Heretofore, I have written to you telling you what we have been doing here. But can I now share with you some of the things we are experiencing, what we are seeing and how it is affecting our personal selves? What is it really like to be a short term missionary in this culture? Perhaps I can draw a picture with words, and even add a few actual photographs.
We are staying in a hotel located a couple of blocks from the very center of the city. Past our window (yes, we actually splurged a little to have a room with a real window for the two months here) moves much daily traffic. During the commuter hour there flow swarms of the orange motorcycle taxis, three abreast going both directions, interspaced with buses, mini-buses, two wheel motorcycles and a variety of trucks. Jeepneys rule in Manila but not so much here in Butuan. The intersections are a special challenge, especially if you are walking and crossing, which we do several times a day. Two of the main intersections actually have a traffic light and if you are clever and wait for the right minute you might get across without being harassed too much by turning traffic.
There are a variety of banks in our neighborhood. Our next door neighbor has four armed security guards, two guarding the front door with automatic pistol grip shotgun type weapons hung over their neck in front, accessible to their hand, as if always expecting a visit from Bonnie and Clyde, the bank robbers. In fact, my observations tell me that security is one of the best job careers for men, there being one or more at the doors of every pharmacy, hotel, variety store, school, restaurant, and such as McDonalds. One wonders if thievery is that much of a thriving business here. It’s really not a bad thing though, with all this security, we feel quite safe to walk about this neighborhood anytime, even a little after dark, which always arrives at 6:00 P.M. There are parts of town I wouldn’t do that (and that includes the home city in New York where our home fellowship meets). Speaking of comparisons, in Schenectady there are screaming fire engines going past it seems about once every hour. Here in Butuan I have yet to see or hear one, although I see 3 or 4 moving ambulances about once a week.
From driving about the city and the surrounding area there appears to be five or six small hospitals in the area, probably in competition and probably doctor owned or directed. Doctors start clinics which begin to grow into hospitals; these kind of hospitals have been forced out of existence in the US and replaced by the larger medical center type. One thing we do know is that you cannot be treated in these hospitals until you can pay cash up front. We know a man lying in his bed at home with a broken hip and they will not admit him until he can pay first; he is a preacher and bible distributor who now lies in much pain. The school building that we rent is a former hospital/clinic owned by a now semi-retired woman doctor and her family.
And that brings us to observations of the economy. The above school landlord also owns a modern gas station and probably also has other successful investments. So there is definitely this higher class of people here including lawyers, bankers, and business owners. We have become acquainted with the owners of a rather large and thriving hardware store where we have done some business for the school and ministry. And then there is the working class, the very “brown collar” workers who are barely making enough to sustain themselves with food and shelter. Minimum wage here is but a small fraction of what it is in the US. One security guard who works a 12 hour shift at the Hotel Karaga asked me if we couldn’t find employment for his wife; he said they are barely making it. Since the wages are so low, the businesses appear to hire many more employees than they actually need. The many hotel employees here have a lot of down time, something you don’t see in the US hotels. The department stores have a hired clerk stationed in every narrow aisle, and they follow you everywhere you go, apparently doing double duty as security clerks. One gets the impression that thievery is a serious business here. And yet we see signs on many store windows, offering to hire; interestingly most of the ads say that they want to hire only those in the early 20’s. So where can the older people work?
The local McDonalds is somewhat of an exception to the inefficient employee ratio. There are about 14-18 employees there, 5-6 cash registers operating and lines back to the door during meal times, and these employees are really running. But I don’t believe there is anyone here over 26, unless it would be the manager. They must be making money and even more interesting is that there are swarms of well groomed and well dressed teens and young adults who come in there and who have money; where are they getting it?
So for the most part there are the owner/professional class of people and the struggling, barely existing working class of people. I can’t find much of a middle class, if there is such a thing here. The best transportation that the working family can afford might be a motorcycle. We frequently see a family of as many as five or six riding a simple two wheel motorcycle. Most workers have nothing and this explains the success of the three wheel motorcycle taxis. And if there is any good business opportunity for the average worker, it is to own and work one of these. One or two of our elders has one of these and it helps add some income. And then there are the many street vendors, who sit patiently all day long at a table full of knock-off DVDs (and other wares) waiting to sell something; I have yet to witness them making a sale but the street fruit and vegetable vendors seem to be quite busy at times.
And then there are the desperately poor and homeless beggars. Some of them are crippled and deformed. We see one man every day “standing” on the street that has no legs and only one full arm, as if he was a thalidomide birth. Others are just plain lying (as if sleeping) on the sidewalk. (I must say that Ethiopia has far more of these desperate people than here in Butuan and Manila also seems to have more than here). But when I went looking for them after dark, they had all disappeared. They must have been taken to some kind of home. Family ties are quite strong here and they look out for one another. And we have been in some of the homes of the working people. Many many people live in tin roofed one or two room shacks, raising a family in this manner. Some small homes have concrete or block sides which may be more secure. And these houses do not usually have glass windows, only bars that permit the flow of fresh air as needed for ventilation. A very small percentage of people live in the kind of houses that we think of as the norm in the US.
