True Stories From my Journey of Faith and Mission
1) I had been driving eighteen hours running from a “future” that had gone horribly wrong. I was confused, humiliated and broke. But most of all I was tired. I had averaged about 85 MPH from Simi Valley California and I was now in Utah. It was night time and I was impatient to reduce the 2400 miles to home. Fatigue, stress and desperation do things to your judgement. I was on a two lane mountain highway heading east. To my right was a 2,000 foot drop off with no shoulder. To my left was an open lane and then a sheer mountain. In front of me was a car I felt was going to slow. On a blind turn in the mountains with no passing lane I floored my 73 SS Chevelle. As soon as I was half way past the car on my right and half way past the blind turn on my left, two large headlights appeared directly in front of me. I clenched the wheel and closed my eyes...no impact. Seconds later, bewildered, I opened my eyes and I was miles down the road. And, against all the laws of physics I was alive.
Something had just happened that I couldn’t explain. I had gone to church as a boy but hadn’t been serious about religion since eighth grade. I had enough understanding of the way things worked to understand that I should have been dead and I should have just begun my eternity in hell. For most of the next thirty hours on the road I prayed and made promises to God.
I vividly remembered the words of the sinners prayer and over the next few months I estimate I prayed the prayer about 700 times. Yet peace was elusive. Finally I came to the place where I probably prayed the first honest prayer in my life. It went something like this, “God, I’ll admit it. I really don’t want your will for my life (I intuitively understood that salvation had to do with giving my life completely to God). But please, help me to want to want you will”. I guess that was my moment of surrender because everything changed in an instant. I knew I was saved and for some incomprehensible reason I knew God wanted to use me in full-time service.
Fast forward a year. Not sure where I was meant to serve, I simply felt it should be in a hard place where people weren’t hearing the gospel because other missionaries were hesitant to go. I had been rejected by four mission agencies and was about to give up on my dream of serving God in missions. Then, out of the blue a friend invited me to a Keith Green memorial concert. I had never heard of this singer but all my new Christian friends told me he was great and were deeply grieved that he had died in an airplane crash two years previous. The concert was like nothing I had ever experienced. They didn’t have to sell me on the need for more missionaries but I was overwhelmed that there were organizations right there who were willing to accept me even without formal seminary or bible school education. I took every pamphlet they had and devoured them over the next two days. It didn’t take long for me to apply to Last Day’s Ministries, Intensive Christian Training course. It was a ten week program in Texas and I worked and saved as much as I could to pay the tuition. There I met missionaries who challenged me to get involved in “frontier” missions (basically, going to the least reached areas of the world). Ten months later I was on my way to a School of Evangelism conducted by Youth With a Mission (YWAM) in Chiba, Japan.
2) What an amazingly diverse country. And the food! Indescribable. Malyasia is home to some of the most extremely hospitable people on earth but beneath the surface of many of the smiles lurked intolerance and anger. In this majority Muslim country it was illegal to proselytize...and that was the very reason I had come. Our team of five (ironically me and four women) foundered for the first couple months. It seemed hard for the leader to break out of the entrenched traditions from living on a mission base so long and conducting short term evangelistic outreaches to long-term sustainable church planting in a hostile environment. Two months into my frustration our Regional Director paid us a visit. He had a keen eye for pioneers and he saw that I was being held back. Unexpectedly he told me on the spot to start my own team and released me from the original team. At first I felt extremely honoured that he thought so highly of my abilities. Then I put it together and figured out that I was alone now. The road ahead would be harder than I thought.
3) My Malaysian partner had been sharing with a Malay Muslim family for seventeen years. I had been in the country for less than two working on my language and building redemptive relationships wherever I could. I was able to interact with this family of five a couple times and after nearly two decades they were willing to be baptized. The problem is that it was illegal for Muslims to be baptized in this country and if caught baptizing them I would spend some time in jail before being deported.
We piled into the van around 3:00 AM and took a drive to an isolated beach. After some last minute exhortations and prayer we waded into the dark water. The moon was out so we could see each other’s faces. Flashlights would only bring unwanted attention. After each family member rose from the water phosphorescent plankton cascaded off their bodies from the head down and looked like hundreds of yellow-green moving Christmas lights flowing down back into the sea. It was too beautiful to describe. By the time I had finished baptizing the last one, the glow of dawn started to show on the east and the Muezzin’s call to pray echoed out from a nearby mosque. It seemed symbolic, that these five new believers were had just renounced Islam and embraced Christ just as the Muslim ritual of morning prayer reminded them what they had left behind. We shuffled our wet bodies back into the van and were back on our way back to town before anyone had known we were there.
