In October of 2014, I was part of a six person team from the Network of Biblical Storytellers (NBS) that traveled to the Philippines to teach biblical storytelling and launch the Network of Biblical Storytellers, Philippines. This is the story of my twelve trip to the Philippines.
The Nudge to Go
My interest in the mission trip to the Philippines began back in August of 2012 during the NBS Festival Gathering. When the trip was announced I was among several newly minted certified biblical storytellers just graduated from the first year program of the NBS sponsored Academy for Biblical Storytelling. Upon hearing of the opportunity to travel to the Philippines to teach biblical storytelling, four of us who had become friends in the Academy looked at each other and said “We should go.” We each signed up to receive more information. That was my nudge to think about the mission trip.
The Call to Go
As information about the timing and cost of the trip was disclosed over the next several months I (and the rest of that initial group of fellow ABS graduates) decided that the journey to the Philippines was not feasible. So I forgot about the trip. But my name remained on the contact list as someone who had shown interest.
A year and nine months later I was surprised when, late one afternoon in the middle of May, I received a call from Beth Galbreath, vice-president of NBS and coordinator for the mission trip to the Philippines. Beth asked me if I was still interested in going to the Philippines and before I could give a response she asked to explain the reason for her call.
Dr. Tom Boomershine, the founder of NBS, had originally planned to go on the mission but had recently decided the trip would be too strenuous for him. When Beth mentioned to Tom that I had initially shown interest but had withdrawn due to costs, Tom offered to pay my airfare if I would go in his place. The team needed another male, and my training in the Academy and my experience in storytelling made me a reasonable substitute for Tom. The opportunity and offer were too good for me to refuse, so, after discussing it with my wife and obtaining her blessing, I called Beth back and told her I was in. I spent the next four months preparing for the trip.
Chicago and Hong Kong
Day one (Friday) of my trip to the Philippines began with an 8:30 AM flight from Newark to Boston where I caught a connecting flight to O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. I arrived in Chicago at 2:24 PM with just shy of a twelve hour layover before our flight to Hong Kong. After I made my way to the Cathay Airlines ticketing area, I waited for other members of my team to arrive. Eventually Beth Galbreath, with Phyllis Hostmeyer in tow, found me curled up on a bench across from the ticket counter reading from my iPad. Beth, from Woodridge, IL, is a deacon in the United Methodist Church, and Phyllis, from Frogtown, IL (Yes, Frogtown is a real place in south western Illinois. Google reports Frogtown has a population of 723), is a professional storyteller. Later in the evening Penelope Ferguson, a registered dietitian and storyteller from Harrisonburg, VA, met up with us. At 10 PM the Cathay Airlines ticket counter opened and we checked in and made our way through security. Our plane to Hong Kong left on time and we began our fifteen hour flight.
Six hours was the longest I’d ever been on a plane before and a week was the longest I’d been away from my wife in twenty-five years of marriage. Halfway to Hong Kong, with seven-and-a-half more hours to fly just to make our connecting flight in Hong Kong, and two more hours of flying to the Philippines after that, and with two weeks of separation from my wife ahead of me, I found myself wondering, “What the hell have I done?” I used two in-flight movies, naps, reading, multiple games of Solitaire, and several bathroom breaks to pass the time and take my mind off the challenges before me. Crossing the International Date Line we, spent all day Sunday in the air landing in Hong Kong at 5:50 AM on Monday (Day four).
Manila and Traffic!
On Monday (Day 4) our plane touched down in Manila at 9:45 AM and we made our way through luggage pick-up, customs and money exchange.
A van was sent to pick us up. From the airport we went to the hotel where Karl Hallsten, a retired social worker and storyteller from Sierra Vista, AZ was waiting for us. Karl had flown in the day before.
Our van ride in Manila traffic was quite an adventure. Traffic was bumper to bumper, side to side with lines of motorcycles weaving in and out on either side of the cars. Jeepnys were everywhere. Add to that the challenge of avoiding people hawking fruit, water, and newspapers, and women with babies in their arms walking among the cars asking for money, and I found myself closing my eyes and gripping my armrests throughout that trip and the several other trips we made through Filipino traffic over the course of our stay.
I tip my hat to the skill of Filipino drivers who daily navigate the streets of Manila politely tooting their horns to alert other drivers to their whereabouts and intentions. In all our travels around the Philippines I did not see one car with a dent in it!
We arrived safely at our lodging, the UCCP Shalom Center, settled into our rooms and awaited the arrival of Carole Danby from Australia. Carole works in Religious Education for the Diocese of Brisbane and has been a driving force of NBS in Australia. Carole arrived about mid-afternoon and our team was finally complete. Late in the afternoon our team met with Rev. Dr. Larry Gusto, professor at Alliance Graduate School, and part of the Wycliffe Philippines organization, who was our coordinator in the Philippines for the institutes, to discuss plans for the institutes in Davao and Quezon City.
