Last July 2017, I had a chance to visit my uncle’s mission assignment. If there is a place in the Philippines which can be perfectly described as a periphery and would make all other places seem like bliss, it would probably be the islands of Tawi-tawi in Sitangkai and Sibutu. Aside from being at the far tip of the country, its population is largely poor. People drink from rainwater and rely primarily on seaweeds for a living. They also have not adopted a properwaste management system and so human waste, internal and external, serves as unwanted food for the fishes below; fishes which would probably likewise end up on their plate; a plain example of the circle of life. Tawi-tawi is a predominantly Muslim region which means that Christians live on the edge of the peripheries. This may sound redundant but it appropriately describes their situation, for these Christians are not only numbered among the poorest, but also, most often they live in the outskirts of the villages. These Christians are also in constant danger because the open sea provides highways for illegal and terrorist activities. In fact, not long before we arrived, some locals claimed to have spotted a member of the Maute group. If the poverty will not kill you here, Islamic extremists will. In the mornings and evenings, simultaneous with our lauds and vespers, I could hear the “Allahu Akbar” chants resounding from the nearby mosques; an assuring reminder that I was not praising God alone. From one house of the main island in Sitangkai, we rode a small boat owned by the Oblates to go to the floating villages. Upon arrival, there was a loud party taking place. A family was celebrating the graduation of their daughter from law school, the first to attain such a degree in their village.
The community here differs not only in religion, but also in tribe. The residents try to maintain a peaceful atmosphere, but the presence of cultural and religious barriers makes it difficult for the Christian community to thrive. After staying in Sitangkai for two days, we went to Sibutu where I had a chance to join the small Christian community in Mass. They were glad and grateful for our presence, the only ministry which I could offer. All in all, there are three communities and houses which are administered by only one priest who once and a while makes rounds to sustain God’s flock. Many people in our time will not understand why religious men and women go through such extreme conditions, exchanging their comfortable lives just to risk losing them in the process. But this is exactly the beauty of a life given! I most certainly had sleepless nights imagining that my head could end up being hacked off at any moment during my stay. But I see that the Christian community in Tawi-tawi endures because of people who understand that there are bigger and more urgent things than our comforts and fears. And when we have already given our lives to the Lord, how can we still be afraid of losing something which we already do not possess?
By Br. Eugene Dominic V. Aboy, OP