By Wallace H. Little
We try to understand God’s people in another nation, and in doing so we come face to face with something which is different, and we are “turned off.” This has happened to Americans in virtually every country where we have tried to take the gospel. The result is a reduction of the work and discouragement of those doing it. It has taken place in the Philippines, also. I propose to examine the situation today along with the background of the Filipino people in order to build understanding in the hearts of U.S. saints toward the work there, those doing it and the saints there in general, that the Lord’s church might grow. This series is broken down by general subject matter.
Philippines: Salvation and Economics
Before the advent of the Spanish in the Philippine Islands, the people were neither rich nor poor. There were notable exceptions in both directions, such as those directly trading with men in ships from other areas, the ethnic minorities hidden from the main stream of life. But basically, the people were farmers, raising what they needed to sustain themselves. There was little of what we know as private property. Each man built his own place of abode, and farmed part of the common land around the barrio (village). He farmed what he could without interference. Others also selected the amount of land they wanted to farm, and likewise did so. With hand tools and a farm animal, the carabao, a hard working man could provide for himself and his family, and have some small amount left over to be used for exchange in the barrio markets. Also, the people made maximum use of materials native to the area. That is still true today. Their resourcefulness is shown in the many ways they use such plants as bamboo, bananas, coconuts, cogon grass and nipa palms. For example, the banana provides a great deal. Its leaves used whole serve as cloths on their rough tables and, cut across into sections approximately 12″ in width, as plates for eating; during the rainy season, the long leaves serve effective, as umbrellas; and in the intense sun, as parasols. They even eat the fruit. There are other uses made of this plant, but I am sure the reader can begin now to appreciate its utility and the ingenuity of the Filipino in his use of it. So also with other plants. Cogon grass and nipa palm leaves become roofs for their houses. True, these will not stand up too well in a typhoon, but then, they can be completely replaced in a matter of a few hours.
In bygone centuries, certain men in each barrio, by virtue of their age, experience and demonstrated wisdom came to be accepted as the principalia (principal men of the village). This was, sort of an ex-officio position: no compensation, no real authority-but by common consent, these were the ones looked to for guidance, assistance and settling disputes. When the Spanish conquerors arrived, they dealt with the principalia as if these were men in authority. For example, the Spanish acted as if the principalia functioned as trustees of the common lands around each barrio. By trickery, bribery and coercion, the Spanish nobility acquired more and more land as their private property. The military authorities also permitted the Roman Catholic bishops to do the same thing. The land acquisition covered several centuries. The multiplicity of armed rebellions by the Filipinos indicated they were something less than pleased with this theft of their land. But blow guns, bow and arrow and bolo are pretty ineffective against guns, so the Filipinos lost. In the end, a large portion of the land outside the barrios was “legally” the possession of the Spanish nobility and Roman bishops. Huge tracts of it were taken out of production. In other portions, the previous farmers continued to farm it, but now in tenant-farmer status, with a sizable portion of the crop going to the “owners.” In the end, the Spanish and Roman bishops became richer and richer while the people became poorer and poorer. Today, we have a nation of some 53,000,000 souls living on 29,000,00 hectares of land, a good portion of which is not usable for agriculture even if it were not in someone else’s hands. This figure includes rivers, lakes, mountaintops and rocky outcrops which are counted as part of the “Philippine Islands.” Actually, only about 300 of the islands are habitable. As a consequence, in some of the larger cities, the density of population is greater than in Tokyo.
The present poverty exists primarily for these two reasons. Let it be said of President Marcos and those who preceded him; while they recognized the problem and know the solution, it takes a great deal of backbone and political strength to oppose such an intrenched system. This strength was not always available. President-Prime Minister Marcos has succeded in breaking up many of the private land holdings which came down from the Spanish nobility – with compensation, of course. Over a period of years, these are being purchased by the ones who farm them. The results of this can already be seen in that there are indeed bright spots in the Philippine economy. But the great land holdings of the Roman Catholic Church remains virtually untouched, and until these are expropriated, the Filipino will continue to be poor. All the wishful thinking on our part (“after ten years or so, a church ought to be self-supporting”) will not change that fact. Until the Roman Catholic Church is divested of its land holdings, and the land is permitted to become again the property or the farmers, the Philippine economy is going to be hobbled and walking on one leg. One of the consequences we as saints in the U.S. need to consider is that until such a time, the dependance upon support from the U.S. will remain much as it is, or increase. I cannot foresee more than a small handful of churches becoming self-supporting in this generation.
In spite of being tabbed a dictator, what Mr. Marcos has done is little less than remarkable. In the past five years, he has practically built a tourist industry from nothing. It brings in large sums of badly needed funds. These purchase the petroleum needed so commerce and industry can continue to grow and develop. These also purchase equipment and facilities crucial to continued development. It is true, a good portion of that development is centered in and around Manila, while the remainder of the nation shares in the other half. This is very disproportionate. Yet Manila remains the source of attraction for the tourist income; without Manila, the “other half” would not even exist to be shared. One interesting aspect of this is that inflation in Manila is much greater than in the rest of that country, and consequently, a preacher there who was adequately supported last year may be in real trouble meeting his obligations today.
