Learning a gospel of lament in the Philippines

OMF has worked in the Philippines for over 70 years. We chatted to OMF Philippines field director Irene McMahon about the future role of cross-cultural workers there, how her openness to God’s call led her to the role, and what she has learnt from the Filipino Church.

Why is OMF in the Philippines?

When China Inland Mission had to leave China in 1951, some of the missionaries came to the Philippines in 1952 and began to work with the Chinese church already established there. At that time the evangelical presence in the Philippines was considered to be less than 2 per cent. 

Today the evangelical presence is at least 14 per cent, but it is difficult to get accurate data. All OMF workers are serving in the Philippines at the invitation of the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches (PCEC). In a recent public webinar with Bishop Noel Pantoja of PCEC and other Philippine church leaders, they confirmed that there is still a place for cross-cultural workers. They extended an invitation to Christians to come from overseas and help the Filipino Church to reach the hard to reach people and those who live in hard to live places. There is a need for people with gifts in missional business and community development to address the issues of poverty and inequity. They affirmed that one of the greatest needs in the Philippines at this time is theological education: both formal training in seminaries and Bible colleges and grassroots education for pastors and church leaders who have not had the privilege of higher education. 

Tell us about yourself and how you came to serve as field director.

My husband Wilson and I came to the Philippines in 1989 to live and work among the indigenous Manobo people in Mindanao, the second largest island of the Philippines. We served with the small Manobo churches in the Tigwa valley in church planting, which involved everything from evangelism and grassroots theological education to running a scholarship programme and feeding programmes, agricultural and water projects. In 2003 we returned to Northern Ireland and took up the roles of Directors for OMF in Ireland.

In 2019 we were invited by Koinonia Theological Seminary in Davao, Mindanao’s largest city, to come and teach and assist with administration, which we were delighted to accept. Within a few months we unexpectedly ended up carrying the roles of academic dean and chief operations officer. It was a steep learning curve for both of us, but, unknown to me, preparation for another task. 

Within a few months of arriving back in the country, I was asked to consider taking on the leadership of OMF Philippines. It soon became apparent that many potential leaders had left in recent years and that very few were willing to consider accepting this responsibility, resulting in the unexpected request for me to take up this role. 

Throughout my life I have often found myself in a position of being a catalyst for change, and it would appear that that was what the Lord was calling me to do again. I had ideas and plans about what needed to change and how, potentially, I could begin to implement things. That was before the pandemic.

The pandemic accelerated change in ways we had never anticipated, including an incomplete handover, loss of half the existing leadership team and OMF having to exit ministries prematurely.

I thank God that this did not take him by surprise and we have not only survived to date, but I believe we have grown in many ways. 

What are some of the barriers to the gospel in the Philippines?

The Filipino people are a very welcoming and very religious people, and there are few barriers to receiving foreigners and their message. However, the challenge is that many missionaries come from relatively wealthy countries with stable governments, welfare state and health care systems and have never had to work out a theology of suffering or what the gospel says about peace and reconciliation. This is part of the incomplete gospel that has been disseminated. A triumphalist gospel with no place for lament and suffering cannot speak to those who lose their homes and livelihoods on an annual basis due to typhoons. A gospel that does not teach peace and reconciliation has nothing to say to those whose families have been torn apart in the Muslim-Christian conflict that has raged for generations creating deep distrust and hatred.

A related challenge is that Christianity has often come in Western packaging. In a recent webinar Dr Melba Maggay, a Filipino writer and theologian, described the Western packaging of Christianity like the McDonaldization of the faith. She calls for missionaries to come to the Philippines willing to sit under the Scriptures together with Filipino Christians and work out a theology that addresses the deep cultural issues here. We need to be willing to unlearn much of what is cultural in our faith and learn how to read the word of God in the Philippine context.

What have you learnt from the Filipino church?

I would say that my faith has been transformed by living here: 

Firstly I had to learn to lean on God in a way I probably never would have done had I stayed in Northern Ireland. Living in a remote tribal village, with small children who were often sick, stretched my faith. I could always leave. I could get out of the village and go to a hospital. My Filipino neighbours could not. They taught me about herbal remedies and demonstrated that the first recourse for help when someone was sick was to a spiritual source. They taught me how interconnected our lives are with the spirit world. 

Secondly, I had to learn what the gospel has to say about suffering, about endless oppression and inequity, I had to learn to lament and pray the Psalms. I admire the resilience and tenacity of Filipinos everywhere in the face of tremendous hardships. 

Thirdly I had to learn the power and the value of community and relationships. I have been brought up to be independent, to fix things myself, and never to borrow. In the Philippines I learned the beauty of reciprocity and the reality that there is no such thing as independence. I have been humbled by the generosity of my Filipino colleagues, of their kindness to me despite my directness and often blundering ways. I am still learning how to read the silence, how to understand gestures and prompts and suggestions. I am grateful for the grace extended to us as a family for nearly 20 years – our faith is richer for it. 

Irene McMahon
OMF Philippines Field Director

Hear more of Irene & Wilson’s journey in episode 12 of the Serve Asia Podcast ‘Taking Risks, Trusting God’. Listen at omf.org/uk/podcast