Her name is Aida. Born in the Philippines, Aida is from the lowland Tawbuid people, one of the indigenous groups on the island of Mindoro. Raised a Protestant, she became an Adventist when she married her husband, who was one of the very first Tawbuid Adventists.
However, their marriage was not easy. Although publicly respected in the local Adventist congregation, her husband was secretly a serial adulterer, swindler and thief. Matters came to a head when he raped their oldest daughter, then 13 years of age. Aida was distraught. Her husband was arrested.
Aida’s Tawbuid tribe and the local Adventist congregation insisted that she “follow the teachings of Jesus” and forgive her husband unconditionally and reconcile with him. Under the combined pressure of congregation and tribe, the daughter agreed to drop the charges. He was released after five years in prison under strict conditions, which he ignored.
Knowing her husband, and believing him to be unrepentant despite his pleas for forgiveness, Aida refused to allow him back into their home. Though she had forgiven him, she was determined to protect her three daughters. Tragically, two weeks after his release, her husband tried to rape their second daughter, then age eleven. Once again the police were called, but both the local congregation and the Tawbuid tribe pressured Aida to forgive and reconcile. They blamed her for the assault because she had refused to let her husband into the family home. But Aida stood up for her daughters and filed charges of sexual assault against her husband. Her stand came at a terrible price.
Aida now lives in the most basic of conditions—a bamboo shanty hut in the hills among a different Tawbuid community. She farms to provide food for her children and herself. Approaching 40 years of age, her wiry frame is bent over from years of hard work and a severe spinal injury from a childhood fall. She faces huge pressure from her tribe and Adventist congregation to accept her husband back into her home, but she steadfastly refuses, insisting that although she has forgiven him, she must also protect her daughters. Her Tawbuid tribe has disinherited her, and her local Adventist congregation condemns her, saying she is living in sin because she refuses to show her forgiveness for her husband by welcoming him home.
I met Aida recently while in the Philippines. Under the shade of her bamboo roof, we talked and prayed. Aida breathed not a word of complaint. Her favorite Bible character is David, because he overcame many difficulties and still served God. Her brother was ill in the hospital, and she had asked God that morning to provide a means for her to journey an hour by road to the hospital. We were God’s answer to her prayer. “Before we call, He will answer,” she said with a broad grin. She had planned to go earlier, but her husband had been at the front door all morning, threatening her if she didn’t allow him into her home. She had refused and faced him down. He had run away when he heard us coming down the trail. She has no identification papers. Stuffing a battered Sabbath School quarterly into her bag, she said, “This is my I.D. Everywhere I go, I tell people that I represent Jesus.”
Despite raising her five children via back-breaking subsistence farming and living under social and religious condemnation, Aida’s joy in Jesus is palpable. AFM missionary John Holbrook has trained and equipped her to lead Discover Bible Studies. She recently led eight animists to Jesus Christ. She also leads a Tawbuid Adventist congregation with over 15 in regular attendance. Night by night, she hikes the trails to study with interests. God speaks to Aida in vivid dreams, showing her the future, pointing out people open to the gospel, giving her warnings and counsel as needed.
As we talked, Aida bubbled over about her latest dream. She pointed high into the mountains to a distant village inhabited by witch doctors and animists. This is to be the next Adventist church plant. The AFM project will build her a new bamboo hut in the mountains where once again she will carve a field out of the dense forest, feed her children with rice and cassava, and faithfully proclaim the gospel among demon-worshippers. For now she is praying and waiting for the Spirit to say, “Go.”
Aida knows nothing of church policy or politics or debates over hermeneutics, women’s ordination, theistic evolution or LGBTQ issues. She lives in abject poverty, disinherited and rejected by her tribe (themselves despised by the broader society), an aging single mother condemned to backbreaking labor for her one daily meal, under enemy fire from demon-worshippers and under not so not-so-friendly fire from her local Adventist congregation. She will never be voted credentials or be denominationally employed, commissioned or voted into church office. She has no service credits, denominational retirement plan or healthcare. As far as the world church knows, Aida simply doesn’t exist. Yet, despite all these seeming disadvantages, she is my hero, and I feel both humbled and honored to be in her presence.
“For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required.” These words of Jesus search my soul as we drive away. Were Aida to come to my home and see how I live and minister, would she likewise feel humbled? And how about you, dear reader? My prayer is that we will be so focused on sharing the love of God that, like Aida, nothing can separate us from Him. And when we all get to heaven, let me be the first to introduce you to Sister Aida, my hero.