A Letter from Cobbie Palm in the Philippines
January 1, 2008
Greetings from the Philippines!
Cobbie and Dessa are now back with the flow of life in Dumaguete after a six-month interpretation assignment in the eastern regions of the United States from January to June. The time with churches in the United States was meaningful and heart warming. It was an opportunity to be amazed by the many creative mission projects our PC(USA) congregations are involved in. It was an opportunity to be renewed in spirit by the enthusiastic reception of congregations excited about God’s mission in the Philippines. Relationships were renewed and new acquaintances were made with countless individuals living in the excitement of their faith.
Back in Dumaguete, it was business as usual for Dessa who immediately stepped into the role of lead facilitator for a summer theater workshop for teens, bringing together 25 young people from troubled and deprived families to explore their creativity in addressing the issue of violence against women and children. The culmination is always an eye-opening expression of the stories of the youth and the pressures on their fragile souls.
The summer theater workshop began a landslide of activities for Dessa, which included invitations to the United States and Korea to facilitate and lecture; invitations to communities to create local educational theater groups; and to numerous existing cultural groups seeking her creativity in mounting various productions. The success of her Youth Advocates Through the Arts (YATA) program, which she organized two years ago—and which now puts on advocacy productions about many social issues—are a regular feature at schools, churches, and institutions throughout the region.
The Divinity School serves as the principle locus of mission for Cobbie. On campus he continues to nurture the students through spiritual retreats away from the academic requirements of their courses. Cobbie has also been tasked as coordinator for campus worship life, which challenges him to explore new forms of creative worship and work with the student body on communicating effectively. Cobbie has built up a reputation as an effective communicator and has been working to balance his time on campus with the many invitations to speak and preach off campus. He also offers much time and energy to numerous community initiatives and to the church as committee and board member.
Cobbie and Dessa feel very blessed in their ministries and are grateful to God and to all of you friends and family. Merry Christmas.
Balancing word and action
Learning to do mission is a never-ending mission to learn. I came to this small town from doing mission in the larger city of Manila and stepped into my new situation dancing the steps I had learned in the big city. I was immediately vocal about the injustices that were self-evident in the community and encouraged the church to do the same. I was dancing to the tune of building up a critical voice to assert right over wrong.
In no time, I discovered that my efforts were having an impact. Invitations to speak and preach were rapidly on the decline, the invitations to sit on influential committees and boards were no longer made available. Quietly and systematically I was being eased into isolation and irrelevance.
I realized I had better evaluate my efforts. I had all the tools and the passion, but I lost my audience. I was familiar with the big city, where there is a niche for every persuasion. In time you are discovered and given your stage with those of similar persuasion who offer a safe space from which to engage. I discovered that a small town is a different reality. In a small town it is less about the niche of a common persuasion that offers a comfortable refuge and more about the daily interaction of a diversity of persuasions interrelated in unexpected ways and sharing the same small congregation, grocery store, post office, barbershop, and even family.
Soon I came to realize that ministry in a small town entails a different mission strategy, one that is persuasive enough to inspire meaning, yet sensitive enough to build relationships across persuasions. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul speaks of our spoken words being as meaningless as noisy gongs and clanging cymbals if we have not love. Love is that ingredient of mission that pries us from the safe refuge of our persuasion and makes our relationships across persuasions possible. This is not to compromise the gospel message we affirm, rather it is to awaken our sensitivities to the diversity of our community, leading to better discernment of appropriate mission strategies.
Today, I find my schedule full of wonderful opportunities to reach out to the community, invitations to preach and teach, involvement in influential bodies on campus, at church, and in community, requests from projects for my participation. These days abound with potential to reach the community. Beyond my responsibilities to the Divinity School of Silliman University, allow me to share a few highlights from the last six months.
Preaching and teaching
- July 3: Larena Devotion: Facilitated a spiritual retreat for the campus dormitory.
- August 25: Silliman Park Bible Study: Led the anniversary Bible study for Silliman Park.
- October 10: Basic Education Department Convocation: Preacher at the annual convocation.
- November 10: New Student Convocation: Preacher at the annual convocation.
November 19: Bethel Guest House Anniversary: Preacher at the anniversary.
- November 25: Mabinay Church Thankgiving: Preacher at the Thanksgiving service.
- December 2: Lamdas Church: Preacher for the Advent service.
Boards and committees
- Board member of the Silliman Journal, the academic journal of Silliman University.
- Board member of GWAVE, a community-based program to end violence against women and children.
- Board member of Justice and Peace Center, an extension program of Silliman University that promotes justice and peace.
- Member of the Environmental Impact Assessment Team of Silliman University, a multi-disciplinary team organized by Silliman University to monitor development initiatives in the province.
- Chairperson, Justice and Peace Committee of Silliman University Church, a committee of the church mandated to nurture to the congregation and reach out to the community.
- July 7: Inauguration of the Institute of Youth Sports for Peace, keynote speaker.
- September 21: Peace One Day Celebration: speaker
- September 23: Bike of Life: A ride for Cancer Awareness, member, organizing committee.
- December 16: Bike for Rights: A ride for Environment Awareness, convenor.
