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The Pastor Using Farming to Love Indigenous People

Edwin Araña, an accountant by training, is using farming and power encounters to share the love of Jesus with indigenous tribes in the Philippines.

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From a young age, Pastor Edwin Araña saw the hard labor that went into his parents’ farm and the injustice that the poverty-stricken farmers faced every day.  He swore that he would someday leave the farm and never return. Despite pursuing a college degree in business, and then a career in sales, the Lord’s call led him back to minister to indigenous tribes, learning about agriculture to empower them out of poverty. 

Can you tell us how you got started sharing the gospel in the rural areas in the Philippines?

I was not initially trained to be a pastor – my background was in sales. My father was a farmer, and because I didn’t want to follow in his footsteps, I made sure I went to college. I studied accountancy, and while leading my first office, a supplier shared the gospel with me. I gave my life to the Lord, and while enjoying my newfound relationship with Jesus, saw all the occult practices around and felt a terrible burden. I asked the Lord, “If the truth is in us, why are all the Christians congesting in the city and not spreading the truth to those in the villages?” But I didn’t think I would ever lead a church plant; I was satisfied with simply helping my home church any way I could.

I started by discipling my sales force. Every time I got my salary, I would buy books on Bible study. I even contemplated going to Bible school. I started having dreams where I would see tribes and people who did not know Jesus perishing. This increased my desire to plant a church to reach these people. As the Apostle Paul said, “I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision” (Acts 26:19).

The divine burden got to the point that I resigned and started to engage in church planting full-time, among the poor, rural, tribal communities. I began organizing weekly meetings for the communities, making sure we showed a link between physical and spiritual lessons.

It’s one thing to minister in rural areas – it’s another to evangelize to unreached tribes. What gave you the impetus to actually minister to unreached people in the Philippines?

From the dreams I had when I was younger, my heart always burned for cross-cultural missions. That passion led me to Mindanao [the southern part of the Philippines], where I partnered with different organizations to set up health centers, water systems, and an orphanage.

While working on these projects, I was mistaken as a rich landlord. In the midst of the volatile situation in the area, a connection got wind of a plot to kidnap me. My friends in the town strongly urged me to stay away. I reluctantly took their advice, my heart breaking for the people I had built relationships with in that town.

Restless, I kept pushing to go on cross-cultural missions in other nations, but doors to go on missions to other countries kept closing. Finally, while leading a missions exposure trip to the tribes in Palawan [another island on the east side of the Philippines], I suddenly came to the realization that right in my own island, there could potentially be unreached tribes. The Scripture Jeremiah 16:16 cut me to the heart: “‘But now I will send for many fishermen,’ declares the Lord, ‘and they will catch them. After that I will send for many hunters, and they will hunt them down on every mountain and hill and from the crevices of the rocks.’”

I came back from the trip determined to do everything I could to find unreached tribes. The Scriptures tell us that heaven will be full of people from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation (Revelation 5:9). Worship in heaven will not be complete if the Atis, the Maranaos, the Yakans, the Badjaos (all indigenous tribes in the Philippines), and all these different tribes and nations are not there.

This determination led my wife and I to focus our efforts first on the different Ati tribes within our region. As we interacted with these indigenous people groups, our perspective of church planting began to evolve: instead of the regular evangelistic picture of church planting, we realized that we needed a more creative way to engage the indigenous people. And despite my earlier vow to stay off the soil, I stumbled upon the necessity of learning agriculture in our efforts to help the tribes.

“Worship in heaven will not be complete if the Atis, the Maranaos, the Badjaos, and all these different tribes and nations are not there.”

For example, one Ati lady came to Christ through our community garden. After planting in our garden, while we rested under the mango tree, I shared the story of how God planted a garden in Eden, and placed Adam and Eve as stewards. There you have the story of the Creation, the Fall, and the Redemption.

 

Pastor Edwin ministering in a tribal hall, Capiz, Philippines, 2019

 

We’ve all heard stories of missionaries reaching new tribes – but we don’t often hear pastors talk about agriculture being an important part of preaching the Gospel.Can you tell us more about what you mean when you say agriculture factored into your work to reach these tribes?

