profusely, and forcing him to take a little of the remainder of our money for his expenditure of gas, we were off again.  As we rode on, very cautiously, I started wondering, "What in the world is going on?  This is uncanny.  I just about died three times this morning, and now my oil drain plug pops off and my engine freezes up when I know for a fact that I tightened it well.  I just went out of my way to check the oil level a few minutes ago on the road.  In fact, I've driven the bike for about a week now since the oil change and haven't had any problems.  Is there a reason for all of this?"

That's when I remembered that Lunito had heard that Fausto was due to be in the town of Sablayan that day, and was on his way in to try and meet him.  "Could this have anything to do with that," I wondered.  It didn’t seem normal for to have so many close calls in one day after about a month of relative peace.

Sure enough, this morning Lunito came by and said that he was indeed finally able to meet Fausto in town yesterday, and meet without a village full of people listening.  He related to Fausto his concerns/grievences, and asked for a redress of the decision made in the meeting at Tamisan.  Fausto replied, "Look, the people in the mountains are very scared.  The people down in the lowlands where the churches have entered are more used to outsiders.  You and your people can travel about and work in these villages.  And then, if you do find someone from upriver who wants you to come in, that's fine with me."

Praise God!  This doesn’t mean that I can move in tomorrow, Tamisan is still closed so I’ll have to find another village.  But we are free to travel and visit, and free again to live in the territory when we find a village that will take us in.

Thank you so much for all that you do to make this project happen!  I cannot do this alone, it takes a team.  Please continue to keep the Batangan and I in your prayers!  We very much need them!