God Can Even Use Pigeons
4) While still working on the East coast of Malaysia my malyasian outreach partner stumbled across a very disturbing situation. He had stopped to talk with some Jakun aborigines who were selling birds alongside a rural highway. They were hunter-gathers who lived off the land and had no other form of livelihood. The Muslim government technically owned their land and had cut down huge tracts of jungle to plant oil palm trees. Without a forest there was no game and the Jakun were subsisting on a malnourished diet that almost entirely consisted of cassava. Their whole world was changing to the tune of myriad chainsaws in their traditional domain. The Muslim government was offering them a housing settlement and a generous cash stipend if they would convert to Islam. Those who refused to convert were left to fend for themselves. The pressure was building and more and more Jakun were accepting Islam.
We discussed the situation and came to this conclusion: There we were, trying to be ministers of redemption in a culture that had been entrenched in Islam for 600 years. How could we stand idly by and watch an entirely different culture be absorbed by Islam and enslaved by the same hardened deception? We decided to reach out to them but were dismayed by our first few forays into their jungle villages. They were used to exploitation from outsiders and wouldn’t even make eye contact with us. They wouldn’t speak with us. On several occasions they gestured toward the spears and blowguns stored on the inside of their thatched roof. It was an uncomfortable time.
We really didn’t know how to convince them that our intentions were for their good until one day my partner got a bright idea. He remembered the jungle parakeets and parrots they sold on the side of the highway. He was an avid pigeon collector and had around 60 pairs in his back yard. One bird he didn’t have was a rare jungle pigeon called burong pergam. He went back to meet the tribals on the side of the highway and negotiated a price for a pair of these rare pigeons. They happily agreed. The catch was that they were very rare and my partner knw it would take months for them to find and trap them. But this was inconsequential because now we had a legitimate reason to visit them.
Every week we would visit their village to ask if they had our birds yet. Naturally, they didn’t but we stayed to talk anyway. Now they were happy to talk with us. We and a reason to visit that was acceptable to them. They got over their fear of being exploited again because or reason for being with them represented a benefit to them. We became friends and within two months discoverd a redemptive analogy in one of their legends. It came up after I had told them the story of creation and the fall of man. They told us that a long time ago their ancestors had been close to God but they did something bad and had to leave. It had been such a long time that the jungle vegetation had grown over the path and they no longer know how to get back to God. They had been waiting for someone to show them.
With a trembling heart at what was happening I shared with them the story how God had sent his son to bring us back to him. In a few weeks the entire village had decided to believe in Christ. The resident witch doctor was the first to decide. The water in the jungle was black and unfit for drinking or baptizing. It was about a mile and a half to the sea. So as the movement grew we made many tracks through the jungle swamps, sweeping our flashlights looking for the reflection of crocodile eyes on our way to the ocean to baptize new believers.
After baptizing two entire villages, the hunter-gatherers started telling others from their tribe about the gospel as they visited villages deeper into the jungle. In time a movement began which was beyond our control as it multiplied further than we were able to follow. One village built a church from lumber they had hewn from the jungle and people regularly took a four hour canoe ride to attend Sunday worship. But by this time there were no foreign missionaries to conduct the services any longer. They were doing it themselves.
5) The year before I had begun working among the jakun the Islamic Religious Department had recorded 490 official jakun conversions to Islam. During my first year with them, they were only able to record 19. They knew something was wrong and eventually they heard about a Mat Saleh (white person) who was visiting Jakun Villages with his Malaysian Indian friend. We took precautions but one day as I was conduction my regular pastoral visit in a village some informants for the special branch (secret police) entered the village while I was still there. The houses were loosely constructed of bamboo, bark and thatch. They were usually no more than 12 feet by 12 feet in size. Occasionally there was a thin partition made of mat with a curtain for a door. I was in one of these huts when the informants approached. The Jakun believers quickly ushered me into this bedroom the size of a small closet. I was sitting with my back to the thin wall listening to the interrogation on the other side only three feet away. The questions about me went on for about twenty minutes but I had been praying and they never thought to poke their head inside the curtain. After they left with some threats. We waited for awhile before I came out. I prayed with them and encouraged them. I would be back many more times.
Bible Smuggling part one
6) I happened to have a Canadian friend who owned a trimaran in Singapore. During one of our visits I mentioned to him the need for copies of the banned Malay New Testament. I had smuggled in small numbers personally but we needed lots more. I could buy them from the Singapore bible society but I needed a boat to get them into Malaysia. It didn’t take long for us to hatch a plan. He would bring them into a port on the West side near the capital city but would meet me at a small outlying island named Pulau Ketam, crab island. I wish he would have given me better directions because it took me three days of searching to find the island. The day I had finally found the island, my friend arrived with nearly 1,000 banned New Testaments. There had been a storm on the way up and the packaging on many of the ten book parcels had torn open to expose the bright pink title of our contraband. Perjanjian baru, New Testament.
