Ministry Among The Subanen

By Father Frank Hoare SSC

The author, from Ireland, is on the General Council of the Society of St Columban. He worked for many years in Fiji.

Subanen Women

When Columban Father Brendan Kelly, from Northern Ireland, arrived at Katipunan, a mountain village in Misamis Occidental, nine years ago, he was shocked by the lack of education and medical services. The Subanen people, the original but displaced owners of the land, lived in extreme poverty. As a missionary he wanted to help. But aware of the big development plans of well-financed NGOs in the area, he wondered at first if he had any role to play. He decided then to take a people-centered approach.

Insecure people

To overcome the understandable mistrust of outsiders that ran deep in the Subanen, Father Brendan decided to start by learning their language. That might not seem very radical. But the Subanen all understood and used the Visayan language and even denied that they used their own language, which some were refusing to teach their children. They were ashamed to be identified as Subanen and laughed at as backward, ignorant people.

The priest walked into the mountains and sat around in the villages. It was hard to break through the people’s suspicion. But he hung around all day and the natural hospitality and humanity of the people won out against this. They invited him to share their meager fare and to sleep in their huts. They came to know him and he came to know them personally. Knowledge of language and culture followed. Father Brendan was overjoyed one day when an old Subanen visitor, hearing him speaking Subanen, overcame his shyness and sat beside him to listen more intently to this great wonder.

Working through their deficiency

After gaining the trust of the people, Father Brendan decided on a strategy of community building and leadership training. He started the Katipunan Subanen Organic Farming Group. The members of this cooperative venture shared seeds and he helped by supplying forks and other implements. He helped organize the marketing of produce by identifying customers. These included the diocesan seminary and the Columban headquarters in Ozamiz City, about 30 minutes drive away. He offered to transport the organic bananas, sweet potatoes, Chinese cabbage, spring onions and other vegetables to the city on his weekly day off.

The missionary sent promising young men from different villages to do sustainable agricultural courses and they became the organizers of the cooperatives in their villages. The fine Formation Center built in 2003 became the venue for meetings, training and important social occasions as well as the collection point for the agriculture produce.

Oasis in the desert

Water was a major problem for some of the villages. Father Brendan assisted the Subanen community close to the church to install their water scheme. One sponsored by a private charitable foundation had a condition that the source of the water should be within four kilometers of the village. Namut village, the heartland of the Subanen in that area, could only find a source way up in the interior of the forest, seven kilometers away. The young Irishman was able to obtain the money needed to supplement the foundation’s assistance. It was a historic day for the people when they saw the water gushing out of a pipe in the middle of their village. They would no more have to trudge down and up steep mountains carrying buckets of water for hours every day. The women, who bear the brunt of the burden of washing clothes in the river in the ravine below, were especially delighted. One old man shed a silent tear of joy and disbelief at the flowing water they had so long dreamt of.

What the people really needed

Education is essential for development. The Columban missionary saw the importance of giving the children a head start before they ventured out of their village to the government elementary school dominated by the Visayan children. He discussed the building of a day care center in Belabag village with the community organizer, Tiboy, and the people. The community was enthusiastic. The priest would supply the materials and they would carry them from the road across the ravine to the village. They would also supply the site and labor force.

Father Kelly sent a promising young woman graduate, Langlang, to train as a day-care teacher. When the building was completed he employed her as such and as part-time office worker and bookkeeper for the farming projects. He also sent her to attend conferences on the legislation introduced by the Philippine government on the ancestral land rights of indigenous peoples such as the Subanen.

Teaching them by their language

The Subanen people in earlier times identified Christianity as the religion of the Visayan immigrants who took over their best ancestral land and pushed them back into the mountains. For them the symbols of Christianity were foreign and oppressive. A missionary such as Father Kelly, a Christian leader but clearly not Visayan, could help to change this inaccurate understanding of Christianity. All the more so when they heard him lead worship in their own language and saw him welcome their traditional rituals into Church proceedings. He sent Delma, a young Subanen woman, to train as a catechist. In her course she is encouraged to understand the message of Christ in terms of the history, culture and context of her own people.

Father Brendan sees his role not just as an advocate for the oppressed ethnic minority. He also recognizes the need for respect and reconciliation between the Visayan and Subanen peoples. So, though his main work is with the Subanen people, most of his sacramental ministry in Katipunan is for the Visayan people in their language. He also trains young lay Visayan leaders.

Subanen rights

Archbishop Jesus A. Dosado CM of Ozamiz recognizes the duty of the Church to affirm respect for Subanen rights. At the dawn of the new millennium in 2000 he drafted a formal apology from the Church for its part in the abuse of the Subanen people and had it inscribed on a stone at the entrance of the cathedral in Ozamiz City. The same apology greets the Subanen people as they enter the church in Katipunan.

The Subanen communities around Katipunan have now experienced the fruits of their cooperative efforts. They have a group of young enthusiastic leaders who are the hope for the future. Above all, however, the people have experienced a paradigm of development that is very different from and ultimately more powerful than the traditional political mechanisms of corruption and violence.