Monday, May 6, 2013

Greetings from Mindoro!

It was September 2011, and just a couple of weeks after arriving in the
Philippines I was heading back to the city of Batangas to renew my visa. My
renewal happened to come due just as one of the strongest hurricanes in
years hit the northern Philippines, and a 15 hour trip turned into a week of
sleeping in busses and ferry terminals trying to get to the office of

When I finally arrived, wet and very weary, the official behind the counter
gave me two options. A two month renewal or a one year renewal for slightly
more. It was obvious that I would save money and a lot of time on the one
year visa, so I chose it, and he has been renewing my visa ever since.

Fast forward to February 2013 and I am in Batangas again to renew my visa.
Everything seems fine and dandy, but a week later the official still hasn't
returned my passport and visa. Down in Balangabong, I start giving him a
hard time about it, but he won't give it back. For two more weeks I battle
it out with him by text message, but he just keeps feeding me promises and

Finally I pack up and head to the office of Immigration, going to the head
of the local office, and report this official who has abducted my passport.
I find out that in the last month or so he has done the same thing to at
least two other foreigners, but they have been able to get their passports
back. Apparently the man was transferred to the other side of the
Philippines because of his misconduct, but he won't go.

The office and I both fight with the guy for another week, with the only
result being that the man gets angry, threatens my life, and stops answering
our texts and calls. The head of the branch office recommends I get another
passport, and we part ways.

Unbeknownst to me, while the head of the office and I were talking, an old
retired official who hangs around the office over heard. He texted the
errant official and said, "Look, mister. You give this guy his passport
back or I'm coming to your house tonight and I'm going to kill you!"

Within ten minutes the errant official texted me the tracking number for a
local courier with whom he had sent my passport. Unfortunately, wanting to
give me as hard of a time as possible, he had sent it back to Mindoro, and I
was scheduled to leave immediately for Mindanao to pick up AFM's student who
was graduating that coming weekend. I would have to put the visa off
another week.

I am VERY excited to announce that Jener Murillio, AFM's student from the
Alangan, has now graduated from Mountain View College with a Batchelors in
Elementary Education, and has already passed his board exams! It has been a
long time coming, but now the school can really get going. This is a big
step for all the tribes on the island. For the first time we have a
certified, Adventist, native teacher, and soon an accredited school run
completely by the natives themselves!

When I got back I immediately traveled down to Mindoro, picked up my
passport, and came back up the Batangas. I knew there would be a little bit
of a late fee because of the fellow had held my passport so long that the
last visa had expired. I wasn't prepared for what they told me, though.

All the visas the Immigration official had given me were fake visas. I was
considered to be a year and half over stayed on my original tourist visa. I
had gone to the Office of Immigration itself, spoken to a uniformed, badged,
ID bearing official of the office, and yet had been given fake visas. The
only clue that I should have seen was that the receipts that I received were
hand written. But in the Philippines, hardly anyone gives receipts at all,
and those that are given are usually written out on slips of scrap paper,
even from government offices. I hadn't thought much of it, but I sure got

The branch office told me that this was too big of a case for them to handle
and that I would have to take it to the main office of Immigration in
Manila, a dismal catacomb of overworked and cynical bureaucrats which I have
come to dread like the smell of death itself.

There was nothing else to do, though, so I went. I spent day after day
working through mounds of paperwork, running papers up and down flights of
stairs, from window to window, procuring document after document to add to
the growing stack that I knew no one would ever even glance at. Finally I
was told that the whole case had to go to the commissioner himself, and that
I should come back in a couple of days.

It was with dread that I heard on the radio, during those days of waiting,
that the commissioner was being publically berated for letting a Korean
criminal slip out of the country on his watch. I feared that the public
outrage would push the commissioner to greater strictness, and just as he
was about to review my puny letters of apology atop the mass of paperwork on
his desk.
I came back at the appointed time, only to be told, "Nothing has come down
from the commissioner yet. Come back another time."

My time was running out. I was due to fly to Thailand for AFM's Asia
Missionary Retreat in just a few days. What really turned my heart to ice,
though, was the prospect that the commissioner might put me on the black
list. I couldn't bear the thought of never again seeing my people, both
tribes, or my brother or sister, for as long as I should live on this earth.

