by Maurice Malanes
[Santiago City, Philippines] One Sunday in August inside a farm warehouse converted into a chapel, more than a hundred parishioners were singing praises to the Lord as they pledged to offer their lives in “seeking a just and healing society”.
From a red book of hymns, the parishioners of St Mark’s Parish sang: “Now in response to the life You are giving / Help us, O Father, to offer our living / Seeking a just and healing society, worship and work must be done.”
St Mark’s Parish is one of the parishes of the Episcopal Diocese of Santiago in northern Philippines whose members are mostly farming and upland indigenous folk. One of six dioceses in the country - the Santiago Diocese - belongs to the Episcopal Church of the Philippines (ECP), which is part of the Anglican Communion.
After an opening prayer and a couple of other worship songs, the Revd Clarence Olat, the parish priest, talked about the link between spiritual wellbeing and “human wholeness”.
“We can worship and praise God better if we are healthy and sound so we must work for our wholeness,” he told members in his homily. “How can we pray and worship well if we are sickly?”
The homily was the priest’s way of explaining the Santiago Diocese’s healing ministry via alternative medicine, which includes tapping local herbal medicines, acupuncture and tuina or Chinese massage.
After the Mass, more than 30 parishioners were treated of various ailments, mostly rheumatism and farm labor-related muscle pains, by activating their chi or life forces through acupuncture needles pricked into strategic nerve centers in their bodies.
After half an hour under the hair-like stainless steel needles, some of the parishioners were given another half an hour of Chinese massage from head to the toes. Using baby oil and a mint-flavored, pungent Chinese ointment, the massage experts pressed and rubbed nerve networks of the patients. Children and elders, who had coughs and colds, were given alternative medicines extracted and processed from local plants and herbs.
The patients were treated by lay people from the various parishes of the diocese, who trained in alternative medicine. The instant medical mission that Sunday was part of the launching program of the Santiago Diocese’s first Sistema ti Acupuncture, Panag-ilot, Adal ken Lunas (SAPAL or System of Acupuncture, Massage, Health Education and Treatment).
The SAPAL, a clinic and pharmacy of indigenous and local herbs, will be replicated in remote parishes and mission stations of the diocese. Trained community-based paramedics and health volunteers will help manage the SAPAL.
The paramedics and health volunteers were trained by the Philippine Center for Traditional Asian Medicine (PCTAM), a Manila-based non-government health organisation supported by the Peace and Equity Foundation, a Manila-based donor agency, and by the World Council of Churches.
The Rt Revd Alexander Wandag of the Episcopal Diocese of Santiago said his diocese tapped PCTAM to train community-based paramedics and to help establish the SAPAL.
“If each household or neighbourhood has a trained paramedic and health volunteer and a botika (pharmacy) of medicinal herbs, there is no need for people to run to the hospital,” said Bishop Wandag.
He cited how village-based parishioners had to walk for hours to reach the nearest government or private clinic or hospital.
Under their partnership, the diocese and the PCTAM seek to break the pill-for-every-ill myth which, they said, serve well the interests of giant drug firms.
Parishioners have yet to appreciate that “the cure for a child’s fever may just be a simple massage and the treatment for a stomach disorder is a common herb in an upland family’s backyard,” said Andrea Abellon, the diocesan social ministry coordinator.
Since 2001, the diocese and the PCTAM have thus embarked on a community-based health program, which includes health education for preventive health and “how to harness local and indigenous herbs so people need not rely on costly medicines,” said Dr Victoria Clamor, PCTAM executive director.
All these need skills and technical expertise which, Dr Clamor said, the PCTAM seeks to transfer to parishioners of the diocese.
The PCTAM’s training module for health volunteers includes basic knowledge on how to diagnose a patient and dispense the correct drugs and how to manage a community pharmacy. The training includes traditional methods of diagnosing a disease. Trainees, for example, learn that by looking at a patient’s tongue, they can diagnose basic health problems.
“A thick white coating in a patient’s tongue shows that there’s too much coldness in his body,” said Andrea Abellon. “Acupuncture and massage can help balance the coldness and heat of the body. If the tip of the tongue of a person is pale, chances are that the person has some heart problems.”
Trainees also learn the efficacy and toxicity of medicinal plants and how to prepare medicines from plants in the form of syrup, ointment, tincture, decoction, and capsule or tablet.
The diocese’s 18 paramedics and volunteers, many of whom have started training since 2001, are expected to “re-echo” their skills and knowledge to other volunteers from the diocese’s 30 parishes and organised missions spread in more than six provinces in northern Philippines.
Although unpaid, the trained paramedics all say they feel fulfilled in helping carry out the diocese’s alternative health ministry. “God has provided us with everything, and one thing I've learned from my training is how to use God’s resources such as medicinal plants to help and serve others,” said Julius Lammagan, a lay leader.
Penny Ann Caytap, 23, another college graduate of physical therapy, also trained under PCTAM while hunting for a job, and found fulfillment in the diocese’s health ministry. “There’s something spiritually uplifting in this volunteer work,” she said, also citing the psychic reward of being of service to others.
Another beauty of the alternative health training is that even ordinary house wives and farmers with no college background can join. Fifty-four year-old farmer-housewife, Rosa Balalong, has become in demand by ailing patients in her parish in Solano town, Nueva Vizcaya, also in northern Philippines.
“Many now come to me, complaining of lower-back pains, rheumatism and other body pains related to heavy manual farm work, so I treat them with acupuncture and massage,” she said. “So my prayer is that I remain strong so I can have all the energy I need to treat and serve the sick among us.”
The diocese continues to train more paramedics like Julius Lammagan, Penny Caytap and Rosa Balalong, whose volunteer health work Bishop Wandag has likened to Jesus’ own example of being a healer during His time.
“We may not be able to do miracles as Jesus did, but we can still help heal our parishioners and even non-Episcopalians through alternative medicine and health care,” he said. “This is our way of ministering to the needs of our members whose communities are hardly serviced by the government’s health department.”