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Subanen Ministries Honor God's Creation

A Sacred Bond

By Fr. Vincent Busch

The Subanens are an indigenous people whose ancestral habitat is the highlands of northwestern Mindanao in the Philippines. When the Columban Fathers arrived in Mindanao in 1938 we took little noticed of the Subanens because we were so engaged in a full schedule of parish pastoral activities which included dozens of far flung barrio communities. As time passed the Mindanao Church was blessed with an increase in diocesan priests who assumed pastoral responsibility for most parish ministries. In the 1970s and 1980s Columban Fathers began to look into new ministries that fit our missionary commitment to foster the reign of God with the poor and marginalized. Some Columbans like myself chose to work with and learn from the Subanen people.

It was through my association with the Columban Sisters that I began to learn just how crucial the Subanen culture is as a voice on behalf of a renewable Earth. The Subanens regarded their habitat as a sacred community to be cherished not as a collection of resources to be exploited. They celebrate the sacred dimension of their habitat in their rituals, stories, music, and dance.

Cards handmade by Subanen crafters
Cards handmade by Subanen crafters

In 1983 Columban Sisters Mary McManus, Salvador Oyson, Kathleen Melia, and Glenda Struss answered a request from the Mindanao Bishops for more church personnel to enter into a ministry of dialogue with Indigenous people. These four women chose to live among the Subanen People in the hinterland parish of Midsalip where Columban Fr. Sean Martin was assigned. By committing themselves to this mission the Sisters entered into the world of the Subanens and began to share their joys, fears and concerns.

The 1980s was a perilous time for the Subanens of Midsalip. They lived in a war zone and frequently had to abandon their homes and crops during armed conflicts. When they returned to their homes their food and crops were gone. They faced constant hunger and disease and watched their children die of dysentery.

The intense violence, hunger, and death that the Subanens experienced in the 1980s was accompanied by a deep sadness as they watched their ancestral habitat being consumed by logging operations. Following the loggers came land-hungry settlers who used the roads bulldozed by the loggers to enter and occupy the ancestral land of the Subanens.

The Subanen culture and our Catholic tradition both profess that God created the Earth as a sacred gift. And it has become evident that this sacred gift needs healthy ecosystems if we are to fulfill, in a sustainable way, the Gospel’s commission to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, heal the sick, and shelter the homeless. Since the 1980s teaching from Popes and Bishops have affirmed the Church’s commitment to care for the gift of God’s Earth. In accord with these teachings many Catholic parishes and their barrio-based communities in the Philippines are beginning to nurture the habitats that grace their lives. The Subanens and other indigenous peoples can guide our faith communities to live in a symbiotic way within the Earth community.

Immersed in the spiritual and cultural world of the Subanens and affirmed by the Church’s teachings, the Columban Sisters have worked for decades with Subanen leaders to form a team ministry that honors the Subanen way of life and, at the same time, fulfills the Gospel’s commission to foster the reign of God with the poor. In the last judgement story in the Gospel of Matthew (chapter 25) the Son of Man welcomes into His Father’s Reign all those who cared for “the least of these who are members of my family.” And so, to paraphrase the Gospel of Matthew, the Sisters and their team ministry fed the hungry by promoting agricultural practices that renewed the soil’s fertility. The Sisters along with Columban Fr. Frank Nally gave drink to the thirsty by protesting against logging in the local watershed so that rivers and streams could continue to supply water for people and their crops. The Sisters clothed the denuded hillsides through tree-planting programs. They sheltered the homeless by protecting the forest which provided shelter for thousands of species and produced materials for human homes and households.

They cared for the sick by organizing health programs that produced effective remedies using local herbs and ingredients. They worked to free families who felt imprisoned in a world that belittled them by creating pre-school centers for their children and literacy programs for adults. And, in doing all these things, they and their team used the Subanen language, stories, blessings, and rituals.

The Columban Sisters had years of pastoral experience with the Subanens before I involved myself in the Subanen Crafts ministry nearly 20 years ago. I depended on their advice and insights in forming a craft-making project that could provide needed income for Subanen families and would do so in a culturally sensitive way. Making handcrafted mats, baskets, storage containers, and other household items is part of the Subanen culture, and the Sisters helped me find crafters who could apply their weaving skills in making crafted items that honor their spiritual bond with their habitat.

One benefit of the Subanen Crafts Project is that it provides Subanen crafters with income to buy food for their families during the lean time between harvests called the “hunger season.” To make it easier for crafters in remote areas to work during the “hunger season” we recently built a small workshop in the mountain barrio of Sigapod. The workshop will provide a well-lit workspace for crafters and a storage area where art materials and finished items can be secured.

Our small workshop used lumber from trees in its construction so it was fitting that during its blessing ceremony we also called upon God’s blessing for seedlings destined to be planted in the nearby hills. Years ago a vibrant rainforest covered the hills around Sigapod. This forest acted like a sponge which soaked up water during the rainy season and then slowly released it into streams during the dry season assuring a safe and steady water supply. This is no longer the case. Torrential rains now cascade down the deforested hills in floods and mud slides.

Our workshop went into operation in April 2019, just in time to facilitate the production of the year’s Christmas cards. Each card requires hours of cooperative work. Some crafters color the background. Others carefully cut out images of Joseph, Mary and the donkey. Still others neatly fold in pieces of colored paper into the cut-out-images. The crafters hope to finish thousands of cards before October.

The images in our Christmas cards draw attention to those joys, fears, and activities which the Holy Family have in common with Subanen families.

Subanens have to hike daily over mountainous trails, and so our Christmas cards show Joseph and Mary trekking over rugged terrain to reach Bethlehem. Subanen children are born in simple shelters with farm animals nearby, and so our cards show the birth of Jesus in a lowly stable. Every day Subanen families cook, clean, gather firewood, fetch water, and feed their farm animals and so our cards show Mary and Joseph doing similar activities. Many Subanen families have had to quickly abandon their homes and flee during times of armed conflict and so our cards show how the Holy Family had to quickly gather up their belongings and flee from Herod’s soldiers. Subanen families do their best to feed, clothe, shelter, nurture, and protect their children, and so our cards highlight how Mary and Joseph cared for Jesus. 

Over the years, the Columban Sisters and their team ministry fostered the reign of God through programs that honored the Subanen way of life and cherished the Earth as a scared gift of God. The Subanens and Earth-friendly faith communities know that caring for the Earth is not valued in Mindanao where mining, logging and agribusinesses have profited from the degradation of the Earth. They will need the power of the Holy Spirit to continue to build communities that support healthy and sustainable habitats.

On the day we blessed our workshop and the seedlings, we thanked the Sisters and their Subanen Ministry and all who support them for helping us form a ministry that promotes the gift of God’s Earth and celebrates the spiritual bond that the Subanens have with that gift.

Columban Fr. Vincent Busch lives and works in the Philippines.