The Subanens are an indigenous people whose ancestral habitat is the highlands of north-west Mindanao in the Philippines. When the Columban Fathers arrived in Mindanao 1938, we took little notice 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 celebrated the sacred dimension of their habitat in their rituals, stories, music and dance.
In 1983 Columban Sisters Salvador Oyson, Kathleen Melia, Glenda Struss, and Mary McManus answered a call from the Mindanao bishops for Church personnel to enter into dialogue with Indigenous Peoples.
These four women chose to live among the Subanen People in the hinterland parish of Midsalip where Columban Father Sean Martin was assigned. By committing themselves to this mission, these four sisters entered into the world of the Subanens and began to share their joys, fears, and concerns.
It was a perilous time for the Subanens of Midsalip. They lived in a war zone and repeatedly had to abandon their homes and crops during armed conflicts. When they returned home 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 the healthy and renewable ecosystems of this sacred gift are an on-going miracle that allows us 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, teachings 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 an enhancing 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 gospel depiction of the last judgement (Matthew chapter 25) the Son of Man welcomes all into his Father’s reign 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.
They, along with Columban Father Frank Nally, fought to maintain the flow of rivers and streams for thirsty people and their crops by protesting against illegal logging in the local watershed.
They 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.
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 beautifully 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 and dry workspace for crafters and a base where art materials and finished items can be stored.
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. The now deforested hills now cast rainwater down in floods and mud slides.
Our workshop went into operation in April 2019, just in time to facilitate the production of this 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 inlay pieces of colored paper into the cut-out parts. 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 has in common with Subanen families. And so we design cards that depict Joseph and Mary trekking over rugged terrain to reach Bethlehem, like Subanens who have to hike daily over mountainous trails.
We design cards that show the birth of Jesus in a stable, like Subanen children who are born in simple shelters with farm animals kept safely nearby. We design cards that have Mary and Joseph cooking, cleaning, gathering fire-wood, fetching water and feeding their donkey, like Subanen families who do similar household chores.
We have cards that show the Holy Family quickly gathering up their belongings and fleeing from Herod’s soldiers, like so many Subanen families who have had to quickly abandon their homes and flee during times of armed conflict.
And we have craft cards that depict Mary and Joseph doing their best to feed, clothe, shelter, nurture and protect Jesus like Subanen families who struggle each day to raise healthy children.
As the Subanen crafters color, cut and inlay the cards, they realize that the story of Mary and Joseph is their story as well.
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 sacred gift of God.
The Subanens and Earth-friendly faith communities know that they are not valued and will be opposed by economies and business practices that profit from the degradation of the Earth. They will need the power of the Holy Spirit to continue working for healthy and sustainable habitats.
On the day we called for God’s blessing on our workshop and on the seedlings for the forest, 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.
Fr. Vinnie is a Columban priest from the USA who has been serving in Mindanao, Philippines since his arrival in 1975. His great interest in Creation Spirituality brought him to appreciation of life and the cosmos expressed in different forms of art including poetry. He initiated a handicraft project with the Subanens in Zamboanga del Sur in 2001. To see the crafts and cards of the Subanens visit their website, www.subanencrafts.com.
Copyright © 2021 Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach, Washington, D.C.