Korea's Filipino Missionary Mania

Part 1 of 2

The hut fell silent. Under a single naked light bulb, Yaum Sumbad, 80, launched into a litany of complaints about the activities of Korean missionaries in an impoverished region of Mindoro island, about 250 kilometers south of Manila.

"Why are there so many different Korean churches here?" Sumbad asked as the evening rain beat against the wooden door. "Even if there are only five houses in the mountains, the Koreans will build a church there. Sometimes they put up a church in a small village where a church already exists. Why can't they join together and form one church?"

Korea’s indefatigable missionaries, an estimated 17,000 of which have fanned out across the world to spread Christianity, have found Mindoro. Now they are leaving a trail of angry and increasingly frustrated indigenous people, known collectively as the Mangyan, in the wake of their fervent missionary activities. They have engaged in a feverish orgy of church-building, sometimes even in places where the churches sit empty. Secular and spiritual tribal leaders across the island, the seventh largest in the Philippines, accuse the multitude of Korean organizations here of causing tension and division. Inadvertently or not, they subvert traditional customs and laws and waste money building churches in remote corners of the island, the leaders say.

In their defense, Korean missionary groups say they are only trying to help the Mangyan people by teaching the Bible, but many NGOs, academics and even some officials in Philippine government are calling on the missionaries to pay more respect to the indigenous culture.

Sumbad was addressing community leaders in November in Batangan, a village of around 60 households that he founded decades ago in the central municipality of Bongabong. He is haunted by the fear that his Buhid legacy and the entire Mangyan culture will be swamped by the Korean missionary activity.

Mangyan communities are highly remote, located deep in the forests and mountain regions. Batangan is one of the more accessible ones, but you still need to hike at least an hour from the nearest highway although the mud track connecting it to the rest of Mindoro floods during the rainy season and the village can be cut off for days.

Yet, as you approach Batangan, you are met by what some might think an incongruous sight. Rising high above the mud-brown bamboo huts in which the villagers live stands the newly built Jesus is the Christ Church, built in 2003 by a Korean missionary group called the All for Christ Theological Seminary. Money for the project came from the Hae Dot Nun Presbyterian Church in Gwangju, South Jeolla, part of what ACTS called an "evangelistic crusade."

Within months, dozens of people from Batangan had been baptized into the Korean church. Now, according to Julius Inocencio, 25, the Filipino pastor who was trained by the seminary, 100 villagers regularly attend the church. With only 60 families in Batangan, this is a significant portion of the population.

But NGO workers in Bantagan say a church already existed in the area before the Koreans arrived and that many in the community were already Christians. Following what Lagtum Pasag, 38, a former local commissioner for the National Commission for Indigenous Peoples called "aggressive PR" by the Koreans, which included the provision of rice to new members, many villagers left their previous church and joined the Koreans.

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Like Sumbad from Batangan, Mangyan Christian leaders from all the tribes on Mindoro are baffled by the excessive, and very costly, church building activities of the Koreans. It makes no sense to this thrifty farming people to see church after church constructed in some of the most inaccessible regions of the island.

Andoy Layda, 40, a pastor and executive director of the Tribal Church Association launched a withering tirade at a board meeting in Calapan, the provincial capital. Representatives of the Mangyan tribes agreed, condemning outright some of the Korean churches' activities. The Koreans, he says, wasted a great deal of money building fancy churches in the middle of the forest, seemingly unaware that the Mangyan people would be happy with much humbler buildings.

Very rarely, if ever, did the missionaries even ask the Mangyan people if they actually wanted the church, he said. When donations from Korea dry up, the churches are abandoned, casting the Mangyans who have joined the church, and perhaps turned their back on daniw, their traditional way of communing with the spirit world and their traditional beliefs, in a state of fear and confusion.

They are unsure why the Koreans left, when, or even if they will return, and what to do about the forsaken church buildings. Churches in Alukmay in Baco Municipality in Mindoro Oriental and Mamburao Municipality and Abra de Llog in Mindoro Occidental were abandoned, Tribal Church Association board members said, adding that there are more examples but the exact locations are unknown.

Even more difficult to understand is the bizarre case of a church built by Korean missionaries in the village of Kadilawan in Abra de Llog. It didn't actually have a congregation. The Korean-trained pastor recruited people from neighboring areas to pose in the photographs on opening day and the only people who used the church were friends and family of the pastor.

The board meeting centered around what was not so much complaint as frustration: What do the Koreans want? They seem to be operating in areas where the indigenous people are already Christians, so they are not converting people so much as winning them over with promises of land, water buffalo, motorbikes, generators and salaries for the pastors of the churches, board members said.

"The Koreans are causing competition and division in our communities," Layda said. If the missionaries took time to consult with people who could advise on how better to use the donations from Korea, such as setting up scholarships for Mangyan children rather than building unnecessarily grand places of worship, everyone would benefit, the pastor added.

It is next to impossible for the villagers to communicate with the Koreans, Layda said. They are too numerous and there doesn’t seem to be a central body that coordinates the churches' actions.