God was merciful beyond measure, however. When I went back the third time
the man behind the appointed window simply demanded my passport and
disappeared. Half an hour later I was given my passport back with two pages
filled with stamps, notes, and scribbles, amounting to the fact that in
consideration of the whopping fine I had paid, my visa was waived and
pending obtaining one more paper, I could leave the country and re-enter

And that was all there was to it. I obtained the last paper the day before
I flew out. We had a good and educational time at the Asia Retreat,
reviewing each other's projects, praying for each other and brainstorming
about the best ways to proceed. I was allowed back into the country without
incident, and am back in Balangabong again.

I found out during this whole process that a new law had been passed since I
arrived. In an attempt to crack down on fraud, it is now law that anyone
possessing fake visas in their passport, even if old ones that were given
unaware, the bearer of such passport would be imprisoned and deported
immediately. If the official hadn't abducted my passport, I would never
have known. I would have gone to the airport to go to the retreat in
complete innocence and would have been imprisoned and barred from the
country. The whole mess cost nearly two months of time, a lot of money, and
even more stress, but it is clear that God was orchestrating the whole
series of events precisely how He intended them to happen. Glory be to God!

Before I close, one more big piece of news. I will be coming to the States
on furlough this summer. No, there are no problems, don't worry. I had
arranged with my supervisor to take furlough in 2014, but when we started
reviewing where the project is right now, we felt it wiser to come this
summer. I am still in quite a bit of limbo right now, not yet in the
mountains, and between major transitions. I could very well have just
gotten into the mountains by next summer, and taking a couple of months away
after having just arrived would not be good for anyone, so we decided it was
wiser to come back this summer.

So who knows, we might get a chance to talk in person in just a month or
two! Again, I want to thank you so much for being a part of this team.
Thank you for your prayers. Thank you for your support. God's word will
not return to Him void, there will be a harvest in heaven because of what
you are doing. Thank you!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Greetings from Mindoro!

"Knock-knock! Brud! Brud! Someone's sick! Brud John!"

"Ohhhhh," I groaned. It had been a late night on top of a hard week. This
couldn't be happening, not tonight. "Ohhhh," I groaned again. "Is it
really an emergency? Are you sure it can't wait until morning?"

"I don't know, Brud," the voice came back. "She's having an awfully hard
time breathing."

"Oh, ok," I mumbled in a tone that probably wasn't as gracious as is
becoming to a missionary. "I'm coming. Let me grab by stuff."

My summoner apparently hadn't stopped to think that I might not know where
the sick person was let alone who she was, and had left immediately after
making sure I was awake. I paused at the end of my porch, my fuzzy brain
trying to figure out what to do. I was sorely tempted to just go back to
bed on the basis that I had no idea who was sick or which of the seventy
houses that make up the village she was in. No, she had said it was an
emergency, I'd have to just wander around till I heard a commotion.

Stumbling across the village only half awake and barely able to see anything
in the dim light of my dying flashlight, I wandered into an open trash pit.
The family dog, quite uncertain as to why a white boy was standing
bewilderedly in his masters' trash pit at two in the morning, began barking

I finally got my wits about me enough to figure out where I was and how to
get back to the trail, and then stumbled on listening for the ruckus that
was certain to be generated by someone sick enough for them to call me in
the middle of the night. Soon I heard voices and made my way over to Rosa's

What I heard as I made my way into the hut brought me wide awake instantly.
Rosa's labored breathing rattled in her throat so loudly that it was clearly
audible across the hut. A quick check with my stethoscope confirmed a
massive respiratory infection and I wondered to myself, as I so often do,
why she had to wait till two in the morning when she must have been sick for
days or weeks. Unfortunately since she was six months pregnant, and since I
have a limited selection of drugs, I only had one fast acting antibiotic
that would work and no bronchodilators that were safe for pregnancy.

