Esther Tallbott* sits three seats from the back of the boat. She clutches a pen, underlining sentences in John Piper's "Stand," a collection of essays on endurance. This moment sums up Tallbott's last two years as a journeyman missionary for the International Mission Board -- thatched huts, whirring boats and endurance.
The 25-year-old single woman spends several days a week riding down the river to reach villages so deep in the jungle that no roads reach them. Sometimes she knows people in the villages, but most often, she doesn't. She steps up on a dock with her Filipino ministry partner, Charity Malinao, and asks where they can hang their hammocks.
Then the two share the Gospel with the kind family who takes them in for the night. As they play with the children and hang out with their hosts, the ministry partners gently bring biblical truths to bear on the mixture of Catholic and animistic traditions the villagers hold.
"My greatest joy has been to see baby believers who don't know they are baby believers start to walk around ... to see the Gospel set people free like it's set me free," the journeyman says.
Tallbott loves the people of Samar, with their big hearts and their cultural willingness to welcome strangers into their homes. She loves riding down the river early in the morning, wrapped in a thin blanket and listening to worship songs on her iPod.
However, the missionary finds life on Samar difficult at times. There is, of course, the loneliness that comes with being the only American in the community. The main difficulty, though, comes from something she works hard to make happen -- building relationships. As people honestly open their lives to her, she's allowed to see beyond the façade, feeling the intense suffering of her people.
One woman still breastfeeds her 5-year-old daughter because the family doesn't have enough food to feed the child properly. A 14-year-old girl disgraced her family by having an affair with a village man -- and turned to prostitution. The list goes on and on.
In the beginning, Tallbott didn't know what to do when the people suffered -- after all, she came to teach Bible stories.
"I wasn't prepared for that," she says. "I wasn't prepared to see girls that I couldn't help and I couldn't protect, and I wasn't prepared to see children who were starving or babies who had skin disease and open rashes and bleeding wounds."
She'd never seen or experienced a world with starvation, illness and sexual depravity. The fact the people of Samar endured all of this angered her.
One night, after a very poor family shared everything they had with Tallbott and Malinao, her broken heart filled with doubt. This family had endured so much, the death of a child and now starvation. How could she watch people suffer like this every day for two years and know she couldn't help them?
"I don't think I can do this," she prayed that night.
To find solace, Tallbott opened her Bible and studied the ministry of Christ. She noticed Jesus never built a medical clinic. He never started a community program or taught about sanitation and good health habits. Jesus traveled from place to place to tell people about Himself and to offer them forgiveness.
Tallbott realized she didn't come to build clinics either. She also had to admit she didn't come to be the savior of Samar's people. Jesus was their rescuer. They had no need for another. Her job was to go from place to place and tell people about Jesus.
"Jesus' compassion moved Him to action, and my pity for the people didn't lead me to do anything," Tallbott says. "Learning from His example, do I really believe the Gospel? And if I do, am I humble enough to let Christ be their only Savior and not get any glory for trying to rescue people who don't necessarily want to be rescued and don't realize they need to be rescued?"
After 18 months of riding long hours in boats and sleeping under mosquito nets, Tallbott sees God beginning to remove one family's deep-seated beliefs about idol worship. She sees Him turning her painful term of journeyman missionary service into a small spiritual harvest.
In Tallbott's favorite village, Balingasag, Lionita Alegria recounts Bible studies with the journeyman. The woman spends many hours talking about Christ with the missionary and Malinao. Tallbott had told her several times that Christians must worship God alone and cannot pray to saints, Mary or images of either.
This day, the village woman seems to grasp Tallbott's lessons.
"We worship with our idols and we worship with our carvings -- it's because we don't know the proper way," Alegria says. "Since we've got the Bible study, we've learned how to pray to God directly and how to praise Him and how to worship Him."
Tallbott is astonished. She has never heard her friend discount the power of idols before today.
"I didn't realize that she had taken it to heart and the Bible uprooted deep seeds of tradition that had been planted a long time ago ... that was huge for me," the journeyman says. "That was a miracle -- that God used the truth to set her free."
During the boat ride back to her home city, Tallbott smiles to herself. The journeyman knows that during these last two years, she has grown personally in the knowledge of her Savior. Alegria has grown as well.
Soon Tallbott will fly back to the United States, leaving behind Samar and its beautiful people. A year ago, she worried about leaving the people of Samar with no one to take over the ministry and "rescue" them. But now the thought doesn't even cross her mind.
Tallbott knows God will use all the Bible stories she shared for His purposes. After two years, many along the Oras River have been introduced to Jesus, the only person who can truly "save" the people of Samar.
*Name changed. Shiloh Lane is a writer in Southeast Asia. For information about the Journeyman program, visit www.imb.org.
Copyright (c) 2011 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press www.BPNews.net