Many people ask me why I have decided to dedicate my life to helping the Badjao and the answer is quite simple. God used them to show me what going to church and listening to countless sermons never could. The story behind this short answer is of course a bit more complex.
In August of 1983 I asked Jesus into my heart following an evangelistic crusade which visited my hometown of Eden and for years afterward I attended various churches which reassured me I was saved. For many years I lived a selfish and reckless life. Beginning in high school, during my time in the military and for the years that followed. All this time thinking that if something were to happen to me that I would be “OK”. After all, I had asked Jesus into my heart right? I was saved, or so I thought. I had done some good for others during my life, but for the most part it was always about me! That is until a trip I took half way around the world to the island of Mindanao in 2011.
My primary reason for visiting Mindanao was a simple tooth ache. I had been talking online with my friend for over a year and had always wanted to visit, but the expense of the trip was too much for my budget. An off and on toothache finally forced me to go to the dentist where I learned that I was going to need to get not just one, but two root canals and crowns. One of course for the tooth that was bothering me and also one for a tooth on the opposite side. The cost to do this was going to run about $4,000.
Ironically the friend I had been talking with was renting a room from a dentist so naturally I asked about this procedure and was told that it could be done there in the Philippines for around $500. Once I heard this I decided to check airfare and lodging and found that I could get the work done there for far less and it would allow me to meet my friend in one shot with change to spare.
It was during this visit that I met the Badjao. The Badjao are a water based tribe and they live on the bounties of the sea or on what is left of it. They are an animistic tribe, however; they do have some Islamic influence since they originated in the Muslim areas of Southeast Asia. Having lost their traditional fishing grounds due to armed conflict, commercial fishing, pirates and poachers, they are left with meager means of livelihood. Extreme poverty has forced many of them to resort to begging as a means of survival. Wherever they live, they are considered citizens of the lowest class: ignorant, dirty, stench-smelling and deprived and most people have very low regard for them. The Badjao are by far the most marginalized and poorest of all of the tribes found in Southeast Asia.
Currently the literacy rate among the Badjao is less than 10% and fewer than 20% have any type of formal education. Very few ever make it to the high school level. Education is the key to their being able to break the cycle of poverty they have found themselves in.
“Get away from me!” I yelled at the three unrelenting Badjao girls whom after I’ve given them a few coins kept following me on the street asking for more.
They didn’t seem to understand that beggars can’t be choosers or perhaps they just refused to be dictated by social norms, much less conform to them. After all, they were touted as social outcasts so why should they care, right?
They probably knew only one thing: that their stomachs were empty and the P5 coins I gave each of them were not enough to buy a few grains of rice for their respective families. Commercial rice of decent quality by the way costs around P38 per kilo and up (approximately 90 US cents at an exchange rate of 42 pesos to a dollar).
The girls continued to follow me around with their bare feet seemingly unmindful of the scorching hot pavement. Maybe they have developed too much callous on their soles that they could no longer feel the heat and sharp bumps beneath their feet.
How could I ignore them when they were relentless in tugging at my conscience until I gave in and reached for my pocket in search of some decent amount to spare? The problem was they were tugging at my shirt too and kept poking at my arms. They unceremoniously stretched out their empty hands towards me with their sorry-looking eyes.
“Get your dirty hands off me!” This time, I had to raise my voice quite loudly. I was very upset at this point. “Go away!”
What happened next caught me off guard. One of girls then asked the other two to give her the coins and she then attempted to return them to me. One of the coins dropped to the ground into a puddle of water and I reached down to retrieve it. In doing so my hands got pretty dirty. The girl then reached out for the hem of her rainbow colored malong, a traditional “tube skirt” pulled up to her waist. The malong may also be used as a blanket, a turban, a hammock, practically anything within the stretch of one’s creativity and necessity. She used the cleanest part of the cloth to meticulously wipe the dirt and grime off my hands.
When she was finished she just looked at me and smiled.
It was at that very instant that I realized that I had been wrong for so many years. Not just wrong for living the way I had up until that point, but wrong for believing I was a saved, Born Again Christian. At that very moment it was like there was nothing or anyone else around. I couldn’t even hear the sound of traffic passing by. It was a very powerful and life changing moment.
I immediately went to the room I was staying in and with tears rolling I thanked God for preserving my life until I was able to know the truth. I immediately knew that had I died prior to that meeting with the Badjao children I would have spent eternity in Hell.
Upon returning to the US I found it hard to sleep at night thinking about the children I had meet on the streets during my trip to Mindanao. It did not take long before I decided to sell everything I had and moved to the island where I started a feeding program which soon evolved into me sponsoring some of the children in the public school system and eventually starting a learning center which taught reading, writing and math.
Sadly, on April 4th of last year there was a fire which destroyed over 2000 homes including the entire village of the Badjao as well as the learning center. A video I made that night can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=loit9XzN9dI and several pictures I took can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/joseph.zanetti.9/media_set?set=a.10203370176956074.1073741859.1260901638&type=3
Fortunately there were no deaths or serious injuries resulting from the fire, however; following the fire the Badjao were located to a refugee camp and it was there that the problems began. Due to the crowded conditions and poor sanitation there was an outbreak of measles which quickly spread through the camp. There were more than two dozen deaths that resulted and most of the victims were under three years of age. I myself even contracted measles despite being vaccinated as a child.
It is amazing how God works sometimes. It took three children from a pagan tribe half way around the world to show me what a lifetime of going to church and countless pastors could not. And while my salvation comes only through Jesus Christ and the sacrifice He made for all of us, I owe the Badjao for showing me this. It is for that very reason that I have decided to dedicate the remaining years of my life helping them with education, livelihood projects and eventually I hope they too will receive the same gift I have through Jesus Christ.