In the evening our group ventured out in search of a meal. Just a few blocks from the Shalom Center we found “Mr. Poon’s” Chinese restaurant. The only thing I saw on the menu that I dared to eat (I have a very sensitive stomach and was trying not to ignite any digestive flames) was steamed shrimp. I like shrimp so I thought shrimp and white rice might be a gastronomically acceptable meal. Well, the meal was gastronomically acceptable but it was certainly not aesthetically pleasing. Unlike the shrimp I usually eat in restaurants in the states, these shrimp still has their heads, complete with eyes and antennas. They were also fully encased in their shells. In other words, they were whole shrimp fresh from the sea and barely among the dead! With no other acceptable and digestible alternatives what else could I do? I hacked off their heads and tails with my spoon (knives are not standard dinnerware in Mr. Poon’s), shelled them as best as I could, allowed their green innards to drain, and ate them. That was my last trip to Mr. Poons. I have not dined on shrimp since returning to the states.
Rest and Sightseeing
Day five of our trip (Tuesday) began with breakfast in the Shalom Center’s cafeteria. It felt good not to be in the air (or in traffic!) for a little while. After breakfast we walked down the street to the Robinson’s Shopping Mall where we split up to shop and take in the sights, sounds, and sales of the huge mall that seemed to sprawl in every direction.
We finished day five with supper and then returned to our rooms to prepare for our flight to Davao on Wednesday.
Off to Davo
After an early breakfast Wednesday morning (Day 6) we headed back to the airport in Manila and boarded the plane for our hour and forty minute flight to Davao.
Once our bags were retrieved we were greeted by Dr. Gusto, who had flown on to Davao ahead of us to finalize last minute preparations for the institute. The team boarded the van he had arranged for us and we began the trip to our lodging. Our drive through Davao was just as challenging as navigating the streets in Manila. Traffic was again bumper to bumper and chaotic and this particular night we were driving in a torrential downpour through narrow and winding streets. But once again our driver was a masterful maneuverer through traffic and we arrived at our lodgings at the Elles Pension House in downtown Davao.
The accommodations at Elles Pension House were a bit more “challenging” than the Shalom UCCP Center. My bathroom had a window that I could not close so the bathroom door had to remain shut to keep the air conditioning in the bedroom. The mattress on the bed was very thin foam with plywood underneath. My room was at the top of the stairs and I could hear people coming and going throughout the night.
On Thursday morning (Day 7) the team ate breakfast at a a little restaurant a few blocks away and then boarded our van for Koinonia Theological Seminary and the first day of our two day biblical storytelling institute.
Davao Institute Day 1
Dr. Larry Gusto teamed up with Dr. Julie Bustamante, the seminary director, to coordinate the institute. The team was grateful to Drs. Gusto and Bustamonte for the hard work they put into planning, promoting, and running the the program for the two hundred participants.The morning began with a welcome from Dr. Bustamonte followed by an introductory video of Dr. Thomas Boomershine greeting institute participants and providing an overview of biblical storytelling. Then Dr. Gusto presented the first plenary session, “The Bible as Performance Literature.” His address was an inspirational introduction to biblical storytelling based on Deuteronomy 6:4-7-The Shema.
After a break we divided into our small groups to begin learning to tell stories from the Gospel of Mark. My “small group” had twenty-eight people in it, consisting of pastors, seminary students, and laypeople. Our goal was to learn to tell Mark 1:16-20 – The Calling of the First Disciples, Mark 9:2-8 – The Transfiguration, and Mark 14:3-9 – Jesus Anointed by a Woman.
My “Small” Group
The rules for our class were simple: 1. Have fun, 2. Encourage one another, 3. Fear not, 4. Ask questions, 5. Telling in your own language is fine.
The process for learning each scripture passage was the same. First we would practice the story together with call and response. I would say a line and the class would repeat it back. Then we discussed how to break the stories into “chunks” or “episodes” with titles to help us remember what was contained in the chunks. After getting a handle on how the story progressed episodically we spent time working with the images of the story: What we saw, heard, smelt, touched, and tasted as we listened to the story. With the story’s episodes and images in their minds, the students then drew the different scenes of the story as a visual memory aid. With only their newly drawn visual aids in hand, the students were then asked to tell the story to their group (Students worked in triads). Abandoning the security of the written text was a bit scary for some of the students. But I reminded them that we were aiming for 95 percent content accuracy and 75 percent verbal accuracy so they should “fear not!”
After telling the story with their story boards a couple of times I invited the students to put down all their aids and tell the story from memory. Initial apprehension slowly evaporated as students found that they could remember the story quite well after working with it in the previous exercises. Our new biblical storytellers were slowly blossoming into capable tellers. So went the first three small group sessions on day one.
