A Sea Nomad Turned Pastor 

Story and photos by Babylene Bocayes, Philippines Field Communications Specialist

A former fisherman is helping a severely impoverished and marginalized community in the Philippines change their mindset by teaching the Word of God and getting their kids into a Hope Center’s child development programs so that they may at last dream big about their future.

Pastor John helps Bajau kids in poverty find their way to a better life.

As a child growing up in the Philippines, John Erales was never encouraged to dream.

And so, he did not have the desire to finish school and instead became a fisherman to make a living.

John belongs to a tribal group called Bajau in the southern region of the Philippines. They are the most marginalized among the tribal groups, the lowest on the ladder. Bajau are hard-working people, but some are so poor they’re seen begging in marketplaces.

Bajau have grappled with poverty for years. They long faced many social issues like malnutrition, a high child mortality rate, illiteracy, and lack of legal identity. The latter is important, not only to be recognized as citizens of the country, but also to gain a sense of being in this world.

Not only do they lack a birth certificate required to enroll in school or access services from the government, but they also don’t know their birthdays or age.

Most Bajau were not registered legally upon birth, and so they do not have reference for their birthday. Mothers give birth at home and birth registration is not followed through because they lack the knowledge and means of how to do it.

They go on with their lives, year after year, without celebrating their birthdays, a milestone most people around the world enjoy.

A Nomadic Life

In his life as a fisherman, John moved often to seek better opportunities.

“My brother convinced me to go here in Davao City to sell pearls,” he recalls. Bajau people are known as “sea nomads” because they move from coastal city to coastal city to find better opportunities as fishermen or pearl divers.

Kids registered at the Hope Center receive nutritious meals, helping to stave off child hunger.

But John found more than that when he moved to Matina Playa in Davao City.

In Matina Playa, John met couple Charlyn and Gaddiel Gambe, pastors of the Metro Davao Vineyard Christian Family Fellowship, during a church service held in a park. The church has long been helping the Bajau community with literacy and gaining a legal identity, and this was the first of many services John attended that changed his life.

He started to know God and how He loves the people. He wanted others to know and experience this, too.

John started praying every day to God to help him reach out to his community, especially the children.

“I desire that they will know Jesus, too. That He is our Savior,” John says. “He changes our lives.”

Without proper education growing up, John never learned how to read. He began to dream that one day, he would be able to teach the children about God. Then he had an amazing dream.

“In my dream, I saw a blue ocean, white sand at the bottom, and there was light,” John says. “Then a voice told me to go there. Suddenly, a bamboo shaft floated, and the voice told me to ride on it. I rode on it when a small airplane suddenly appeared; it had no gas. The voice told me to get some water. I filled the airplane with water. Then the voice said, ‘Hold tight.’ Then we flew. I felt something white was holding me from the back. But when I tried to look back, there was nothing.”

Bajau kids participate in various activities at the Hope Center.

After having this dream, a miracle happened. He suddenly was able to read the Bible in his local language, particularly James 1:5:

“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.”

He believes that this was a God-given dream that answered his prayer.

With this miracle and his perseverance, John started teaching the Bajau people about God using the Bajau Bible called Kitab. He became a pastor and has since been ministering at Metro Davao Vineyard Christian Family Fellowship – Matina Aplaya for 35 years.

The Power of Prayer

“We have different problems in life like sickness and family problems, but I know God will help us overcome all of this. We need to always pray,” Pastor John says.

Child hunger is a major issue among the Bajau people. At their Hope Center, kids get nutritious food to eat.

Praying has always been a source of hope for Pastor John not to give up on helping his community. To him, it is as important as breathing.

“Everything I do, I offer it to God. If not for Him, I could not do my work, even the smallest thing like sweeping the floor and cooking food for the children,” he says.

But it was not enough to bring significant spiritual change to the community. Children were still hungry — physically and spiritually.

“Before, there was no feeding and no (Hope Center) here,” says Pastor John. “I (asked) Pastor Charlyn if we can have one here because children are asking me for food, for rice. She told me to just pray.”

Pastor John continued earnestly praying for a breakthrough in their community.

Then, with the help of the Gambes’ church and its partnership with OneChild and local community leaders, Pastor John saw his prayers answered. These Child Champions worked together to give the Bajau children the opportunity to dream for a better life through the Matina Playa Bajau Hope Center, which was registered with OneChild in 2018.

Changing Lives

Pastor John places his right hand over his heart and says, “I am over the moon to see children have something to eat, receive school supplies, have toys to play with. They now can learn here.”

Today, Matina Aplaya Bajau Hope Center has 60 registered Bajau children who receive regular health checkups, school supplies, Bible lessons, learning activities through play, and academic tutorials.

They also receive regular meals of nutritious food like rice, meat, fish, fruits, and vegetables to address severe malnutrition. Thankfully, children in the program are starting to gain weight.

“The support we receive is a really big help. I see the children developing through our feeding program. And through this program, many have come to know God,” Pastor John says.

The Hope Center recently built a community comfort room with separate toilets for boys and girls.

These children also have found a new identity — a legal identity. With the help of the community social workers, Pastor John and other Child Champions in the Hope Center ensure that each child is legally registered to be able to access services like education, health care, and other assistance from both governmental and nongovernmental organizations.

The Hope Center advocated for all children to have an ID card, just like Pastor John’s own ID card, so they will not forget their birthdays and they can celebrate them every year with cake or ice cream.

Also, before the Hope Center opened, teaching the Bajau children proper hygiene was difficult because they lack proper toilets and bathrooms in their homes.

This year, the Hope Center finished construction of a community comfort room that has separate toilets for boys and girls. Pastor John and the Child Champions are grateful for this as it helps restore the dignity of the Bajau people.

A Dream for the Children to Dream

A president, a policeman, and a teacher are what Pastor John dreams for the Bajau children to become in the future.

Pastor John prays over a child at the Hope Center.

“I want them to know that there is hope and that our culture is beautiful. I want our children to know God, finish their schooling, and become professionals. They can work in the government or become teachers,” he says.

For Pastor John, hearing kids say they have dreams is an answered prayer in itself. They have come a long way, he says.

“I see that there are many changes,” he says. “Bajau used to beg alms in different places. Slowly, we see changes, like some are finishing their education. Before, many of them do not go to school. They are content with what they do and what they have. Now, they slowly have dreams.”

Pastor John is thankful to God for answering his prayers and he is thankful, too, to others who help him encourage the dreams of these children.

“Only God can repay them,” he says. “The local leaders and sponsors who support this program — I may not know them, but I pray for them. I pray that God will take care of them.”

Pastor John will continue to work with the children and their families through the Hope Center.

“I hope OneChild will continue to support us until all our children get to finish their schooling,” he says.

Pastor John longs for the day when the Bajau are taking on the world because they have overcome poverty. This desire has paved the way to deepen his relationship with God. And having a community of Child Champions to support him, encourages him, even more, to remain faithful.

Help Pastor John in bringing a better future to children in poverty. Sponsor a child!

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