After shopping malls and fast food restaurants, today was a huge contrast. I was invited by Revd Jess Alvarado to visit Immanuel Bible School (IBS). This is located near the municipality of Capas (notorious as the endpoint of the Bataan Death March) in the foothills of the Tarlac mountains, one of the homes of the Aeta people.
The Aetas of Western Luzon are one of the ethnic minorities of the Philippines. It is likely that they are the original inhabitants of the Philippine islands and have preserved their culture, languages and way of life despite numerous waves of later migrants such as the Malays. One of the reasons for their survival was their withdrawal to remote mountainous areas where they were able to continue their life as semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers, in marked contrast to lowland communities based on agriculture. Often described as ‘negritos’, in comparison to their lowland neighbours of Malay descent, Aetas tend to be short of stature, kinky haired and dark-skinned. Their colour, supposed laziness and ‘primitive’ way of life have been reasons for centuries of discrimination and abuse.
Aeta communities were already under considerable pressure due to deforestation when disaster struck through the eruption of the Mt Pinatubo volcano in 1991. Forests which provided food and shelter were destroyed and many Aetas were evacuated to lowland areas. There they were subject to further exploitation, for example, lacking land deeds, finding land on which they had lived for centuries taken over by wealthy landowners. As a result their traditional hunter-gatherer existence is no longer sufficient to support their communities – there is literally not enough food to eat.
Immanuel Bible School is a United Methodist Church response to the changing needs of Aeta communities. Conceived by three women (two Filipino and one American) IBS was founded over 25 years ago to train pastors and leaders from within the Aeta community. Originally supported by donations from American Methodists, IBS has had to find new income streams and is striving toward greater self-sufficiency. One important way of doing this is turning over every available square metre of the college grounds to growing vegetables, and raising chickens, pigs and fish, mainly for their own consumption but also to sell in local markets.
This represents a huge cultural shift for the Aeta, who are not natural farmers, lacking both a word for ‘work’ in their own languages, and Western conceptions of land and property ownership. But it is such an important step to establishing economically viable communities that farming is on the curriculum of IBS students. One particularly interesting project is the gathering of samples of forest plants for cultivation, including edible ferns and certain types of mushrooms as well as plants with medicinal properties.
To the casual onlooker, IBS is hardly an impressive sight, with buildings in need of repair, chickens running around and former flower beds given over to vegetable plots. It is not a conventional theological community, with school children (many the sons and daughters of Aeta pastors, who would otherwise be unable to afford to educate their children) outnumbering the Bible students. But this is a place where the theory of servant ministry becomes a reality, with faculty members taking their share of gardening, repairs and maintenance, and fundraising.
While visiting the college I had the opportunity to meet and talk with some of the young students, two of whom were already placed as pastors in their own communities. Their dedication to their vocation is impressive, sometimes walking for hours to fulfil pastoral and preaching duties, and often for little or no renumeration. As well as pastors they will need to be community leaders and agriculturalists.
I sat in the end of a class where the students had been discussing the qualities of effective Christian leadership and asked what they thought was the most important characteristic of all. ‘Compassion’ was the most common answer and I am sure they will need plenty of that as future pastors.
I greatly enjoyed my day with Pastor Jess and we had an interesting conversation in the car about the contextualisation of theology and worship. Previously dismissive of the value of ‘pagan’ Aeta culture, through IBS the UMC is now working on liturgies and songs that are rooted in Aeta culture and developing new liturgies to celebrate the rites of passage that are so important to the Aetas. Some of this has a very practical purpose, for example equipping new pastors with model sermons. An Aeta pastor needs forty funeral sermons, explained Pastor Jess, because he or she is expected to accompany the bereaved throughout the first forty days after a death.
We also talked about some of the tensions that are involved in the process of inculturation/ contextualisation, in particular how do we affirm and celebrate Aeta culture, while at the same time enabling Aeta communities to participate in wider political and economic life, and without falling into the trap, as Jesus puts it, of gaining their life at the expense of losing their soul? Of course this is not just a problem for the Aeta: the tension between the local and the global, or in Methodist terms, the congregational and the connexional, is a very active issue within our multicultural churches in London. The common question we face is this: how do we affirm diversity and difference while maintaining the essential unity of the Body of Christ?
For more information on IBS visit their Facebook page.