Sunday, November 15, 2015

Jesus as Babaylan

(This talk was delivered at Asbury Methodist Church in Livermore, CA on Nov. 14 during the Filipino American Methodist Churches' celebration of their annual Pasasalamat/Thanksgiving. The day before I was asked to lead a leadership development workshop on decolonization and indigenization for clergy and lay leaders. The theme of the weekend is "Unos"/Storm in reference to the typhoons that have battered the Philippines; it is also a reference to the storms of life).
Mark, Chapter 4:

Magandang umaga po sa inyong lahat. Mayap a abak pu.

I give thanks to the Creator for bringing us together today on Ohlone land before it was Livermore. Thank you for choosing this place to worship, together.

Please allow me to share some personal background before we talk about the gospel of Mark, Chapter 4.

My name is Elenita Fe Luna Mendoza Strobel. I am Kapampangan. My paternal grandfather was one of the early converts of the first American Methodist missionaries at the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th century. The story is that he really wanted to be a priest but when he heard the Methodist missionary on his soapbox at the town square, he converted on the spot.  Alas, my grandfather died when my father was just a young boy. My grandmother, Apu Sinang, raised seven children by herself. I call her a magical woman because any woman who can raise 7 children by herself must possess some magic, don’t you think?

My father, Horacio, was very handsome; people called him Rock Hudson. The story goes that he almost became a movie actor along with Rogelio de la Rosa but instead like his father, he chose to serve God by selling bibles for the American Bible Society that later became the Philippine Bible Society. My Dad and Mom raised all six of us in the Methodist church. After my dad retired from the PBS, he came to the US to get his green card but he didn’t last long here. He went home, went to Union Theological Seminary and then at 65 was ordained as a Methodist pastor.

As good Methodists and being tutored in the American colonial education system at that time, my parents raised us to become individualistic, independent, strong willed, competitive, ambitious. I would later recognize these as White Anglo Saxon Protestant values, as American values. This explained to me why our family was disconnected from our large Catholic clan on my mother’s side and father’s side. After I married a white man and came to live in the US, I slowly came to realize that all of my life was some sort of a rehearsal for a future life in the US – a life that I thought I was prepared for but realized later on that I was mistaken.

When I left the Phil in 1983, my evangelical friends asked: why are you going to the US? What will you do there? My answer was: “I’m going to heaven and I will take as many with me as I can!” I thought that this is God’s purpose for bringing me to the US.

Little did I know that what God would do instead was to bring me back to my Filipino indigenous roots as a way to heal all the feelings that I had as a newly arrived immigrant in the US at that time – feelings of inadequacy, of non-belonging, of guilt, shame, of inferiority as a brown skinned woman. Even when I was on the receiving end of racist remarks, I still blamed myself.

Thank you for allowing me to share this personal story with you. It is connected to our theme this morning on weathering the storms of life.

So for the last three decades I have weathered many storms – anger, despair, homesickness, worry, unfulfilled longings. During these storms, God gave me an anchor – my Filipino indigenous spirituality as I came to know and learn and embody this sacred knowing thru my encounters with babaylans, culture-bearers, and indigenous theologians who were able to articulate our Filipino concept of Wholeness thru the lens of our own historical experience, and specially thru the lens of the indigenous peoples who were never colonized.

Datu Victorino Saway of the Talaandig tribe in Bukidnon said:  they say that we do not have a sacred text like the Bible or the Koran but we have, in fact, the biggest sacred book of all, We have Nature. We know how to read the mountains, the wind, the birds, the land. We know how to listen, We know how to talk to all beings in Nature. Everything is sacred to us. Another indigenous community in Tuguegarao led by the babaylan Reyna Yolanda believe that we would have been better off if our indigenous religions were not taken away from us or denigrated, devalued.  Brother Karl Gaspar, a Catholic brother, wrote a book on Filipinos as mystic wanderers in the world and he writes that if we return to our indigenous Filipino values, the work of social and moral transformation would make a lot of difference in transforming society. Virgilio Enriquez, the father of Sikolohiyang Pilipino, says that the perceived dysfunction of Filipino society lies in the conflict between western-imposed structural systems that do not fit the people’s underlying cultural values.