You can’t preach to an empty stomach. The gospel is not just spiritual truth – you have to meet people at their need. But the work isn’t simply about teaching them to cultivate the soil: we have to help people learn to envision the future.

For example, one time I drew figures on the ground and used twigs and stones to represent their products and asked the people where they wanted to be three years hence. The Atis people laughed at me. “We don’t even plan for tomorrow, and you’re asking us about three years from now?” So we had to teach them to plan ahead.

We remember how we celebrated the first time the indigenous people were able to enjoy their own harvest.  We had taught them how to plan ahead so they couldn’t be exploited by the wealthy landowners and the loan sharks.  Also, after a series of training, we have tribespeople who have successfully exported their handcrafted bags to Spain.  Their lives are being transformed as they learn these simple economic skills.

We will continue to use creative ways to teach natural farming to more inland areas in the Philippines. I believe that the restoration of all things that precedes Jesus’ return includes environmental and ecological restoration – a serious call to good stewardship of our resources.

Please share some of your favorite stories from your work with the tribes. 

The areas my wife and I work in have had a strong demonic influence and witchcraft activities, so “power encounters” are relatively common: casting out demons, operating in the word of knowledge, and relying on divine protection to minister to the people.

“You can’t preach to an empty stomach. The gospel is not just spiritual truth – you have to meet people at their need.”

One time we went to the house of someone who was reportedly demon-possessed: the person was raging and yelling a warning out the door. I told the people hanging around that I would not go in unless the father of the house invited me in; the father was still working in the farm, so we waited outside. Surprisingly, the father came back at an unexpected time, and invited us in. We successfully cast out the demon, and the whole village flocked around us.

Another time, I felt a strong leading to rent out a space in a specific location in the town. Whenever I broached the subject with the townspeople, everyone discouraged me, telling me to stay away from that gang-infested area. But I convinced the locals to go with me for a prayer walk. While doing so, we looked at one particular house, wondering who lived there and if we could rent that space for the church.

Suddenly a group of drunken men came out of the house, demanding, “What are you doing here?” We all stood stock still, expecting a brawl.

Just then, one more person with bloodshot eyes came out, and surprisingly greeted me with, “‘Tol!” [which means “brother” in the local language]. It turned out to be a fraternity brother from my college years. The Lord used my pre-believer days to provide protection for us in that later season, in the most unexpected way possible.

Those are incredible stories – it’s inspiring to hear of how God has showed up in power in your ministry. What are practical steps you would give to others who may want to get involved in outreach to indigenous people?

For us, we work closely with the government.  We set up a non-governmental organization that gives us a voice in what the local government units are doing. This gives us access to government funding for certain projects. For example, in the past two years, we were able to propose and get approval for in-roads to be constructed beginning 2019, a project that will reduce travel time to one of these far-flung areas from 10 hours by foot to only 2 hours.

Eventually, these organizations evolve into indigenous “meta-churches,” with leadership born in the house. I say meta-church because we believe that the church is not limited to four walls; the real work is with the community.

Our basic framework when we train them is, “No God, no success; know God, know success.”  But I don’t quote Bible verses directly in the initial training; instead we share godly and Biblical principles. Later on, they’re the ones who come to us, asking for a Bible study.

I believe the church is like a processing plant. The people come in unskilled, and it’s our job to equip them. Church planting isn’t just a spiritual venture, it should also meet the physical needs of the people, and to scratch them where they itch.

Pastor Edwin and his wife Terry Araña are the senior pastors of Christ Centered Fellowship, a local church in Pavia, Iloilo, Philippines.  The church has a heartbeat for the rural poor, partnering with Compassion International, among others, to uplift poverty-stricken families. To learn more about Natural Farming as a livelihood option for community development, you can get in touch with Pastor Edwin through CCF’s Facebook page.

Cover photo by Joshua Newton on Unsplash