In His Service,

John Holbrook

Greetings from Mindoro,
The Devil is real, and he is not happy.  I ended my last letter saying that I was heading out to Tamisan in a few minutes.  My two Alangan companions and I arrived at the village late Tuesday afternoon, excited to be there.  We came ready to really start digging into the language, and we had high hopes that the village would let soon let us move directly in, or would help us to find a village farther upriver that we could move into.
As we walked into the house where we normally spend the night, however, we were shocked.  No one in the house would even look at us.  Even the children, who had always been curious and happy despite their parents’ initial suspicion, wouldn’t turn to face us.  We stood confused outside the house for a few minutes, trying to think of what we might have done to offend them.  Just a few days before Fausto had given us permission to come and go as we pleased, and we had left on good terms with all, at least as far as we could tell.  Now we were being treated like criminals.
We quickly decided that we had better go straight to Fausto, let him know we were there, and make sure that everything was still ok.  Our host, Jose, who happens to be Fausto’s son, finally told us that we could go ahead and put our bags in the house, and then walked out.  Dropping our bags and followed.
We arrived to find Fausto’s house full of people, and more people milling around outside.  The man himself was nowhere to be seen, so we sat down outside to wait and see what would happen.  We saw our host, Jose, inside the house, talking confidentially with several men.  After a few minutes he came out and told me that they were about to call a meeting about us, but it would be a while before everyone came together.  I assured him that that was fine, and we sat down again to wait.
“A meeting?”  I thought to myself.  “What happened?  Just a few days ago we everything was fine.  Did I do something offensive?  Are they going to try to kick me out?  Are they just meeting to decide what village I should go to?”
Obviously there were no answers, though, so I started some doing some intense praying, and then decided to just make the best of the situation.  I had come prepared to do some serious language learning, so while we waited I pulled out my pocket notebook and began asking people around me how to say things in Tawbuid (synonymous with Batangan).  Instantly a happy, chattering crowd gathered around.  Being a lowland Batangan village, they had a lot of contact with the outside world, and were realizing the value of knowing English.  For the next two hours we had a great time swapping languages and cultural practices.
By this time it was quite dark, and people were starting to gather for the meeting.  Jose came back, and found us a place in the house to sit until they got started.  While the people waited, a few of the men started an arm-wrestling competition.  Let me tell you, I have never seen anything like it.  Batangan arm wrestling is more like all out wrestling, except that there is only one point of contact.  This can be the hand, forearm, or just the middle finger.  There are two basic types, one in which the entire fore arm down to the wrist is on the ground, and the other in which the arm is free and the wrestlers can go anywhere and do anything.  They are very serious about their arm-wrestling.  There are no rules, and the wrestlers put everything that they have, plus a little, into the match.  As they wrestle, they are thrown back and forth, scrambling in the dirt, and grabbing for anything they can to gain a little more purchase on their opponent.  Members of the audience are regularly grabbed by the arm or foot to help anchor themselves.  So intense is the, “fight,” that I saw one set of wrestlers fall right into the edge of the cooking fire and keep on wrestling without even noticing.
Finally about nine o’clock, the meeting got started.  All of the elders sat in a huge circle outside of the house, with the local evangelical church leaders on one side, and the village civil leaders on the other.  Jose led out, and he first asked me to explain again, publically, why I was there and what I was wanted in Batangan territory.
Remembering Jeremiah’s prayer when he spoke before the king, I sent one last quick prayer for guidance, and then laid out my intentions and motives.  I explained that I was indeed a missionary, and that my intention was to go deep into the mountains where Christ has not been preached.  I assured them that I was not trying to go behind anyone’s back, and that is why I had come here to speak with Fausto.  I was not in Tamisan to steal members of the local church, but hoped to learn their language and provide medical help while I prepared to move deeper into the mountains.
The church leaders spoke first.  They said that they already were Christians, and so had no need of my being there.  They would prefer if I stayed out of their village, and simply help to reach the highland Batangan.
When they were finished, I reiterated that I was not there to sheep steal.  I did indeed want to work among the highland Batangan.  In fact, as civil leader of the tribe, if Fausto could point me toward the right village, I would prefer to go straight to the highlands.  I had only come here in order to be open and upfront, and hoped to learn as much of the Batangan as I could in preparation for going into the mountains.
Fausto spoke next.  “You’re lucky,” he said.  “Very lucky indeed.  Your religion happens to already have a representation among the lowland Batangan that have religion.  Proceedings are underway right now to freeze the number of religions among the Batangan.  You are lucky that you are already in.  This dry season, a meeting will be held with representatives from the entire Batangan tribe, lowland and highland, and we are going to deal with this issue of religions once and for all.
“As far as going into the interior, the highland Batangan don’t want people coming up and evangelizing them.  As a result, they have commissioned me to keep people like you out.  I’m very sorry to speak so bluntly, but I must.  There are highland Batangan here in the audience, and you can ask them if I am lying.
