November 18, 2013

Murray missionary weathers the storm

Misty Watson

— CHATSWORTH — As rains poured, winds raged up to 120 mph and trees fell around the grass huts in the rural Alangan village of Pandarukan, John Holbrook’s parents kept faith their son was safe.

Haiyan wasn’t the first typhoon John had experienced in the Philippines.

Having lived in the Philippines as missionaries for eight years and Thailand for four, Tim and Dawn Holbrook, of Chatsworth, knew what to expect. They knew that as soon as the storm hit, the wouldn’t have communication with their son until it cleared.

And they would have to wait to know if their son was OK.

“We have been through a few super typhoons in the Philippines,” Dawn said. “We knew that until the storm cleared, he could not use his satellite phone, and usually that’s a minimum of three days. He would not be able to go out of his village to use anything else. We knew all the phones, cellphones and Internet cafes would be down and we knew the roads would be out.”

The Holbrooks watched news of the weather. They monitored the storm. They knew John had returned to his home village of Pandarukan, about three hours north of where he serves as a pastor — among other roles for the people there — of a Seventh-day Adventist Church.

“We watched the weather a lot to see where the eye was,” Dawn said. “We knew that’s where the real damage would be. We believed that he was fine where he was. We knew he was above the flood plain. He wasn’t in the surge. We knew there wasn’t a large river for flooding and he wasn’t in danger of one of the larger mudslides.”

John resides and works on the island of Mindoro, which is on the western side of where the brunt of the storm named Haiyan hit.

Danger from trees

“We didn’t think of trees,” Dawn said.

The first communication the Holbrooks had with John was an email he sent through satellite phone Monday evening, which was Tuesday morning in the Philippines. Communication still suffered a lot of interference from the weather. But he was able to let his family know he was OK. It had been three days since they had heard from him.

“We had been praying for him and his family, our family over there,” Dawn said, referring to their adoptive family. “By the time we finally heard from him we had at least 50 to 60 phone calls, texts and emails asking about him. It was very exciting (to hear from him.) We were both on the computer, and we checked the email. We stopped everything and read it.”

John had told his parents that it had taken him several tries to finally get the message out.

The email said “it had been the strongest and fastest typhoon he’d ever been in,” Dawn said. “The wind had only lasted about an hour to an hour and a half. It only lasted about 18 hours total where he’s at.

“He said they weathered it in their hut, in their bamboo hut, but when trees started falling around the village, they ran to a concrete school and camped there. He didn’t say anything about emotion or scariness.”

When a typhoon hits it is loud and constant, Dawn said.

“Rain is coming through everything you can put up,” she said. “It comes in under the eaves. The floors are wet. The beds are wet. We had a concrete house and people would shelter in our house.”

Since most people live in huts made of bamboo and grass, it is common for poles to fall and break and for roofs to have to be thatched again. Mudslides are common.

On Tuesday, John was able to call his mother while she was at work at Murray Medical Center, where she is a nurse.

“They were afraid a tree would fall on the hut,” she said. “It wasn’t something they had concerns with before. They didn’t know it would be that strong.”

When trees started falling, most everyone in the village with trees near their homes ran to the school in the storm to seek shelter. Dawn estimated the school is about 300 feet from John’s hut. Trees in the village are a mixture of strong ones like the oaks here and ones with shallow root systems, such as the pines here, that topple easily when facing such strong winds.

“He said it was very intense and they were frightened at the time,” Dawn said. John’s cousin, Lisa Jester, had come to visit John for a few months and arrived just in time for the storm to hit.

“They had no homes destroyed,” Dawn said. “There was minor damage to the roofs, but no injuries.”

Trees in the village fell just short of the huts.

“I think that’s a miracle,” Dawn said. “Because of the mountains, they were right at the bottom of the tallest mountain, they didn’t get as much storm damage as other parts of the island. The houses are not as strong as the trees. God was protecting them.”

John has said numerous times the safest place in the world to be is where God calls you.

Tim and Dawn were missionaries in the Philippines from 1994 to 2002. John was 8 when they left.

Then they went to Thailand for four years before returning to the Chattanooga area so John could attend college at Southern Adventist University to study theology at age 20. After graduating from college and a year raising money for his mission, he returned to the Philippines to help the Batangan tribe, a tribe south of the Alangan. John is being helped in his mission by his adoptive Filipino brother, Delpin. He has been there for two years.

“He was here about five years before he went overseas as a missionary himself,” Dawn said. “We didn’t realize it until the night before he went back that he identified very deeply with them, much more deeply than we thought.”

John considers the Philippines his home. He has plans to start a rubber plantation there while he continues his work as a missionary to the Batangan tribe.

John has been able to return to the lowlands because the “infrastructure is back up, and they seem to have power,” Dawn said. “He didn’t talk a lot about damage. He is on the western side, which did not get a storm surge. I know many rice fields are flattened. And they’re going to lose a lot of crops. That’s their main industry there. ... They go into debt to plant those crops. So not only is there no cash crop, but they’re in debt. They live hand to mouth. They’ll be in worse poverty.”

Practicing medicine

John is considered a pastor and conducts leadership trainings and leadership mentoring in the lowlands.

“His target is the highlands,” Dawn said. “Part (of the tribe) have separated to maintain spiritual and cultural integrity, to maintain their nature worship, Satan worship and voodoo. It’s very much voodoo, picking up hairs and casting spells. They very rarely come out of the mountains. He has been treating medical problems that have been brought to him, but he hasn’t had an invitation” to go into the highlands.

Many of the villagers stay in the highlands, choosing to die rather than leave to be treated. Only the “braver men” venture out to see John, Dawn said. John has been taking missionary medical courses, but also began helping Dawn treat villagers when he was 12.

“He has a strong aptitude for medicine,” she said. Villagers experience a lot of problems with malaria and pneumonia. Highlanders have the chance to go to the lowlands for vaccinations including malaria, measles, whooping cough, tetanus and rabies.

Dawn says John’s mission isn’t just about introducing the Batangan to God. It is about helping them preserve their culture and language and teaching them about healthy living.

“The 21st century is encroaching on their life even though they don’t like it,” she said. “We don’t want to eliminate their culture. We want to preserve it. We’re encouraging them to preserve it. ... Otherwise, they will not survive. There is a huge prejudice and they’re likely to be eliminated by starvation and having their lands taken.”

John has been working to interact with the chiefs of the Batangan village.

“He’s really praying,” Dawn said. “God has to create a need that only (John) can fill.”

Dawn said that people in such rural areas experience God in a different way.

“In that typhoon they had no one but God, nothing but God,” she said. “When something happens there’s not a shelter underground nearby. There’s no mountain top shelter. There’s not a mechanic to fix things. There’s not a carpenter to build. There’s not a doctor to go to to have surgery. When you give God that kind of opportunity he comes through. He does it here too, we just ask less.

“I know the world doesn’t have faith in God. That’s their choice, but we’ve experienced it, and he’s always come through. We’ve seen God come through for us and our people.”