The next day we headed to the mainland. I had to hire stevedores to help me unload the two pallets. Of heavy books. Some were Muslim but no one questioned us. Then I steered them around the far side of the port so we could circumvent a customs inspection. Still no questions. So there I was, at the entry of the port. I was the only white guy there and I was trying to act nonchalantly standing next to two full pallets of illegal books. My friend who supposed to pick me up with a van didn’t show. This was before cell phones so there was no way I could contact him so I prayed...a lot. Then two Muslim police officers started coming my way with M-16’s. It was clear as day what I had brought in because the packing paper was torn open for all to see. As they approached I prayed, “Lord, when you were on earth you made blind eyes see, I pray that now you make these seeing eyes blind”. They asked me what I was doing and I did my best impression of an obtuse tourist practicing his Malay language on them. They asked what was on the pallets and I replied, “books”. The suspiciousness of a tourist with two pallets of books at a non tourist commercial port failed to impress itself upon the police officers. Eventually, they seemed to get bored with our conversation and wandered off. God had definitely answered my prayer. Shortly afterward my friend arrived with the van. He was late because the pastor he had to borrow the van from had slept in.
Bible Smuggling part two
7) The second time we decided to smuggle banned Malay New Testaments into Malaysia, we decided to try the other coastline and avoid ports altogether. There was an idyllic rural beach north of where I had been staying. The plan was that I was to wait there until the boat arrived at night and signal him in with a flashlight. On the second night he arrived. I had positioned myself next to a Muslim grave yard so that the superstitious people wouldn’t be around at night time. The New Testaments were brought in after about four trips from the dingy. Then the hard part began. My partner showed up around 2:00 AM and we loaded the books into his trunk. There were three police check points on the way but none of them questioned us. It was dawn by the time we finished unloading the New Testaments at his house. One more thing was left. We had to make the 45 minute drive back up to the beach so I could slip back into my cottage without the notice of the owners. I checked out the next day, said good bye to one of the most beautiful beaches I had ever seen and left without anyone being the wiser to my true purpose.
God Still Speaks To Us
8) Like most new zealous missionaries, I looked for the key that would facilitate conversions in the hard field of Islam. I studied Islam, apologetics, I read the Koran, much of the Hadith and even studied Arabic. It got to the point where I knew more about Islam than most of the Muslims I talked with. In a way this made me a bit of a boor because I had answers to all of their questions and my answers always showed that my way was right and their way was wrong. I used to go to rural villages where I could arrange a place to stay with a Malay family. In my knapsack I brought my Malay and English Bibles and my Malay and English Korans. I only had extra space for a tooth brush so I didn’t take a change of clothes. I would go to houses, get to know the people who were willing to take in a traveller and discuss religion with them. Eventually, when they felt uncomfortable enough they would call someone from the village who was more knowledgeable than them and we would continue our discussions into the night. I never lost a debate but after months of these long dusty trips I wondered if I was doing things in the right way. I was a pragmatic thinker. To me if someone had shown me irrefutably that my was wrong I would consider alternatives. But following Islam has more to do with cultural identity sometimes than it does with right and wrong. One day after a particularly gruelling day, I returned to my rented room in Kuantan, and knelt for prayer before I collapsed into sleep. For some reason, in my desperation I remember asking God to show me the key to reaching these people and if possible in a dream. Maybe I prayed that way because I was too tired to do any more research. But God did answer my prayer. That night I had a dream in which I was with an elderly Muslim man. Throughout the dream we did normal mundane things but no words were spoken. The miracle of the dream was that I felt a penetrating, reciprocal, unimpeded love without any of our ego’s defence mechanisms. It was like a warm flow of liquid love flowing directly into my heart. When I awoke in the morning the answer to my question was clear. The key to reaching these people was not debate or superior knowledge...it was love. My approach to ministry changed after that and after many years of fruitfulness on the mission field I would never go back to the old way again.
My Ephesian Farewell
9) I had spent thirteen months intensively discipling the new aboriginal church. In fact during that time I had spent nearly half of my time in the jungle with them. When the time came for me to leave I reminded them of important things like Peter did in his second epistle. I encouraged them to stay true to their faith despite persecution like Paul did in 1 Thessalonians, but I felt like I was saying good bye to the Ephesian elders like Paul did in Acts. These people were so commited. One woman was even willing to extract her gold filling because she thought that for some reason Christians weren’t allowed to have gold teeth. Fortunately I intervened in time. Over the past year, a witch doctor had been delivered from an evil spirit that controlled him at times. We saw forgiveness and reconciliation. And we saw growth. But now my visa would no longer let me stay in the country and I had to leave for an extended time. After prayer and worship we took the jungle path back to the highway where we had camouflaged my partners car under tree branches. It had rained the night before so the narrow, one foot wide path was flooded and I was wearing flip flops. Walking through the tall grass I felt something bite my right foot and reflexively I kicked my foot up. A four foot snake tumbled in the air head over tail just above my shoulder. This was it I thought. Bitten by a snake at 24 I would die in the jungle and my family would never know. I had spent more than a year teaching this group about our eternal destiny, I couldn’t betray that teaching by panicking. I said a short silent prayer, took a deep breath, then sat down. A few minutes later my partner came back. He had destroyed his umbrella beating the snake to death and the carcass was dangling on the tip of what was left of it. After close inspection, the tribesman broke into smiles. It wasn’t poisonous. I was glad for that despite the four bleeding holes in the top of my foot. I never saw them again but their faith was true and I know that on that final day I will meet them again.