I told them to start boiling water and ran back to my house for the
medicines. At this point God stepped in to counteract my incompetence, lack
of experience, and lack of resources. At that time I didn't even have a
blood pressure cough on the project, and even if I had, I was so busy
thinking about Rosa's breathing that I would have missed the real problem.
While I was gone getting medicines, the local Village Health Care Worker
arrived. Her training had consisted of one thing, and one thing only,
taking blood pressure. Unable to do much, but desperately wanting to help,
the lady took Rosa's blood pressure, and I heard her report just as I
arrived back with the medicines. Her blood pressure was through the roof.
I paused just out of sight in the darkness. Something was tickling the back
of my brain, something else was going on here. And then it hit me. Rosa
had toxemia.

I knew that I was not equipped to handle this in the mountains, and that
Rosa had to get to a hospital. I also knew that the doctors in the hospital
regularly use the same injectable antibiotic that I was about to administer,
and that they refuse to listen if patients tell them that they are on a
medication. Therefore it was not safe to give the medicine even for the
respiratory symptoms as she would almost certainly receive the same
medication as soon as she got to the hospital and would overdose.

I explained to the family what was going on, and that they had to get to the
hospital. I made Rosa's husband memorize the word, "Toxemia," so that he
could ask the doctors in case they only saw the respiratory infection like I
had. Then we sat down to wait for morning when the first transportation
available left from the barrio a half hour away.

I had often tried to convince both the Alangan and Taubuid to use steam for
people with shortness of breath, but they would never try it. They thought
that it would be uncomfortable and ineffective, and they simply wouldn't do
it. Tonight, though, since I didn't have any bronchiodialators that were
safe with pregnancy, and Rosa was in such obvious distress, it was time to
start pushing. I told them that they HAD to try the steam.

They were very reluctant, but finally agreed only if I would let them put
some of their herbs that they use for colds in the water. Of course I was
delighted as I knew that this particular herb was safe and there were no
other medications to interact with. They prepared the water and put it in a
container under Rosa. Within one to two minutes the rattling was completely
gone and Rosa was breathing almost normally again. I was almost as
astonished as the people were. They were amazed at how well the steam
worked, I was amazed at how well the herb worked. I had used it and found
it quite weak in the normal tea preparation. Apparently it works much
better inhaled in steam!

The rest of the story I heard later. Rosa almost died on the trip to the
hospital, but made it there alive. The doctors confirmed my diagnosis, but
unfortunately were unable to save the baby. Rosa is healthy and safe now,
back in Balangabong, and I praise God every time I think of her, for saving
her life through the combined efforts of the doctors, the village healthcare
worker, and myself.

While we are on a medical theme, I would like to ask for your prayers for my
health as well. Since moving to Balangabong I have come down with a mystery
illness which has hit me three times, each time knocking me out for about a
month. It has a wide range of symptoms, some rather bizarre, and hasn't
responded to any treatment. Simply resting, taking care of myself, and
waiting have been the only things that have helped, but the disease
continues to linger in the background.

While in Manila in January to renew my passport, AFM asked me to stay for
about a week and a half longer to try to figure out what was going on, as
well as simply to rest. I submitted myself to a battery of tests, but all
of them showed that I was completely normal. My personal opinion is that I
am experiencing the effects of my chronic multiple drug resistant malaria
that I've had since I grew up here, combined with a particularly tenacious
viral infection that has swept through the lowland Taubuid. My mom, who
acted as primarily healthcare provider for the Alangan tribe during our work
here, is of the same opinion. If this is the case then it will be a matter
of keeping my immune system up and the stress and exertion down. In any
case I'll have a thorough workup when I come back on furlough.

Thank you so much for your continued prayers and support! Sometimes it's a
bit discouraging, but knowing that you are back there counting on me and
praying for me keeps me pushing on. May God richly bless you!

John Holbrook

P.S. As a reminder, this e-mail address is monitored by a volunteer for
address changes only. I will not receive any e-mail sent to this address.
To read back issues, please visit or

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Greetings from Mindoro!

My sweat soaked shirt stuck like cellophane to my back and chest as I
squatted under the eaves of the little hut. It was the only shade for a
quarter of a mile. The man in the house had taken pity on me and let me
close enough to rest there while we waited. It was the first time I had
ever been in a highland village.

