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The Batanes Islands

The Batanes Islands

by Clifton Brooks

The Batanes Islands in sight.  

I was impressed by the challenges presented in an article in last year’s Winter, 2007 edition of the Flight Log. The article by Ken Crawford described social conditions in the isolated village of Savoonga on Saint Lawrence Island, Alaska. Ken described a culture without hope; youth who turn to suicide as a way out. With thoughts from Ken’s article still fresh in my mind, I had the opportunity to make a flight that had been on the schedule for many months.
  The main island, Batan.

    Our friends at Philippine Frontier Missions (PFM) had recently opened a new mission station in the unentered province of Batanes, a few small islands composing the northern-most point of the Philippines. Two PFM ladies and a pastor/wife team are pioneering the work in the islands. But they are facing what might be, for a frontier mission organization that specializes in reaching remote tribal people, considered “non-traditional” challenges.

    Batanes is probably the smallest province in all the Philippines, both in terms of land mass and population. Being composed of several small islands, the largest maybe ten miles long and a couple miles wide, it is also the most isolated province, separated from the mainland of Luzon by about 130 nautical miles. The islands are close to Taiwan and the native dialects are very Chinese sounding.

The limestone cliffs.  
    Being exposed to the open Pacific, the islands lie in a violent stretch of water. Strong currents and heavy waves smash the islands, tearing at the limestone cliffs.

   It is easy to see the deep Spanish/Catholic heritage. Architecture is of concrete/stucco with flat roofs - not the typical bamboo style hut. Catholic churches are massive and the people are heavily rooted in the traditions of the church. The mood is very relaxed and peaceful. People quietly stroll the streets or pass by on bicycles. Only a few cars or small motorcycles are to be seen. Gloriously missing are the belching, roaring diesel busses and jeepneys so pervasive in other parts of the Philippines. It’s quiet in the Batanes.
  A Catholic Church.


Folks in the Batanes would quickly dispute a characterization of wealthy. However, the government no longer allows ferry boat service to the islands due to the violent conditions of the open-Pacific waters that separate Batanes from northern Luzon. There are still cargo boats that sail to the islands, but these boats are not allowed to carry passengers, leaving aviation the only means of travel in and out. While the majority of Filipinos have never before set foot inside an airplane (mainly due to financial constraints), here is an entire province where aviation is the sole means of transportation outside of their island. This fact alone places those from Batanes in another sphere. They travel by plane, they have money… 
Itbayat National High School.  

    So they have education, medical care, good jobs, and adequate finances…. What more could they want?

    Meaning, maybe - a reason for living. How do you reach people in this situation? How do you offer the Everlasting Gospel to a people group that is “in need of nothing?” (Rev. 3:17) Typically, Adventist missions have entered new territories with two main thrusts: Education and Medical/Health work (the Gospel’s “right arm”). What entering strategy would you use if these services are already provided at little or no cost?

    It is not easy to be a Protestant missionary in the Batanes islands. The Adventist Church has yet to establish a presence in the area…  What approach would you use?
   The flight request was for published material. I planned to leave Manila with a full load, 500 pounds, of books. It didn’t seem like much of a load for our airplane (it doesn’t take a lot of books to make 500 pounds), but I had to consider the over-water distances involved and my total fuel load.

    In our mission aircraft, the flight from Manila to the capital town of Basco is four hours; eight hours round-trip, plus an hour reserve for a total of nine hours. The aircraft doesn’t hold that much fuel. The last available avgas along the way is a point two hours north of Manila. 

  The AWA mission plane at Basco air strip.
     Without reliable weather reporting, it is often difficult to judge what conditions one will encounter.  Earlier in the day, Basco had reported clear skies and good weather. I launched after refueling, and headed north over the open water. I had been airborne just over an hour and was about 40 miles south of Basco when I ran into a solid wall of rain. At this point, I had two options: go back to Luzon and wait (spending a majority of my fuel in wasted flying) or loiter in the area a bit and try to find a way around the storm into Basco.

    I radioed Basco tower. They were still reporting clear skies and fair weather. “How can it be so fine there, and so nasty here?” I prayed and asked the Lord to open the way for the plane to get through, as He had done so many times before.   

PFM Missionaries with new books.  
    I opted to descend and follow the squall line west. I finally came to the edge of it and swung around North again. I was still many miles out, but I was under the clouds with very little rain and good visibility. I kept flying north and eventually could see Batanes ahead and it was really clear, just as they had reported. I praised God for helping me get through. 

     After landing in Basco, the missionaries took me to the place where they were staying. It is far different from the living conditions of other PFM missionaries stationed with remote mountain tribes. No jungle huts here. No need to run to the stream to fetch water, or ride a horse to get to the village. They rent half of a two-story, concrete building with wood floors. The upstairs portion composed their sleeping area and a small meeting room. The downstairs portion was prepared with shelving to be a Christian book store. 
  PFM Missionaries with the new bookstore sign.


     After studying the culture for some time, the missionaries had prayerfully decided to use Christian books appealing to an educated population. They had started a few individual Bible studies with selected members in the community. A group of eight or so people met regularly in their small area upstairs for Sabbath worship. These missionaries found ways to reach out and were very excited to receive the load of books to stock their small book store. 

    As we stood on the balcony of their house that afternoon, one of the PFM missionary girls introduced me to the harsh reality of the “abundant” life in Batanes.

    “Do you know what that is?” she asked me as she pointed across the road toward a mound piled-up on the neighbor’s flat roof.

The rusted brown metal building filled with empty bottles.   
    I strained hard to recognize what the “mountain” of junk was. Pieces of corrugated roofing stood vertical to form crude walls around a pile of glass that overflowed the house-sized bin. It was a mountain of glass bottles. 

    “Where did they get all those bottles?” I asked.

    “Oh, that’s the problem here,” remarked my new friend. “The people really have nothing to do, so they spend their time drinking. to ease their boredom.” She continued, “The neighbors drink heavily and then throw their bottles up on the roof.”

I was astonished. Drinking alcohol is not uncommon throughout the Philippines, but nowhere else have I found people who had the money to consume that much. The mountain of glass was a striking illustration of the social and spiritual emptiness that pervades the islands.  

  Fishing boats at one of the few landings.
  A Batan village.
    This is not a story of a victories won, new churches planted, or multitudes baptized in a day. This is the story of a new work started in a staunchly resistant area; a new work without a track record of success. This pioneer project seeks to win a people who are “rich and in need of nothing”.

    I am not asking for advice from man as to how to proceed with this work. The missionaries seek advice directly from God. It is a very delicate work they must perform. We are seeking your prayers, however. This is an extremely challenging environment for these missionaries. God’s vision is to see these people come to salvation. Pray that God himself will provide his servants with the wisdom to recognize where he is working; for the funding to keep the project going; and just like Saint Lawrence Island, Alaska - for the workers needed to reach these people in the Batanes with the story of salvation, giving them a new life in Christ, full of hope and meaning.

An Itbayat woman with her headdress.