A Going Away Gift
10) Eventually, it got the point where after nearly four years the Malaysian government would only allow me in the country one week at a time. There was no way I could run my kind of ministry by commuting in from Singapore or Thailand each week. I didn’t have the money to travel that much anyway. I began to wrap things up and ordered my plane ticket from a discount Missionary travel agency in Amsterdam. There was no internet back then. I was conducting bible studies but my strategic missions was pretty much wrapped up. I had planted a church among a completely unreached people group that had never heard the name of Jesus before. That first church multiplied into more churches than I could count. I felt like I had accomplished a lot and I was only 25. My former Malaysian partner kept telling me about this woman he thought would be right for me and told me that she worked as a nanny in the Muslim palace of the Sultan of Pahang. She had almost been deported twice for evangelizing. “sure, sure” I told him but I was only going to be in the area for a few more months. I didn’t really think about it.
In February 1989 a missionary friend who had led the team I had first come to Malaysia with and was Malaysian herself was getting married to an American missionary I knew. My friend and his family needed a place to stay in Kuala Lumpur so I let them stay at my place. When I went out to the street to greet them, they had someone else with them, a very pretty someone else.
I had buried myself in my work for the past four years and hadn’t been on a date since before I arrived on the mission field. I wasn’t thinking about romance just as I was tying up loose ends on the other side of the world. But my partner would have none of that. Him and his wife were determined to overcome my natural shyness around girls and even went so far as to body check me so I ended up sitting next to their pretty guest named Evelyn. It was a set up from the beginning but I didn’t mind. She was shyer than me but we got along well. Then came the wedding. It was hilarious to watch my friends try to make conversation with her as she sent them crashing and burning and walking away defeated. The only one she would talk to was me. It was a nice feeling watching envious eyes glare at me when I was with her. Our relationship developed quickly. She had to go back to work on the other side of the country so we only had letters and occasional phone calls when she was allowed to use the phone in the palace. A week before I was to leave and after much prayer I had decided to propose. The problem was that Evelyn was supposed to accompany her employers to Brunei the last week I would be in the country. Miraculously, at the last minute, The princess gave Evelyn a week off and she was able to stay in Malaysia. The rest is history. I proposed. She accepted. I went back to the states to work to pay for the wedding. We got married later that year in Manila and she has been with me ever since. Through the wars, the kidnap threats, the loneliness, the firefights, the sicknesses, me delivering our second child under the stairs of our small rented house in provincial Mindanao. Raising our four children first in the war zone, then in the city, then in the southern US, then back in the Philippines again. I could have done none of this without her.
11) After Evelyn and I got married we were prepared to live a committed Christian life in the states. After all, I had just experienced a church planting movement before the age of 25. I was in the top 1% of missionary success. For some strange reason I thought that I had finished my work for God and was to move on to other things at the ripe old age of 26. I had become a good carpenter and started my own small construction company. But I couldn’t shake the oppressive feeling that I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing. Over a period of a couple months we encountered thirteen specific and unusual signs that pointed us to Mindanao. On our Honeymoon, I met a missionary that worked with a tribe indigineous to Mindanao. During our anniversary we stayed at a nice hotel but every channel on the TV was offline except the one that had a special on Mindanao. In the house we lived in someone had rearranged the books so that a book on Mindanao was prominently displayed in the front. One time when walking into a Christian bookstore the first display had a book being promoted on Mindanao. It went on and on until we decided that God might be trying to say something.
We tracked down the writer of one of the books on Mindanao who lived in Chicago. We drove the seven hours there in our little fiesta with our newborn baby in the back and managed to get a few names and addresses in Mindanao whom we could contact. We knew no one and couldn’t afford the high support levels that the larger mission organizations required. After months we finally had exchanged a couple letters and had made arrangements for a total stranger to pick us up at the airport in a city across the world where we knew no one.
Against all odds the person showed up but was unprepared for the nine large boxes of medical supplies we had brought with us. Basically after settling into what we found out was a Catholic rest house we discovered that no one really knew what to do with us. We were prepared to get our hands dirty right away but the system there seemed to be to have lots of meetings and conceptualization activities. We were starting to feel uncomfortable then one night after dinner we walked into an NPA recruitement meeting (NPA, new people’s army, the military arm of the Philippine Communist Party). After that we were pretty sure we were in the wrong place so we started packing that night. They had arranged to send us to a place in another city where everyone thought I was CIA and got interrogated. They didn’t know what to do with us either so they sent us with someone to a rural town an hour and a half away. We found a small room to rent and started doing medical and dental clinics right away.
We had arrived with the conviction that the place God wanted us to work had to have four qualities:
1) It was in Mindanao
2) It was in a rural area
3) It was poor
4) It had a mixture of Muslim and Christian population
We figured that there might be thousands of villages that met those requirements so we decided to trust in the sovereignty of God and continue to work in the Muslim/Illongo village we had been busy in for the past three weeks. We still didn’t know any Christians on the island but our coming was not a mistake.
