Many people ask me why I have decided to dedicate my life to helping the Badjao, and the answer is quite simple. God used them to show me what going to church and listening to countless sermons never could.
In August of 1983, at the age of 15, I asked Jesus into my heart following an evangelistic crusade that visited my hometown in North Carolina, and for years afterward, I attended various churches of different denominations, which continued to assure me that I was "saved" at that crusade back in August of 1983.
However, despite being a "Christian," I lived a selfish and reckless life (I will spare all the ugly details). This started in high school, continued during my time in the military, and continued for the many years that followed. All this time, I believed that if something were to happen to me, I would be "OK." After all, I was going to church, and I had invited Jesus into my heart long before.
While I had done some good for others from time to time during my life, for the most part it was about me. That is, until a trip I took half way around the world to the island of Mindanao, located in the southern Philippines, in 2011.
My primary reason for visiting Mindanao was a simple toothache. I had been talking online with a friend I had met on a Christian site for over a year and had always wanted to visit her, but the expense of the trip was too much for my budget. An off-and-on toothache finally got to the point where it was becoming unbearable, and it forced me to go to the dentist. During that visit to the dentist, I learned that I was going to need to get not one but two root canals and crowns. One, of course, for the tooth that was bothering me, and also one for a tooth on the opposite side. The cost to do this was going to run about $4,000.
Ironically, the friend I had been talking with online was renting a room from a dentist, so naturally, I asked about this procedure and was told that it could be done there in the Philippines for around $500. Once I heard this, I decided to check prices for airfare and lodging and found that I could get the dental work done there for far less, even with the travel expenses included, and it would also allow me to meet my friend in one shot with change to spare. After all, why should I help pay for my dentist to have a vacation in a faraway tropical paradise when I could use my hard-earned money to do so myself?
It was during this visit that I met members of a group called the Badjao. The Badjao are a water-based tribe, and traditionally, they live on the bounties of the sea. They are an animistic tribe for the most part; however, they do have some Islamic influence since they originate from the Muslim regions of Southeast Asia. Due to conflict, piracy, and lack of opportunity, many Badjao have left their ancestral waters and traveled to larger cities far removed from these hardships in search of a better life. Unfortunately, most find that the urban areas have little to offer them, and many are forced to beg in the streets as a means to survive.
My friend attended a church in the city proper of Davao, and each Sunday there would be a group of mostly young Badjao, teenagers and children, standing in front of the church building begging for coins. To be honest, I didn't like the Badjao at first; not many people do. They are known for having poor hygiene, lacking proper manners, and being very aggravating, especially when they are in dire need of money. But even then, each Sunday I would make sure I had enough five peso coins to give out to each of these Badjao beggars. I would hand them a coin, they would always say thank you, and then move on to the next prospect.
My trip would last for four weeks, and it was on the final weekend of attending church that something out of the ordinary occurred. I gave the begging Badjaos each a coin as I always had, but this time, rather than walk away, three young girls began to follow my friend and me as we walked from the church towards the city center to get something to eat. Two of the girls were in their teens, and the youngest was probably around seven years old.
The three girls continued to follow us with their bare feet despite the pavement being scorching hot from the afternoon sun. I guess they had been doing so for so long that they had become immune to the pain.
We tried our best to ignore them as we walked, but when the youngest of the three girls tugged at my shirt, I had no choice but to acknowledge them.
“Get your dirty hands off me!” I said it quite loudly. I had become very upset at this point.
“Go away! I gave you money already!"
What happened next caught me completely off guard. The oldest of the three girls asked the other two to give her the coins I had given them earlier. She then attempted to return the three five-peso coins to me. As she handed them to me, one of the coins slipped through my fingers and dropped into a puddle of water. I reached down to retrieve the coin, and in doing so, my hands got pretty dirty. The girl then reached out for the hem of her rainbow-colored malong, a traditional “tube skirt” she had pulled up to her waist. A malong can also be used as a blanket, hammock, baby carrier, or practically anything within the scope of one’s creativity and necessity.
The girl then used the cleanest part of the cloth to meticulously wipe the dirt and grime off my hands, and once finished, she just looked at me and smiled. The three Badjao girls then turned and walked away.
At that very moment, it was like there was nothing or anyone else around. I couldn’t even hear the sound of traffic passing by. I didn't even notice that my friend had slipped away moments earlier and continued up the street without me. It was as if someone had slammed me to the pavement, and I could see my old self lying lifeless on the ground. It was a very powerful and life-changing moment.
It was also at that very instant that I realized that I had been wrong for so many years. Not just wrong for living the way I had up until that point, but wrong for believing I was saved—wrong for believing that I was a Christian! I immediately knew, without a doubt, that had I died prior to that encounter with the three young Badjao girls, I would have spent an eternity separated from God.
Needless to say, I left my old self lying there in the street that day. I would return to the room I was staying in, and with tears rolling down my face, I would thank God for preserving my life until that moment; I would thank God for using those three Badjao girls to show me the truth.
It's truly amazing how God works sometimes. It took these three children from a pagan tribe half way around the world to show me what a lifetime of going to church, countless pastors, Sunday school classes, and even my own Christian parents could not. And while my salvation comes only through Jesus Christ and the sacrifice He made for us, God used the Badjao to reveal this to me. It's for this reason that I have committed the rest of my life to helping the Badjao, because the way I see it, I owe them a debt that can never be repaid.
“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” Galatians 2:20