Monday, April 16, 2012

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.

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