It was a “no man’s land”. For decades, this was not a place of peace, neither a place for the faint-hearted. One cannot even imagine visiting this dreaded place, when you dare to enter, there was no way out. Danger lurked in every corner until….
Sulu, located in Southern Philippines, has been a haven of one of the most violent Islamic separatist groups, the Abbu Sayyaf Rebel Group (ASG). They engage in “kidnap for ransom” activities, bombings, assassinations, and extortions from moneyed businessmen, the National Counter-terrorism Center would attest. When this place was reclaimed and liberated from the clutches of the rebels, for once this terrifying place finally felt peace! Peace was a foreign thought to most people who lived there; they saw violence and blood-shed become a norm, and the residents got used to this as part of daily living.
On February 2022, the 6th Special Forces Company, led by their Commanding Officer, Captain Ron Villarosa, freed the area that was once was the lair of the ASG. For two long decades, deprived of peace, no resident saw any hope with peace talks and the like. But this time, the glimmer of hope flickered, the 6th Special Forces Company introduced “Education”. This was not an ordinary education of people, neither was it an issue of introducing a new curriculum. Instead, the primary focus was: to getting their lives back, regain the kind and quality of life they lost, relief from their ugly past, and to face the present for a better tomorrow. Misfortunes and effects of war gripped the people with fear in this island, even government Educators had to flee for their lives.
Upon successful takeover by the Military, many offered a non-government organization (NGO) flocked to offer their help. However, the Army forces were disappointed, the offers appeared to be lip-service. At the start there was planning, next came the discussion on logistics, and on the third meeting implementation should have been on the agenda. But to the surprise of the Military sector, these civic groups went back to planning over and over again. “This is a waste of precious time”, the Military exclaimed. Then they heard about the SULADS, The Adventist volunteers assigned in Tawi-Tawi. “Let’s try them”, someone blurted out of the blue.
SULADS’ top leadership was called. He came to visit the area for half a day, then he took off. After two weeks, here came the SULADS President, bringing along a team of Medical Practitioners, and four volunteer teachers who were decided to live within the community to teach the illiterate children and adults. What transpired next was the signing of a document, a “Memorandum of Agreement (MOA)” between SULADS and the Army. The document stated that the Military will provide security, mobilization, and logistical information. The SULADS, on the other end, would provide the HEAL Program – a four-pronged program on Health, Education, Agriculture, and Livelihood. Signatories of the document included: Pastor Ephraim Pitogo -SULADS President, Pastor Ranny De Vera – Adventist Mission Director of Zamboanga Peninsula Mission, and Capt. Ron Villarosa – Commanding officer of the 6th Special Forces Company of the Philippine Army. This was the answer to the request of the Military forces to have teachers who will bravely and painstakingly teach uneducated children coming out of 20-year-old war. Tears were shed, overwhelmed and baffled with the fact that in less than a month, a Medical Team has come to serve, together with four determined and fearless volunteers, ready to take up the challenge no matter what circumstances they may face. The residents could not contain their joy as they saw these willing and committed volunteers teach their children thirsty for knowledge. Without any delay, the Adventist Mission volunteers started to etch their presence in the hearts of the people. The slogan, “From Battleground to Playground” was hatched. As a Muslim community from the superior Tausug tribe (from the word “tao”- man and “sug” – current) fluency in the language and knowledge of the local culture were essential in the delivery of services to this community. Sensitivity to cultural barriers is vital in doing this ministry. Seemingly offensive words and phrases are avoided to stay clear from confusion, misunderstanding, and complications.
As if walking on thin ice, feelings of insecurity filled the volunteers’ minds. There was this lump on their throats having been suspected to be spies by some agency, there was also the preconceived idea that the volunteers were out there to convert the people into Christianity – an attempt that will result in serious consequences and fatal implications. Armed with a prayerful heart the volunteers strummed their connection with heaven, unloading their worries to the Living God. Alas! Their prayers were answered. The wall of indifference broke, residents learned to trust the volunteers in each passing day.
After a few months, a small “shack” became a temporary classroom for the children. With progressive steps, this classroom developed into a school that is to become the Peace Formation and Learning Center that admitted 270 students who do not know how to read and write. With ages ranging from 3 to 20 years old, the work is far from easy. As if it was not hard enough the parents decided they would become learners, too! So, a separate schedule was accorded them on weekends, the numbers growing each week. Aside from the reading and writing lessons, the parents were taught: personal hygiene, cooking wholesome food, basic gardening to augment their food sources, and other essential matters that would pertain to their family welfare. Another slogan was hatched: “From Arms to Farms”. As weeks turned into months more volunteers were sent to reinforce the growing number of learners composed of students and parents.
These volunteers applied the IFL method (Integration of Faith and Learning), a scheme that worked out so well in the context of Muslim culture. The finger play of counting 1 to 10 was correlated the teaching of the Ten Commandments. Teaching them the days of the week, the volunteers used the Story of Creation. Slowly but surely precious truths were transmitted to the learners. Today, the Muslims understand that the Seventh day is considered very special and holy to Seventh-day Adventists, no activity is ever permitted and allowed compared to other days. On this day, the volunteers are in their quarters reading their Holy Book, the Bible.
It was June 10, 2022 that for the first time in 2 decades, the first closing exercises occurred in that remote village in Talipao, Sulu. DepED personnel, high-ranking officials of the Philippine Army, Government officials, and visitors from the nearby city flocked to this infamous area of the Abbu Sayyaf. This was unthinkable! Everyone was eager to witness this momentous event. It was a spectacle to behold.
The expanding ministry in Sulu will go on for as long as volunteers are willing to dare. Hard work, tireless efforts, contentment in the midst of deprivations, battles of loneliness, all these for the sheer desire to spread the love of God to a people considered strange. Teaching in the school would mean hiking from their abode through treacherous areas, braving the rains and the sticky mud that make their hike all the more difficult, but the volunteers do not seem to mind. Instead, theirs is the joy of service. Off from classes, they would visit every single home to check if someone is sick that needs help, or perhaps someone needs the healing touch of a massage therapy. Truly blessed, trusting in God’s protection and care, the volunteers willingly leave their comfort zones to minister to a people in a strange land and a strange culture, unmindful of the dangers surrounding them.
Today, more places are being opened; another camp of ASG has been freed of the rebels another renegade group, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) has recently been served by the Medical Mission Team, and already plans are underway for opening a school in the area in Indanan, Sulu. Barangay after barangay (communities) are opening, asking for a school to be served by the Adventists. More projects are being considered – a testimony that God opens doors of opportunity so that a people will be prepared for the coming of Jesus.