by Jonathan Bradford
There are approximately 7,641 islands in the Republic of the Philippines but only around 2,000 of them have been settled. The majority of them have some kind of gospel presence or witness but there are some islands that are so remote and require such a huge level of commitment to reach that to our knowledge, the Person and Work of the Lord Jesus Christ has never been clearly taught there.
We first heard of the Caluya Island chain in June 2022 at a training conference on the Island of Boracay that we had helped to arrange. During the conference, Angelo, a local church leader whom we have been working with for some time, shared about his church planting experience and spoke of the work in Caluya and his burden to see churches established on the final two islands in the chain. There was good sound exposition at that conference but it was Angelo’s message that hit me the hardest.
Boracay used to be one of the premier tourist beaches to visit with its unusually white sand, warm water and friendly locals drawing people from all corners of the globe. As you stand on that fabulous white beach and look west you can make out an island on the horizon. This is Caluya, the main island in a small chain, which is situated in the Western Visayas region of the Philippines. Over the years the Lord has helped Angelo train up men who have planted small churches on the islands of Caluya, Sibay, Semirara and Sibat but Sibolo and Panagatan remain unreached.
We asked Angelo what it would take to get the ball rolling in reaching these islands. He told me that he had taken prospective missionaries there before but the tiny boats and rough seas had driven everyone away. However, he was willing to take me and one of my students over, so for the next couple of months we continued to correspond and put together a group of 14 who were willing to brave the seas and make a trip to survey Sibolo Island. The Lord wonderfully provided the money needed to fund the trip and on 23 June last year I flew to Boracay and a day later we hired a local man to ferry us to the Caluya Islands.
The Joy of the Lord
Our trip began at around 4am in the morning and by 5am we were at the pier taking the boat from Boracay to Caticlan on the Island of Panay. From there we hired a van to take us to a small town called Libertad where our boat was meant to be waiting. Upon arrival there we met Peter, a young leader at the church in Libertad, who had just been widowed and left to lead the small struggling church and raise his young boy alone. It was a privilege to meet this man who had endured so much and yet remained filled with the joy of the Lord and faithful in discharging his calling to preach the gospel to the people on Panay.
In over 20 years, I don’t think I have ever hired a boat that actually turned up and this one was no different, so we had a little time to rest before we all piled into motorcycles with sidecars and rode to the boat owner’s house to find out where he was, only to discover that he had been waiting for the sea to calm down a little. After we arrived, we began to ferry our supplies across the coral to a tiny boat that would take us out to the not much bigger bamboo boat that would take us to the islands. You could sense the fear among the younger people who had grown up hearing stories about the rough crossings but none of them backed out and soon we were on our way accompanied by a pod of dolphins. The Lord heard the prayers of His people and the next 3-4 hours were very calm. It was only as we approached the Island of Sibay that the sea began to grow restless but we were soon between the two rocky outcrops that make a natural harbour for the beach and unloading. I wasn’t about to risk my already damaged ankle stepping down into a tiny tossing boat, so I dived into the sea and swam to the shore.
It was a privilege to meet this man who had endured so much and yet remained filled with the joy of the Lord and faithful in discharging his calling to preach the gospel to the people on Panay.
Ministry on Sibay
There is almost no infrastructure on Sibay, no port, no hospital, no real shops, no power and no cell phone signal most of the time. The main industry is farming seaweed and the people mostly eat fish, seaweed and buy a few necessities from the tiny stores operated from the houses of some of the residents. We were able to let people know we made it safely by taking a motorbike to the top of a hill in the middle of the island, the only place you can get a two-bar phone signal unless you set up a makeshift antennae on the roof of your house. The missionaries there were delighted to see us. They themselves had tragically buried their first-born son on the island a short time ago and yet, like Peter, they were still there shepherding the small church that meets each Sunday in their living room.
The young people we brought with us split into two teams and ran a ministry to the children on the island for two days while the adults distributed tracts and witnessed to everyone they met. Since I don’t speak the Caluyanon, Kinaray-a or Hiligaynon languages my ministry was to the missionaries and church leaders themselves and the children who study English in school. It was oppressively hot and humid and with the only source of electricity being a generator that was out of oil most of the time, we only had a few hours of power. That meant no fans, air-conditioning, flushing toilets or cold drinks, which we are spoilt with in Manila. Thankfully the Lord gave us a few hours of power one night, which enabled us to charge our phones so that we could take photographs.
A Warm Welcome in Sibolo
The final day of the trip was the most important for us, after all Sibolo was our main concern and we had hoped to spend more time there. We ended up with just one day to visit and get back to the mainland but the Lord had everything in hand. We left Sibay early in the morning and dropped a missionary family off on the Island of Sibat before sailing on to Sibolo. Shortly after we stepped off the boat and began to pray for help, a young man offered to take us to the house of the Barangay captain – the highest locally elected official in a Filipino village. He was not there but his secretary was and she warmly welcomed us to the island and within a short time we had what we came for – permission to open a mission station and also to purchase a plot of land to build on in the coming years.
It took another 4-5 hours to get back to the mainland afterwards and once again the Lord kept the sea calm for us and allowed us the entertainment of another pod of dolphins for the journey. Unfortunately, it was low tide when we arrived and the boat could not get near the shore, so I swam in again. By now the physical toll of the last four days was beginning to take effect and I was convinced that we would need some strong fit young men to endure the physical and spiritual challenges brought by working in such a remote place.
Since the trip, the Lord has moved the hearts of two young men currently studying in seminary. Jeric, who had come with us, and Jerry, who hopes to team up with him after graduation from Bible school. After a period of orientation and preparation with the missionaries on Sibay, Jeric and Jerry plan to move to Sibolo and begin the work there.
I hope to make another trip back to the islands with Angelo this year. While the work in Sibolo begins, the challenge of Panagatan, which is a massive lagoon used for seaweed farming with three small islets, awaits. Many people live in houses above the water and everyone is evacuated to the mainland when a typhoon comes through. It may be one of the most challenging works we have ever started and yet people in these places need to hear the gospel. We rejoice in all that the Lord has done, is doing and will do in this remote area of the world. In the words of the Psalmist, ‘Sing to the Lord a new song, sing His praise from the end of the earth! You who go down to the sea, and all that is in it. You islands, and those who dwell on them’ (Ps 42:10).