The contrast in that nation between what it was while I was stationed there in the mid-1960’s and now is startling. The cities are clean, and in many cases, more so than ours. In 1966, you would wade in trash no matter where you went. Now, the women are safe on the streets at night, and the men do not have to carry guns. Martial law did that. Before we become too critical, we had best tak with some of the people there, to find out what they think. Americans often criticize Mr. Marcos because the Philippine government, with 50 years of our colonialism and 30 years of independence has not achieved the U.S. goal of personal individual freedom. Well, we had 200 years of colonialism and another 200 years of independence and we still have not gotten there either! When we level such criticism at the Philippine Government, we are either displaying our ignorance or hypocrisy. Neither is the basis of much boasting. In all my time there, and with the hundreds with whom I have discussed this, I have not heard so much as one word of bitter criticism of Marcos and his martial law. Griping, yea; serious criticism, no. And incidentally, this is not because their law is oppressive. About anyone there criticizes about anything he or she wants to as often as they want and by whatever means they want to. There is no nation in Asia where speech is so free and unhindered.
The general condition of economics has produced a nation where there are a few thousand very rich, a growing but still very small middle class, but with the preponderance of the population very, very poor. Even in the middle class, things are not all that bright. For example, except in the cities, a school teacher will take home about $45.00 per month. In most cases, there is no way he and his family can live on that income. To supplement it, many grow some of their own food, work at a second job, or have a wife who works, or perhaps several of these alternatives. Not a few work in the rice paddies to raise their own primary staple. United States brethren have asked why cannot each in a congregation contribute a tenth of their income, and when a congregation gets ten wage earners in it, the preacher then would be receiving the average wage of the members there. True, but he would still have to do as the other families, and get out and spend another four to six hours a day to grow his food, or work at a second job. When would he teach?
The Filipino looks on Americans as if all are rich – and no wonder! By his standards and understanding, he sees only two things: the difference in income and the very great disparity of living style between U.S. citizens and himself. So he figures that if the American would only cut down a little, perhaps take $100.00 out of his $1000.00 plus monthly income, each American Christian could support a Filipino preacher by himself. Trying to dispel this misconception has proved frustrating. I have not succeeded in twelve years. It also explains why many there will constantly write and ask for more and more. They see nothing wrong with that. Besides, as I said, all Americans are rich – aren’t we?
The fact the preachers there do sometimes receive a level of support generally somewhat higher than the people among whom they work has been criticized here in the U.S. from time to time. I have already explained part of it – that the wages from jobs provide only a portion of their needs. The preachers must make up this difference in outside support. Additionally, most of the churches there meet in someone’s house, usually the preacher’s. His income must be sufficient to pay the additional rent this requires. Next, most of the supported preachers work with two and sometimes three congregations. Hence, they have a need for additional income for the travel expenses involved. These are not unsubstantial by their standards.
An interesting, frustrating and troublesome side effect of this higher income is that it attracts those who look at preaching as if it is a “good job,” and only that. These will learn the “qualifications”: (1) permit themselves to be “taught” the gospel and “respond” to it in baptism; (2) spend several years in a “zealous activity” (usually helping the one who “converted” them); and (3) getting this one’s recommendation for support. If supported, it becomes a job. And for a time, these will work at it. But when the going gets rough, which it always does in preaching, they fade. The difficulty is discovering motives and observing enough conduct to be sure who are the “time servers.” Because so few Americans have been there, and the distance is so great, detection takes a long time. by then, much money has been lost. The response of the American brethren who have been bilked is often to write off all the work there and the men doing it. The reaction of those who “lost their jobs” is often startling too. Since they consider it a job, and they want to hold onto “their job,” they resent those who expose them, furiously so. They consider these to have done them a great personal injury. The results are often considerable trouble.
Incidentally, let me put in a plug here: no one I know of who has been to the Philippines is trying to tell U.S. churches what to do. But some U.S. congregations have received letters seeking support from known “job seekers” or worse, plain crooks. Without even checking with one of us who has been there, these start supporting the man. To say the least, this is not the best stewardship of God’s blessings.
One final comment on money: several Americans who have been there, on return have remarked that the basis of all the trouble seems to be the American dollar, Well, so far as that observation goes, it is probably true. But so is the money the basis of all trouble here in the U.S., again, with the same shallow observation. In both cases, rather, we ought to look at 1 Tim. 6:5,10. Nationality and color of skin do not determine who makes godliness a way of gain, nor who has a love of money. I do not believe the solution is stopping the flow of all American money, including to the good and honest preacher there, in order to be sure it is stopped to the dishonest. Roy Cogdill once said to me that he would rather see ten dishonest men continue receiving support than one honest man lose it. I agree, Given enough time, the dishonest ones will make themselves known, and their support can be switched to honest men. And God’s gospel and its growth would be severely limited and teaching greatly reduced if all support were cut off. Is that what we want? Is money that important to us? Are we not interested in souls?
In the next article, I want to make some comments on how culture affects the Filipino people, and its relationship to salvation.
Truth Magazine XXIII: 7, pp. 117-119
February 15, 1979