As you have probably seen lately on social media, these indigenous communities in the Philippines and around the world are also being threatened by the attitude of the rest of the civilized world who do not respect Nature and who do not believe that God is also present in the forest, in the trees, in the rivers, oceans.

In Mark, Chapter 4, Jesus commanded the storm to calm down and the winds obeyed him. This is not a metaphor. This is literal. Jesus did have the power to talk to the Wind and the Wind listened to him. This kind of power is called shamanic power.

Recently, a Jesuit theologian, Fr. Jojo Fung, sent me his book on shamanic theology. Fr. Fung studied with several shamans in Southeast Asia in an attempt to understand how God is also present in the work of the shamans in their indigenous communities. Fr. Fung had first to set aside his own theological orientation in order to understand the shaman’s powers to commune with spirits in nature and spirits in the other world. He surrendered himself to initiation rituals and realized and experienced that indeed God is present in those experiences, too.

In reading of shamanic theology, I recalled that as a young Methodist child, we also knew a Methodist Pastor Antonio who also had shamanic powers. He was a healer and a medium who connects with the spirit world.  My father, too, knew of the healing powers of oils and herbs, and the healing power of hilot. 

These are all the powers that the precolonial babaylans possessed. Vine de Loria, the most well known Native American anthropologist in his book, The Way we Used to Live, chronicled the eye witness accounts of missionaries and anthropologists of the powers of medicine men and women – that indeed these powers were beyond the rational mind’s ability to comprehend or believe in so instead these powers  were declared as evil, heathen, pagan, demonic. 

In the Philippines, the babaylans were systematically exterminated in the first 100 years of conquest.  But their power never went away. It went underground where it remained subversive. You can kill indigenous people but you cannot kill the Indigenous Soul.

Our Filipino indigenous soul resides in our sense of Kapwa, Pakikiramdam, in our kagandahang Loob. There we find our sacred wholeness and beauty.

As I read the gospel of Mark, I am awe struck by the realization that Jesus is my Babaylan…that all these years that I have worked as an academic to articulate a process of decolonization – is the gift from the Methodist faith of my parents and the gift of the gospel of Jesus that I now reclaim through this new indigenous lens.

The typhoons that have battered our homeland – Yolanda, Ondoy, Koppa – will continue as global warming and climate change impacts are felt most specially in the global south – in poorest countries. Islands in the Pacific are already negotiating with Australia and New Zealand on when to accommodate the climate refugees that are being impacted by rising ocean levels.

As Filipinos, it is not enough that we pray for typhoons to change their trajectories. It is important to understand how our alienation from Nature has resulted in the crisis of our modern times. This has resulted in large-scale disappearance of species, pollution of the oceans and contamination of seafood, salination of soil and erosion of top soil. As we speak, forests are burning in Indonesia to make way for the mono crop of palm oil plantations.

So many species have left us. They have given up on us. Perhaps they will return again when humans destroy themselves. No wonder the Kogi of Colombia’s Sierra Madre who think of themselves as the Elder Brother and caretaker of Mother Earth are asking us, the younger brothers, to become aware of how we are destroying the earth.

The Kogis understood that it is their prayers and ritual offerings to the Holy that keep things in balance; this is what enables them to survive to the present.

Among our own people, the Teduray who up until the late 1970s lived in the isolated forest of Faigel in between Bukidnon and Cotabato also believed in the sacredness of everything. Stu Schlegel, an anthropologist and Episcopal missionary who wrote about the Teduray in Wisdom from the Rainforest, writes that the Teduray didn’t have hierarchies, competitions, or rivalries. They all lived by the tenet of “do not give anyone a bad gall bladder”…Stu Schlegel came to realize that the world he comes from as a white, male, western, civilized, rich, educated person – is really a dysfunctional world when seen thru the lens of theTeduray world view.  In one account where Stu was trying to tell the story of racial and gender discrimination in the US to his Teduray friend, the friend responded: But, Brother Stu, why are your people so cruel?

