A Pastor’s Philippine Mission Trip

A Pastor’s Philippine Mission Trip

May 23 – June 20, 2005

A UCC minister, Rev. Rusty Eidmann-Hicks, from Holmdel Community UCC in New Jersey reports on his trip to visit with, learn from and stand in solidarity with the United Church of Christ in the Philippines.

May 23 – June 20, 2005

A UCC minister, Rev. Rusty Eidmann-Hicks, from Holmdel Community UCC in New Jersey reports on his trip to visit with, learn from and stand in solidarity with the United Church of Christ in the Philippines.

Thanks to the extraordinary hospitality of my host church (Sabang UCCP Disciples in Cavite) and its pastor (Rev. Leng Lubang), my trip was filled with continuous travel and significant learnings.  I was also fortunate enough to travel with Efren Frani, a friend and member of the Asian American Ecumencial Fellowship UCC in New Jersey, whose family has a home in the Dasmarianas neighborhood of the Sabang church.  Efren grew up there and still owns land; his mother, Leonia, who was also visiting, owns the home, and his uncle and his family live there.  This was our base, and where I stayed when not traveling, giving me the sense of being a family guest and not a tourist.  Efren is also a major fund-raiser in the States of ‘alumni’ of the Sabang church, who are assisting in the building of their new church and school buildings.  (Because of him, I was treated very well!)

{mosimage}Our trip was filled with learning and adventure.  An important part of the training of pastors in the UCCP is intensive field-work or “exposures”: experiencing firsthand living conditions of people in different areas of the country.  Seminarians usually spent months living in a fishing village or farming area or inner city neighborhood to be exposed directly to the people and way of life of the area.  Rev. Lubang seemed to have this in mind as she created the itinerary for Efren’s and my travels, which were far-flung and challenging. 

Our first week was spent in the Frani home and with the Sabang church folk.  I preached with Rev. Lubang that Sunday morning.  I was impressed by the vitality of the worship (full praise band, liturgical dance, excellent choir) as well as the active leadership in worship & teaching by lay people in the congregation.  Their church runs a neighborhood school and is engaged in a wide variety of mission projects.  In the afternoon the congregation put on a large ‘fiesta’ for Efren and I, with dozens of people of all ages putting on dance and music performances, followed by an outside banquet with games for the children.  I was both honored by their generosity, and amazed by the talents and skill of the performers of all ages, from little children to elderly women.

{mosimage}By living in the neighborhood and staying with residents, I had a unique window into the culture of the community.  With Efren I would walk into the homes of relatives and friends to visit, or go to the farm where he was raised, or attend a nighttime funeral service in a local funeral parlor.  We spent time at the church construction site.  We visited several outreach projects of the Sabang church, including a new-church start in an impoverished area of displaced farmers.  We spent one afternoon on a farm far out in the country, where the large family made us ‘lupac’ – of cooked, mashed bananas, coconut meat and milk.  It was wonderfully tasty, and the family insisted we take all the leftovers, which made me feel foolish, considering my affluence and their extreme poverty.  But, of course, it was their gift, and we gratefully accepted.

In the first week I was there, Efren and I attended the three-day, Lower Cavite Southern Manila Annual meeting of the UCCP, representing about 50 churches.  Though it is a conference, it more resembles one of our associations in the US.  It reminded me of our own meetings with many reports and business items, along with stirring worship.  Because of the struggles and hardships of their country, UCCP has a courageous and vital witness that we can only envy.

{mosimage}The trip was a study in contrasts.  Everywhere we went we saw great poverty: communities of squatters living in shacks built on stilts by the sea or built under bridges or by polluted streams in Manila.  We also saw areas for the wealthy, many of which were just being developed.  Large areas outside of Manila are set aside for development.  On several trips out to the Tagaytay mountain area we passed dozens of gated communities for the wealthy – with towering, newly painted columns in whose shadows were armed guards.  Paved drives opened onto vast tracts of open land, while jumbled along the roads were hundreds of shacks and shanties for the poor.  (The Sabang church is ministering to many of these displaced poor.)  We were occasionally invited to eat in fine restaurants and country clubs, hosted by affluent church members.  But most of our trips took us to the impoverished majority and the church communities that serve them.  

Our second week consisted of “island-hopping” to the area of the Visayas in the south: the islands of Negros, Cebu, Bohol and Mindanao.  Rev. Leng Lubang went with us for much of this trip.  We flew first to Dumagete in Negros Oriental, to visit Silliman University, where she did her training, and where many UCCP seminarians train.  (I have met Rev. Paul Laube, who taught homiletics there for many years, and who recently passed away.)  We met several professors.  One mentioned that 68 journalists had been killed in the Philippines in the last year, and that the nation has one of the highest rates of political killings in the world.  

{mosimage}We then went to the island of Bohol and the “Chocolate Hills”, which are dramatically shaped hills in the interior of the island that look like chocolate drops (brown grass and rounded hills).  We spent the night in a beach resort along the coast, after spending time at a local church. 

From there we took a ferry to Cebu City, where we stayed in a UCCP guest house near the hospital.  At the hospital we met a Conference Minister who had recently gone through surgery for stage 4 pancreatic cancer.  Without any kind of health insurance and without a pension, his family is now facing dire poverty.  He had only been able to afford the surgery through the good graces of a UCCP doctor, who did the procedure without cost.   (This pastor still had to find money for room and board and travel, while also worrying about the future education of his three sons.)  It made me realize how enormously fortunate I am to be under the wing of the United Church of Christ Pension Board.  