“If you must work among the Batangan, you have your people in Bangalabong.  Go there, take your medicines there, learn the language there, and if anyone from the interior wants religion, let them come down to you.  After all, if a highland Batangan gets religion, they are ostracized from the tribe.  They aren’t even considered Batangan anymore, so they’ll have to come to the lowlands anyway. ”  (This last statement is an indicator that the current evangelical church is likely not a culturally indigenous church.)
“Wow,” I thought.  “That’s quite a mouthful to swallow.  What am I to do with this?”  I knew that I couldn’t let the meeting end without finding some sort of loophole, otherwise anything else I ever did among the Batangan would be viewed as directly fighting the governance of the tribe.  As he talked, I prayed and searched for such a hole.  Fausto seemed to have pretty well sealed the case, but there was one possibility.
“Sir,” I asked.  “May I just ask for clarification on one point?  Do I understand you correctly that if, per chance, a highland Batangan were to ask me to come to the highlands with him, then you would not have anything against me accepting the invitation?”
Fausto chuckled, and then replied, “Well that would be their fault now, wouldn’t it?”
With that, Jose concluded the meeting.  The evening was far from over yet, though.  Jose suggested that to relieve some stress, we have some more arm-wrestling competitions.  After a couple of rounds they  asked me, probably more out of politeness than anything else, if I’d like to go a round with them.  They knew that lowlanders arm wrestle differently, so they set up for American style arm wrestling and of course I was soundly beaten.
“Ok,” I said.  “Now I want to wrestle Tawbuid style, and I want to wrestle Jose.”
The people let out a whoop.  I doubt if they had ever seen anything like this before.  I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but a broken arm or wrist seemed like a very real possibility.  One of the men counted down and we started.  Jose started out a little timidly, not sure if I was serious about this.  I was very serious, though, and put everything I had into it just as they did.  He responded in kind, and we thrashed around in the dirt for the next ten minutes, grappling for rocks, roots, audience members feet, or anything else we could find to anchor ourselves.  To my shock we came out tied.  I had won the right handed match, he had won the left handed match, and other than some scrapes and bruises I had no major injuries.
God really did bless.  I admit that that during the meeting, I didn’t see a whole lot of hope of getting in.  God guided me, though, and I think that between my conduct in the meeting and the arm wrestling afterward, I won the respect of a lot of the people in that village.  Jose, who had been so cold that evening, and was the most suspicious on the first couple of trips, now treated me like his best friend.  He decided that if the elders had decided to not let me come language learn there, then he would teach me as much as I could write down before the sun rose the next morning.
Somewhere around three o’clock the next morning, with over twenty notebook pages full of words, phrases, and grammar notes, I was ready to pass out.  Jose reluctantly let me go to bed, but I don’t think he slept a wink the entire night.  Within less than an hour he tuned his radio to a Christian station, and listened till light.  Then in the predawn, without a bite of breakfast, he said goodbye and left.
We couldn’t leave until nearly ten o’clock as a people from the village kept coming by, asking for a few more phrases of English, and wishing that the meeting hadn’t turned out that way, and that I didn’t have to leave.  I’m not sure what God has in mind for this village right now, but I’m sure that this is not the last that we will hear of Tamisan.  If nothing else, we have done our best to be above board and to go through the proper channels.  We leave Tamisan with a good taste in their mouths, wanting more, and pray that God will water those seeds as we go elsewhere.
Back home last night, the Alangan church leaders and I met to discuss what we should do next.  God showed us several more potential ways of getting in, some faster and some slower.  Bangalabong has several drawbacks in terms of location and politics, so before we make any serious agreements with them we are going to make one more try for the interior here at the opposite end of the tribe, near the Alangan-Batangan border.  We won’t push or do anything to undermine Fausto’s authority, but we’ll see if God opens that door.
Even though in the Adventist Frontiers magazine, the Batangan project is not listed as a, “Creative Access Project,” I’m beginning to feel like I’m trying to get into a closed country.  I think of several missionaries that I know who have struggled for years to get in and stay in their target countries.  Others have been forced to work on the borders.  I have a new sympathy for them, and others like them, who have endured much greater struggles than I have to reach their people for Christ.
Ramon, who understands Mangyan culture and politics far better than I ever could, is certain that Fausto himself will not try to stop us working in the interior.  The very first time that we me him, he told Ramon that the missionary is under orders from God Himself, and no human has the authority to stop him.  Ramon is sure that Fausto was pressured to say what he did by the fact that it was a public meeting and a number of highland Batangan were in the audience listening.  He had to take a firm stand.
I pray that Ramon is right.  I pray that we will soon be able to enter the tribe.  I pray that God will bring the right people to us that we may be able to use the loophole that Fausto left for us.  This is God’s work, however, and we are on His time.  He didn’t bring me here for nothing.  Many of the great missionaries such as Judson, Carey, and Taylor worked for most of their lives just to open territories, and never saw the full fruit of their work.  I have only begun.  Following in their footsteps, and in God’s strength, I will be patient and continue to fight.
In His Service,
John Holbrook