A week earlier my friend Sandy had shown up on my porch one morning,
wondering if I could lend him a little rice for a project he had going. I
gladly obliged and when I handed him the bag I casually asked what he had up
his sleeve. "Oh," he said non-shalontly. "We just heard that everyone in
the closest highland village is sick, and we thought we'd go see if they
wanted you to come treat them. It's only an hour and a half to two hours'

"Great," I replied. "I'll be praying for you as you go."

To be honest I wasn't too hopeful. Lots of similar opportunities had
presented themselves, but someone or something had always blocked them. The
last time I wrote you (which was way too long ago, I sincerely apologize!) I
was about to leave on the second half of the survey expedition. The day
after I wrote, the trip was delayed a week. Then it was delayed a couple of
weeks. Then they said, "Right after Christmas, we won't even wait until New
Years." As I speak, the expedition is still on hold. It is supposed to
start up this January, but I'm living one day at a time and not holding my
breath. Nonetheless, that warm December morning I knew that someday, in
God's time, the opening would appear, and I prayed that if it was God's will
that it would be that day.

Late that evening Sandy and his two companions arrived back in Balangabong.
"Everyone was sick," he reported. "Lots of people want your medicine, but
the chief wasn't there and we couldn't find him. They sent us on a wild
goose chase. We'll try again next week."

It was a pretty typical story. The people in the highland villages can't do
anything without their chief's approval. The chief typically holds power by
wielding his ability to kill, bring disease, or heal disease, all through
the power of the spirits. Anyone who breathes a word against him suffers
the immediate consequences. The chief, on the other hand, when approached
by outsiders, finds it most convenient to simply disappear rather than be
forced into the embarrassing situation of flatly refusing to allow anyone to
contact or help his people. His people will lie till they're blue in the
face to protect him, so no one ever gets anywhere.
The next week, I talked with Sandy and the church about their next visit to
the little village. I was about to leave to go visit Kent and Leonda
George, our AFM missionaries on Palawan, to spend Christmas with them and
pick up some desperately needed supplies in Manila on the way. I wouldn't
have time to wait for the village's response and then go treat them. "Why
don't you just come with us this time?" Sandy suggested.

"What do you think, fufuama Lito?" he asked, turning to Lito, the village
elder who is a church member and our link to the highlands (fufuama means
"elder" or "grandfather").

"Sure," Lito replied. "If the chief gets mad we'll just respectfully leave
and hopefully it won't become a major incident."

It was agreed that we had waited long enough for the system, and for the
highlanders. It was time to slowly and cautiously make the first move, and
start putting a little bit of pressure on. Tomorrow would be the day. I
fell asleep praying.

It was a long hot hike. I had just recovered from three weeks of being sick
with some mystery disease that laid me out flat, and I was still weak.
Anything was worth it to reach my people, though. As we made our way higher
and higher, the air itself seemed to be on edge, as if tainted with the odor
of fear. I knew that there were people very near, we even walked through
fields that had obviously been abandoned moments before, but I saw no one
and heard nothing.

As we passed through one highlander's mountain farm, I noticed an ancient
tree that had been felled to prevent it from shading the crops. It split
into two trunks at the base, and each trunk was easily fifteen feet in
diameter. It had been cut down by hand, with a machete, and my companions
estimated that it had taken upwards of three weeks to do it. I was tempted
to pull out my camera so that I could prove to you that I wasn't making this
up, but I knew that if highland eyes were watching, that one move could seal
my fate.

We cautiously passed three different highland huts where the chief was
supposed to be, but we never saw a soul. Finally we met a group of highland
women who hadn't noticed our arrival, and very nervously assured us that the
chief was down in the lowlands. They wouldn't tell us anything else, and we
knew they were just trying to deflect us from the village.

Still we pressed on until finally we could hear children playing among a
group of three huts. Fufuama Lito went on ahead to break the ice in
highland fashion, while the rest of us quietly waited just out of sight.
After a few minutes, Lito motioned for us to come, and we cautiously
proceeded into the village. At the sight of me, the three children who were
playing near the center ran for their hut. One of the kids was too small to
run, and his older sister dragged him up to safety. The village grew
strangely silent except for Lito who was squatted outside the largest hut,
chatting with someone he knew.