Indeed, what would the world be like if we all lived by the wisdom of the Teduray, if we all try everyday not to give anyone a bad gallbladder?

After Jesus calmed the storm and the wind, the disciples wondered who he is. Perhaps they, too, haven’t witnessed such a miracle before. They, too, were already severed from their indigenous consciousness. (As historically speaking, by this time people in that part of the world we call Near East, have already shifted from hunting and gathering to settled agriculture).

What does Jesus mean then when he said, let’s go to the other side? What is the “other side” for us today? In my heart, I believe that this gospel message is inviting us to return to the other side that we’ve left behind in our quest to become modern – the homeland, our indigenous roots, the indigenous spirituality of our people.

In Ohio, a mombaki/shaman from Ifugao, Mamerto Tindongan, is building a traditional Ifugao Hut. He had a dream, you see, and in his dream he saw that the Ifugao Hut can be the way to heal the descendants of the 1904 St Louis Worlds Fair where his people and thousands of other indigenous Filipinos were taken by the Americans to be displayed as savages in the human zoos at the fair. Mamerto gave up his two MA degrees and career in order to bid the calling of his ancestors. He belongs to a lineage of mombakis.  And yet other Christianized Cordillerans in the US said “why should we donate to the building of this traditional hut when we have left the pagan world of our ancestors already?”

The “other side” that Jesus, as Babaylan, would want to take his Filipino disciples today is to that place where we were severed from our own ancestral roots and we were taught instead that we come from a demonic and evil, pagan world. I doubt that Jesus would have said that of us. For if we look at his life, the reason why he was put to death is because he was from the “other side” – everything that the dominant culture set up as norm, he revolted against.

The storms – both literal and symbolic – of our lives are perhaps God’s way of reminding us of how Jesus could perform miracles because of his fully developed Christ consciousness. He has transcended his ego and his GodSelf manifests itself in the miracles he performed; we experience the same miracles in our lives when we put our trust and faith in him.

This weekend, I feel honored and humbled to have been asked to talk about the power and beauty of the process of decolonizing ourselves. Perhaps I’d close this talk with a story told by my favorite priest, Fr. Albert Alejo. Once, while visiting an indigenous community in Mindanao and lunch was being served, the datu said, “perhaps because we have a priest with us, we should pray before eating.” Fr. Alejo then asked, “bakit po, if am not here will you be praying before eating?” And the answer was, “No, Father, because you see, when we prepared the ground, we thanked God, when we planted the seed, we thanked God, when we harvested the seed, we thanked God, when we cooked the harvest, we thank God. So you see Father, by the time the food is served, it is already sacred.”

Fr. Alejo has many stories like these about the wisdom of our indigenous kapwa. Stu Schlegel also inspires me to remember the wisdom of the Teduray because, he says, by remembering their worldview, we, too, can build “islands of sanity” in a world gone mad.

So I would like to invite you and I hope you will find inspiration to remember who we are as a people before we were colonized. To decolonize ourselves means to do the beautiful work of reclaiming our indigenous Beauty. Just like the elderly Manobo woman I met in Davao in 2006, who in a dialogue with a group of teachers from California, exhorted us: Please allow us to express our Beauty!

Let us imagine ourselves on that boat with Jesus. We have just witnessed him speaking to the Wind, we have just witnessed him speaking to the crowd on the shore before the boat pulled away. He invites us to go to the “other side” with him.

What do we find on the other side, I wonder? While preparing for this talk, I asked myself the same question and I remember that my “other side” is the Catholic faith that my mother left behind when she converted to Methodist when she married my father.  Lately, I have been honoring my mother as a Catholic; I have a rosary now. My other side also refers to the calling I feel to be in solidarity with indigenous peoples in the homeland. Perhaps for some us, the “other side” is simply the person that we deem as our rival or competitor; or the person we envy; or the groups of people we look down on or are afraid of.  To go with Jesus to the other side reminds us that in our Filipino concept of Kapwa, there really is no other. Kapwa means You and I are One; or the self is in the other.

Please ask Jesus to give you the same power to listen to the Wind. And let us go with him to the other side.

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