The trip to Isabela was 12 hours long, and I embarked on it with a bag loaded with clothes, a thick study Bible, and a pair of shoes.
I was part of the UP DCF Missions Team. The missions exposure trip is an annual event of the DCF to spread the gospel of Christ, and to equip the local churches, especially the youth. This was to be my second exposure to the mission field, after having gone to Sibalom, Antique last year.
Pastor Ollie and Ate Telling
When we arrived on October 22 after a bus ride that seemed like eternity, we were hosted to delicious brunch at the house of Pastor Ollie and Ate Telling, his wife. We would live in their home for the next week or so.
Pastor Ollie is the senior pastor of Sta. Maria Bible Community Church. Gifted in music, he has composed and translated Christian songs in Ibanag, the local language. His preaching is God-centered, and he's not hesitant to talk about Biblical truths, even those that are hard to understand and swallow.
Ate Telling is working closely with him. Her dedication to the work of the Lord, her extraordinary insight and encouragement have been instrumental in the success of the mission trip.
Later in the trip, they would recount to us how they met each other. Their love story is dotted with scenes shot for movies. Their parents and seniors were against their relationship, yet they chose to listen to God and obey what He commanded. When they had to choose between their parents and the clear command of God, they chose to follow Him.
The past years have seen them though thick and thin. Pastor Ollie's kidneys failed him. In those hard times, Ate Telling had been with him, pleading with the Lord and seeking His will. Theirs is a story of the Lord's faithfulness.
Cabagan and Sta. Maria
Pastor Ollie and Ate Telling live in Cabagan, but it takes 15 minutes to reach SMBCC, their local church in the neighboring Sta. Maria town. The road becomes unforgiving during heavy rains where rising waters of Cagayan River would cover the bridge, making it impossible for any land-based transportation to pass through.
Cabagan is more developed than Sta. Maria, but in both places, the heat is sweltering. Every time I stood under direct sunlight, it felt as if the sun pierced through my skin. That partly explains Jaylord's bungang araw, and Kuya Jordie and Arnold's excessive sweating (yay to DryChlor!).
Much of the livelihood in the area is farming and pottery, and there are no malls. Interestingly most of the sari-sari stores I visited didn't even sell Coke.
It's certainly not a rich area. The houses are small, mostly made by nipa, and life is simple.
I've never seen a group of people so accommodating and hospitable, exceeding my Ilonggo standards.
I've also never seen people love their vernacular as they did. They spoke, wrote, and sang in Ibanag. Being the first time I have been exposed to the language, I had difficulty piecing the words together. But it was always a blessing hearing them call out the name of the Lord in their native tongue.
Together we joined them in singing Ibanag songs, praising the Lord in different languages. Kemuel, in our sharing later that night, called that scene "a vision of heaven."
We eventually understood a few Ibanag words/phrases, among them my favorites:
komang - rice fields
uvovug na Dios - the word of God
so si Lance - I'm Lance
yayya si Jet - That person is Jet.
lafug - joke (from which I derived lafug-er, which means joker)
Dios ta nikamu ngaming - Good afternoon everyone.
Just before Antonina, Jobelle, and I were about to enter the sixth grade class for the classroom evangelism, I asked them to teach me some Ibanag statements. Here's what I practiced:
Dios ta nikamu ngaming. So si Lance. Yayya si Antonina. Yayya si Jobelle. We are here to share uvovug na Dios.
But I didn't dare. It sounded, too...off. "It doesn't sound Ibanag to me, but more like French," my friends joked.
Mga lafugers talaga.
I spoke with Ate Trining, a full-time church worker who supervised the food preparations during the plenary sessions. Taking a break from washing the dishes, she told me, excitedly, that she had been able to share the gospel to all her neighbors, 60 of them. In her little house, she holds Bible studies, exhorting the people to know and follow God.
I recall this one instant when she passed by a cottage outside the church building. Out of the blue, she asked three girls in Ibanag (Luther translated them for me), "Si Hesus ba nasa puso niyo na?" They said yes, and then...well, she said goodbye. That came out naturally, like me asking my friends how their exams went.
Conversations with Luther
A few minutes after I had unpacked my things on Day One, I got a text telling me to come back to Manila for a 10-minute presentation for a competition. Luther got a similar text two hours after I did.
We took the bus to Cubao on Thursday night with Kuya Caloy and Oslec who accompanied him. Luther and I were decided that after the presentation, we would immediately hurry back to Isabela.
During the trip, we found ourselves talking about anything and everything under the sun. What lessons has God taught you so far? What do you think of this or that?
Luther has grown so much in the faith. He has remained humble, steadfast, and available for the work of God in UP, and it has been an encouragement having known him.
I've never done house-to-house evangelism before, the kind where we knock on each household and tell the people inside the good news, if ever they allow us. I was partnered with Ate Shii who, at that time, did not have a clue we were in Cagayan Valley, with mountain ranges surrounding us on all sides.
Funny things happened. We were assigned to a block of houses beside the solar drier. In Brgy. Valbuena, Ate Shii cluelessly searched for a techie-looking tower with a solar dish on top. Imagine her disappointment when, after sensing her confusion, I told her, "Ate, that's what a solar drier looks like." I pointed to a flat, cemented area near a basketball ring, a far cry from the solar panels she had been imagining.
We went to two houses that afternoon. It broke my heart to learn that the people did not have any assurance of going to heaven if they died. They thought that they had to do good things, so they can earn they way to God's kingdom. They were shocked to learn that they did not have to. Salvation, after all, is only by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Good works are a result of one's salvation and are not the means towards it.
The next day I was assigned to Brgy. Poblacion where I got inside the smallest houses I've been to. I was encouraged when the mothers told me their children were attending Sunday school. The local church there is creating whirlpools for the expansion of God's kingdom.
After more than a week of ministry, we went to Kallao Cave for our time of rest and recreation. The youth from SMBCC went with us. We had a great time together.
Just as we were about to end, we formed a big circle beside the quiet river and sang songs to the Lord. During sharing time, Pastor Ollie took out his guitar and sang a song he composed for us. The song had all our names in it. I recall the words, "Salamat at mahal ko kayo" which he sang with all his heart.
When we all said our goodbyes, our newfound friends burst into tears. What did we do that should merit this overflow of thanksgiving? We then received letters from them, telling of how much they praise God for our lives.
And we praise God for theirs.
Oh, it was the Lord who did those wonders in Isabela. It was the Lord. It was all because of Him.
UPDATE: More photos.