Additions to the family...the Mindanao Way
12) After about a year into our ministry we were scheduled for our second “blessed event”. The problem was that we were faced with several challenges. First, we knew the doctors in the area and had serious doubts about their qualifications. One of them didn’t know what CPR was. Another had pushed so hard on the abdomen of a woman in labor that she killed the child. We were living on about $600 a month at that time and really didn’t have the money to go to a big city hospital. Also, as medical missionaries we felt it would set a bad example if we encouraged local women to have my wife help them deliver their babies in their house but we chose to leave town for the relative safety of a hospital. Stangely, very strangely actually, it didn’t take long to decide that I was the one who should deliver the baby.
I studied the techniques, made sure I had all the necessary supplies and we prepared. At the time we were renting a small house where the only place cool enough to sleep was on the first floor under the stair case. Our bedroom was there and we had a curtain for privacy. The rats regularly ate the seeds out of our kapok filled pillows as we slept. When Evelyn went into labor, I didn’t feel too intimidated. But as things went on it became clear that she didn’t have the strength to deliver our child lying down. She was fully dialilated but the babie’s head was too big to push through. A neighbour came over to help support her as she squatted so we could use the additional assistance of gravity. Eventually, Julia popped out and was a lot more slippery than I imagined. I nearly dropped her. The baby was healthy but it took an intolerably long time to deliver the placenta...and when it was delivered, I was not prepared for the amount of blood. This was my first time that I had done it myself so I didn’t really have anything to compare it to. I gave Evelyn a shot of pictocin and the bleeding slowed. I clamped and cut the umbilical cord and soon Julia was happily nursing at her mother’s breast. All was well...except with me.
Evelyn fell into a sound sleep but I was such a nervous wreck I checked her pulse every fifteen minutes for the rest of the night. I knew she had a perineal tear but I was too emotionally spent to even think of that at the moment. I didn’t sleep that night and probably lost two years off my lifespan due to the stress of the event. By the time the sun had risen I had gathered the courage to “sew my wife back up”. To this day I am still amazed at the faith she had in me. I used absorbable sutures so she wouldn’t need to go through any unnecessary uncomfort removing them. When it was all done everyone was well but I swore that the next time I would go to a professional and pay them to do it.
13) Life continued and the second bundle of joy came about two years later. By this time we had found a doctor we could trust in an adjacent town. She had even taken my missionary training course. She worked out of the provincial hospital which sounded respectable enough. But there were things I didn’t know. She was a good doctor with lots of experience delivering babies. She agreed to deliver our next baby for free but we would have to pay the hospital and the anaesthesiologist because this next one would need to be delivered by caesarean section. In the rural Philippines the doctor gives you a list of everything you will need for the surgery and it is your responsibility to find all those items before the surgery. I was able to save some money because I had some medical supplies on hand. Never mind that the sutures for Evelyn’s abdomen were dental sutures, they kept the bill down and we were extremely tight for cash. I wasn’t allowed in the operating room but there was a small waiting area outside. The hospital was horrendously dirty. The windows of the operating rooms were black with dust and one looked like it had been broken. Clothes lines were strung haphazardly throughout the unkempt compound. Family members camped in the rooms of the patients because the nurses weren’t required to serve food and clean patients. We had to bring our own sheets, pillows and electric fan because they provided none of those amenities.
Finally the moment arrived. The nurse came out and handed me our beautiful third daughter, Connie. I was only allowed to hold and admire her for about two minutes before she was taken away from me. About a minute later the same nurse came out and handed me a stainless steel basin with all the “discardables” of the surgery. The organic parts were included. She told me matter of factly, to bury it. I was somewhat taken back but I was always willing to help so I asked, “where?”. Her answer was, “anywhere”. “Can I bury it over there?” I asked? She just shrugged her shoulders and started to walk away. “I need a shovel” I called out after her. After about ten minutes I had a shovel and a large basin of really gross stuff and headed off to a corner of the hospital to bury it all. I was still shaking my head as I finished. It all seemed so surreal, so silly. I didn’t know then that there was a provincial belief that a twin spirit was believed to live in the placenta and to avoid problems with the spirit world people normally choose to bury the placenta under their house.
Having fulfilled that task I came back to our “private” room to find a dozen people staring at the American baby. It was hard to kick them out and they seemed to think I was rude but my wife needed her rest and we weren’t a circus side show. It was about that time that I noticed that my wife’s urinary catheter was draining into a roughly cut plastic IV bottle and was leaking all over the floor. I took out my Swiss knife and made some minor repairs and it was as good as new. Now without urine on the floor and with only periodic mobs coming in to gawk at the foreign baby we were able to get some rest. Against the doctor’s advice we left the next day for home.