"So where's the chief today?" Lito asked. "We passed by the huts where we
were told he was staying, but no one was there."

"Oh, he's a long, long, long ways away today." Came the reply. "He's about
a day's walk farther upriver, you couldn't make it there even if you wanted
to try."

"Oh, ok." Lito replied, and continued to make small talk. Finally he
asked, "Do you mind if my friend here sits under the eaves of your house?
It is awfully hot out here."

The man eyed me suspiciously from the darkness of his hut, then nodded his
consent. I gratefully dropped my pack full of medicines, and squatted down
in the shade. Lito gave me a gesture, and taking the hint I started trying
to make small talk with the man in Taubuid, to show that I could speak the
language and try to break down some prejudices. I got a few quick surprised
looks when I first started talking, and then silence. The most I could get
from him were single word answers now and then. As Lito and I continued to
talk, though, I heard the man inside the house commenting to his family,
"Wow, he sure is respectful!" Praise God! Though I wasn't extremely fluent
in Taubuid yet, I had done my best to learn how to be respectful and polite,
and now it was paying off.

Encouraged, Lito and I chatted back and forth in Taubuid, biding our time to
see what would happen. I found out later that Lito was hoping that the man
was lying to us and that the chief would show up. As we continued talking a
head suddenly appeared above the brow of the hill we were perched on. It
took one look at me and froze, an expression of utter surprise etched onto
its face. After a few seconds, the man to whom the head belonged recovered
his composure, and cautiously joined the circle.

Lito immediately began talking cheerfully to the man, who turned out to be
the long lost chief, and his companions who also gathered around timidly. I
found it interesting that all the men swapped machetes around, and inspected
each others' knives very carefully, commenting on the quality of the metal
and asking how the temper was holding. While men in America sit around
talking cars, computers, or smart phones, the highland Taubuid do the same
basic thing with the technology that they have, machetes.

After warming up the conversation for a while, the chief spoke to Lito,
choosing his words very carefully. "May I ask what it really is that brings
you here to our village?"
Lito paused, looked at me, then simply said, "You tell him."

I had passed the test. The fact that Lito trusted me to speak for myself in
such a delicate matter meant that he felt confident enough, not just in my
language ability, but my ability to speak tactfully and appropriately in a
sensitive third-culture political negotiation. That's a bit deal.

Sending up a prayer like Nehamiah had done so long ago, I started, "We're
here to offer help. I heard from my friends that there were many people in
your village who were sick. My bag over there is full of medicines, and I
would be glad to help your village if you would like." It sounds so simple
in English, but it was a message composed of carefully chosen words and
precisely orchestrated body language.
Apparently I passed with the chief too. If I had offended him he would have
become angry. Even worse, if I had shown no knowledge of how to conduct
myself culturally he would have simply blown me off. Instead he replied
with the utmost care and politeness, "If that is the reason you are here, I
can tell you that while there were many sick people in the village, they
have procured their own treatment and are now well. We won't be needing
your help at this time."

We immediately accepted the chief's decision, and didn't push him anymore.
We continued chatting for a few more minutes, and then taking our leave,
started heading home. My companions were elated. No, we hadn't been
accepted. No, we hadn't treated anyone. But this was actually the first
time that the people of this area had ever even treated them civilly, and
hadn't angrily commanded them to never come back. The chief had treated us
with great respect, and almost a hint of friendliness. We hadn't been
commanded to never come back, and there was a definite chance that next time
they would accept medical treatment.
For me it was my first contact with the highlanders in their own territory,
even if just on the edge. It was also my first practical exam in the
language and culture, and though I hadn't been perfect, by God's grace I had

We are not in yet. In fact we're probably not even close to being able to
move in. But it was a big step in the right direction. I praise God for
it, and pray earnestly that He will use it in His time and way in His plan
to bring salvation to the highland Batangan.

Thank you for being a part of this. I realize daily that I would not be
here without you. Thank you for being a part of this team, and I pray that
I will be found worthy of this great responsibility. Please pray for me and
for the Batangan, we need it.

God bless,

John Holbrook