So with all the darker aspects of this practicum mission — bar ministries, hard testimonies, community dynamics, poverty (more the lack of western understanding of poverty than the sight of it here, if you get what I'm saying), and shootings around the world — I thought I needed to report about what I think is going to be one the single greatest highlights of my trip here to the Philippines.
Reverend Joven T. Discartin, a local pastor in Olongapo City, hikes out to the Mampweng Tribe in the high hills outside the urban areas. There he serves a beautiful people who live simply, give generously, and love deeply. His Word of Hope Church sits beneath sprawling palm trees that keep it cool in the muggy hot weather, and stands beside a run-off stream from the larger river just down the way from the village. It is serene, idyllic, primitive, and wonderful.
After we eagerly accepted his invitation to come and worship with the tribes people, a YWAMer offered to lead the children's portion of the service and I accepted the offer to give the sermon to the adults. Leaving at 6am yesterday morning (Sunday, July 24), we took a jeepney to the edge of Olongapo where bamboo homes are common, and the lush greenery begins to get thicker. We set out on a tiny path through the forest, tall grasses, across rivers, and bridges. We were all sweating freely by 7am, so we were thankful to have left early! I couldn't have imagined doing the hike in the heat of the day.
Arriving by midmorning, I marvelled at the indescribable quality of tribal life before me. The church sat at the base of a steep hill where grass thatch and bamboo huts clung to the sides of the rocks in a vast upward slope. The children had heard us noisy missionaries coming and were waiting to greet us! Shy at first, we had them playing games and climbing trees in no time! The adults, just as shy and quiet as the children, sat back and watched in pride their offspring sharing their culture with the newcomers.
The sermon went all right, as sermons go (the big blotchy sweat stains all over my shirt made the impression all the more lovely… ha!). Yet it was what happened afterward that captured my heart. We were led down a footpath to a large, deep river. There were rapids upstream and rapids downstream, but in between were slower, deeper waters carving their way at the base of the cliff upon which the village was built.
Much to my surprise, there suddenly arose a snorting noise from the river's edge. Up from the waters arose a water buffalo! Domesticated by the tribe, she was tied there so she could cool down freely in the flowing water without wandering off, and nibble on the tought tufts of grass in and around the rocks. I never thought I would say this in my entire life but: I have now swam with a water buffalo!!!!
Some of us couldn't wait to dive in! We were so hot! I had worn my swimsuit beneath my clothes while hiking up to the tribe, so all I had to do was shuck off my sweaty t-shirt and capris, don my board shorts, and collide headfirst with beautiful, soothing, cool clean water!!!! It was HEAVENLY!!!
At first it was only our team out there paddling around. But then I saw a small naked body standing on a rock in the middle of the cliff! He grinned at me and then dove head first into the aqua coolness. Treading water, I stared at the cliff only to see more brown bodies, grinning faces, and sudden giant splashes all around me. It was freedom incarnate! Stripped down to nakedness, the Mampweng children were eager to share in our fun! They showed off by diving, jumping, back flipping and somersaulting into their favourite swimming hole.
Not wanting to miss out on any of the fun, I climbed the cliff as far as a my heavier adult body could go on slippery rock and loose dirt, and turned to jump. What I saw below was a scene of perfect delight and unihibited joy: those small, slippery brown bodies swimming beneath the clear aqua surface back towards the cliff to jump again. They were like sleek, beautiful fish massing in the depths. As they surfaced, they looked up at me with those bright dark eyes and fierce smiles, and hollered at me to jump in. And thus I did!
So all afternoon we played… we worshipped God in our laughter, in our fun in the rapids, in our cliff jumps, in our stripping away of the darkness of the world, and being renewed and cleansed by clean cool water. This was not poverty. The huts were a testament to craftsmanship, the hunting and farming a voice to hard work, the 'primitive' life a quiet but uninhibited song to a people who have loved God for generations in a culture rich with meaning and life.
I'll never forget looking down at those fish-children in the water — dark and dolphin like. Their innocence commanded me to jump — to be free in faith — and not any sermon or hardened doctrine.
Oh… and swimming with Irene also made the hard trek to reach this church all the more phenomenal (Irene being the water buffalo)… lol!!!