{mosimage}Then we booked an overnight ferry ride to Cagayan de Oro on the island of Mindanao, where we stayed in the UCCP guest house.  Efren and I met up with Pastor Goel Bagundol, the young (30 year old) Conference Minister for the Bokidnon Province.  He escorted us by bus out to Malaypalay City, where we met the pastors of the UCCP church there:  a husband and wife team.  We worshiped there on Sunday morning, and then on Monday Goel and Pastor Dodong rented motorcycles and drivers to take us out to the Conference office in Valencia, and then up into the mountains near San Fernando to visit the mission project they are conducting with the indigenous Minobo tribe.   

This trip was the most exciting thing we did – a ten hour excursion into the mountains of central Mindinao with three people each on three motorcycles.  We picked up extra people at the UCCP church in San Fernando, so that we had 9 people all together.  The roads went from dirt road to track to winding trail as we rolled farther and farther up into the hills, fording streams, passing local villages and rice fields, along steep mountainsides denuded of trees and planted with corn.  Pastor Dodong explained that he had been working with these tribes for several years, but that there was constant tension with the government troops and the New People’s Army that was fighting for independence and land reform.  One indigenous tribe he worked with had been attacked by the government army because they had lobbied for land rights and against the development of a mine that would have polluted their water with mercury.  Pastor Dodong also said that he is working with the farmers to develop sustainable agriculture, to get away from the costly fertilizers and pesticides that often put them into debt, causing them to lose their land.  We went to several villages and met with tribal leaders.  At one village the leaders put on a tribal dance in our honor, welcoming us with drums, instruments and dance in their native dress. (What an honor!)

{mosimage}I, of course, worried about being an American in such a place, especially with stories of kidnappings and killings in the news by Abu Sayyef and others.  Pastor Dodong reassured me that he had very good relations with the villages.  Since he helped the people with their practical economic and social concerns, they trusted him more than the missionaries who only want the people to come to church to pray.  (He said that many of these people had been forced out of the area because of the unrest, including one American woman with the Wycliff Bible Translators who had been there for over 20 years and had translated the bible into the native tongue.)  I was grateful for Dodong’s reassurance, but was still very much on my guard. 

Pastor Goel met up with us again at the Conference headquarters after our trip, and took us back to Cagayan de Oro.  He then kindly took us for an overnight trip to Camagin Island, a popular vacation spot with hot springs and waterfalls and beautiful beaches.  (It was interesting, though, that many of the natives of the island lived right on the coast, since most of the land was owned by foreign investors, who prohibited residents.)

{mosimage}We flew back to Manila and rested for a few days, before taking a road trip with Pastor Leng and members of the Sabang church to Quezon Province, which had suffered from major landslides and flooding from a series of typhoons that past November.  We met with local church members and their pastor in a make-shift church building in a village near the ravine that had suffered an enormous flash flood that swept away the church building and half the village.  The Conference, including Sabang had been helping the church and pastor, and many others, to rebuild.  What I found interesting and sad, was that international aid agencies and churches were provided almost all the aid to the people, with hardly any coming from the government.  (One official blamed it on corrupt politicians who only give help around election time.  I also learned that the Philippine national debt takes up 1/3 of all tax revenue.)  

The next day we flew, with a member of Sabang, to Palawan Island to visit local mission churches.  The Conference Minister and a minister from the Puerto Princessa UCCP met us at the airport and escorted us on our journey.  They took us on a long mini-bus ride out into the countryside to visit local churches, which were small and heavily dependent on support from the wider UCCP.  Palawan is the least developed of the islands, and has large tracts of open land, unlike other, highly populated, areas.  We also spent time visiting an underground cavern and beach, which could be a thriving tourist location, if not for the awful roads.  

In the next few days we spent time visiting the National UCCP office in Manila and churches in the Manila area.  I preached in another church and spent time with local church members, family and friends.  I also spent time reading the papers and watching the news as the national political infighting became more and more of a crisis.

My experience was an immersion into the culture and ecclesial life of the country, visiting a wide range of its people and churches.  Even so, I only saw a small sliver of its diversity.  The Philippines has 7,200 islands and we only visited about a dozen.  I also experienced these places from the vantage point of an affluent American and an honored guest (patron) – treated with deference and strained hospitality – and thus had a distorted view of the country and its problems.  Yet, it was a valuable window into the everyday lives of people and church communities. 

Everywhere I went I found dedicated and courageous pastors and church workers engaged in vital ministries in their congregations.  Churches make a large difference in the Filipino culture and communities – providing supportive communities of faith, schools, and access to assistance and spiritual strength.  I admire tremendously those, both clergy and layworkers, who give their lives wholeheartedly to their ministries – even unto death.    They will be always in my prayers.

Respectfully submitted,

Rev. Rusty Eidmann-Hicks
Pastor, Holmdel Community UCC
40 Main Street, Holmdel, NJ  07733
732-946-8821  Holmdelchurch@cs.com

Rusty Eidmann-Hicks has been ordained in the UCC for 23 years, engaged in local church ministry and social service.  His wife, Martha, is also ordained in the UCC, and they have one daughter, Susannah, aged 9.