Two more plenary sessions were interspersed between the small group sessions on day one. Beth Galbreath used the story of blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52) to talk about internalizing a story as a complex of emotions, images and actions, and recreating it with voice, face and body. Carole Danby used the parable of the mustard seed (Mark 4:30-32) to demonstrate a number of techniques for biblical storytelling with children. Her demonstration of the use of a character bag was a crowd favorite. Carole put the bag on and acted the biblical story out as Phyllis told it.
Day one of the institute, which had begun with registration at 8:00 AM, ended at 6:00 PM. Students were sent home to practice their three stories for the epic telling of Mark to be performed on day two of the institute. At the end of the day our team was exhausted but exhilarated over the enthusiasm and progress of all the participants.
Davao Institute Day 2
On Friday (Day eight of our trip),day two of the Davao institute began with a plenary address by Phyllis Hostmeyer, who led us through the story of the resurrection (Mark 16:1-8). Then we broke off into our fourth small group session during which we practiced our passages for the epic telling. My group broke each of our three Scriptures ( Mark 1:16-20 – The Calling of the First Disciples, Mark 9:2-8 – The Transfiguration, and Mark 14:3-9 – Jesus Anointed by a Woman) in half and teams of three to four students practiced telling half the passage as a group, adding their own dramatic flair to each telling. It was amazing to see the students transformed into confident biblical storytellers in just twenty-four hours.
The fifth plenary session was given by Penelope Ferguson who used the story of the paralyzed man (Mark 2:1-12) to talk about biblical storytelling as spirituality. The fifth and final small group session was used as a time of reflection on what we had learned and evaluation of the institute experience. When asked how they would use what they had learned answers included: “to teach
Sunday School,” “in our women’s group,” and “in preaching.”
Two more plenary sessions followed the last small group. I gave my session on “Biblical Storytelling in Community: Resources, Groups, and Guilds,” using Mark 4:21-25 (a parable about a lamp and a parable about a measure) to remind the institute that just as a lamp is for shining, stories are for telling and that we need to use our newly learned ability to tell biblical stories so we don’t lose it. Karl Hallsten finished off the plenaries with tips on preparing to tell a story.
Epic Telling and Graduation
The climax and highlight of the institute was the epic telling during which the students told through most of the Gospel of Mark. The room was electric as student after student stood and told passages from the Gospel. How rewarding it was to see the fruit of the institute. It was a proud moment for students and teachers alike.
The institute closed with graduation and the commissioning of NBS Philippines, Davao. Each student received a certificate for participating. The end of the institute was bittersweet. Students left excited to begin their ministries of biblical storytelling but sad to be parting ways with newly made friends. But before everyone left the cameras came out and the pictures and selfies began. I have never been photographed so much with so many different people in all my life!
A Little R & R
After the Davao institute ended, the team was transported by van to the Grand Emperor Chinese restaurant where we were hosted by Kenneth and Leah Garcia. Kenneth is a local businessman who sits on the board of Koinonia Theolocial Seminary. The Garcias provided us with a splendid meal in a private room complete with fresh Durian fruit from a local market. At the end of the meal we were invited by the Garcias to an outing on Saturday morning before heading to the airport for our return flight to Manila. We were to take a short boat ride to Paradise Island, a park and beach resort along the Davao coast.
Saturday morning (Day 9) we loaded our selves and our luggage into a small van and the Garcia’s car and headed for the boat for Paradise Island. To tide us over until we had breakfast on the island, Leah Garcia thoughtfully provided everyone with a baggie of fresh pineapple chunks and some rice cakes.
It was a pleasant twenty-minute boat ride to the beach at Paradise Island where we ate breakfast which included assorted fresh fruit, fresh coconut, milk fish, dried fish, and halo halo. After a leisurely breakfast we took the boat back to Davao and were transported to the airport for our flight back to Manila and the van ride to our hotel in Quezon City.
The plane ride from Davao to Manila and the van ride from the airport in Manila to Quezon City proved to be more excitement than we had anticipated. During the very crowed and cramped flight (My knees were in the back of the seat in front of me.) I had a lively discussion with the gentleman in front of me about the appropriateness of his reclining his seat into my personal space. We engaged in two such discussions resulting in him understanding my point of view and refraining from reclining into my personal space a third time.
After we landed in Manila, our van ride from the airport to the hotel took several unexpected turns as Google maps led out van driver far afield into sections of Manila that I am sure no tourist ever ventures into. A call to Dr. Gusto resulted in course correction and arrival at the Eurotel about three hours after our departure from the airport.
Air and road weary, the team settled into our rooms then headed to the huge mall across the street in search of supper. We retired that night glad to have a day of rest ahead of us before the next institute began.
