Joni Allen, a junior Bible major, and the other five men on the mission team tramped along the densely vegetated mountain trail behind their native Filipino guides. He had seen their next stop—one of the numerous mountain villages—across from the ridge, but that had been hours ago. Joni was drenched in sweat, thirsty and tired of wearing stockings over his legs and spandex over his arms.
Here on the Philippine island of Palawan, the stockings and spandex weren’t a fashion statement; they were protection from leeches. Joni knew to check for the bloodsuckers after each stream they crossed, but he wasn’t prepared for the terrestrial leeches—the ones that lurked in the bushes and jumped onto unsuspecting people passing by. He, like everyone else in the party, carried a cigarette lighter to burn off the inch-long worms that attached to his skin.
But their leech adventures were almost done for now. The rhythmic whack of the guides’ machetes against the undergrowth gradually gave way to rustling as the foliage thinned, and soon the team emptied into a clearing. Men and women—dirt-smudged and dressed in threadbare clothing—bustled in and out of grass huts going about their work, a few of them stopping to give the small band of visitors curious looks.
Few lowlanders from the towns of Palawan, and even fewer outsiders, journeyed this far into the mountains. The villagers wouldn’t travel down the mountain unless their clothes wore out and they needed to barter their crops for more clothing.
They lived their lives almost completely cut off from the rest of humanity and, more tragically, from the Word of God. But that was about to change.
Using Ordinary Means
Joni’s passion for the Word of God developed during his early years. In his home country of New Zealand, he noticed a generational gap between mature believers and newer believers, and that there was a need for sound, biblical teachers from his generation. He decided to pursue that role himself. “There’s always a need to train people,” Joni says.
But he never imagined that his Bible studies would bring him to the exotic forests of the Philippines. Joni joined up with Jethro Malacao, a BJU seminary student who would be leading a 3-week mission trip to the Philippines, Jethro’s home country. The summer of 2012, Joni, Jethro and four other team members visited lowland believers on the island of Palawan.
The lowland believers encouraged the mission team members in the spreading of the Gospel to the people in the mountains. “The churches are starting to get that outward focus,” Joni says. The mission team would be making the initial contact with many of the villages, freeing up the pastors’ time to continue their education.
What Joni expected was full-time ministers, but to his surprise, many of these local pastors were laymen. All week long they toiled in the muggy rice fields; and then they made time to care for their families and congregations too.
Still more astonishing to Joni is that every Friday evening the local pastors would gather to learn more about the Bible. “I was really challenged by their faithfulness and their desire to serve their local church,” Joni says.
For Joni, the mission trip made him see that ministry was different than he thought it would be. “The mission field isn’t glamorous,” Joni says. “It’s a lot of hard work.” Not only did the Filipino believers make sacrifices for the Gospel locally in the lowlands, but they were also prepared to make sacrifices for the Gospel hours away in the mountains.
Expanding to the Mountains
The mission team’s partnership with the lowland believers was their first attempt at contacting many of the mountain villages. That summer day, as they approached this particular village, Joni discovered that the people were very hospitable—maybe this was a way God was preparing their hearts for His Word and the initiatives of the lowland churches. As a sign of welcome, the villagers sent one of the young boys off to climb a coconut tree, collect the fruit and present their guests with some fresh coconut milk.
Once the team members finished the coconuts, a few villagers invited them into their homes to share a meal. The rice and seafood they served was delicious, but Joni quickly learned that he shouldn’t eat everything set before him. “They’re going to eat whatever’s left over, so leave some,” a team member told Joni.
After the meal, Joni got to do what the mission team was there to do: share the Gospel. When he spoke with one of the men of the village, he, as usual, relied on the guides—believers who accompanied them from the Philippine churches—for translating from English into Tagalog, and then from Tagalog into another language. Only, this time he needed a total of 3 translators to accommodate the man’s particular dialect.
Joni spoke in short sentences and paused for sometimes 20 seconds while the interpreters passed his words to the next person. He boiled down the message of the Bible into its basics: the Creator-God of the universe who is King over all, mankind who rebelled and fell under the curse, and the redemption available only through the perfect work of Jesus Christ. The man appeared to understand, and Joni hopes the churches will follow up with discipleship.
For Joni, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with these people was a highlight of the trip. “It was an awesome experience,” he says. Being in the middle of the Church’s daily operations and seeing how the Church functions through ordinary, even mundane, ways was far different from sitting in a Bible class and learning about missions. It was well worth all the humid hikes and every blood-sucking leech.
The life-changing Gospel is on the move in the Philippines. But it’s not happening through a special breed of super-Christians. It’s happening through the patient and faithful work of local believers who rely on the good news of Jesus Christ.