And speaking of needing cool air. The weather outside on sunny days is a humid low to mid 90’s with a heat index in the 100’s (like today). When it rains, the temperature is much more tolerable, and until now it has rained quite often, sometimes with a torrential down pour. But they say that the rainy season has ended, summer is supposed to be here by now and we should be expecting warmer weather soon (I believe it’s rained every day that we are here so far). Our hotel room has glass windows and air conditioning. But the utility company is not entirely reliable (and this is true in most of the African and tropical places that we visit). At night we might awaken at 3 AM and find our bodies and bed sheets soaked in sweat, and praying for the restoration of power (or the fix of the A/C).
And speaking of our mortal bodies, it seems that the enemy can find so many weaknesses and possibilities to try to distract us or draw a little life and strength out of us. Back at home our life is pretty much a predictable routine. Our diet, our activities and our bodies have come into some kind of a peaceful agreement over the years. We know what we can drink and that we can always brush our teeth with running water at our sink. None of that is the case when we travel to these places. Our digestive (GI tract) system is particularly vulnerable and the uncomely members are able to make themselves, their needs and their problems clearly known. So I travel with a mini-pharmacy, trying to anticipate anything that the enemy might try to throw against us. And this is based on past experiences. That doesn’t mean that we don’t pray; we surely do a lot of that and we are surely aware of the prayers of the saints.
And where are the men? When we see the children in class, there are an equal number of boys to girls. But when it comes to the fellowships, there are almost no men. I can understand how these elders are going to have a difficult time finding a plurality in the local fellowships. But if we can encourage the elders to have an active fellowship one with the other, then perhaps they can have mutual submission amongst themselves. One man told us that the missing men are “out there” trying to make a living. One man told us that he drives bus 12 hours per day and I believe the security guards work 12 hour shifts. We also know some women whose husbands have gone to the mid east to work for wealthy Arabs and are not allowed to return for two years at a time. This is commonly done, separations of great distances, and it certainly cannot make for a very satisfying marriage or family life. So the choice for many is between a marriage of separation or abject poverty. As you can see by now, the economy of the Philippines is not exactly thriving.
Religion: Yes, I put it in bold letters. The statistics say that 80% of the population of this country is Roman Catholic. I suppose we can thank the several hundred years of Spanish domination that only ended in the late 1800’s for that. The departure of Spain did not mean the departure of Rome. This mother of harlots has the very largest and the best pieces of property in the area. Multitudes of colleges and schools have a “Saint Something” name or a “Father Somebody Academy”. Just outside of the city their institutions are located in acres of well kept grounds, surrounded by a well built fence or wall. In the city the churches take up a whole city block, even permanently closing a street so they can expand into the second block. And all of this whiles the masses of people live in corrugated metal roofed one room shacks with little or no plumbing and/or marginal sanitary systems. The newspapers had bold headlines every day proclaiming the progress of choosing a new pope (so did all of the international TV news channels). And what about “holy week”? It really became evident on “Holy” Thursday, and by “Good” Friday almost the whole city was shut down. Streets that we have to make a quick precarious dash to get across at just the right time became a virtual ghost town. By “Black” Saturday some of the businesses had opened for half a day. I must really be naive because I have never seen this kind of influence before nor even heard some of these terms. And so the City of Religion seems to fly quietly under the radar, at least insofar as our ministry is concerned, but she is a mighty sleeping giant and one day we are going to have to contend with the Mother. The other 20% must be a mix of Muslims, unbelievers, and a strange mix of “Christians”. I have come to believe that this is a paradise for those of cultic persuasion.
By “Easter” Sunday we are down to our last week here. Things for us are slowing down so I changed our ticket to leave a week early (April 9). This Sunday evening we are speaking at the home fellowship of Brother Augusto Torrelba, an elderly handicapped man whose hands and feet are very twisted and deformed, yet he has a very sweet spirit and a zeal for the Lord. It was Bro. Rudy that brought us here as this is a group in his sphere of influence; we are told the group is only 2 months old. The meeting is held in Libertad, the largest suburb of Butuan. There are nearly a dozen gathered here and to my surprise, mostly mature men, many of whom have at one time attended our Karaga Hotel conference meetings. One of the men, Bibi is very interested in affiliating with us and wants all of the written material we can get to him; he also ministers to the needs of Bro. Augusto. The message on the kingdom brings out many questions. I believe that Rudy has the means of opening many more new doors to us.
On our last Sunday morning (April 7) Bro Rudy takes us 16 km (20 minutes drive and past the airport) from here to his own home fellowship in Buena Vista. There is a gathering of about 20 souls, a family mix of all ages. He tells us that there are as many as 60 when they all come. His parents started this fellowship and after his father passed away he took over the oversight. The believers seemed very open to the message that we brought.
In summary, our seven weeks here have been very fruitful. We felt that our focus after the conference and after the schools close for their “summer” was to work on developing a functioning body of elders. We were able to spend some time with many of them personally. We also spent time ministering to some new ones who want to be a part of God’s “new house”. And we were able to have two general meetings in which elders and their wives were invited. About 9 or 10 men with some of the sisters were able to attend these meetings, in which we taught from the word and they learned to know each other better. We encourage them to continue with these meetings.
Again, we want to thank the brethren who have prayed for us without ceasing. Many times we were so aware that someone else was upholding us up in prayer, even when we may have been unable to do so. Our love, our gratitude and thanks to so many others who also sacrificed so that we could be here.
Mark and Rita Jantzi