14) I often conducted medical and dental clinics while my wife provided prenatal care for the young women. Eventually it became clear that the more pressing needs were dental because most of the medical patients had only minor ailments. I would anesthetize three patients at a time in whatever house we were able to use that day. Then I would go back and begin the extractions of the unsavable teeth. I was eventually able to extract 21 teeth in one hour and forty-five minutes. This didn’t give me lots of time to socialize with the patients because there were often 50-100 people lined up to be treated. We sterilized our instruments in pressure cooker over an open flame. During one of these clinics I heard a gigantic “whoosh”. No explosion. I asked one of the old ladies in the waiting room what the sound was. She smiled and calmly smiled and replied, “bazooka”. Apparently somebody was trying out his new toy. I Some of my patients were More Islamic Liberation Front regulars. It wasn’t uncommon for them to have been in fire fights with Philippine military personnel the night before. But they were usually terrified by the needles in my dental syringes. I even had some of them faint in the chair.
Sometimes we were so busy with the crowds that we lost track of our children. Naturally a cute white baby girl was a sensation and everyone wanted to hold her. She would be passed from one admirer to another on a regular basis. We were used to this. One day at lunch break we looked for our one year old daughter and couldn’t find her. Kidnap for ransom was a rampant industry in our area but we had confidence in our community relationships. Nonetheless we began to get concerned. After a about 20 minutes of searching we found her nursing at the breast of a friend of ours who lived in the village. She had noticed how busy we were and saw that our little Bethany was hungry so she naturally fed her. In western culture this would be inappropriate but in rural Mindanao is was a courtesy. We got a good laugh out of it.
One time A German missionary wanted to accompany me on a mobile dental clinic to a Muslim Village. Many of my patients were old ladies who chain smoked, chewed beetle nut all their lives and were anemic. The result was almost always black teeth, horrible breath, serious gum disease and lots of blood. My German friend was assigned to hold the mag light I used to see what I was doing. After several times of reminding him to keep the light on the tips of my instruments I noticed it kept going down to the chin and eventually to the chest. I looked up with some agitation and saw that he was white as a sheet and had broken into a sweat. He was close to fainting. I asked him to go sit down in the shade and had my four year old daughter take the light and continue for him. She did a great job and helped me finish the clinic without a hitch. Maybe it isn’t coincidental that when she grew up she decided to be a dentist.
15) While we were still establishing ourselves in the community we weren’t sure where to settle down. In the meantime we rented a cheap house in the Poblacion, or town center. Our water supply was a pitcher pump that we needed to prime every time we used it. We were so busy that I never bothered to ask what the depth of the well was because it was only six feet from the septic tank. One day our sanitation problems became disgustingly obvious. As I held up a glass of water to drink I noticed dozens of small, white, undulating figures. When I looked closer I realized that they were worms, whip worms to be precise. Now whip worms aren’t particularly harmful but they are disgusting to drink. I wonder how many I had digested before I had discovered them.
We had the well drillers over the next day and because our lot was so small we weren’t able to change the location of the well. We went as deep as we could but I knew it would only be a matter of time before the same problem came up again. It was about that time that we began to look for an affordable piece of land to build on so that we could have a little more space and a little more proper sanitation.
16) It didn’t take long before the ministry outgrew the capabilities of my wife and me. We were simply overwhelmed with the response of the communities we served and knew we were in way over our heads. We need help, but how? We took a couple months to pray and seek God’s will. The big challenge was finding a way to align my spiritual gifts of teaching and leadership with God’s calling to plant churches among this unreached people group. Eventually we came up with the plan to build a large house that could serve as a base and start a missionary training school for Filipinos. We worked hard on and off as finances were available and eventually in 1994 we finished our building. The biggest problem is that we only had enough money to buy land in a rural area about ¾ of a mile from our nearest neighbour. Because of our location nearly every two weeks sometime after ten we were awakened by gun fire.
Unbeknownst to us we had built along the path of a popular escape route for cattle rustlers. People shooting at each other with automatic weapons in our back yard was a problem we needed to address. One bullet came through our roof. We saved up enough money to buy about 1,000 meters of barbed wire and put up a fence along the side that the rustlers used to enter our property. Almost instantly our problem was solved. We still had shootings near us. Within a mile several people at different times were shot and killed. There was a full on ambush against a caravan at the entrance to our village. We even had someone unload a clip on full automatic outside of our gate. I quickly turned out the lights and lay on the ground. We had a nineteen year old volunteer with us at the time who had just started a watching a video before the shooting started. After about five minutes it became obvious that they were just trying to scare us. We turned the lights back on and started the movie. Ironically it was titled, Under Siege.
17) Naturally, living in an area that has been red-flagged by the US State department for decades it was inevitable that we would encounter situations that threatened our lives. The first kidnap threat against me was in 1993. I used to drive up to a Muslim village in the mountains every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to conduct medical and dental clinics and to teach English using the Sermon on the Mount as our text. In our area there were no cell phones and no cell coverage so people used two way radios. The police intercepted a plot to kidnap me but didn’t have any details. I wasn’t going to hide because of a threat but later that week things got more real. The governor of the province came to our house with six combat armed body guards. The conversation was surreal as we served them coffee and cookies while discussing matters of life and death. His advice to me was to buy a shotgun. “but it is illegal for foreigners to own firearms in the Philippines”, I protested. He nonchalantly waved off my hesitance and continued. “If someone comes into your compound at night...shoot him. If he is not dead...shoot him again. Then call me. Don’t call the police. I will take care of the body.” Surprising advice from the highest government official in the province.