P.S.  If you’d be interested in hearing a dramatic reading of the article, “Forbidden Valley,” from the December issue of Adventist Frontiers, check AFM’s Facebook page.  I haven't heard it yet, but I'll have to check it out the next time that I can get to internet.
Good News from Mindoro!

When Ramon and I went to Tamisan last week, we finally got to talk to Fausto.  He was busy, with several small meetings going on in his house at the same time.  We sat for about an hour trying to get a word or two in edgewise, but nothing was happening.  His daughter, who is a village and township political leader, was sitting next to me.  Since Fausto wasn't talking, I decided to make the best of things and started asking his daughter what various words I had heard meant.  This started a conversation which led to my explaining why I was there, that I wasn't trying to sheep steel from the lowland Batangan who have been evangelized, but that I intended to go to the highland Batangan as soon as I could.  I explained that I had come to Tamisan as I needed to learn the Batangan language, and I wanted to be all above board and not be going behind Fausto's back.

I was counting on Fausto listening in on the conversation, and I was right.  As I continued to talk, Fausto turned to Ramon, and for the first time started talking to him.  I couldn't hear the entire conversation as his daughter wouldn’t stop talking to me, but Ramon says the upshot was that Fausto said, "Well if he's just wanting to learn the language here (in Tamisan), there's no problem with that."

