InterSections

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INTERNATIONAL LETTER

Toowoomba Lectureship, QLD

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Mission Bago: How God Shows His Hand  Giovanni Rodriguez

My story takes place in my home country, the Philippines.  It’s one of those stories where we see God working in a strange but wonderful way.

In 1999, I got to know Bettyboy and Bebing Saburiga. They live in Bago, a village in Negros Oriental province. They’re part of a Church of Christ ministry which has roots in the 1960s when Bettyboy’s father, Arsenio Saburiga, first worked with visiting American missionaries.

One day, a fellow Christian told me that Bettyboy had some land in Bago to sell – but only to another Christian. I was then living in Cebu City but I decided to see the land. Bago is in the middle of a mountain range and a day’s journey away. It had no electricity, no communications, and no decent roads. Going to Bago was like taking a step back in time. I had a look at the land and purchased it straightaway, despite Bettyboy asking for a rather high price. 

My wife, Naomi, wasn’t happy with my decision. Back then I was a lukewarm Christian and more interested in doing business and making money. Naomi saw that my real intent wasn’t to help a fellow Christian but was more selfish. On subsequent visits to Bago, I came to know other members of the Saburiga family. Some also sold their land to me. My mountain property was growing. 

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Before 2020

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After 2020

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In 2001, my family migrated to New Zealand to start a new life. I left everything in the Philippines and considered the Bago land, which was still undeveloped, a write-off. I lost contact with Bettyboy. Amazingly, he kept our New Zealand address and in 2008 I received a letter from him. To my surprise he’d been faithfully caring for my land. 

In 2009, my family relocated to Melbourne. We joined the Belmore Road congregation and became part of a Discovery Group (DG) which met on weeknights at the Tabalujan home. As a service project, our DG decided to help the Bago Christians plant coconut palms and fruit trees on my land. The goal was to develop a plantation to help improve the economic prospects of the local Christians. However, progress was slow. Rodents ate some of the saplings and maintenance was challenging.

In 2012, Bago experienced a 6.9 magnitude earthquake. This almost flattened the Bago church building. Naomi was keen to help so we brought the matter before the Belmore Road church. Christians opened their hearts and wallets and enough funds were raised to repair the Bago building. 

In 2014, 2017, and 2019 I visited Bago with David Tabe (at that time one of Belmore Road’s deacons). David wanted to see the Bago situation firsthand. For the 2017 trip, I wrote a mission update which was printed in the November 2017 InterSections news section. From those trips, David and I realised that the plantation project wasn’t likely to take off because the land was just too difficult to farm sustainably. Instead, we focused on helping Bettyboy’s family with their ministry to the Bago church as well as the 13 smaller churches in the surrounding region. 

That’s why, during our 2019 visit, I offered to return the Bago land to Bettyboy and his family. This was on the condition that the land would become common property of the Bago church. Bettyboy accepted the offer. Once again, I had failed to consult Naomi; but this time I knew she would agree – and she did. 

Then came an unexpected turn of events. In 2020, the Bago church decided to host the annual Summer Camp. This is a week-long event which rotates among congregations within Negros Oriental province. Typical attendance is around 3,000 people, including Christians from neighbouring provinces. 

The Bago church decided to use my former property for camp youth activities and requested assistance to make it suitable for that purpose. The Belmore Road church again chipped in. This time we funded the construction of toilet facilities and shelter huts, and the purchase of sporting equipment such as volleyballs and nets. 

Then Covid-19 struck. The Summer Camp was cancelled. With no camp held but facilities built, Bettyboy and Bebing decided to stay temporarily on the property to escape the summer heat. In April 2020, some local church members visited them there. They were surprised at the raw natural beauty of the place. Photos were shared on social media. Soon, more people visited the property. This led to more social media sharing. By May, the number of visitors had increased significantly.

Because of this growing popularity, it was decided to make the property a tourist attraction. Bago church members rushed to construct a kitchen, expand a small hut to be used for serving food and refreshments, purchase solar lighting, and set up a water supply. An entrance fee was fixed. In June 2020 there were 350 visitors. In July they hosted 1,100. August saw 1,400 visitors. 

God was finally showing his plan for the property – we just had to wait 20 years! 

Fast forward to mid-2021. One year after its opening, the Lower Campanulong Eco Farm has become a registered tourist attraction in the town of Tayasan. It can be found on Google maps. There are photos and videos on Facebook and YouTube. Today the Eco Farm provides increased economic activity to a once marginal rural community. 

Tourist money is flowing in. Local church members benefit from supplying chickens, fruits, and vegetables as the Eco Farm offers cooked food to guests. Some Christians rent tents to overnight visitors. Others earn money by helping maintain and improve the property. 

To top it off, in May 2021 the Eco Farm hosted a local church youth group summer event – free of charge. 

More recently, the ongoing pandemic in the province has put a dampener on visitor numbers. But this is a blessing. It’s allowing Bettyboy and Bebing to take stock of a phenomenon which has emerged out of nowhere. The hope is that the Eco Farm can continue to grow in future at a more measured pace.

Now let me quote the closing sentence of my Belmore Road – Bago mission update in the November 2017 InterSections

This unlikely ministry [the Bago plantation] is still in its infancy. Yet it is exciting to dream of what God may be planning for future generations of Christians from these two churches.

Fast forward four years, and part of that dream is now revealed. The plantation has been replaced by the Eco Farm. Only God knows what is yet to come. 

Gio Rodriguez, his wife, Naomi, and their family are part of Belmore Road Church of Christ, Melbourne, Victoria.   gbr98@yahoo.com

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