The next scheduled clinic I packed my medical supplies and headed up to the mountain village. When I got to the river I saw that an overloaded dump truck had collapsed the bridge and the water was too high to drive across. I could do nothing but turn around and go home. Later I learned that 20 armed gunmen were waiting for me in the village to kidnap me. I was grateful for the overloaded dump truck.
The second kidnap threat came in 2000. By this time we had baptized and begun discipling some Muslim background believers. We got news from one of these believers that a group in a village about a mile and a half from us were planning to kidnap me for ransom. This time was a little different. My friend the governor was no longer in office but I had a shotgun. I knew that a lot of the villagers from the place where the kidnap group stayed worked as day labourers during planting and harvest time around our house. I waited until 10:30AM to make sure a lot of them would be there then I took out my shotgun. I set up some cinder blocks and loaded some deer slugs and took some target practice about 60 yards from where most of them were working. After a few shots I put the shotgun away and went on with my day. Apparently, knowing that I was not as easy a target as they had thought they abandoned the idea of raiding our compound and kidnapping me. God moves in many different ways.
More Divine Protection
18) It’s difficult to describe how isolated we were. The place we lived in was technologically about 100 years behind the developed world. Homemade kerosene lamps made from sardine cans served their lighting needs and they still plowed their fields with water buffalo. Poverty gives a great temptation for theft and there were a number of burglary gangs in the area. One day while in the outdoor market my wife was approached by a woman who asked her about our “radar”. She related that several times one of the burglary gangs had approached our house at night with the intent to rob us but each time they approached they saw a white light circling our roof. They thought that the foreigner had some kind of high tech radar security system. We allowed them to continue believing this while we thanked God for the angels he provided to protect us.
We didn’t always have this peace though. It probably took me two years before I could sleep peacefully. We were so vulnerable in a dangerous place and were completely dependent upon God. Frequently I would see people with flashlights at night in the fields near our house. One time I even remember lying down on the terrace for a couple hours with a borrowed handgun watching these flashlights to make sure they didn’t try to enter and harm my family. Counting the cost is hard. But once you have counted it you don’t do it again. We were willing to give everything for God’s call; including our lives. But I didn’t subscribe to the theology of passive defensivelessness.
19) We had been through bombings, firefights, and lots of miscellaneous violence in our area of ministry. About every two years villages in our area were affected by fighting. But things never got as bad as they did in 2000. The Philippine president at that time had declared all out war on the Muslim rebel faction (Moro Islamic Liberation Front). This was an extended time of real warfare where we lived and worked. One early morning in a town where we had a school in a Muslim town an enormous amount of shooting started after 3AM. M-16’s, 50 calibers, 80mm mortars, 105 howitzers, etc. By 4:AM the shooting had gotten too close to our school and staff house so our people had to evacuate. As they ran panicked in the dark they ran into a contingent of Muslim rebels. A surprising event occurred then. They told our staff they were running the wrong direction...into the area where the two forces would converge and face each other. They guided our staff to an irrigation ditch that led to the town center in the opposite direction. They wished us peace and safety and then returned to the battle.
Meanwhile, the Philippine military had arrived at our small village and indiscriminately strafed and bombed it. Our school and staff house received 470 bullet holes. The military kicked in our front door and shot each computer monitor and ransacked our staff’s belongings. A couple days afterward I complained to the Battalion Commander and demanded compensation for the destruction of our school. I was made to feel very uncomfortable and felt it was wise to leave quickly. Until today you can still see some of the bullet holes.
This war went on for months. The rebel strong hold had been overrun by the Philippine military. The 2,000 rebels evacuated through the mountains south into our area. A military force of about the same strength met them in the mountains behind our house. The rebels took a small village hostage to use as human shields but the military conducted a non-stop bombardment of the village with a battery of six 105mm Howitzer canons. For nearly a week, night and day we could hear the explosions. Coincidentally, we were conducting our annual missionary training school at the time. The students were tense but the shooting was about three miles away and we felt fairly safe. One day after a morning of teaching I left the lecture hall and tried to find our children to call them for lunch. I looked for quite awhile but couldn’t find them. Then I heard laughter and clapping coming from above. The kids had climbed a tree and were watching the rockets being launched from the helicopters. It was like fireworks for them. They had no concept of what was happening so they thought it was entertainment.
For those months military helicopters daily flew low over our small farm. Our children would wave to them and the soldiers would wave back. Before my daughters were ten years old they could tell the difference in the sounds of a 50 caliber and an M-16. It was amusing to listen to them seriously debate about which weapon had been fired.