Before the end of the conversation, we had full permission to come regularly to Tamisan, learn language there, and go anywhere we want in the village's territory.  Faustor's daughter suggested, as have three or four other people, that I move to Tagalongan.  This is a village just upriver from Tamisan, and is the last lowland Batangan village.  It has not been evangelized, and is a little more removed from the lowland influence.  I planned on targeting Tagalongan as my first move before trying to get all the way into the interior.  Now Tamisan might give me a free ticket into the village!

God is very good!  It has taken a while, and I still don't have permission to live in Tamisan or any Batangan village, but it is a start.  We have our foot in the door.  By God's grace, the work of the Holy Spirit, and a lot of time spent with the people we will be able to work up from here.

Thank you for your thoughts, prayers, and support!  Please continue to pray as this is just a start, there's a lot of work ahead.  I head out to Tamisan in a few minutes, and if it is God's timing, I'll be asking to move into either Tamisan or Tagalongan.  Please pray that God will continue to soften their hearts.

In His Service,

John Holbrook
Greetings from Mindoro!
Early yesterday afternoon, Standing and I arrived back from another trip to Batangan territory.  Our Batangan guide, Dong, has been working closely with us.  He has specifically been helping to extend our reach by visiting numerous Batangan leaders between trips, securing their approval as we work to gain permission to move into the territory.   Dong was supposed to meet us in Pandarukan last Tuesday, or soon thereafter, but he never showed up.  We decided to wait till the next Monday to do anything as the Head of the Tribe, Fausto, whom Dong was supposed to be meeting with, is regularly out of the village attending meetings.  Monday morning came, though, and still no Dong, so Standing and I saddled up my horse, as the Alangan like to call my motorcycle, and we headed off.
We first stopped in Bangalabong where Dong lives.  As we walked in from the end of the road, we met a Batangan plowing for a lowlander.  He seemed very suspicious, wanting to know why we were there, what we wanted, why we were taking the shortcut instead of the long way around, etc.  He wouldn't definitively tell us anything about Dong, but as we left he insisted, "You won't meet him there!"  Since he wasn't giving us any information, though, we insisted on continuing into the village.
Dong's house was abandoned.  We have another friend in the village, so leaving our bags, we went up to her house.  She and two other women were there, and seemed happy to see us.  They told us that neither Dong nor his wife were there, and that they had left a couple of weeks ago because of family problems.  They refused to tell us anything more, though.  Just as we were about to leave, Dong's daughter showed up, not knowing that we were there.  She seemed very shy, and refused to answer Standing's questions, except to say that her father was in Calintaan (a nearby town).  Standing was gently pressing, and as our friend began to speak again, Dong's daughter told the lady in Batangan something to the effect of, "Don't tell them!"  She didn't, but finally said, "The truth of the matter is that Dong is being held by the police.  You'll have to wait for the village chief, though, to tell you why.  We thanked her and after cooking a quick lunch in Dong's house, with nothing better to do we headed for Tamisan to try and catch Fausto.
On the way in we ran into Fausto.  He was with a lowlander and they were on their way to San Jose for a meeting.  A vehicle was coming to pick them up at the road, so they were in a hurry, but we were able to at least say a few words, and make sure that it was ok with him for us to go ahead and spend the night in the village since it was too late to go home.  When we got to the village, we stopped at the house of Fausto's son.  He and his family graciously put us up, but they, like everyone else we had met, were very suspicious and withdrawn.  Standing told them what he and Ramon and I had agreed that we would say, that we had come to see how the medicines that Ramon had left were, if they had been used, and if anyone was sick who would like to be treated.  We had also been hoping to talk to Fausto.  He replied that while our previous medicines had all been used, the next day a medical mission was coming from the nearby town of Calintaan so they were pretty well covered for now.  As far as his father, as we already knew, he had gone to San Jose.
After dinner, the family warmed up a little bit.  We spent most of the evening exchanging Batangan words and phrases for English and Alangan ones.  As we were going to bed, their children were working on homework and they asked me to help them understand a section of their English science textbook on igneous rock, so I translated it for them into Tagalog.  Still, they were very reserved, and seemed to only open up just enough to not be overtly rude.
Knowing that news travels very fast, we also asked about Dong.  Since they were a little more removed from the problem, they willingly told us that Dong had been put in jail for abusing his daughter.  After 15 days, he was to be transferred to the local prison in San Jose.  Standing was shocked.  Of all of us, Standing had been the closest to Dong.  He had made two expeditions with Dong as their guide.  When Dong had come to visit our village, whether with his family or alone, he had stayed in Standing's house.  Dong had been an elder in the only Adventist church among the lowland Batangan, and had spoken once in our church.  Now he was in jail for an unthinkable crime.  Satan is using everything that he can think of to stop this work, and to get at anyone associated with it.