Sunday (Day 10) Beth and Carole did some sight-seeing in the open air market then headed to worship at the Fairview United Methodist Church. Penelope, Phyllis, Karl and I decided to have lunch in the mall then do some shopping. On our way across the pedestrian walk across the highway we encountered a parade below us. The Apostolic Catholic Church was having a parade of floats, dancers, and drummers. The parade went on for an hour along the highway with traffic rushing by a lane away. The festive event provided us with a snapshot of Filipino religious culture.
The team reunited in the evening and we were hosted for dinner by Dr. Larry Gusto, his wife, Nida, and daughter Pauline at one of the restaurants in the mall.
The Quezon City Institute
On Monday morning (Day 11) I awoke at 4:15 AM unable to speak. A sinus infection had settled into my sinuses and throat. A salt water gargle and several cups of hot tea loosened my throat enough to speak softly. The team ate breakfast in the hotel and then boarded a van for a short ride to the Alliance Graduate School (AGS) where the Quezon City(QC) institute was to be held.
Dr. Larry Gusto was the coordinator of this three day (Days 11-13 of our trip) storytelling training. He was ably assisted by several of his students from AGS who led the opening worship sessions and made sure every part of the institute ran smoothly. Also participating in the institute were Prof. Abigail Teh, who participated in all the small group sessions, and Rev. Dr. Joselito Zafra, academic dean, who helped with coordination of the institute and hosted our team at lunch time.
The QC institute was spread out over three days (Monday to Wednesday) allowing for the same material presented in Davao to be covered in a more leisurely and in-depth fashion using the same format as in Davao. A smaller attendance (80) allowed our groups to be smaller and more intimate. It also allowed for question and answer sessions after each plenary presentation during which participants peppered the presenters with questions about the theory and practice of biblical storytelling.
My small group was again comprised of pastors, lay people, and seminary students. Including a student from South Korea. Practicing our scriptures in four different languages was a challenge! I began the small group sessions still struggling with my voice. Fortunately, the room we were first assigned was very hot, even with two air conditioners running. The heat and sweat eventually loosened my throat. I coughed up a hairball and my voice stayed at about 90% for the rest of the institute. Due to the heat my group was moved into the library, a smaller, but much cooler, space.
One of the highlights of the QC institute for me was witnessing one of the young women in my small group combine her artistic talent with biblical storytelling. As the students were working on their storyboards for the scriptures, I happened to notice one young lady whose storyboard looked like a professional drawing. As I knelt down to admire her artwork I encouraged her to combine her talent for art with her budding biblical storytelling skill, noting what a powerful combination they made. During the epic telling she drew the story of the Transfiguration as it was being told, in perfect time with the telling. Everyone was captivated by the story and the pictures she drew.
Tuesday evening, after the institute, our team was driven to the financial district of Manila where we enjoyed browsing in an upscale mall and dinner at a fine restaurant hosted by Simoun Ung, chairman of the Board of Wycliffe, Philippines.
Like the Davao institute, the QC institute ended (Wednesday, Day 13) with the epic telling of the Gospel of Mark, graduation certificates and commissioning of the QC branch of NBS, Philippines. And of course, there were selfies and pictures galore!
After graduation we returned to the Eurotel, retrieved our luggage, checked out, and took a van back to the UCCP Shalom Center so we would be closer to the airport for our departure in the morning. It was interesting to me how much better our accommodations at the Shalom Center seemed after some of the other places we had stayed, particularly in Davao.
Thursday morning (Day 14) we ate breakfast in the Shalom Center cafeteria then boarded our van to the airport to catch our flight to Hong Kong and then on to Chicago. We arrived in Chicago on Thursday at 8:30 PM thanks to the magic of the international dateline. I stayed overnight in Chicago at the O’Hare Hilton and then caught my flights to Boston and Newark on Friday.
Some Final Thoughts
Through our work in the Philippines I saw that biblical storytelling has the power to invite, excite and ignite. Good biblical storytelling invites people into the world of the biblical stories in a way that engages both head and heart with the truth of scripture so that people are changed in the hearing and telling of biblical stories. Biblical storytelling invites people to incarnate the word of God in their own minds, hearts, and bodies. Biblical storytelling excites both teller and listener as once familiar texts come alive with new meaning when the stories are re-imagined through the telling. Biblical storytelling ignites passion in faith communities for sharing Scripture with others through the medium of storytelling.
The NBS team went to the Philippines to invite people to engage their heads and hearts with Scripture through biblical storytelling and our Filippino brothers and sisters got excited and ignited and have already been conducting their own workshops on how to tell biblical stories. So the Story continues to spread!
Biblical Storytelling Workshop at
Alliance Gospel Church and
Saint Paul Christina School