20) This war of 2000 affected nearly the whole island of Mindanao. In a Muslim area about an hour’s drive from us 80,000 Muslims had been driven from their homes by the violence. These people’s homes were in an area strictly controlled by the Muslim rebels. In normal times we could never reach these people. I felt anurgency in my heart to respond quickly. We were the first on the scene and weren’t prepared for the chaos we encountered. We made some arrangements with the local vice mayor who happened to be the Sultan of the area. Our whole mission and even the kids spend many hours buying and packing relief bags for the refugees. Mostly we packed food but we also packed some a copy of the sermon on the mount in their language. God kept providing money and goods for the relief efforts. Soon four or five other missions and churches were working with us and the effort had grown in scale. It took months for the hostilities to die down and we were there the whole time.
It didn’t take long to realize that the refugee are didn’t have sufficient water supply for the number of people. We hired a well drilling team and put in four wells. The Sultan assigned a man to guide us where to put the wells. He had the saddest face I had ever seen. After we had put in a couple wells I asked someone about him. The previous night his infant son had died from complications of a water born disease. They had just buried him that morning. We were busy putting in clean water stations and our guide had lost his son because of infected water less than 24 hours before. The irony was impossible to shake off.
One of the Hardest Projects
21) After Typhoon Pablo (Bopha) swept the eastern coast of Mindanao there was massive devastation. Having lived through Hurricane Katrina (I swam out a bedroom window with my two youngest daughters on my back in 135 mph winds and tracked through fallen trees and down power lines to get to safety), I was still amazed that the scope of devastation. In some ways it was worse than Katrina. Some areas lost 200 feet of shoreline. Most houses were cheaply constructed from 2X2’s and thatch roofs. The storm was a Category 5 when it made landfall and reached nearly a hundred miles inland into the mountains.
There was no question about it. Even though this was far outside of our designated ministry area, in my heart I knew we had to do something. A donor surprisingly gave a large gift to the mission that helped me start the project that formed in my head. I knew that we could not build conventional houses on site. It would take too long and it was an area full of New Peoples Army (the military arm of the communist party who aren’t above kidnapping for ransom and random terrorism). So with the help of numerous volunteers from many groups and churches we prefabricated four houses at our home and stacked the panels in our back yard.
When the time came for us to deliver and assemble the houses, we needed two trucks. The wall panels were easy because we could stack them flat. But the floor panels were 12’X12’. That was too wide a load for Philippine roads so we had to stack them upright and brace them heavily. What we didn’t anticipate was all the low hanging power lines. In the first 30 minutes we took out a street light, a telephone line and a cable line. Finally we got a guy from the other truck to sit on top of our cab with a wooden stick and push the low cables up and over the load. This made a four hour journey into a twenty-one hour journey. We hit a series of uninsulated power lines on a blind curve around a mountain and poured sparks on our second truck which was behind us. After about 20 minutes we were able to get untangled without getting electrocuted.
By the time we met our guide at the rendezvous point we were already about six hours late and it was raining. We had the guy on top of the cab come in so he wouldn’t get soaked. We felt we were home free. Only forty kilometers to go up rough mountain roads. The driver seemed to relax, picked up speed and instantly we were thrown against the dashboard. We had hit three uninsulated 8,000 volt power lines. A witness said the poles bent 45 degrees before they snapped back from the impact. Our companions in the other truck were waving frantically to us but we couldn’t understand them. I opened the door to get out of the truck and stepped on the hub of the wheel. When my bare ankle made contact with the hub, whatever voltage had electrified the cabin hit me like locomotive. I fell off the truck while still in spasms and fell four feet to the pavement on my face. Compared to the jolt of electricity the moment before, my face plant didn’t even hurt. Instantly, I realized I was in a puddle of water so I ran as fast as I could to dryer ground.
Then we saw that two lines were caught on the front and one on the back so we were trapped. Eventually the wet panels conducted enough electricity to create a short so all three lines began sparking and heating up until they were like plasma cutters cutting through all our hard work and sacrifice. There was nothing we could do until the power company shut off the current. We pleaded with locals to call the power company but by this time about 300 people had come out to view the event and were taking pictures. We were watching all our work go up in flames and feared the whole truck would be destroyed. We were helpless. When the fire department showed up they didn’t have any dry chemical extinguishers so they had to wait too. Finally the power was cut and we were able to untangle ourselves and move on. Shaken but not deterred. It took us another twelve hours to finally get the load up the mountain.
The assembly went better than expected. After the previous day’s experience what else could go wrong? We were in a tribal Mandaya village located exactly between a Philippine military camp and their sworn enemies, and NPA camp. The previous night we had slept on the floor of an NPA members house. We got chased by a swarm of hornets that came up out of the valley, but that was the only real hardship we had except working till almost fall down exhaustion. In the end, we got the houses up and were able to return to Davao the next day. It was standing room only on the bus we took back. The trucks had already left. The trip wasn’t nearly as long as it was coming up but I was still spent after arriving back to our rented house in Davao. I slept for a long time when I got home.