I have to admit that for the first time in the seven or so years that I have been working on getting this project going, I was tempted to be discouraged.  I had spent years anticipating and preparing for this work.  For three months now I had tried time after time to get into the tribe, but had little to show for it.  It was starting to seem like they might never give us permission, and without it, the highland Batangan wouldn’t let you get closer than shouting distance.  Finally even this lowland Batangan village wouldn't give me the time of day despite the fact that I lived like a Mangyan (tribal native of Mindoro), spoke Tagalog, Alangan, and a few words of Batangan, and came bringing aid that they wanted.  I was tempted to despair of ever being accepted by these people, who so desperately didn't want me there.  It made me feel a little homesick for my Alangan people.
Mrs. White once said, though, that “Workers for Christ are never to think, much less to speak, of failure in their work” (6T 467).  Every time thoughts of discouragement started to come into my mind, I remembered this statement, and the fact that I had been undeniably called of God and had vowed to never give up, never stop unless God Himself told me to.  I refused to let myself think of discouragement, and I determined once again, that no matter how I felt, no matter how many years they might reject me I would keep on trying.  Then I put all these thoughts out of my mind and went back to gleaning Batangan words from the conversations going on around me.
After breakfast, the man we were staying with took off to work, and we started preparing to leave too.  We had told him that we would be back Thursday, and he had acknowledged us, though he continued to act very suspicious.  A couple of older men from the village wandered up as we packed, and started talking to us reservedly.  Finally the woman of the house worked up the courage and blurted out, "What are you really here for anyway?  What do you REALLY want?  We know that you are a missionary, so what are your intentions?  In this village we already have religion, we don't want you trying to re-evangelize us."
The culture here dictates that important matters of business must not be immediately stated.  One must give plenty of time to build relationships, and to, "warm up," to each other.  The native tribes also tend to prefer using idioms to dance around what they really want to say if it might be touchy.  Knowing these things, we had purposefully been discrete.  It was obvious that it was time to lay our cards on the table, though, and it was my turn to speak as they wanted to hear from my own mouth what my intentions were.  I explained that I was indeed a missionary (as we had already told them), and that my purpose was not to, "sheep steal."  As Paul said, "It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else's foundation" (Rom. 15:20).  I further explained that my aim was to go deep in the mountains, to the highland Batangan, where there was no knowledge of Christ at all, but that I needed to learn the language, and thus far had not been able to find a way into the interior.
There was an immediate change in their attitude.  Huge grins broke out on their faces, and one old man lay back in his hammock with a look or relief saying, "Well if that's what you want to do, you should go to my father's area, way up in the mountains."
The woman of the house chimed in, "Or you could at least go up to Tagalongan, just upriver from us.  But," she was quick to add, "You must get permission from the Head of the Tribe before you do anything!"
After the momentous expedition that I wrote about in my last update, we realized that we would never get very far without Fausto being on board.  The very first time that Ramon and Standing went to the Batangan, God providentially led them straight to his house, and he gave them grudging consent to work in the Batangan territory.  "But don’t you go stirring up the people, or trying to force anything on them!” he had said.  We had been operating on this permission, but we were finding that though each village chief has almost complete control over his own village, no one seemed to want to do anything without Fausto's explicit approval.  Since then, we have been working to gain his support and his approval to enter his village or one of one of his choosing.  That was the main reason that we were in Tamisan at all.
With this in mind, I assured her that we weren't trying to hide anything, or usurp any authority.  Besides checking on the medical situation, I said, we were here in Tamisan (as we had already told them) to talk to Fausto, obtain more official permission to enter, and guidance as to where we should start.  They seemed happy with this, and we left praising God.
On the way home my motorcycle hit a large rock at the bottom of a pot hole.  The rock and the pot hole combined to bottom out the front shocks, and the bike flipped half-way over.  Other than a few scratches and bruises, both Standing and I were fine, and we stopped to thank God right there on the road.  When we tried to take off again, though, the engine kept lugging down, and soon I smelled burning brakes.  It took another hour or so of fiddling with the bike to figure out that when it flipped over, air got into the rear brake line and was preventing the rear brake from letting loose.  Five minutes later the brakes were bled and we were on our way home and we arrived without further incident.
When I last wrote, I hoped that I would be writing this letter from a Batangan village.  Each time word comes back, it seems like the next time we should for sure be able to get in.  God's timing is perfect, however.  He cannot be rushed.  Thank you for your prayers and support in this work.  Your help is very much needed, and greatly appreciated!  May God richly bless you!
In His Service,
John Holbrook