Community theater as ministry
As I write this evening, our house is alive and noisy with the voices, music, and laughter of young people rehearsing for another theater production. The Christmas season is a demanding time for Dessa, who is working with three productions, one with the church intended to tell the Christmas story with a modern twist, another with rural farmers who would like to use theater to express their reality at their year-end conference, and one with the group she organized who call themselves Youth Advocates Through the Arts (YATA), who have responded to a request to present a poignant piece they wrote on children with disabilities.
The demand for theater productions to tell the story and speak the message comes from the situation that surrounds us here. We are a university town, and just beyond the boundaries of the town we are surrounded by communities of fisherfolk and farmers. Community leaders and organizers have realized that the transfer of information in these communities is best achieved through “events” rather than seminars and reading material. These communities dedicate their whole day to the work that translates into food for that day, so to ask them to attend an all-day seminar would mean a day away from providing for the needs of the family. Therefore, the inclination of the community members would be to decline. However, to bring in an event for one evening at the community hall, offering the message through a creative and engaging theater production draws the crowd and information, and learning is shared.
As a community theater artist, Dessa began with a theater workshop for teens—some were students, some out of school youth—who formed themselves into YATA. This diverse group of young people has evolved into a competent group of performers and script writers. They have been invited to create and perform productions on child trafficking, violence against women and children, sustainable agriculture, and the differently abled. With each production they travel to communities and schools with their message. I can’t say enough about the excitement I feel as I have watched these youth find meaning and purpose in their lives. At one of their performances one of the members introducing the group said, “This is our way of being faithful to the way of Jesus Christ, who lived to teach us how to live in better relationship with each other and with God.” That is beautiful.
Learning Advent from a rural church
On the first Sunday of Advent it is a common practice among the smaller rural churches to invite a guest preacher. I was awake at 4:30 a.m. to be ready to stand out by the roadside to catch the bus that would take me up into the mountains to Lamdas Church. For the first hour of the journey, the ride was stable enough for me to read through my preaching and Bible study notes, though I had to make sure that no piece of paper blew out the open windows from the stream of wind coming through the open doors of the bus. Then for the next two hours I had to do all I could to prevent dizziness from the winding curves of the rough mountain road to Lamdas.
Then came the call from the bus conductor: “manaog Lamdas.” I was relieved to hear that I had arrived. One other passenger and myself got off, and the bus rolled on. The bus stop was a small nipa waiting shed with three small bamboo hut houses. I had to ask the young man who got off with me where Lamdas Church was, he said it is close, a short walk further up a dirt road. Together we started up the dirt road. For the first 10 minutes, on both sides of the road were tall sugar cane stalks. I wondered if there is a town nearby. Then the dirt road dipped down toward a river and we had to navigate our way through the mud by trying to stay on the rocks. Off to the right were a group of women washing clothes and telling stories. It was the first sign I had that there may be people living in a place called Lamdas.
My black leather Sunday shoes were now two-toned with brown mud. But what was most disturbing was that this man’s idea of “close” was so different from mine. We had been walking for 30 minutes, and still all I could see around me was forest, occasionally cleared for a rice field or sugar cane. Each time I asked him if we are close, he said “yes,” but nothing changed.
Finally, there was a long curve in the dirt road and two small dogs appeared. I knew this was a sign, and sure enough as we walked further small nipa and bamboo houses began to appear among the trees. There were even one or two small cement houses. It was a village! I asked about the church and they pointed me in its direction. I hurried toward it realizing that I was now late. I imagined the embarrassment of walking into a church service that had already started. But as I approached the church I slowed down my pace. I could see through the windows of the small chapel that there were only one elderly man working on the candles and two women arranging the pews. All three looked up at me as I tried to hide my panting from the rush. I looked at my watch and looked at them. They smiled. None of them had a watch.
I was confused. I was told to be there by 9:00 a.m., and it was now thirty minutes past, and there were three people in the church. The elderly man came over to welcome me, and I could not help from inquiring about the hour worship would begin. The question seemed to surprise the elderly man, who looked around in the church before answering me saying, “when the people arrive is the hour.”
As I waited, I sat toward the back of the church and observed. In a while three young people arrived and joined the two women. Together they began singing hymns using only their voices and hands to give music and rhythm. I found myself joining in first with the clapping then with the singing and feeling the celebration. Soon our excitement increased in volume as people continued to arrive. The singing was so enjoyable I forgot I was to lead a worship service. It was now 10:30 and the church was full. Then our singing stopped and everyone looked over at me. The hour had arrived.
I preached about Advent, but my understanding was touched by this day. Advent is a season to look back and to look forward, back to the hour when a Savior was born, forward to the hour when the Savior will come again. Many have tried to predict the hour, many have rushed to the hour of the coming again. On this day it occurred to me that the hour may not be determined by the minutes of the watch or the years on the calendar after all, but by the substance and events in our churches. When the excitement of our faith has drawn in the crowd, when our churches are bubbling with people and programs, just maybe then, the hour will arrive.
May God bless all of our ministries, and may God bless us all this Christmas.
Cobbie and Dessa
The 2008 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 107