Fourteen hours of traveling. Seven hours by bus through thunderous rains dousing rice fields and plantations with laborers weeding and harvesting. Another four hour shuttle ride scaling the mountain roads revealing garden terraces carved out of the face of the earth taking me to meet with a welcoming group. We ushered into the back of a jeep which took us another three hours through winding dirt roads passing through mining sites, narrow ridge tops, eventually stopping at the far flung United Church of Christ in the small mountain community of Copcopit.
Just the day before my arrival, a member of the community, Abraham Decoyna, passed away from stomach cancer at 58. When the hospital decided there was nothing more they could do, Abraham chose to go back to his community to spend his last moments. Family gathered in his home, along with the entire community who stopped working or schooling to join in the family's loss.
Many times during my service in the Philippines, I've noticed many similarities and differences compared to practices back home. After answering many questions from the people here, I've also realized there are very few universally American practices; being made up of a people from so many different corners of the world has created many different cultures within our borders. None was more apparent than the different way of the vigil process.
The people of Copcopit not only attend church together, but they also work together, help raise each other's children, cook together, and mourn together. Unity is regarded as essential in overcoming obstacles or seeing goals met. They believe in consensus through everything connected in the funeral proceedings: what food to prepare, what clothes to dress the deceased in, and participating in the coffin construction and witnessing the embalming process. A break in unity would allow seeds of evil to be planted and spread.
For four days we shared fellowship with the family inside the home and the others surrounding it. We held worship services each night in the kitchen and followed it with sharing an entire roasted pig, rice, and bottomless cups of coffee. As stories were shared by friends and family, laughter echoed late into the night, and the very next morning it started again.
Through the days, other members from around the Cordillera traveled to Copcopit to show solidarity with their fellow Christians and join in sharing memories. By Saturday morning, we held our remembrance service in the church and laid flowers over his pine box as members took one last look. We carried the coffin up the hill to the cemetery where we sang hymns as mortar was laid and bricks were stacked sealing Abraham's tomb.
Back to his family's home we went where an AP system was set up and a bucket full of money was poured out onto the kitchen floor. Throughout the week, people gave generously their earnings from their labor to the family. This is done with every family who suffers the loss of a loved one to lighten and share their burden for the costs of the four-day feasts, hospital bills, remaining debts, and a small amount for the family. Any amount remaining is given to an organization that helps this and surrounding communities during hardships. All in all, there was almost $3,000 raised with about half left over.
This collection of believers practiced what Jesus was offering in Matthew 11:28-30. As the community shares the same yoke they share the same burden, but these burdens are handled better. Let us remember that when faced with seemingly impossible odds or dealing with loss, not only do we have a community of faith to lean on, but we should seek and join in the effort to help others by joining in their yoke.
In Christ with blessings,
Matthew Fehse serves with the United Church of Christ in the Philippines. He works with the human rights desk of the United Church of Christ.