Thank you for your prayers during this past week!  They were very much needed!  Ramon and Standing arrived in the wee hours of Friday morning, completely soaked and exhausted.  It was a very rough trip.
Tuesday morning they left our village of Pandarukan, arriving at the trail head around 3:00 p.m.  They met their guide, Dong, and headed off to the first village named Barison.  It is only about a half hour from the end of the road, so they made it easily by dark, and spent the night there in an old school building.  This village is a lowland Batangan village, and being so close to the end of the road it has had quite a bit of contact with the outside.  There is a one room school house operating in the village, and everyone wears cloths.
The three of them were only passing through, however, and the next morning they set off.  A huge, almost impenetrable mountain range separates the lowlands from the interior.  Their first objective was to get over this range, and so they started climbing up the trail.
I use the word, “trail,” very loosely.  Trails in the interior, here, are nothing like the kind of trails we have in the States.  They are more like deer tracks in that they are simply where people tend to walk frequently.  As such they are faint, unmarked, constantly changing, and resemble mazes.  You really can’t just take a trail which leads to such-and-such a place, you have to actually know where that place is and how to get there.
Never having been this deep in the interior, the three of them were practically wandering in the dark.  About an hour in, the “trail” seemed to disappear into a thicket of brush.  Something made them decide to cut off to one side to look for the trail instead of going straight through the brush as would be logical.  After a bit they found the trail again only to see a stick poking into the ground with another stick crossing it pointing to the brush thicket that they had just skirted.  It was the sign of a wild pig trap.  If they had pushed through the brush where they originally thought the trail led, Dong, leading the way, would have been speared through with a type of bamboo which is lethal.  God was watching out for them.
Noon came and went without a sign of life.  Suddenly, Dong motioned for them to stop and be silent.  A highland Batangan was coming up the trail.  Seeing movement, he stopped, ready to run, but Dong called out in Batangan, “Friend, don’t be afraid!  It’s us, we’re Batangan too!”
Tentatively the man approached.  Dong asked where he was from, and he informed them that he was the chief of the next village.  Dong asked if they could visit his village.  Beating around the bush, the man replied that if he was there that would be all right, but he was off to set more wild pig traps, and they couldn’t come into the village if he wasn’t with them.  He told them to stay on the trail they were on and to not veer to the right or to the left, and then he disappeared into the jungle.
Not to be dismayed, the three pushed on.  In another hour or so the trail started skirting the base of a monstrous mountain.  A trail took off straight up the mountain, and the three decided to take it as it seemed to lead toward the interior where they wanted to go.  They climbed and climbed and climbed and climbed.  Every time they stopped for a breather they looked back at where they had come from and it seemed like they hadn’t moved at all.  The trail was all business and made to switchbacks.  It headed straight up, and the mountainside was so steep that all three of them feared for their lives.  Determined, they kept climbing, and by mid afternoon they had reached the summit and started down the other side.
The terrain here was unlike anything that they had ever seen, and as they continued to pick their way down the mountain, they began running into little Batangan villages.  Every time, while they were still half a mile or so off, the Batangan would start crying out in fear, asking who was coming.  Children and adults alike would start jumping out of their houses and running for the bush.  All three men wore nothing but g-strings and had purposefully blackened themselves with the bottom of a blackened cooking pot so as to not stand out so much, but the people were still terrified.
I have never fully understood this phenomena.  The Batangan rightfully boast of having the greatest Satanic power of any of the tribes on the island, and they claim to have need of nothing.  At the same time, they live in a terror like I’ve never seen before.  This is a common phenomena among animists, but it seems to have been taken to an extreme with the Batangan.  You don’t have to be white to strike terror in them, you don’t even have to be from another tribe.  Anyone not from your immediate clan is a threat.  I have heard stories of Batangan becoming so frightened by the appearance of a stranger that they hung themselves rather than suffer whatever evil he might bring.  The Batangan have two leaders that supposedly govern them, one in the north and one in the south, but in reality these men are simply chosen to make sure that outsiders don’t come in and scare the true Batangan in the interior.  The true power rests in the elder/chief in each individual village.  Permission to enter or have any dealings with a village has to come from this chief regardless of whatever the tribal leader might have said.
A little while before sundown, the three men came to the top of another ridge, and the interior of the Batangan territory spread out in front of them.  For mile after mile, as far as the eye could see, the hillsides of the huge valley were dotted with mountain farms indicating the presence of small villages.  At the base of the hills was a high valley, cut through the middle by a river.  As Ramon’s eyes followed the river up to its headwaters, he saw it.  It was the village that God had shown him in his dream.  Ramon said that it was an exceedingly beautiful place, but as he saw it his heart fell.  There was no way that they could get to the village.  There was no way that we could immediately start working there.  The resistance and terror of these highland Batangan was so great that the few villages they had passed through were dangerously close to calling a meeting and demanding of the southern tribal leader that he keep us out.  This village was another day’s walk from where they were, past many more villages, and if they pushed any farther they would destroy any possibility of our working in the interior.  He was within sight, and he could testify that the land was indeed very good, but there were giants in the land, and for the moment they were forced to retreat.
Night was rapidly falling by this point so the men quickly pushed on to the village that was just ahead of them.  As they had done at the other villages, Ramon and Standing held back while Dong who was lowland Batangan and could speak the language, negotiated with the village leader from a few hundred feet away.  They were exhausted.  They had been climbing all day, were drenched with rain, hadn’t eaten all day, and had been fighting off leaches by the handful since they had crested the high mountain.  Dong begged that they be allowed to stay the night, but the terrified chief refused.  Dong asked if they could just sleep on the ground in the mountain farm a few hundred feet from the house, but again the man refused.  Discouraged and faint, they turned back.
As dark fell they found a patch of wild banana trees.  Cutting armfuls of the broad leaves, they laid them down on the ground in hopes of keeping the leaches away.  There was nothing but damp scrub wood to cook with, but they managed to coax enough of a fire out of it to cook supper, and then they fell asleep.
As they slept, God gave Ramon a dream.  He had actually seen two places that day, both of which had looked just like his dream.  One had been on the slopes of the first mountain range earlier that morning, still well within range of the lowlands.  The other one had been the village at the headwaters of the huge valley.  As if to confirm that this second village was the one He intended, God briefly showed Ramon this second village, the one deep in the interior.  Ramon strained to see how God intended for us to get across the obstacles keeping us from reaching that village, but the scene vanished from his sight.
When Ramon woke up the next morning he rolled over, and to his surprise, saw that Dong’s sheet had a huge splotch of blood on it.  Waking him up, they found that in his sleep, a leach had found its way in, drank its fill, and then inched off to leave the would bleeding onto the sheet.
After a quick breakfast, the three headed back out of the mountains, and in the early hours of the next morning, Ramon and Standing arrived home.
I have to admit that we were all sobered by what we discovered on this expedition.  Not that we question in the least bit that we will make it into the interior, and that the gospel will prevail.  Victory is sure.  But the road to it is going to be rougher than we had even imagined.  We are looking right now at setting up residence in Barison, the lowland Batangan village that Ramon and Standing stayed in before heading into the interior.  If they let us come into Barison, I will begin learning the Batangan language and culture while at the same time making frequent trips up into the mountains.  We’ll push in a little at a time, giving the people time to get used to us and build a degree of trust.  If we can develop enough trust in a village on the way into the interior, I’ll move into that village and continue pushing slowly deeper at the same time learning the language and culture.
One of the greatest fears of the Batangan is sickness, and it looks like my Mom’s teaching and the course I took in medical missions could well be the one tool that will get us in to the interior.  If I develop a reputation as a source of healing, this will hopefully make me easier to trust, and create a demand for my presence in the interior.
Only time and God can tell what will actually happen.  Barison held an election today for their village chief, and our ability to use the village as a base rests on the outcome of that election.  Hopefully by next week we will know if we can start building a simple house there, or if we need to look for yet another plan.
The enemy seems to have an inordinately strong hold of these people.  I am puzzled as to why he is holding onto these people so much more tightly than any of the other tribes on the island, but it is a sign that there is something important waiting in that valley.  Those people must be reached with the gospel.  God won’t let Satan win this war, and so until that day, we continue to fight.